The Trojan Horse Affair marked a defining moment in the lives of British Muslims. In 2013, a letter purporting to be a leaked document written by a member of a group of Muslim teachers planning to take over Birmingham schools and Islamicize them was sent to local authorities and passed on to the British press. What followed was a campaign, led from the highest levels in government, to crack down on administrations and faculty in Muslim-majority Birmingham schools who were suspected of taking part in this “Operation Trojan Horse.”
It soon emerged that the letter was a fake. Yet the response of the government—which continued to treat it as real regardless—gained unstoppable momentum, with ramifications extending well beyond Birmingham. The Trojan Horse plot became one of the justifications for the expansion of the anti-terrorism Prevent program, which obliges teachers and educational staff to monitor Muslim students and report anything they perceived to be suspicious activity.
A vital question, unexplored by the British press, was at what point the British government knew the plot was bogus. The Trojan Horse Affair podcast, presented by Hamza Syed and Brian Reed and produced by Serial, is the first investigation that provides a definitive answer. The podcast reveals not only the likely origins of the letter, but also the fact that high-ranking officials were aware almost from the start that the leaked letter was a hoax. Syed, who is from Birmingham, decided to investigate how the letter provided the pretext for a conspiracy theory about Muslims that remains entrenched to this day, painting them as radical Islamist plotters who schemed to infiltrate institutions and take them over.
What the podcast uncovers over its eight parts is a large cast of characters whose motivations intersected in ways that rendered the truth irrelevant. The reaction to the US-produced podcast in the UK has been equally revealing: criticism from parts of the media and the Conservative government has seemed to echo the same biases and stubborn refusal to confront the truth about institutional racism that precipitated the Trojan Horse Affair in the first place.
I spoke to Syed about his experience reporting the podcast, the dim view he eventually came to take of the journalism industry, and what he makes of both the popular success of the podcast and the hostile responses to it from certain quarters. As a British Muslim journalist myself, having seen over the years little appetite on the part of the British establishment to take Islamophobia seriously and despaired that it ever will, I was keen to understand where Syed’s undaunted sense of purpose comes from. What follows is an edited, condensed version of our conversation.
Nesrine Malik: You read medicine first, then you decided to become a journalist. Tell me about that.
Hamza Syed: Around 2009–2010, I took a year out intending to explore writing, whatever that meant. Writing was a very late thought; it wasn’t that growing up I always wanted to be a writer. Medicine is a family business: brothers, cousins, uncles, aunties, you name it. But in the first lecture of medical school, I realized that this was not for me.
I wanted to write comedy for television. That was my plan. So I wrote a script, sent it off to the BBC, which has an annual writers’ competition. And it won! And the BBC optioned the show. So, for a year, I’m on this BBC writing course, to be a TV writer. The show died in development, as did my journey. But it gave me a flicker of something. And that’s where the idea of journalism came from.
So when did the Trojan Horse Affair occur to you as an investigative project?
The Trojan Horse Affair happened in 2014. It was big breaking news, affecting the schools in my city, Birmingham. It was a personal tipping point. Post 9/11, I knew things were getting worse for Muslims, but I had convinced myself that authorities were only interested in people who had something to account for. I was flirting with the idea that it wasn’t nefarious; I thought the rest of us were collateral in some sense.
I used to soothe myself thinking that they’re only interested in specific kinds of people. It just so happens that those people are embedded in our communities, and therefore we’re all being surveilled. But they don’t really care about us. That was my rationale.
When you say you used to soothe yourself with that notion, is that because you subconsciously felt that there was more at play than that, and you didn’t want to believe it?
I soothed myself because I had left a career in medicine, where there were plenty of people who looked and sounded like me; when I left that field, I was trying to venture into an industry where often I’d be the only brown person. That’s what I mean by soothing myself: I didn’t want to believe everybody around me was thinking about me in a certain kind of way.
That’s how I managed to have confidence in those rooms. I didn’t want this other barrier in my head where I’m second-guessing myself. All I wanted was to focus on my work and the stuff I’m pitching.
