Wide Angle

The Trojan Horse Affair’s Hamza Syed Has Some Regrets

The hit podcast has divided fans and critics. Its breakout star understands why—and it’s about more than that ending.

Hamza Syed.
Hamza Syed. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by NYT and Serial.

For a podcast that asks a lot of questions, The Trojan Horse Affair offers few concrete answers—or at least not the ones many listeners expected to hear. And co-host Hamza Syed still isn’t sure how he feels about it.

The new podcast series from Serial and the New York Times is hosted by veteran audio reporter Brian Reed and Syed, a freshly minted journalist whose vision for justice and investigative journalism hasn’t quite been tainted yet in this, his first real journalistic endeavor. The Trojan Horse in the title refers to a conspiracy sparked by an anonymous letter that went public in 2014. It seemingly lacked a first and last page, obscuring who it was from and who it was intended for, but contained explosive details about a secret Muslim plot to infiltrate schools in Birmingham, England, allegedly turning impressionable youngsters into a sleeper cell. Though the letter reads clearly like racist fanfiction, it spurred a period of madness in 2014 England, as journalists and politicians treated it as legitimate, scaremongering about the jihadis next door and deploying Prevent, a counterterrorism measure that deputized citizens to alert police to suspicious activity.

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The show’s hosts breathe new life into this story by simply asking the question that so many before them failed to interrogate, at least in public: Who wrote the damn letter? At the same time, The Trojan Horse Affair ultimately tells us more about the two hosts than this central mystery, as they chase leads and question each other, leading up to a final episode in Perth, Australia, that sharply divided fans (OK, many of them just hate it).

Syed is still taking it all in after working on this and finishing his master’s in journalism in one whirlwind. Like many listeners, and as a Muslim reporter myself, I puzzled over many decisions on this show and Syed’s part in it in particular, and I decided to call him to talk it out. We spoke for over an hour about how the series became what it is, the many controversies it’s sparked, the evolution of his conflict with co-host Brian Reed, and what he thinks of how the show ended. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Aymann Ismail: How have you weathered the reaction to the podcast so far?

Hamza Syed: It’s weird. I’m still so new to it that now I’m experiencing for the first time putting a story out and having the world interact with it. I was telling Brian the other day, “I’m waiting for the opportunity to step away from this long enough to internalize what’s happening”—come to terms with the story, the reporting process, having the story out there. It’s too soon for me to even say how I feel. I honestly am just still living it. I’m still in the eye of it.

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How did the decision to make you a character get made?

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Very late in the day. I think Brian always approached this investigation of the mind that he is a reporter, but he’s also a part of the story. Me, I wasn’t that self-aware. I knew that we were recording always, and I knew that I was saying things that may or may not be used on the podcast, but it wasn’t something I was fully internalizing—that I’ll be occupying this weird space in the story—until we came to write it, and even then, I reluctantly came to accept it because when we were structuring the story, there wasn’t a plan at the beginning for it to be a piece that had all these moments between Brian and I as part of the podcast.

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In Episode 3, at the moment when I speak to a former council leader, Sir Albert Bore, and we come out of the council house, and my head was still spinning and we were just speaking about the experience of what just happened in that interview. So we had a bunch of tape from that, and that was the tape that the editors really wanted to put in the series. And I think that’s when I started to realize, “Oh, I’m becoming a character in the show.” And I was deeply, deeply uncomfortable with it for a while. I was like, “No, no, no. Let’s take it out. Let’s take it out. We don’t need this. Let’s focus on the story.” And I was kind of reluctantly doing it, building the episodes with more and more of these scenes, but I wasn’t totally convinced by it up until I think when we got to Episodes 5 and 6, when I thought there was value to having that kind of profile as part of the story, and I agreed to impale myself for the experience of the story. You know what I mean?

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What’s the value, exactly, of impaling yourself for the story?

