Review of Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story

Indigo Jo Blogs - 12 April, 2022 - 19:05
A picture of Jimmy Savile, a white man in his late 50s, standing on a railway bridge wearing a dark suit and tie. Behind him (off the bridge) is a four-track railway in a cutting with an InterCity 125 train approaching.Jimmy Savile in a British Rail advert from 1982

Netflix has released a two-part series on the British TV presenter Jimmy Savile, who over a decades-long career as a club DJ, radio and TV host, charity fundraiser and adviser to politicians and royalty, used his position, fame and connections to molest a number of women and girls both in media environments and in the hospitals he gained access to as a result of his fundraising and volunteering activities. While there were always rumours about this throughout his life, investigations went nowhere and the matter was only uncovered once he had died and could no longer sue for libel. This programme, I feel, does not tell us much we do not already know about the story.

In fact, it brims with Savile library footage; in the first quarter hour of the first episode, most of it was old footage of him and excerpts from his programmes. Most of the first episode was a career retrospective which hardly mentioned his abusive side at all. It almost seemed admiring; it gave the impression of a brilliant DJ and TV host who could be a bit weird and didn’t have much of a personal life but lived for the music and fame, but nobody seemed to suspect was actually abusing anyone. I get the impression that they would have done the same if they’d known him, or at least that they thought most people would.

The abuse angle is only handled in the second episode (and both episodes are about an hour and a half long and could both have been split in half). Most of the details are quite well known now: that he had a key to Broadmoor and was allowed unrestricted access to patients there; that he worked as a volunteer porter at the main hospital in Leeds; that he raised most of the money to build the new spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire, one of the UK’s main spinal injury rehabilitation centres which at the start of the 80s was falling apart with ceilings threatening to collapse on top of bedridden patients. Staff interviewed said that without Savile, the new unit could not have been built. Yet at all three institutions, he was molesting patients and, in the case of Stoke, children in the community as well, one of whom was interviewed for this programme.

I was less aware of the police’s poor response to accusations against Savile as they were in fact approached on a number of occasions. On one, approached separately by three women, they told each that their accusations were uncorroborated, knowing that in fact two other women had made similar accusations. The programme played a police interview with Savile in which he told the female officer, addressing her as “young lady”, that he was know for being litigious. He denied everything, but the charm we know from his TV and radio broadcasts was replaced by a contemptuous and threatening tone. Clearly, the police had put up an inexperienced officer to do the job which should have been done by a pair of seasoned officers who would not have been intimidated. The interview was cut short. Less relevant was an anonymous letter that was read out, from someone claiming to be an insider and accusing Savile of being a “committed paedophile” (which at the time meant, and technically still means, an adult with a strong sexual interest in prepubescent children, not adolescents) with no specifics or evidence. It is not surprising that this letter was ignored.

For the most part it is clear why people overlooked Savile’s obvious faults, his lack of qualifications and suspicions about his behaviour before giving him access to the newly paralysed and the mentally and physically ill: he was good for business, he was entertaining and there were a lot of people who loved him, not knowing what went on behind closed doors. He had cultivated friends across the British establishment, not only in the BBC but also royalty and the Conservative party. However, much as the NHS’s leadership were taken in by his celebrity also, this scandal says much about the dangers of making public services such as healthcare dependent on private charity. Perhaps at least one of these institutions would have been able to refuse his services if they had received adequate funding from the government.

Still, it’s non-essential viewing, and not recommended at all if you find the sight of Savile creepy because you’ll be seeing a lot of him. It doesn’t break much new ground and could be condensed into a couple of hours if they spared us the huge amount of library footage of Savile; they might have been able to fit in some more interviews.

Image source: SozLike, from YouTube.

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Did Putin do Brexit to us?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 21 March, 2022 - 19:13
 How many more can we take?".Front page from the Daily Mail in August 2015

In the years since the Brexit referendum in 2016, it has become fashionable among Remainers to blame the result on manipulation. While the racist and xenophobic motives were plain from some of their advertisements (like the one claiming Turkey was joining, which it is not), it also transpired that people were targeted with advertisements on Facebook that appealed to their likely prejudices. It’s been reported that some of the financiers behind the Leave campaign had links to Russian oligarchs or embassy officials and also that Russian trolls and bots were behind a lot of pro-Leave misinformation during the campaign. The result is that a myth has grown up that the result was entirely the result of Russian interference and the referendum would have gone the other way but for it. I am not convinced.