And then the Trojan Horse Affair happened.
Right, and it felt very close to home—not just geographically, but culturally.
I was reading these scary-sounding articles, where a bunch of reporters were in East Birmingham chasing kids up and down the street. And I’m thinking, Okay, the circus is in town, but where’s the evidence? Once I see the evidence, I will place this alongside the other events that have happened that involve Muslims and a handful of people who were up to no good. But this business rumbles on into summer—again, bereft of evidence.
I’m used to reading official, boring-sounding reports. We used to do that in medicine all the time. So I know the language of these kinds of reports and I’m not seeing any evidence of radicalization and terrorism and extremism. What I am seeing is a bunch of Muslims who are working in schools that otherwise seem to be doing pretty well, who, because of this letter, are having their lives ruined. And that in turn is ruining the lives of these kids, because now their schools are under a cloud.
That was a hard thing for me to move on from.
Tell me about your Birmingham. Were any people in your network caught up in the Trojan Horse Affair?
I immigrated to Britain, I wasn’t born here. My Birmingham was very, very different to the Birmingham that the Trojan Horse Letter laid out. I lived in Edbaston, near Birmingham University, a very white neighborhood. The only thing I knew about East Birmingham was where to get a good cup of tea or get some food. Beyond that, I spent no time there. I had no link to it.
When my parents moved to another country, I lived in the family apartment with my brothers for a bit, and then they left, too. So it was just me living alone, in the shadow of the university where I went to medical school. That’s my Birmingham.
I’m curious to trace your perception of how Britain treats Muslims.
I think the way you practice your religion matters a lot in how Britain treats you. I was pretty loose. And Britain is comfortable with brown people who are a bit casual about their faith and culture. But the way Britain treats practicing Muslims is, quite honestly, disgraceful. I carry my own guilt for not realizing that soon enough. The Trojan Horse Affair did make me realize that.
I defy anyone to listen to the podcast and tell me they don’t feel that we—British Muslims—are systematically disenfranchised. The scariest thing about the scandal, about our reporting for the podcast, was realizing that this wasn’t the work of one person with a lot of power who was coordinating the responses of all these different agencies. That didn’t happen.
That makes it more sinister, more troubling.
Exactly. Everyone just knew what to do, and everyone just knew what to do because of what they already believed about Muslims. How do you fix that?
Even though the Trojan Horse Letter was obviously a hoax, for it to be treated as not a hoax an awful lot of things had to happen. What do you think were the most important forces at play?
The Sunday Times—the story it ran when it got hold of a leaked copy of the Trojan Horse Letter was the most important thing. There’s a telling moment in the podcast where the councilor, now deputy leader [of Birmingham City Council], Brigid Jones, says to us, “Ask all the other journalists,” when we questioned her about why nobody had focused on the details in the fake letter.
Nobody could cut through the narrative that journalists were propagating.
What you’re trying to show is that there is truly a Protocols of the Elders of Zion type of hoax that changed the lives of so many people, including altering the course of the British government. Is that correct?
I remember struggling to explain this to people before Brian Reed [of Serial] came along. This letter basically led to a national counter-terrorism event. Yet the official documents that we managed to obtain show that both the Birmingham City Council and Department of Education were perfectly aware, despite all of their public commentary on the Trojan Horse, that the letter was bogus. They were aware of that almost immediately.
This is where I’m going weigh in, because one thing that you have to become accustomed to, as a Muslim journalist, is despair. There was a time before 2014 when it became very fashionable to intertwine two views of Muslims, which is to say, We’re not claiming that they’re all terrorists but we shouldn’t be shut down from voicing our concerns about Muslims by politeness or wokeness. And some of us could see how that would lead to what happened—which is the legitimization of Islamophobia and a tarring of all Muslims with the same brush.
People don’t realize that this is a gateway to Islamophobia, and the othering of an entire community via “concerns” about terrorism. And then you, as a journalist, get accused of minimizing terrorism and violence. You enter a phase of negotiating despair, where you say to yourself, I have a choice: either I give up and say this is pointless, or I carry on in some fashion as someone who speaks only to comfort those who are afflicted.