This story is an interrogation of what happened in 2014 but also an interrogation of journalism and the way it played a part in it back then and now. And because most of that, insight was happening in conversations between Brian and I—I just thought it was quite honestly fairer to include all of that in the podcast and have that be a conversation point. I knew what that would mean. I knew that as a reporter to kind of center yourself in that way, it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. So I wasn’t enthusiastically doing it. I was reluctantly doing it. But I thought it was important for people to hear reporters interrogating their own approach to stories, while they’re telling the story in a way, to learn about what must be happening in 2014 with other journalists who might have done the same thing.

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Did you expect tension between your identity and your subject matter when you first set out to become an investigative journalist?

I did not quite fathom what it would mean for someone from my background to be working on a story about Muslims. But it didn’t take long. That Albert Bore interview happened the first week of reporting. We’re talking days into my quote-unquote “professional career” where I was immediately recognizing that I’m going to struggle if I try to be some kind of distant observer reporter. I thought it was ridiculous to pretend that I wasn’t Muslim. You know what I mean? That’s who I am. That’s why I’m interested in this story. And for me to convince otherwise by just not speaking to it, I didn’t think that was fair or real. The front-loading of concern of objectivity is the reason we’re all placed in this situation, where we’re basically having to mitigate for ourselves or make excuses for our presence all the time. When in reality, it shouldn’t matter what my intention is if I’m just chasing facts and evidence. You can see me walk into the room and you can make an assessment about me, you’re going to do that anyway whether I speak to it or not. So why don’t we just make that part of the thing? Yes, you are answering questions from a Muslim reporter about a Muslim story. But you’re still answering questions and you’re still having to speak to evidence and facts. And I hope by the end of it, we haven’t had an interview that you feel was unfair or biased because of who I am.

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I get how being Muslim and reporting on Islamophobia can feel inherently conflicting. Did you intend this show to explore Islamophobia?

I know people don’t care about Islamophobia. People don’t care. It’s very hard to make systemic Islamophobia the theme of the story, because immediately people will go either “I’m not interested because I have a feeling about Muslims anyway” or, secondly, “It’s coming from a Muslim reporter, so I already know what this story is going to be and what this person is likely to say to that.” So for me, it’s that we are looking into this fake letter that ended up changing our laws in Britain. That’s what I’m investigating. And if part of that investigation includes evidence that reveals a way of thinking about Muslims, then you are learning about Islamophobia. I just want to explain what happened in Birmingham in 2014. And hopefully through that process, they learn something about Islamophobia as well.

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What was it like to work with Brian Reed on this project? Did you feel the need to steer things in a certain direction? Was there conflict beyond what we hear?

There was certainly conflict. What I will say about Brian is that it speaks volumes of his character that I broke into his dressing room—essentially, ambushed him—and rattled through this very conspiratorial pitch about what likely happened in my city in 2014, and then for him to give it some credence and read about the letter himself and decide to engage in this investigation, that is a testimony to who he is as a person. Now once he turned up, I did realize that the biggest difference between he and I is where we were looking to take this story. I was always interested in taking the story to a finite, definitive point. I wanted the evidence, I wanted a confession, and I wasn’t willing to stop short of that. And Brian was looking to primarily tell a story and gather as much as he could to be able to tell that story. He explains on the podcast that his interest was in just telling a story. And I think that was the consistent tension between us. In each interview, or each piece of evidence that we managed to find, I was looking to try to make more of that than he was immediately interested in. And that’s kind of where we were pulling at each other, and I think, at a certain point, he understood where this was all coming from and why I felt we had to take it that far.

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There’s a lot of buildup in the last episode. You make this trip to Perth, and then it just ends with you and Brian in the car with nothing. How do you feel about that trip in hindsight?

I feel about that trip as I did at that time. I was deeply, deeply disappointed by what happened. I felt a sense of failure. I felt that it genuinely was our last chance because by that point there weren’t many other people left for us to speak to or try to get some evidence from, and Mark Walters was our last shot at it. So, I went into that trip fully expecting if we don’t speak to this person, we’re going to leave this series as open-ended, where we detail a convincing theory of where the letter came from, but nothing beyond that. And when that moment happened, when we were in Perth, I remember being in the car and just realizing that this is it. We have failed, essentially, as reporters. In Perth, I felt like a failure—I still feel a failure, I’m still very disappointed with where we took this podcast. But that’s OK.

