Birmingham: the Workshop of World Terror

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Birmingham is an undisputed hotbed of radicalisation. Are current policies in place fuelling divisions and destroying any hope of integration?

Birmingham, England, a city whose exports during the Industrial Revolution earned it the title of Workshop of the World, would in recent times be more aptly rendered the Workshop of World Terror given the amount of jihadists it has produced–but how did it come to this?

A former refuge of the Enlightenment to which even Benjamin Franklin travelled in order to witness the groundbreaking engineering work of Matthew Boulton and James Watt, my home city of Birmingham is now more commonly associated with the toxic and intolerant Islamism that has been at the root of multiple terrorist attacks both in the UK and abroad. It was from this city that Salih Khater set off two weeks ago to Westminster, London, ultimately driving his car into cyclists outside Parliament, injuring three, and then crashing into a barrier, narrowly missing police officers stationed there. Khater has since been charged with attempted murder, with prosecutors treating the incident as terrorism. If found guilty, Khater will join 39 others from Birmingham who have been convicted of Islamist terror offences between 1998 and 2015–an alumni which includes Britain’s first Al Qaeda bomb maker; a financier of the 9/11 attacks; the man who plotted to blow up transatlantic airliners in 2006; the ringleader of the group which planned to behead a British Muslim soldier in 2008; the 2011 Birmingham rucksack bomb cell; and the two convicted of fighting as part of a terrorist group, Kataib al-Muhajireen, in Syria in 2014.

Photo: AP

Westminster attack, August 2018

These were just some of those jihadists found to be living in Birmingham at the time of their arrest for Islamism-Related Offences as part of a study carried out last year by think tank, the Henry Jackson Society. And if that already sounds like a lot, remember these figures only go up to 2015. In which case one could add to the list the man who plotted to bomb the UK Parliament gates and then behead UK Prime Minister Theresa May; the married couple who were found preparing Islamic State-inspired knife attacks; the person who used Birmingham City Council money to fund the infamous ‘Man in the Hat’ who helped orchestrate, and took part in, the attacks in Paris and Brussels; and Khalid Masood, who last year set off on the same journey from Birmingham to Westminster as Salih Khater in order to “wage jihad”, driving his 4×4 into pedestrians on its bridge, injuring 50 and killing five, before stabbing to death a police officer outside Parliament itself.

What is perhaps most alarming about the study’s figures is that 26 of the 39 arrested came from just five neighbouring council wards in a city which has an estimated population of 1.1 million, of which 234,000 are Muslim. Such a concentration of Islamist related activity should be putting Birmingham under much greater public scrutiny, both domestically and, given the historically borderless nature of the offences, internationally–so why is this not the case?

There are many reasons why the mainstream media, politicians and ‘community groups’ neglect to discuss this issue or skirt around it (any salutary press response will invariably ask why Birmingham is such a hotspot for terrorism in its headline and then never attempt to answer the question in the article), but the main one seems to be an unwillingness to risk causing offence to, or a backlash against, the city’s Muslims. It is of course very tempting to give credence to such a sentiment when one considers the first and only time the topic of Islamism in Birmingham reached international headlines, when in 2015 FoxNews claimed ridiculously that the whole city was Muslim and was one big ‘no-go zone’ to those outside the faith. It is also tempting to do the same when considering the case of right-wing extremist, Pavlo Lapshyn, who in 2013 fatally stabbed Birmingham resident, Mohammed Saleem, intending to start a “race war”. However, while such instances are absurd and tragic in equal measure, it is important to assess objectively how the city and the perceptions of it got to this point in the first place, and what can be done to address the Islamism which negatively affects Muslims as much as anyone else.

It should by now be plain for liberal politicians and media to see that, given the vast over-representation of Islamist activity in the city, discussion of it is going to happen whether they want it to or not. Yet each time they choose to avoid any debate on the subject, it always seems to come as a surprise that the argument is then automatically seized by those whose nefarious agendas they were trying to prevent–which is exactly why Fox News was able to take hold of a story with an element of truth and twist it beyond all reality. This is a trend which can be seen in public discourse not just in the UK but all over the world, and is also a contributing factor to the rise in populist and nationalist attitudes in its politics: Donald Trump may have gone much further than many reasonable people would have liked with his talk of a ‘Muslim Ban’, but would have still gained their support simply by doing what other candidates refused to do, which was to at least discuss the
correlation between Islamism and terrorism.

“It should by now be plain for liberal politicians and media to see that, given the vast over-representation of Islamist activity in the city, discussion of it is going to happen whether they want it to or not. Yet each time they choose to avoid any debate on the subject, it always seems to come as a surprise that the argument is then automatically seized by those whose nefarious agendas they were trying to prevent.”

A closely comparative and therefore revealing example of the effects of debate being shut down in the UK has, in the last few years, come in the form of those large-scale Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) cases in which the majority of the perpetrators were of Muslim background, most often of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent. For years, hundreds if not thousands of British white children were subjected to rape and torture by such men in towns and cities across the country, but victims were consistently let down by authorities who did not wish to appear racist by doing anything about it. With such a state of affairs one would hope that at least the mainstream media would attempt to investigate the trend, but it seemed, as journalist Douglas Murray pointed out, often the problem was getting them to mention anything about it at all either–and any news outlet that did publish a story failed to explore, or declined to consider, any trends regarding the perpetrators’ backgrounds or their motivations. Similarly to when someone shouting Allahu Akbar before suicide bombing a concert hall full of children is described as an aberration who has ‘nothing to do with Islam’, most readers can spot patterns and aren’t stupid, but some are; by not exploring the idea that this person could have been acting on his beliefs, you leave it open to distortion by those who assert that every single Muslim thinks exactly the same as he did. So, anyone who complains that organisations such as PEGIDA (which have marched in Birmingham) are using this and CSE cases to their own political ends has the vacuums created by the likes of the stuttering BBC to thank.