My view is that the effect of disinformation and of the dirty advertising campaigns at most tipped the scales in favour of Leave. The vote was already in the balance and this was the result of two things. One was a long-running campaign of propaganda against the EU by the right-wing corporate media which had continually portrayed the EU as both a threat to British national sovereignty and a source of ridiculous nuisance legislation, regulating such things as what shape cucumbers could be sold in shops. Newspapers and politicians continually promoted the idea that the EU was a plot for German domination of Europe and that we would be sucked into a European ‘superstate’ or “United States of Europe” that we would not be able to extricate ourselves from. The collapse of federations in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia seemed to add weight to those ideas, irrespective of the fact that those federations were not democratic, nor made up of democracies. More recently, Tory politicians and press have railed against the Human Rights Act, a law which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law; they portray this as nothing more than an obstacle to “getting things done” when that means an ‘undesirable’ being locked up or kicked out of the country. In fact, the ECHR has nothing to do with the EU and protects innocent people as well, among them people with learning disabilities trapped in hospitals.

The other factor was the influx of migrant workers from eastern Europe in 2004 following those countries’ accession to the EU. Other EU countries did not allow this; when weaker economies are admitted to the EU, their workers are not allowed to freely work in pre-existing member countries for a few years. Blair decided he was above listening to people, however, and allowed them to freely live and work here. I have mentioned the problems with this policy before; no doubt many of the people who objected were racist, but it did result in a reorientation of industry towards using cheap and often temporary foreign labour, some of which was not even advertised in English. Blair, despite relying on the votes of working-class people in former heavy industrial constituencies such as his own on Tyneside (many of which defected to the Tories in 2019), failed to rejuvenate British industry and provide meaningful jobs for those dumped on the scrapheap by Thatcher. As a result, the EU was blamed and large sections of the working class voted to leave. They did not need any Russian-based disinformation campaign on Facebook to persuade them that the EU was the reason they were out of work, or at best had seen only banal, low-paid work without prospects available to them for decades. (The press, meanwhile, presented the issue as a threat, depicting it as a migrant ‘invasion’ and, like politicians, making no distinction between EU and non-EU migration.)

It’s true that much of this was in fact the result of British policy and was not forced on us by the EU, but all the same, this had been inflicted and then maintained by governments who supported British membership for the trade advantages rather than any ideals about cultural enrichment. While it’s understandable that some people on Twitter overseas do not know about the history, it’s sad that many British people who have lived in the country all their lives and seen all this forget that there were real issues and not just racism, stupidity or disinformation behind that vote. So for anyone who wants to tell me to “go read Carole Cadwalladr” if I have any doubt about the Russian effect: I’ve read the Observer, the paper she writes in, since I was a teenager. I respect her for looking into the dirty campaign and the Russian connection. But it’s not the whole story. Much as it’s tempting to blame Putin for everything, we can’t. While it’s true that the result was convenient for him, the Russian role in actually making it happen was at most limited.

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How ‘fair’ is mandatory water metering?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 13 March, 2022 - 22:15
Picture of Richie Kavanagh, an older white man with long, curly fair hair wearing blue dungarees over a white and blue stuffed shirt, standing behind a red plastic barrier of the sort used to fence off works on pavements. Behind him is a stone house festooned with blue and yellow flags.Richie Kavanagh singing his Water Meter Song

This week my family got a letter from the local water company, Thames Water, telling us that water meters are going to be installed on our street some time this month and that they will be coming to dig up our street to do it. The meters in question sit under the pavement unlike, say, traditional gas or electricity meters which are in the house and which you can read easily (or as easily as you can access the cupboard). A few weeks ago, a relative who lives in nearby Ewell, just across the border in Surrey proper, was told that her street was going to be dug up for the same purpose by the same water company which provides water and sewerage to most of London and the Thames Valley region (i.e. the Oxford and Reading areas) but not to the south beyond London which has its own water providers. I mentioned this in a tweet and was asked by the company to talk to them privately, which I do not want to do as it is clearly a matter of policy rather than a particular issue my household has with them.

I Googled phrases like “kingston water metering” and “thames water metering” and got no specific results about water metering being imposed on this area; there were a few stories about “rolling out” of “smart meters” (which send hourly reports to the company electronically) across various parts of TW’s territory over the next few years. They have the legal powers to do it under the Water Industry Act of 1991 and switching to meters has been encouraged over the years; newly built houses and flats always have them installed. But there has been no public announcement, no coverage of it in the local or national media and no public debate, and TW’s website tells us that metering is the ‘fairest’ way to charge for water use, because people only pay for what they use. But how fair is that?