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Why not just release the podcast one episode at a time? There might have been an opportunity for somebody to come forward, maybe introduce new evidence? Who made the decision to release it as one finished thing if it didn’t feel finished to you?

We had a conversation about that very early on. It was always the plan—the reason being Serial had released episodes one week at a time. And although that does create the opportunity for information to shake loose, what it also means is that the way you write the series has to pay attention to the fact that you might leave an allegation hanging over someone for a week before you release the next episode or develop the story further. You create a circus. And these are real people who have been waiting a long time to hear this story, and we wanted to write it in a certain kind of way where we can’t have, for example, the cliffhangers that we have at the end of each episode. So, because we didn’t want to put people through reporters chasing them around for a week before we release the next episode where we clarified something or we learn something else and we move on to a different character, different person, we felt compelled to release it as a complete story and we can speak to it almost like a book. You would try to read the whole thing before you get an impression of what the character is likely responsible for.

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I love this one moment where Brian confronts you about a letter you wrote—you played the Muslim card in trying to get sources to speak to you. But knowing how it was used as a proxy for Brian to think about his role as a journalist, have your feelings about writing that letter changed?

No. In the moment when Brian first called me, I was convinced that the investigation was dead, so I was full of shame. I was taking in what I had done. I thought it was over. Not just in terms of the story, but also in terms of me going forward as a journalist. This was three days before I was about to graduate with my master’s. I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to take it from there. However, when we decided to continue with the investigation beyond that, I immediately felt relief and felt liberated. I was still continuing this dance internally with myself about who I was: a Muslim reporter who didn’t want to be labeled as such, checking myself in rooms with interviewers, realizing that now I’m speaking more personally rather than professionally, and I was constantly distracted in interviews because of that. When that letter came out, I felt that there was nothing for me to hide anymore. Everybody knew who I was, everybody knew my motivations, everybody knew how I felt about the story, and I just—I genuinely felt much more relaxed afterward. And so I don’t regret it. I’m glad it happened. I didn’t realize obviously in the moment what impact it would have on Brian or even the story when we published it, but at least personally that there was no confusion about what it was anymore.

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What do you make of Brian making his journey part of this story too?

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For me, that was deeply important, because I didn’t want to feel as if here is someone who is doing journalism proper, and here is this kind of student amateur making constant mistakes, with Brian Reed needing to sweep up behind him. I knew there was something happening with Brian because as the investigation was going on, I knew he was internalizing what the story fully meant for Muslim existence. And because I was so unsure of myself, because this is my first story, it was so reassuring to have Brian Reed, a seasoned reporter with more than 10 years of experience in this field, recognizing what I was saying and seeing some value in it. And that, for me, gave me more confidence. And that’s why I wanted his journey to be part of the story as well, because I feel like he also represents something in journalism, and for him to shift probably matters more to people than me.

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Was there any particular reason why you chose to keep in that moment of you pulling over on the side of the road to pray?

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There was a fact checker on our team who said when he heard that scene, it brought a context that has largely been missing from what it actually means to be Muslim. You’re otherwise a regular Joe, you just go and pray on occasions. For him, it gave a sense of reality for just what we’re actually talking about. As Muslims, we get talked about as this kind of entity where we’re entirely consumed by our religion. And it somehow pulls us away from life and it leads to this kind of exiled community that can’t quite integrate, when the reality is that it is just an adjunct to our life. We do the same thing as everyone else, we just go pray now and again. You know what I mean? I thought that scene also brought some context into this whole thing about there being calls to prayer at the school, and kids praying and that. It all gets talked about as this kind of weird distraction from life as if once they have done that, they’re now occupied in this mental state that we can’t necessarily understand or whatever, when the reality is they just step away and pray and then come back and just carry on with their class. It’s as simple as that.

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So it does sound like you were just as disappointed in how the podcast ended as much as some of the audience was. How did you decide that the road ended in Perth?

