“The Trojan Horse Affair” Works Best When Studying Itself


There’s a moment deep into “The Trojan Horse Affair,” Serial Productions’ latest investigative podcast series, when the co-hosts, Brian Reed and Hamza Syed, present us with a sharp detail about narratives and suspicion. They’re looking at a government report with Tahir Alam, a former administrator at Birmingham, U.K., secondary schools, who found himself at the center of the affair—a 2014 scandal that dominated headlines, was dramatically politicized by the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and changed public policy. On one page of the report, there’s a diagram of a clip-art man, representing Alam, who has “lines emanating from him in all directions, like a web,” connecting him to icons of schools, cultural institutions, and other educators with Pakistani names. Presented this way, it looks like the workings of a sinister plot. But the diagram actually illustrates things that Alam is proud of: distinguished affiliations with the Birmingham City Council, the Muslim Council of Britain, and so on. “It is taken from my C.V.,” he says. When a counterterrorism official puts your credentials into a spider diagram, Reed observes, “it just has a whole different vibe.”

“The Trojan Horse Affair,” an eight-episode series produced by Reed, Syed, and Rebecca Laks, is in many ways a study in perspectives. Just as Alam and many of his peers would see his credentials as assets, and officials suspicious of his fomenting an Islamist conspiracy might see them as evidence, people’s preconceptions about British Pakistani Muslims, and about Islam in general, have shaped their reactions to the Trojan Horse incident. The hosts come at the story from different and often complementary points of view: Reed (“S-Town”) is white, American, non-Muslim, and an established journalist, and Syed is Pakistani British and, as the series begins, a doctor turned journalism student in Birmingham. Their different backgrounds, motivations, and personalities animate the narrative, and help ground it in gently amiable scenes.

The podcast opens with Syed. “This is my first story as a journalist,” he says—and, he adds, it may be his last. He explains the backstory: in 2014, he heard a news report about “a secret communiqué between Muslim extremists,” a portion of which had been sent anonymously to the Birmingham City Council. The letter seemed to describe a plot to infiltrate Birmingham’s schools, Trojan-horse style, “and run them on strict Islamic principles, potentially with the aim of radicalizing students,” he says. East Birmingham has a significant population of Pakistani British Muslims, and many local schools were mostly populated by Pakistani British Muslim kids; Syed was unsurprised when the story became a sensation. Words like “jihadist” appeared in breathless media coverage, and Gove accused the Home Secretary, Theresa May, of being soft on extremism. More than twenty Birmingham schools were investigated; no jihadist plot was found. But officials concluded that “Muslims had influenced the schools in a dangerous way,” Syed says. The government brought charges against more than a dozen educators, mandated that all schools teach “British values,” and required teachers to report potentially extremist activity to the authorities.

All of this stemmed from the letter, which reads like an Islamophobic paranoid fantasy—and it’s never been revealed who wrote it, or why. By 2017, when the podcast’s reporting begins, Syed had enrolled in journalism school, and the Trojan Horse affair had become a symbol of Britain’s fraught dynamic with its Muslim population. Syed thought that if he could prove that the letter was a sham, he could help dispel the narrative that “a bunch of Muslims were up to no good.” Meanwhile, Reed, touring around to discuss his wildly successful podcast “S-Town,” came to Birmingham, and Syed brought him the idea.

At this point, the narration shifts to Reed—one of the series’ pleasures is in its buddy-podcast juxtaposition of the hosts’ voices—who describes meeting Syed and hearing his pitch. “There was a strange lack of curiosity about this instigating document,” Reed tells us. He decided to help Syed, and throughout the series we hear them working, thinking, talking, sighing, and driving around. Syed calls Reed “mate” a lot; he’s fired up and impassioned. Reed sounds comparatively aloof—he cares very much, but the story is less personal to him. They semi-ironically relish the gumshoe element of their project, riffing about Sherlock Holmes and Watson, sipping tea and pondering evidence, establishing an “HQ” in Syed’s place—he’s living in his parents’ apartment while they’re out of the country—and joking about a “murder wall,” which they do set up, plotting out clues.

As their investigation unfolds, we meet an intriguing and sympathetic cast of characters, beginning with Alam, who has been barred from working in schools but who’s held tutoring sessions in his garage. Reed and Syed sit at kid-size school desks as Alam tells his story—of how, in 1993, he watched a BBC “Panorama” documentary called “Underclass in Purdah,” about urban Muslims in Britain. The documentary, though fearmongering—we hear its tense, urgent music and the sharp tones of its narrator—had a powerful impact on Alam; he learned how many Muslim kids were struggling, and how the school system was failing them. In 1997, he began volunteering at his old secondary school, Park View, as the chair of its governing body. He helped institute reforms and recruited Pakistani British Muslim teachers and volunteers, who often connected to the students differently than teachers who were white and non-Muslim. The schools improved; test scores and graduation rates went up; by 2012, Park View had become a model of success. Under a government initiative, its leadership was given more autonomy and tasked with running two other East Birmingham schools. Alam was in charge of the effort—and “Tahir” was named explicitly in the Trojan Horse letter.

