Jaysim Hanspal, Print Features Editor, reviews ‘Trojan Horse’.
I had no preconceptions about Trojan Horse. Nor did I remember the actual event, which took place fairly recently, in 2014. It began in late 2013 when an anonymous letter was sent to Birmingham City Council, containing a letter which detailed an operation to introduce an Islamist ethos into several schools in Birmingham. What followed was an in-depth government investigation into these schools, and a lifetime ban from teaching for fourteen teachers allegedly involved. It was later found that this supposed radical document was in fact guidance about the religious needs and practises of Muslim students and parents, and all sins were wiped clean and supposedly forgotten.
Theatre company LUNG theatre unpacks this drama in 2020, revisiting a story which in today’s political climate seems like a tiny squeal in a sea of screams. With a simple set, school desks hiding props for the actors, and a projector which split the play into a serious of events in English and Urdu, the stage left the audience to focus on the events at hand. The story focuses on five characters, Tahir Alam, the chairman of the Park View Educational Trust at the time, Rashid, an Urdu teacher accused of radicalising students; Elaine, a former head-teacher; and Farah, a teenage student navigating between her British and Muslim identity. Each character gave us a deeper insight into the alternative perspectives during the case; LUNG doesn’t shy away from offering the viewpoint of the instigators of the downfall of Park View. The characters are largely rooted in the over 200 interviews carried out by LUNG, as well as public documents and words spoken in the public hearings. Gurkiran Kaur offers a very realistic portrayal of secondary school pupil Farah, removing her hijab on the walk to school to fit in with her peers; it brought back memories of speedwalking down my street, mascara and simple wipes in hand.
The characters are largely rooted in the over 200 interviews carried out by LUNG, as well as public documents and words spoken in the public hearings.
In an effort to be inclusive, the show was also offered with Urdu headsets, translating the show for an audience who would benefit from this candid storytelling. On our way out, we were offered strips of paper asking us to add our name to a petition to call for the Government to commit to a definition of Islamaphobia, which hasn’t yet been established by the UK Government, and so can’t be used in cases where Muslims need to defend themselves legally.
The play ended with an insightful Q&A with insightful speakers, including Yusuf who work with Muslim charity MEND, a not-for-profit company that helps to empower and encourage British Muslims within local communities to be more actively involved in British media and politics; and John Holmwood, who acted as an expert witness for the defence. I spoke to him about my personal experiences coming from London to Exeter, where I experienced a complete culture shock and incidences of racism which aren’t uncommon at the university, and the institutionalised racism which carries on from secondary school. John explained that Institutional racism in the British context can be seen as a consequence of British colonial history. At the height of Empire by the 1920s, Britain ruled close to one-quarter of the world’s population, including half of the global population of Muslims. It was, then, a multi-cultural Empire. Everyone within the Empire was a British subject even if Empire was organised hierarchically and unequally.
What the Trojan Horse affair shows is that Britain has failed to move from a ‘multiculturalism of Empire’ to a ‘multiculturalism of equal citizens’.
‘What the Trojan Horse affair shows is that Britain has failed to move from a ‘multiculturalism of Empire’ to a ‘multiculturalism of equal citizens’. Minority religious expression is seen as something that is tolerated, at best, and, at worst, something alien, with most concern associated with Islam.’
‘Institutional racism is embedded in our social structures and those structures are reinforced through people in society and their everyday actions. Institutional racism is a relation, and, so, is an issue for everyone. Those of us who are white have to take responsibility. It is important to listen to those with direct experience of racism, but that does not mean that we are absolved from acting on what we hear. Trojan Horse is not only about a British Muslim community, but it is also about the wider community and their (in)action in the face of justice.’