It sounds to me like the standard Tory definition of fairness: that public services are mere conveniences that people may choose to use or not, and should pay for as they use them. The same logic is used to demand payments from people who use social care and other services for disabled people: it’s not ‘fair’ that people who do not use the services pay for them through their taxes. Similarly when councillors in wealthy districts or counties complain that their business rates or Council Tax cannot be used locally rather than being redistributed via central government. It’s never about people with the means to pay for services they might need paying more so that everyone benefits. Water is not used more by rich people; it is used more by large families, especially those with young children. True, households with large gardens which use the mains to water the garden might also use more, but this is not a reason to penalise the couple with young children or the disabled person who has extra laundry needs because of incontinence so that a person who lives alone, or a wealthy childless couple, can pay less. When water really is scarce, we have a system of hosepipe bans and drought orders to prevent water being wasted to wash cars or irrigate grass. We do not need to use this system every year, even during hot summers.

Water stress is an issue, of course, but it’s not the only environmental issue we face: another is the overuse of disposable products, such as nappies, most of which contain plastic and which all go to landfill, and we only have so much land we can use for that. The alternative is washables, but they require water, either from the household’s own supply or from a commercial laundry service. Where water is particularly scarce, disposables might be the better option, but in London right now it is not; washables clearly are better for the environment. Why is it fair to penalise people (mainly women) trying to conserve finite resources and reduce the amount they throw away (which also reduces the local refuse workload) for needing a resource which, at least in the immediate future, will not run out?

This may be related to something I have noticed out and about in recent years: that water pumps are being removed from filling stations and replaced with paid-for screenwash pumps, and that water pressure in toilets available to the public (in filling stations as well as cafes) is miserly. Public toilets are scarce, and in town centres the only available facilities are often in out-of-the-way places such as the second floor of a shopping centre or the back of a shop (and then, not on the ground floor) and again, with inadequate pressure. Even after two years of a pandemic whose risk can be ameliorated somewhat with hand washing, it is difficult to find anywhere to do that in a lot of public places, including supermarkets. At motorway service stations, the toilets (which are usually the only place to wash one’s hands) are often located at the far end of the service building, past all the shops and restaurants, and easier access routes to them blocked. Councils are no longer required to provide public toilets, leaving this often to private businesses loath to give anything away and whose toilets are often reserved for their own customers; many were removed in the 1980s, partly as a result of a moral panic about gay men using them to solicit others for sex (known as cottaging). The provision of clean water used to be regarded as a matter of public health; now, it is presented as an avenue for private profit.

I find it astonishing that meters can be imposed on a whole area with no publicity and no public debate. Meters have been available for years; if take-up has been less than the companies might want, this may be because householders want the security of a fixed bill rather than one which could rise dramatically for reasons beyond their control. And in future years, once everyone has been forced onto meters, the savings might be reduced as they are the norm, rather than a “good choice” that is encouraged.

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No excuse for racism

Indigo Jo Blogs - 10 March, 2022 - 22:37
A filling station by the side of the road. The signs are a stylised yellow W on a green circular background. There are three blue signs on the approach, the first showing a petrol pump, the second a cup with the name 'WOG' below it, and the third a 'P' for parking.WOG filling station on the Ukrainian approach to the Polish border. (Source: Google Street View)

After Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago, there was an outpouring of solidarity from people all around the world at the attack by the dictator Putin’s forces on a democratic country which had dared stand up to it and resist being dragged into the status of a satellite country to a corrupt, decaying former superpower. As soon as bombs began falling on Kyiv, the country’s capital, people began fleeing, mostly to the western borders with countries like Poland and Romania; more than a million refugees have fled the country. Among them are foreign students and others from African and Asian countries, and numerous stories have emerged of racist treatment they had received from border guards, the police, shopkeepers and others while attempting to leave the country. These include the use of racial slurs, physical assaults, being pulled off trains so that Ukrainians could take their place, being told to walk across the border, being left to sleep out in the open in the cold, being sent to the back of queues at the border as well as in food shops where, when they finally gained entry, they found no food of substance left as natives had bought it all. As remarks in the media that “you don’t expect this sort of thing in a civilised country in Europe” started to be noticed as well as the still festering issue of the African and Asian refugees stranded by Lukashenko at the Belarusian-Polish border who have received nothing like the warm welcome the Ukrainian refugees have in Poland, many of us started to form the conclusion that solidarity is only for White people and (as the experience of Bosnians shows) then only if they are not Muslims. Others remarked how disturbing it was that, even when bombs are raining down, people find time to be racist.