The story of how Muslim staff helped Birmingham schools is a vivid, fascinating narrative. We hear accounts of the bad old days; one non-Muslim teacher at Park View claims that he and his peers had been bigoted: “We thought that we were a superior culture,” he says. We hear from the first Muslim teacher Alam hired, who was also inspired by “Underclass in Purdah.” (“Powerful segment,” Reed says.) Many British public schools, unlike American ones, incorporate daily worship during assemblies; usually this is Christian, but Park View got permission for its worship to be Islamic. Alam and his peers were focussed mainly on academic achievement, but embracing kids’ cultural identities had an effect, the series says. “When Tahir became chair of Park View’s governing body, in 1997, four per cent of students were passing,” Syed tells us. “By 2010, that number was seventy-one per cent.” After the Trojan Horse scandal and the changes that resulted, Reed adds, the rate plummeted to “the low-forty-per-cent-to-mid-fifty-per-cent range.”

And then there’s the letter. Despite its mention of jihad, and its suggestion of a broader conspiracy, its most detailed section focusses on an employment dispute at a primary school, among four teaching assistants and a principal. (The principal and three of the T.A.s are Muslim themselves.) The dispute involved allegedly forged resignation letters from the T.A.s, accepted by the principal, which the T.A.s denied writing; Reed and Syed strongly suggest that the Trojan Horse letter could have been a ham-fisted effort to divert blame in an equally ham-fisted resignation-letters scheme. (The principal and T.A.s declined to be interviewed for the podcast.) As Reed and Syed interview officials involved in the Trojan Horse case, some sound flummoxed to be asked about its connection to the primary-school dispute; the hosts, in turn, sound flummoxed that the officials are flummoxed. The series begins to feel like a cross between “All the President’s Men” and “The Thick of It,” Armando Iannucci’s brilliant political satire in which local foul-ups swiftly become tragicomic national nightmares, and every politician is equal parts craven and incompetent.

The second part of the affair—the investigations and what they revealed—complicates the picture, and occasionally rattles the hosts. The inquiries, however spuriously instigated, seemed to reveal some actual problems in schools, some of the bad-apple variety and some more complex, as questions of religion and public education tend to be. Much of the government’s accusatory emphasis focussed on the idea that conservative “hard-line” Muslims were influencing students in problematic ways. A plotline is introduced about the British Humanist Association, a secular group involved in the investigations and complaints. Syed’s brother sees the Humanists on the murder wall and says that they’re “peddling” an “intellectualized” form of Islamophobia. Soon, Reed and Syed meet with a representative Humanist, and it gets contentious. “What impact did it have?” Syed says, incredulous, repeating a question he’d just been asked. He lists some of the affair’s effects, in a tone of barely restrained frustration, and the Humanist walks out of the room. “You got to stop yelling at people,” Reed tells Syed. “That’s what turns them off.”

Syed is furious. “Fuck this, mate!” he says. He’s sick of having to be respectful to people he doesn’t respect; he may be sick of journalism, too, he adds. In the next episode, a bigger philosophical conflict arises when it’s revealed that Syed, hoping to appeal as a fellow-Muslim to a possible interviewee, wrote a letter expressing strong opinions about the T.A. dispute, which was then turned over to a tribunal handling the case. Syed knows that he has screwed up, and he and Reed discuss their journalistic philosophies. Reed says that he genuinely embraces objectivity; Syed says that he does, too, although he also cares about impelling change. In another conversation, Reed says that he’s motivated not by possible “impact” but by “whether it’s a good-ass story.” This is meant to sound noble, I think.

Some of the discussion of Muslim conservatism and its role in the schools can be hard to parse, with anecdotal accounts that shift depending on who’s explaining them. Several allegations of sexism and homophobia are presented and disputed. One of the more publicized stories involves a teacher calling gay men “animals” in a WhatsApp group and adding, “As teachers we must be aware and counter their satanic ways.” (The man has since disowned this view.) Syed mentions that “many Muslims who adhere to conservative religious interpretation, Tahir Alam among them, aren’t accepting of L.G.B.T.Q. people”; this somewhat casual reference to Alam’s views is startling, as though the series is trying to deëmphasize inconvenient details. (Syed adds, reasonably, that many devout Christians have similar beliefs.) The hosts do confidently root out evidence of bad faith in governmental quarters. Park View had been deemed “outstanding” by school inspectors; it was Gove’s own department that asked the school’s leadership to oversee other local schools. But, in an official report about whether there was an “Islamic” takeover of Birmingham schools, that detail was brushed over.

The hosts carefully examine the various allegations while clinging to their centrality-of-the-letter premise, which isn’t always easy. Many in Britain—including officials and journalists—quickly and publicly asserted that the letter was likely to be a fake, and understood the problem to be what the investigations revealed; if you listen to the series a second time, bearing that in mind, it’s easy to understand interviewees’ incredulity about Reed and Syed’s focus. But the letter, in its combination of awfulness, sensationalism, and absurdity, is the compelling part of the mystery, and, in the final episode, that’s where they choose to leave it. In an effort to glean definitive proof of the hoax, the hosts and a former Birmingham-school volunteer fly to Perth, Australia, to try to appeal to a key witness in the resignation-letters imbroglio. Like Syed’s intro—“This is my first story” and probably “my last”—it’s a dramatic gambit that calls attention to its journalistic daring. But, as in the first season of “Serial,” the series ends in lightly poetic writing and investigative frustration. We spend some time in a car outside houses, and make a polite foray into a school; the final image is of a man on the other side of an office door, “refusing to come out.” It leaves listeners with a very thoroughly implied idea of what happened with the letter, to combine with hours’ worth of scrutiny of what happened in the schools—and plenty of room for our own perspective to fill in the rest.



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