I totally understand where you’re coming from. And you’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have. But here’s my response.
You, as a reader or listener, don’t need to care—as long as I can make you accept that a wrong has happened. Now, in order for me to prove that wrong has happened, I have to know enough about your systems and why they failed in this instance. I gathered enough evidence to be able to substantiate that a wrong had happened to these people. I don’t need you to care about these people at all. I just need you to accept that a law was broken or some guidance was broken.
The other thing is: I don’t want to just do stories to provide comfort to Muslims. I want to do stories to piss them off. I want them to develop an awareness of how in trouble we are. One of the hardest things about The Trojan Horse Affair, why it took so long to make, was convincing people in East Birmingham that they deserve justice, that they deserve someone to hear their story. To them, I was an outsider, and when I was trying to engage people, I kept getting responses like, Who cares? Who’s going to listen to this? What difference is it going to make?
That’s why my approach has been to show how a rule has been broken over and over again, to get to that point where some people at least question, Why does this keep happening? Is there something going wrong in our society?
In my experience, there is a step before the acknowledgement of the failure of the system, which is that the system is failing because it is prejudiced. And to get people to admit that there is such a thing as institutional Islamophobia, that there’s a such thing as institutional racism, is very difficult. It takes a lot of work to keep foregrounding your Muslim-ness, because you are then constantly dragged back to write only about Muslim issues. So there’s another tension there. I’m Muslim writer. But I’m not only a Muslim writer. There are so many hurdles you need to scale to be seen as someone who belongs in the room.
For me, I don’t want to enter a major news media space—like Serial and The New York Times—and say, Okay, I’m going to nix a serious part of myself and become a neutered version. What’s worse, if you do that, is that now you’re occupying a seat that someone else could have, and use more effectively. I don’t want to be in that space unless I’m making the most of it. If you go into this field to tell a certain story, whatever that means, tell that story.
Britain is nominally a tolerant place that prides itself on being a multicultural society, and most Britons are not very religious or observant. Yet that ethic stops at the door of the mosque. And there’s an additional paradox, which is that there are many prominent and successful South Asians and Muslims, including on the political right—Rishi Sunak, Munira Mirza, Baroness Warsi—who are members of the establishment, but there’s still this a heavy undertow of xenophobia, in which Muslims implicitly never really gain a legitimate citizenship. What is it about being Muslim, what is it about Islam, that makes it a far less straightforward identity?
I think the last twenty odd years are pretty straightforward to explain. The West has been at war against, essentially, an idea of Islam. This was the “war on terror,” ostensibly—but defining terror in ways so fluid and shifting that Muslims in general fell under suspicion. The war was so ill-defined and broad that eventually what it was about was very confusing.
There is something about our faith that people recognize in the West, which, if you’re a practicing Muslim, separates you slightly from everyone else. For example, in Britain, drinking is such a foundational part of our culture, right? The pub on the weekends, going out in the evening—so many of our activities are based around alcohol. So if you can’t engage with that, there is a distance.
When you walk into a restaurant with a group, it means something when you’re staring at a menu, trying to figure out what’s halal. You’re always just slightly more complicated than everyone else around the table. So people still see us Muslims as this entity that hasn’t quite folded into the state in the way they imagined it would.
And they see our religion as the reason for that, because they see the religion as dictating our lives. So they say, in effect, Your religion is backward, this is what’s holding you back. This is why you’re not successful.
That’s essentially been the drive for the past twenty years. That’s where the Trojan Horse Affair came in. Because these schools were doing the exact opposite: they were showing young kids that you can be a practicing Muslim and successful. That contradicted the official narrative about what this religion is doing to you.
The origin of the Trojan Horse plot also rests on the concept of “racist judo,” or “brown on brown” incidents, as you call them at one point in the podcast—because of the fact that there are tensions among Muslims that can lead them to weaponize Islamophobia and racism against one another. How much do you think that dynamic is possible only because the climate enables it?