Yesterday, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK made some laughable excuses for his countrymen’s behaviour: that the country had always been ‘homogeneous’ and people were not used to the sight of African and Asian people and one solution might be to segregate foreigners from natives at the border. This is very clearly inaccurate. This part of Europe has never been homogeneous: there are twelve official regional languages which include Russian but also Belarusian, Hungarian, Crimean Tatar and Yiddish. Over the years western Ukraine has been ruled by the Poles, Lithuanians, Austrians and Germans as well as Russians: the city of L’viv, the major city of western Ukraine, had four names over the course of the 20th century. The country is a popular destination for students from India and other Asian and African countries, particularly medical students. While these people would have been concentrated in the cities, surely people in smaller towns knew about them. This idea that they had never seen a brown face before is ridiculous.

And western Ukrainians are not, yet, traumatised by war. The Polish border is a long way from anywhere there has been any fighting, although there have been a few air strikes in some western cities including Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk but not L’viv. Knowing there is a war elsewhere in your own country, when that country is very big, is not the same as having direct personal experience of it. I lived in London through the time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were ongoing; there were occasional bomb attacks on the mainland such as in London, Warrington and Manchester (Guildford and Birmingham were before I was born) but I was a long way from the scene of each and I witnessed nothing and suffered no injury or loss, so I cannot have been traumatised by any of it. Even if you have suffered trauma at the hands of people who are in some way different from you, it does not give you the right to become a bigot or to become abusive and cruel to people who look in any way like your abusers if you later gain power over them (and Russians do not look like any of the refugees who have been abused in western Ukraine these past two weeks).

Do these incidents demonstrate that Ukrainians in particular are more racist than any other nation? Probably not; border forces the world over are notorious for humiliating people trying to visit from poorer countries and finding spurious excuses to send them back, Britain included. Over recent decades, anti-immigrant narratives have taken hold in many countries’ media, portraying refugees as ‘bogus’ asylum seekers who have come to live off the benefit system and immigrants as criminals. Right now, the UK is the only one in Europe which still requires visas for Ukrainian refugees to enter, and those with family here have found it impossible to get the visas required. It’s possible that this display of racism stemmed from selfishness; people wanted to get out as quickly as possible (even though that part of Ukraine is still mostly safe), and used racism as an excuse to get others out of the way. It’s my country! Me first!

None of this detracts from the truth that the invasion was unjust, that Russia has no claim over Ukraine and no right to demand its subservience, that even if much of its population wants closer ties, this does not mean they want to be ruled by Putin’s regime (a fact borne out by local resistance even in Russian-speaking eastern parts of the country since the invasion) and this has intensified since they saw what atrocities the Russian state and military are willing to inflict; the same goes for anti-liberal or autocratic governments previously sympathetic to Russia (e.g. Hungary), who equally do not want to be reduced to vassals as during the Iron Curtain era, which now appears to be Putin’s aim. The invasion has finally resulted in a crackdown on the Russian billionaires who have used their mostly ill-gotten wealth to buy properties and businesses abroad, particularly the UK, and such a crackdown will be to the benefit of people living here who have found the cost of housing rise as the foreign rich buy up properties as ‘investments’ and to launder money. Putin has to be stopped; he and his regime bring corruption and oppression wherever they go. But this is going to be a hard sell for those who are seeing people like them abused as they try to flee to safety while their abusers are hailed as heroic defenders of civilisation, even if they had no sympathy for Putin themselves. Ukraine’s ambassador should be apologising to the victims of the appalling racist violence, and talking to his own government to fix this before all the solidarity his people received two weeks ago evaporates.

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The Trojan Horse Affair: A British Muslim Parent Perspective

Muslim Matters - 18 February, 2022 - 01:20

The New York Times’ decision to focus their latest Serial podcastThe Trojan Horse Affair, on the British Trojan Horse scandal was met with tentative optimism by many British Muslims and British Muslim parents such as myself. A travesty that ripped through British politics and scarred a generation of Muslims had come to feel like an inevitable miscarriage of justice. Like any media scandal involving Muslims, it contained all the ingredients for the perfect fantasy horror plot: surrealism, hyperbole, and lots and lots of tragedy.

A Backdrop Of Anti-Muslim Politicization

The quotidian nature of anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK means that, in the marketplace of ideas, it is undoubtedly the most fail-safe stock for those politicians wanting to appear relatable and electable.

I am by no means a stranger to the cold politicization of the female Muslim identity. I have become accustomed to expecting the supposedly casual, off-hand comment about the hijab or niqab by a suited snake oil statesman every time there is an election pending–a  carefully drafted statement brainstormed from a series of focus groups, feeding off of and fueling a self-perpetuating cycle of Islamophobic sentiment that has reached absolute ubiquity in the UK.

Fortunately for politicians, the veiling of women, with its ideologically pregnable history, is the perfect shorthand for “Other.” More generally, the political elasticity of the Muslim identity is election gold; thus it  becomes a coin heavy with reassurance, traded most frequently during election cycles and opportune news days, to those desperate to appeal to or distract the electoral majority.

