'Their aim was power': how - and why - Islamism breaks schools

February 24, 2016

The Trojan Horse affair came as little surprise to me. I had long witnessed the ways that cross-cultural pressures – minority/majority, religious/nationalist, tribal/family – work on individuals and society.


Having been Principal of the Tyndale Biscoe School in Srinagar, Kashmir for 25 years, and thus deeply involved in the life of the city, it was natural, going to Birmingham in 1987, to be involved in schools.


As first a governor in Golden Hillock School, our local comprehensive in Sparkhill, and then chairman for ten years from 1991, my experience of the school, its pupils, parents and staff, was overwhelmingly positive.


The day before it became an academy under the sponsorship of the Park View Trust (PVET) on 1 October 2013, along with one other governor, I chose to resign.


Back in 1994 I had been asked by four city head teachers and one chair of governors to take their urgent concerns to John Major’s Education Minister, Emily Blatch.


In each case an unrepresentative minority of governors had pursued a campaign of vituperative harassment and intimidation of all who opposed their way of achieving their ends.


They destabilized well-run schools, and in one case forced the head’s retirement on breakdown leave.


Though their demands, such as for daily Islamic collective worship, were as provided for in the 1989 Act, their aim was power for their group.


Their ideology, familiar to me from Srinagar, was that of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that espoused a politicized form of religion developed by the journalist and ideologue Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi in reaction to British rule in pre-partition India.


This form of Islamism was brought to Britain by his disciple Khurram Murad (who later died in a Leicester hospital). It is the equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab World: always a minority, but organized and fervent.


The Jamaat method was non-violent, aiming in the UK to penetrate institutions and structures, such as education and government – and ultimately to take them over. Like Militant Tendency in Liverpool in the 1980s, its aim could be said to be to use democracy to overthrow democracy.


Back in 1994 Emily Blatch promised action, but the then Secretary of State, Chris Patten, when questioned later, replied that such matters were dealt with locally.  Thus it was that for twenty years no-one – absolutely nobody – wanted to know.  Anything which touched ‘cultural sensitivity’ was ignored by all parties at all levels.




It took Trojan to change that in 2014.


Golden Hillock was a strong and confident school where the head for many years built up good relations with the local mosque and the parents.


We kept a wary eye open in selection of governors, as it appeared that someone had a relationship with the City of Birmingham Education Department, and was feeding governors of that particular tendency into schools.


Around 2006 the then chair of Golden Hillock recommended a young teacher with Park View connections as a governor. Whatever else, he was certainly an activist and was quickly made chairman.


One or two similarly-minded new governors appeared and from then on it was mostly downhill. Governors meetings became long sessions of repeated questions: confrontation replaced cooperation as the norm, though it was clear to me that our local British Pakistani members were in no way extremist, nor particularly conservative. They just wanted a fast improving school. Not easy in an inner-city school where for over ninety per cent of the pupils the first language was not English. Their expectations were unrealistic, but setbacks began to be viewed as racism or conspiracy against them.


In 2012 disaster struck. Government had, since the previous December, raised the bar for that essential 'C' grade in English so highly desired by Pakistani parents, making it much harder for children to achieve than had been the case. Consequently three parent governors with bright children in year eleven erupted in anger when their young failed to make the grade. They compared us with Park View. Had not Park View ‘improved rapidly’? Had not Ofsted awarded it an ‘outstanding’ report, and David Cameron even singled the school out for a visit and high praise? One quite secular Muslim parent said to me, ‘They must be getting something right!’ So when our head sought to defend the head of English who appeared to be – but clearly was not entirely – to blame for results that were poorer than normal, it was determined by some governors that the head must go. A sorry campaign of bullying and misrepresentation followed. The head, a wise and caring person, left, his career all but destroyed.




I had plenty of positive matters to occupy me, so regretfully resigned as the school came under the sponsorship of PVET in October 2013.


Over the following months I heard scattered bits of news from teachers at Golden Hillock whom I knew, of intimidation, manipulation, harassment and exclusion of all, Muslim and non-Muslim, who dared to challenge.


Then in March 2014 the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter appeared in a national newspaper, blowing wide open a strategy of subversion. The writer remained anonymous. The letter was clearly a ruse to cause PVET and its Chair, Tahir Alam, maximum damage. It appeared to be from one of the Muslim brothers (or sisters?) in Birmingham to a brother in Bradford saying: ‘This is how we take over schools in Birmingham; get on and do the same in Bradford.’ My guess is that it came from the pen of someone who had fallen out with the chair of the Park View Trust.


