Moderate British Muslims are always wary when yet another sensational story breaks about mad, bad and dangerous fellow believers.
Over the years, we have become wise to right-wing or fervent Zionist hacks and online prowlers who fanatically dig for dirt or make things up which 'prove' the existence of Islamic plots and perfidies. (Remember how the London mayor, Sadiq Khan was accused of being a secret supporter of terrorists and slandered by some newspapers?)
There are countless such examples of unfair incrimination and fake news. At the same time, we recognise that there are indeed Islamist plots and perfidies playing out in local politics, schools, universities, mosques and neighbourhoods, within families too. It's demanding, this treading between scepticism and suspicion in the search for facts and real evidence.
This weekend The Sunday Times ran an alarming story about Clarksfield primary school in Oldham where, according to the headteacher, Trish O'Donnell, and others too, there has been a takeover bid by ideologically driven Muslim parents who loathe Western values.
This is cause for serious concern. Oldham is still one of the most racially and ethnically segregated places in the UK. According to O'Donnell, who turned round a failing school, she has been subjected to harassment and intimidation, serious threats too. More worryingly, there is allegedly a systematic, 'Trojan Horse' plan to oust her and her ilk and to impose 'Islamic education' whatever that means.
Clarksfield, a couple, Nasim Ashraf, a parent governor and his wife Hafizan Zaman, apparently even tried to get female staff to cover their heads. We have been here before. 'Trojan Horse' media storms first blew up in March 2014, when this same newspaper splashed with a story about Islamists who were infiltrating schools by becoming governors.
The article claimed there was a strategy for takeovers: the first step is to identify poor-performing state schools in Muslim areas; then Salafist [meaning ultra-conservative Saudi-led] parents in each school are encouraged to complain that the teachers are "corrupting children with sex education, teaching about homosexuality, making their children say Christian prayers and mixed swimming and sports...the next step is to parachute in Muslim governors to drip feed our ideal for a Muslim school and stir up staff to urge the council to investigate..finally anonymous letters are to be circulated to MPs, press and ministers. All these things will go work towards wearing the head down [and] removing their resolve."
Is this really happening? Was it happening three years ago? Yes, my journalistic investigations confirm that in the Midlands and northern towns, there have indeed been conspiracies and entryism by Salafis. I don't doubt Salafis are still at it. It enrages and scares me, the extent to which such people and their reactionary ideas, are accommodated by educators and politicians. But deeper questions need to be asked about who is responsible for this trend and why the media has failed to go beyond the hysterical stereotypes of Muslim extremism.
Analysis of the representation of the Trojan Horse phenomena by Sara Cannizzaro and Reza Gholami at Middlesex University, published in the journal Race, Education and Ethnicity, concluded that the media obsessively focused on Islamist ideologies and failed to "...direct attention to another issue of interest to the British public: the potential for serious systematic failings in the current school system and the clear role which central and local government play in those processes."
The authors are absolutely right. Hardliners are emboldened because, in such schools, governance is weak and inept and parents have too much say. Free and faith schools – both proliferating fast across the UK – can decide what pupils will learn. For example, in many of these so-called brave new establishments, sex education is not taught.
Education is meant to liberate us from the prejudices and preoccupations of previous generations. In the UK, that freedom is now thwarted by policymakers. Kids are moulded to unquestioningly replicate the values of their faith and communities. One Christian school I was invited to, as a guest speaker, asked me not to mention homosexuality; a Jewish school advised me to steer clear of Israel and an Islamic school asked me to cover my hair. All three invites were declined.
Catholic, Protestant, Sikh, Hindu and Jewish schools are closing off 'outside' influences. Tony Blair, Michael Gove, and David Cameron enthusiastically backed parent power and school self-governance and so created a fragmented education system with hopelessly inadequate oversights. Ofsted inspectors are overstretched and can only act within legal limits.
It's time to go back to basics, to tighten up governance and to return to a universal state education curriculum which inviolably enshrines democratic and human rights and shared citizenship values to all children. Will it happen? No. Parental choice is sacrosanct. Trojan Horse plotters know that all too well which is why they are unlikely to give up their mission anytime soon.