Parenting in Light of The Trojan Horse Scandal

Despite having graduated from this school of British anti-Muslim politicization, becoming a mother and letting my children out into a world shaped by anti-terror ideology still came as a shock to my system.

Having children is almost like having a little bit of you living outside of you. Without an encasing shell, you are left watching helplessly, heart in throat, as they take their first unsteady steps into the world.  The natural protective instinct of a parent takes on a new shape for Muslim families, as you learn to attune yourself to the Islamophobia that hangs low and heavy in the air in a completely new way.

The insidious nature of anti-Muslim sentiment means that Muslim children are not always afforded the same childhood as some of their non-racialized counterparts. The reality for Muslim children is that misspelt words, misheard statements, and absolutely normal childhood behavior can result in  referrals to police, interviews, and records on the Government’s counter-terror policing database for six years. Criminalization, in short, is what you would call it. The contemporary notion of childhood, with its roots in a Victorian Britain with evolving social constructs, isn’t conceptually big enough to accommodate children of Muslim heritage. Freedom, creativity, and innocence isn’t as easily attributed to them. Dangerous presumptions and surveying institutional eyes follow them on the basis of their religious heritage alone.

As a parent, internalizing the Islamophobic gaze is often part of that protective measure you must assume as a parent–to safeguard your child from the traumaClick To Tweet

As a parent, internalizing the Islamophobic gaze is often part of that protective measure you must assume as a parent–to safeguard your child from the trauma of this frankly mad, yet entirely plausible, chain of events. The paradoxical position of having to be cognizant of your child’s behavior through the hateful lens of Islamophobic legislation is in itself a fraught experience, and that’s without the anxiety of all of its consequences.

We know that wars have been waged in the name of protecting Muslim women from the clutches of Islam–to their detriment. It is perhaps no surprise that this has extended so perfectly onto Muslim children. Coupled with how social anxieties at large project themselves onto the microcosm of the home, through the language of safeguarding and child protection, it is perhaps no surprise we have sleep-walked into the legislative position we have found ourselves in –effectively criminalizing expressions of Islamic faith.

The So-Called “Operation Trojan Horse”

One of the major catalysts for this process of criminalization has undoubtedly been “Operation Trojan Horse.” The tellingly-named Trojan Horse Affair, Serial NYT’s latest podcast,  centers on a fabricated letter outlining an Islamist plot to take over schools in Birmingham.  The letter, which was sent to a city official in 2014 and eventually leaked to the press, led to a redefinition of anti-terror and education policy in the UK. While the letter itself and subsequent investigation alleged a concerted plot to Islamize public schools, the claims were revealed to be fabricated and baseless. Despite the wide-scale harm and long term devastation caused as a result, on both a local and national scale, none of the claims were upheld.

During the course of the affair, the Government’s independent investigation into a local schooling issue consisted of the appointment of the previous head of anti-terrorism at Scotland Yard, as well as two other government agencies. This appointment was underpinned by and further reinforced the “conveyor belt theory,” which has been widely debunked by international research. The “conveyor belt theory” falsely claims there is a direct link between religiously conservative views and violent extremism.

As a result, the Government introduced a range of draconian measures aimed at Muslims. Despite the only legal case into the affair still pending–and which would eventually go on to collapse–the Government introduced a new stringent Prevent strategy in 2015. Crucially, there was a change of focus from violent extremism to non-violent extremism, with requirements of safeguarding children from radicalization that applied to schools, higher education, and the National Health Service. For British Muslims, religiosity becomes a possible indicator of vulnerability to radicalization: for example, under a non-violent extremism logic, developing an interest in prayer and refraining from celebrating other religious festivals become red flags for potentially violent extremist thought and behavior. This notion carves out a dangerous and nebulous “pre-crime” space in the British legal system and further muddies the already murky legal and social understanding of Muslims.

Just like the family and home  become the projected sites of social anxiety, schools (as buffers between the domestic and state spheres) are subject to a similar level of hysteria in policymaking. What greater foothold does the Government have into the home than through the education of children? And built into this education system is all manner of entitlements and assumptions about norms and defaults in morality. The panic over Muslim homes and British families was always going to have the most virulent expression in education policy. And this is not to mention the colonial hang-ups concerning education as a civilizing force, which gives the wider case and its fall-out a further sinister hue.

Aftermath of Trojan Horse: Institutional Islamophobia

Listening to The Trojan Horse Affair podcast, and reliving one of the most obtrusive events on the landscape of British policy for Muslims, has been a maddening experience. What the detailed retelling of this story has done is demonstrate in real-time the crystallization of institutional Islamophobia. As many esteemed academics will tell you, anti-terror/counter-violence extremism logic is policy-based evidence, and not evidence-based policy. It is effectively racist assumptions enshrined in law, and is arrogantly self-referential.