We were writing the final episode up to the latter end of last year. We were still coming to terms with it. To be honest, I still held out hope that we would be able to add one final scene to it, because we’re about to send off right of replies, a final opportunity for people to speak just before we broadcast in January. We had disappeared for a couple of years because of COVID, and we were writing, I thought maybe when we pop up again and just make clear that the story is coming out, someone might speak and we might be able to say something more definitive at the end of the series. When that didn’t happen, it was the Monday before we were set to publish that I fully accepted that we had failed and that is the end of the story.

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Sonia Sodha in the Guardian wrote some harsh words about the show. She called the podcast “a one-sided account that minimizes child protection concerns, misogyny, and homophobia in order to exonerate the podcast hero, a man called Tahir Alam,” referring to accusations about emails at the school at the time. What do you make of that criticism?

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I’m not sure. Sonia reached out to us before she published that piece with a right of reply. She made it clear she was going to write a piece like this, and we shared with her comprehensive, exhaustive evidence and information back to review every point that she planned to publish, and she went ahead and published it anyway. And so I don’t know what to make of it. There is a part of me that feels confused about whether this is a sincere criticism. There is part of me that’s aware that some of the stuff that she was saying to us in emails was almost verbatim, word by word, and actually sometimes a copy-and-paste job from emails we had already received from disgruntled sources, people who don’t necessarily come up looking decent or well in the podcast. We were aware that there was an element of coordination involved in that, so I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t think any piece of journalism is above criticism, and ours likewise. I’m all for understanding where we fell short. If she feels we could have gone further, that’s fair. But what I don’t think is fair is not recognizing that the podcast is trying to make the point that all those issues, as important as they are, require good-faith engagement. And where we feel things got confused and went out of control in 2014 is this piece of misinformation, which is at the heart of the story, this fake letter that was overlaid on top of everything, which made these issues—for example, homophobic texts or claims of misogyny at the school—which had them all folded into this kind of narrative of counter-extremism.

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You mentioned that you got letters from some of your sources complaining. Was one of them Sue, who was quoted as describing your seven-hour interview with her as “torture”?

I’m not going to say exactly who has been writing the stuff like this. People who you would imagine would have an issue with the podcast have been in touch. That point has been made about how uncomfortable that interview was, to which I will always reply that it’s not necessarily for me to explain why someone we were interviewing felt uncomfortable with us. It’s for British reporters to explain why they felt at ease with them before. Our job as reporters is not to turn up and listen disinterested and take in what everyone is telling us and put that out there. Our job is to interrogate it. Our job is to go find some evidence and figure out the truth, which is what we tried to do in that interview.

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It seems clear to me, as a Muslim, that a lot of the policy fallout of the Trojan Horse letter was rushed through because of cowardice and Islamophobia. Do you think the fact that the press didn’t dig deeper in trying to discover the author of the letter is a consequence of that same Islamophobia?

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I would have to imagine so. At the beginning, a part of me wanted to take the most generous interpretation of what happened in 2014, and assume that people were caught up in this hysteria, reporters likewise, especially daily news reporters who have to turn things around very quickly. But the reality is when you just read the letter that started it all, it’s so clear where it likely came from and why it was likely written. With each passing week and month, I was beginning to understand that it wasn’t a mistake or naïveté or even confusion that made people look away from this. I have to think that they didn’t want to look at it. They weren’t curious about it. The second these headlines first came out, I think it spoke to something that people already believed and understood. It spoke to assumptions that people already carried about us, this idea of Muslims being some kind of dangerous infiltrating force, this idea that they could have done something like this. I’m not even just talking about reporters. This speaks to a lot of people in Britain, including possibly some Muslims.

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So what’s next? Give me the scoop, “brother to brother”? Sorry.

Brother to brother. I will never use that phrase again. I didn’t hide anything in the podcast in terms of where I am at. I don’t know what’s next for me. I do know that I want to continue telling stories, but I don’t know what I’ll call myself as I do that work, and I don’t know where I’ll be publishing them. That’s for me to figure out. I’m just taking some time away to internalize what’s happened and make sense of it.

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