Reading it, one became aware that a whole raft of other schools had suffered exactly as we had.


At nearby Saltley there was an even clearer campaign including:

  • takeover by the like-minded

  • nepotism in appointments to staff and governing body

  • modifications to the curriculum

  • division on racial lines

  • reinforcement of Muslim identity to the exclusion of others

  • strategy of harassment to oust the headteacher

The world began to see how power, seized in such a manner in the vital area of school education, was exercised by those whose culture and behaviour had been formed within the kind of conservative, politicized, male-dominated worldview, such as Pakistan’s largely is.


The sweet talk among the British élite – including some Christian sections of it – of cultural norms, of high achievement and upright ‘family’ morality deceived many. It was designed to.


It is essential to read Peter Clarke’s forensic and detailed Report to Government on Trojan Horse, (which includes a copy of the famous Trojan letter) to be reminded that this was not merely about poor governance in a few schools, but rather the outworking of an ideology.


Wise heads, like Dr Abdullah Sahin (Head of Research in Islamics at Markfield Institute of Higher Education), among Islamic educationists, see the Jamaat’s politicized version of Islam as deeply mistaken in our context; perhaps relevant as a weapon against imperial power, but totally misplaced for Muslim children growing up to be equal citizens in a minority situation in a democratic society. It is a form of ‘evangelization’ by the Wahhabi strain of extreme Islam, promoted and funded directly by Saudi Arabia’s government.


We are all, Muslim and non-Muslim, paying dearly for our still continuing blindness to this around the world.




Some questions remain.


Could the UK educational establishment have avoided this crisis?


Probably not.  Given that ‘value free multiculturalism’ had, by the seventies, replaced the Judaeo-Christian ethic as the philosophical and practical basis of our ruling élite’s thinking and policy, and given the evident racism which had greeted the Afro-Caribbean (Christian) arrivals in the fifties, the later Pakistani contingent  was accepted without concern.  Most simply wanted a better life for their children.  Many were duped into believing this was the way to get it.


All issues had long been seen in terms of race, skin colour and economics.   Religious faith, so potent for good and for ill, was, until 9/11, presumed to be a private and fading concern. How pathetic such limited vision now appears.


Why did so few see this coming when I certainly did?


No doubt my unusual career gave me insight.  Back in 1985, as Honorary Consul for Kashmir to the High Commission in Delhi I had exceeded my modest duties by writing to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warning her not to support the most violent of Afghan mujahiddin, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, against the Russians.  I said that he would come back to trouble us; as has proven to be the case.


But, whether in foreign policy or in domestic matters, Britain seemed to have a kind of post-imperial folie de grandeur which presumed we were above such matters.  Were we just forgetting history, and as we had jettisoned our own culture, and the faith on which it was largely based, presumed immigrants would follow suit and secularize?  And of course, to condemn any aspect of Islam, not least the Jamaat tendency and its outworking, would have been seen as racism.


There was certainly collusion by officers of the Education Department of Birmingham City Council - but, more remotely, almost everyone else, by doing nothing to stop it and by failing to speak up with courage, was also guilty of collusion.


And it is still going on – albeit abated for the time being in Birmingham maintained schools.




What can we hope for?  Hope has to be multi-faceted.  Within British Islamic thinking, it depends in part upon whether Sahin’s view of the proper role of Islamic teaching in the British context, of self-improvement rather than ‘politics’, is gaining ground.  Encouragingly, a Birmingham-based Muslim scholar and imam has recently spoken to me in just these terms.  The opposite trend, of Jamaatis becoming salafi (hardline and backward looking), is also clearly evident, with its opening to extremism.


The best hope is in improving all city schools, an expensive and much harder option in the poorer northern cities with few Conservative votes to glean.


Is it too much to hope for greater religious literacy in our leadership and in the media?  There are always push and pull factors: racism pushes people into negativity.  Good neighbourly relations help us all, and can even bring extremists back from the edge. There is huge need for all people of goodwill, both in the voluntary and the maintained services, to be ‘good neighbours’.


This week sees fresh misconduct hearings by the National College for Teaching and Leadership against some of the persons involved.  Whatever the outcome, it is the British State that had the prime responsibility, with all the inevitable cross-cultural confusions, for allowing the situations which finally exploded into Trojan Horse to arise.


Wisdom now needs much deeper understanding.


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