Anti-terror and counter-violence extremism logic is policy-based evidence, and not evidence-based policy. It is effectively racist assumptions enshrined in law.Click To Tweet

In exposing micro details of events, The Trojan Horse Affair podcast makes apparent how the legal and political climate we live in today was formed: through politicians aligned to right-wing think tanks leveraging this small local dispute to enact widescale change in the nation. It is clear there is some malignancy at the national level when it is revealed that the Education Minister of the time was aware the letter was a hoax. On the local end of this dispute, we see bigotry and illiteracy, as well as the internalized Islamophobia and opportunism of people from within the Muslim community. The full spectrum of Islamophobia that forms this depraved feedback loop is on display.

The Institutional Gaze on Muslim Children

At the time the Trojan Horse letter and scandal ripped through the British Muslim social fabric, my daughter was a few months old. It’s hard to overestimate the impact it has had during the course of her life, and it has been surreal to witness as a parent. Our visit to the general practitioner’s surgery, to name one example, is all the more uncomfortable when the doctor makes an unguarded comment warning me to be careful of my daughter’s faith school as it may be “extreme.” Both the assumption and its potential consequence are colored by what happened in Birmingham.

This assumption that Muslim children might need to be safeguarded from their parents, purely by virtue of faith, is what underpins Prevent culture in public institutions.Click To Tweet

This assumption that Muslim children might need to be safeguarded from their parents, purely by virtue of faith, is what underpins Prevent culture in public institutions. The view that my child is by nature born secular and that my belief system as a parent is unnatural to her, whereas she was otherwise intended on a liberal life-path, reveals the regressive attitudes towards Muslims and Islam. It reveals the cultural blind spots that policymakers at the highest level possess.

Cementing Islamophobia in Institutions

Listening to the deluded, first-hand accounts in The Trojan Horse Affair from the handful of people who held the discredited view that Birmingham’s schools were “Islamist–” the Governments’ sole legal witnesses–is surreal.  We see at a small scale how the misunderstandings concerning Islam emboldens regressive attitudes and how anti-terror culture promotes and secures this. The podcast shows how each racist assumption and every ill-informed judgement or ignorant prejudice has cemented to erect an ugly edifice of racism that upholds many public structures, including health and education.

Schools are intensely personal and political spaces and what the interviewees demonstrate is a shocking lack of self-awareness. They struggle to articulate the nature of their own personal discomfort towards innocuous practices at the schools, and to give weight to the idea that they are dangerous or warranting legal intervention.

Why is this?

The conceptual Muslim in public imagination exists purely as an empty symbol ready to take on the color of the latest social anxiety. Due to this shapeshifting nature of Muslim as the boogieman, feelings of Islamophobia are equally undefinable and senseless. We see how these individuals’ confused and unsubstantiated feelings, hunches, and incoherent thoughts go on to create policy changes that have material consequences for Muslim lives. The practices that the (Muslim) school leaders engage in,  which bring such discomfort to the interviewees, are neatly shoehorned into a media narrative of Islamophobia which is self-affirming. This unholy alliance between Government and the media creating an endless cycle of Islamophobic sentiment which feeds and is fueled by this machination, is laid bare. That these views had legs and ran as far as Parliament is testament to the shared language of Islamophobia in Britain.

The 2015 Prevent strategy was borne out of these community tensions, and with depressing irony, ultimately continue to work only to exploit and exacerbate these cultural misunderstandings and intra-community tensions. Prevent referrals are often used to settle community scores and disputes with devastating consequences. They do nothing to encourage dialogue and debate and foster the understanding and harmony that is required. Rather, they force all citizens to perceive Muslims through the distorting prism of Islamophobia and criminality, fostering suspicion and division.

Losing a Bright Future for Muslim Children in Britain

The statistics around Park View Academy themselves paint a depressing figure. A school which was originally one of the most downgraded in the British education system–in which students were called “Paki” and proclamations of “white is right” were made in the staff room–eventually rose to within the top 14% of British Schools after being reclaimed by local British Pakistani Muslims, and before the fake letter surfaced. With a 98% Muslim student body the school is situated in one of the most underprivileged areas in the country in which 72% of children received free school meals compared to a 15% national average. Celebrated by the Department for Education as an exemplary success story in British education, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Trojan Horse scandal is how it robbed this beacon of hope from a community that had worked so hard against all odds to achieve it. The local fall-out from the affair was colossal; the school suffered mass dismissals, teachers occurred life-long bans from teaching, and the school’s academic achievement plummeted. What was once a thriving culturally-aware and culturally-sensitive hub of a school community in Birmingham was left scarred and community relations tarnished. When I think of the Trojan Horse scandal, I feel most pained for the children and young people who had what they deserved taken away from them simply because of their religious heritage.