That’s what’s embarrassing about it: the awareness that we all have of how we can essentially use someone to deal with our own personal grievances. We can rely on it as an actual mechanism: my brother and I sometimes joke about the lucrative career I could have if I suddenly started speaking against Muslims and brown people. Everyone carries this knowledge that all you have to do is point to a brown person and say something to undermine them, and you will have a career. You can cry wolf, and everybody will turn up.
You talk about your own faith in the series. What role does your faith play in your life?
I don’t think I realized how big a role faith was playing in my life. Until late into my twenties, I was unconscious of it. I grew up in a pretty conservative Muslim household, and I internalized a lot, but I wasn’t properly practicing. I was brown on the outside, but pretty much felt like a white person and carried myself as such. But the process of working on this story changed me.
I felt more and more at peace with who I was, and more and more proud of what I was with each day. And I was reporting on people who were destroyed because of that, because of their faith and because of who they were and their pride in it. So by the end of the reporting, I was practicing at a level that I hadn’t actually practiced my whole life. And I credit the story for that.
There is a fascinating, extended debate with Brian [Reed], over several episodes in the series, about the ethics and mission of journalism. Who do you feel won that debate?
I think we both learned something along the way. I was very open to hear that I had messed up big time. There is one big instance where I recognized the technical error I’d made as a journalist [telling a source what I believed the true narrative of the Trojan Horse was], but I did not recognize the moral error. Brian was asking me, Is this what you believe? My response was, Of course, how are you confused about that? Why would I be doing this story if I believed the official narrative?
I understood the tactical error, but I didn’t understand the moral error. But I think later he recognized what he was asking me to do in that moment was basically to be open-minded about a deeply dangerous racist lie. And once he understood that, he stopped trying to convince me that I’d messed up.
Journalism needs to be reformed. In Britain now, for me, it’s a totally captured industry. If you don’t fix that, you can forget about accountability.
This is something I constantly struggle with, the assumption of neutrality—that these journalistic institutions, which have really long histories, are neutral. In fact, because they’re largely white, and largely male, there’s a certain identity to which we give the privilege of neutrality. But the reality is that either no one is neutral, and we need to acknowledge our biases upfront, or everyone is neutral. So either give me the privilege of neutrality that you give yourself or admit that you are not neutral either. And neither of these things is happening.
To be honest, neutrality for me is born out of laziness, it’s born out of not caring about the truth. It’s the default mindset of journalism, because at times you just don’t care. You’re going to report this story here by just assembling all the different takes on this particular issue and staying out of the way of the crime. If these issues don’t actually impact you, who cares? It is just a job you do. That’s basically the difference: I’m trying to make some change, and others are not because the way things are is working for them.
The mainstream national media in the UK, with very few exceptions, bought into narrative of the letter as plot. And many outlets—the tabloids and The Daily Mail, but also, as you said, The Sunday Times, and most upmarket broadsheets—supported the hoax. And since the podcast came out, they have not covered themselves in glory either. So how do you assess the efficacy of what you’ve done as a journalist now?
It’s hard, because I think the Serial story has been successful. But as a piece of journalism, it has failed—because there’s only one country in the world where it counts as a piece of journalism, and that’s Britain. And look at what it’s done there. Not one reporter, not even one reporter, has troubled to go back up to Birmingham and ask any questions.
But to see the respect with which this issue was treated, and the resources put behind it, I find hugely comforting. Even if as a listener, as a journalist, as a Muslim, it was a very difficult listen, this is the first time I have seen issues regarding Muslims treated with the depth and breadth and respect and uncompromising attitude that they deserve. It might not resonate in the systemic institutional corridors in British media or politics, but it resonates among Muslims. And they see that there are people who can be advocates for Muslims as well who are not Muslim. That has a great multiplier effect. So having been the despairing one in the conversation, I don’t agree.
I understand, and appreciate that, but I like to perpetually keep myself in a state of disappointment, because that’s how I motivate myself. I love criticism more than I love praise. I don’t want to be content with what this story did, I want to be pissed off and uncomfortable with what it failed to do.