(Un)Acceptable Religious Influence in Schools

These events are, of course, nestled amidst a backdrop of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society flagship policy–encouraging local communities to take charge of their local schools. The Big Society policy led to a vast increase in such school management. Tacit amongst this appears to be a belief that this was only desirable when the “right” kind of communities were doing so, thus implying agency and autonomy isn’t desirable amongst all local communities. Moreover, the only remaining charge that was upheld against one of the 21 schools originally in question was “undue religious influence.” What is interesting to note is that in Britain, schools aren’t strictly secular. All schools must teach religious education and hold daily acts of collective worship…the acceptable kind of worship, it seems.

The Trojan Horse Affair makes apparent the perverse logic and paradoxical nature of anti-terror wisdom. The few disgruntled staff members that testified against the school are only able to reference their mere “belief” that the school promoted extremist beliefs. Here “extremist” or religious beliefs are rallied against because of the claim that they themselves are unsubstantiated outside of a theological model. The cannibalistic nature of counter-violent extremist thinking is woefully apparent here–not all beliefs are created equal. If the nefarious Muslim, carved out by media and political discourse, exists as a form of social and political catharsis–to reassure society that they are not the “Other–” then this inverted identity holds a mirror up to society of the ugly face they wish to ignore. This discomfort reverberates throughout the political food-chain leading to an encroaching criminalization of Muslim identity.

Pitting Islam Against Academic Excellence

Furthermore, what is implicit in this narrative–and what the political consequences of this make clear–is the idea that Islamic thought comes at the expense of academic success or cultural enrichment. The irony of claiming Islam is culturally deficient while holding the most reductionist view of Islam oneself is not lost on many of us.  Especially not when done concurrently to pulling down a set of schools, which were by their very definition of “Islamic ethos,” and which achieved considerable academic success. This further stigmatizes and alienates Muslim children in the name of assimilating them into British life. It soon becomes apparent that a concerted, coordinated effort by government agencies with a shared objective to undermine these academically excellent, religiously demographical schools outschemes this supposed Operation Trojan Horse plot to Islamize schools. The question over who is behind an insidious plot to undermine who comes to mind. And all this, in true counter-terror logic, to protect Muslim children.

What The Trojan Horse Affair Podcast Ultimately Tells Us

Ultimately, what is tragic about The Trojan Horse Affair is that our Muslim children, community, and faith doesn’t matter. The discomfort of a few ignorant staff members meant more to the government and had a higher truth value than the life chances of our children in Birmingham and the future of Muslim children across the UK. Nobody cared enough to fact-check, but rather they allowed their ignorance and prejudice to run away with them–an ignorance and prejudice that they created and they continue to encourage to meet their own needs.

That The Trojan Horse Affair podcast was made is a testament to the absurdity of the situation. That it takes an American production to point out the blatant legal injustice and structural racism involved in this case is indicative of the magnitude of this miscarriage of justice–the very America with its flawed legal system and own endemic issues of Islamophobia.

While Muslims are entirely justified to feel jaded at the claim of a neutral investigation into this affair in particular (because media neutrality itself is most often based on Islamophobic grounds), The Trojan Horse Affair‘s narrative is encouraging . As the two journalists, Brian Reed and Hamza Syed,  progress through this journey of unearthing the truth, through interrogating the individual, material claims and actions beneath the wider case, the spotlight is for once also pointed on secular discomfort and not just the distractive figure of the Muslim. The burden of proof is finally on those claimants and their views and not on the Muslim’s belief system. Through interrogating these underlying “facts” of the case, the weak foundations of institutional Islamophobia are exposed as whimsical, arbitrary, and completely lacking in substance or truth. The grim and disturbing reality they uphold is finally exposed.

The Trojan Horse Affair shines the spotlight for once on secular discomfort and not just the distractive figure of 'the Muslim.' The burden of proof is finally on those claimants and their views and not on the Muslim's belief system.Click To Tweet Who is Inside the Trojan Horse?

The letter and alleged plot at the heart of The Trojan Horse Affair sets the stage for a perfect villainous Islamist plot. While the “nefarious Muslim” teaches us about society’s greatest fears, if we pay close enough attention, the unfolding of events reveals details about those elite political classes that have mobilized behind the fabricated plot.  The pieces of the puzzle are neatly laid out. The Muslim is projected as clandestine, lacking cultural scope and academic ambition, ignorant, nihilistic, and destructive towards other cultures and people. Then, the political elite use women and children as tools to further their own ideological agenda. What The Trojan Horse Affair makes most apparent to me is perhaps the danger doesn’t lie within Muslim communities.

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Book Review: Better, Not Bitter by Dr. Yusef Salaam

Muslim Matters - 16 February, 2022 - 16:29

“Better, Not Bitter” by Dr. Yusef Salaam is the autobiography of one of the Exonerated Five: five young men (four of them African American, one of them Latino) – boys, at the time – who had been arrested, charged, and convicted in 1989 for raping and assaulting a white female jogger in Central Park. Decades later, the real rapist confessed, and the men were finally freed. Dr. Salaam’s book won the 2021 Muslim Bookstagram Awards for its powerful tale of seeking justice, holding onto his faith in Allah, and working through the trauma of racism and prison.

Dr. Salaam was only fifteen when he was thrown into jail for a crime that he did not commit, over which he steadfastly maintained his innocence. Drawing parallels between the story of Prophet Yusuf (‘alayhissalaam) and his own, Dr. Salaam’s narrative is powerful, heartbreaking, and inspiring all at once. For any reader unacquainted with just how twisted racism against the Black community is, and how an entire industry of the prison pipeline has been created in America, the author’s experiences throw stark light onto these realities. He discusses the prison pipeline, the ways that media and politicians and the criminal system collaborated to put innocent men in jail simply because they were the most convenient scapegoats due to the colour of their skin. He examines how poverty and mental health and an entire society’s criminalization of the Black population has led to the ongoing crisis that exists in America today. 

“Better, Not Bitter” stands out not just as a memoir of an injustice that epitomized America’s systemic racism, but as so much more: a glimpse of Yusef’s life before he was unjustly imprisoned; his mother’s strong, gentle guidance and unending advocacy for her son and others in dire straits; a spiritual journey of choosing not to allow one’s soul to be imprisoned even if one’s physical body is. Gratitude, self-discipline, introspection, education, and determination to “live with purpose” are recurring themes in Dr. Salaam’s book. “There’s a long list of all the ways in which injustice has stolen things from my life. I prefer, however, to remember all I’ve been able to hold” (p. 59). 

“It’s important that you don’t just read stories like mine and then go about your life, business as usual. Take a look at the evil that showed up in my life and figure out what your light will be. What will be your purpose in this moment? Whether you’re a child of a former enslaved African or a child of a former slave owner, how do you use your present-day privilege to help the cause of racial injustice? Can I leverage the resources I have and start donating to causes and organizations that help  people have been marginalized and trampled upon? Can I give my time and skills to work with communities and organizations at the grassroots level? Can I take my voice and use it to defend the voiceless, to have the difficult conversations needed to change hearts and minds? These are the questions I hope you ask, even as you unpack what your own purpose is.” (p 11)

For a mainstream published book, it was incredible to see how Dr. Salaam’s religious connection to Islam was deeply embedded throughout, highlighted as one of the most influential forces in shaping his life perspectives. “I’m no prophet,” Dr. Salaam writes, “But I do believe I have a purpose that made it so that despite the things designed to kill me – the racism, the criminal system of injustice, the attempted assault while in prison – it was God who told the prison to be cool and safe for me” (p.5). This is Dr. Salaam’s main message, echoed throughout: every individual has a purpose in life, and it is through connecting with Allah and seeking to live out this purpose that will guide a person so that “you can thrive in the midst of your trials” (p. 6).  The story of Prophet Yusuf (‘alayhissalaam) – the author’s namesake – is evoked, the parallels clear: being unjustly imprisoned, yet prison being the crucible for spiritual growth, striving, strength, and flourishing. Over and over again, Dr. Salaam reminds us of Allah’s Wisdom and of His Mercy even as one is tested with trials beyond one’s imagining. 

“What I’ve lived through so far has required that I accept even the ugly circumstances I’ve experienced as God’s will for my life, in order to be equipped to embrace the future. Acceptance – more than even forgiveness – is what is necessary for our forward movement. And acceptance can absolutely live alongside our demand for accountability for those who have wronged us.” (p 15)

“Better, Not Bitter” is a sobering reminder and example of how systemic racism is not merely an abstract concept, but has real-world consequences for hundreds of thousands of individuals. It is also uplifting in its message of hope, spirituality, and determination to pursue justice, no matter how cruel and powerful the oppressors are. Dr. Yusef Salaam’s grace shines throughout the entire book, guiding readers through hard truths and encouraging us all to do better, live better, and most importantly, to live with purpose

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