Birmingham, Islamism, terrorism, terror, radicalisation

PEGIDA march through Birmingham. Photo: Lee Harper

As we have established, it is already cowardly to employ the argument that wilful ignorance of such issues is essential to protect minorities or avoid inter-community conflict. It gets worse, however, when one reads Unheard Voices, a report by the Muslim Women’s Network UK, which points out that the majority of victims of CSE in South Asian/Muslim communities are in fact South Asian/Muslim girls–with the reason for their voices going unheard having a lot to do with their background culture of “honour and shame that is so powerful as to mask the reality of lived experiences.” Those who think that honest discussion about this cannot be countenanced for fear of targeting the ‘Muslim community’ should consider the Muslim girls they may be letting down as we speak. Indeed, imagine how such a girl being abused by a man from her neighbourhood would feel in the current atmosphere. She is already likely to believe that to report it would bring shame on herself as well as her family, but if she were to read the mainstream opinion on the subject, or the lack thereof, she could add to that the worry of bringing shame on her entire community, her town, her religion and her race.

Birmingham, Islamism, terrorism, terror, radicalisationThe consequences of censorship on these topics are sprawling and operate in the passive as well as the active. Consider this from Andrew Norfolk who investigated the large-scale CSE cases in numerous towns for The Times (UK) newspaper: “A victim from Rotherham, she hadn’t really recognised what had happened to her until she read a story we did… They didn’t necessarily see themselves as victims…” Not only is this another damning indictment on any suppression of coverage around CSE, it also nudges a question into view: How hard is it to see the same mindset affecting someone being radicalised? Now add the notion that any friends or family worried about this person (or the hate-preacher in their mosque) would be subject to the same culture of honour and shame that stops CSE victims and witnesses coming forward, and you have the recipe for the same outcome.

Little does Birmingham City Council know (that’s the largest local authority in Europe, by the way) that it is partly to blame for entrenching such mindsets. As Kenan Malik points out in his book From Fatwa to Jihad, Birmingham has for decades seen to it that nearly all its political and financial resources are allocated based on religion and ethnicity, thereby creating and reinforcing divisive labels, while simultaneously destroying any hope of integration. As he says: “It is difficult to get the council’s attention by insisting your area is poor or disadvantaged. But if you were to say that the Muslim community is deprived or lacking, then the council coffers suddenly open up.” In other words it pays to stick together at all costs and be spoken for by the most easily identifiable representatives of your arbitrary category–invariably in this case so-called ‘religious leaders’.

“Birmingham has for decades seen to it that nearly all its political and financial resources are allocated based on religion and ethnicity, thereby creating and reinforcing divisive labels, while simultaneously destroying any hope of integration.”

It is this same in-group, out-group mentality that paved the way for the ‘Trojan Horse Scandal’, in which teachers were found to be espousing an Islamist ethos in non-faith state schools in the city, going so far as to gender-separate their pupils. And even once the story was broken, there were still many city leaders and national journalists who preferred to question the authenticity of the anonymous letter which first brought it to attention, as opposed to the veracity or implications of its claims. Not only does this show how extremist views can go unchallenged in such closed-off communities and how they can proliferate (even being actively taught to the next generation), but also how those with the responsibility to protect us all against them are the first to acquiesce as a result of their professed sensitivities.

The official recognition of the credibility of this type of identity politics is the same as what’s closing down debate at universities across the world, ironically achieving precisely the opposite of its aim, hardening dividing lines and, yes, creating ‘no-go zones’–just ask the likes of Ben Shapiro, Richard Dawkins, Germaine Greer and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was effectively banned from Australia. Identity politics is now at the core of nearly every organisation, both private and public. It is even at the heart of the British legal system, demonstrated by the Ministry of Justice’s Project RACE initiative, in which all its employees are invited to join sessions to ‘discuss the Black and Minority Ethnic experience’; one of which, however, must be a so-called ‘safe space’ for BME people exclusively, meaning, that’s right, de facto racial segregation is being practised at the centre of the UK justice system in 2018 in a project designed specifically to break down racial barriers by having people discuss them, no less.

Perhaps more telling about Birmingham, specifically, is that its council is the only one of its kind (that I have found) which actually has an official ‘No Platform Policy’; one which aims to prohibit “The use of Council facilities by groups holding extreme religious, ideological or political views [which]may pose a threat to confidence as extremist groups may seek to create or exploit grievances and community tensions to the detriment of the whole community.” The most significant implications of this to my mind are twofold: 1) Groups or individuals with legitimate purposes and topics of debate can be arbitrarily refused access to council-run venues, thereby denying their right to freedom of speech, and 2) Religious extremists have been consistently attempting to espouse their ideals or incite hatred or violence at public venues in Birmingham, and so the need for this policy has arisen to contain it.

As a result, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the council in order to find out whom if anyone had been subject to the policy and where it had occurred. However, the council responded in the negative, citing two bits of legislation about protecting personal information (of groups with public intent), and thus ‘neither confirmed nor denied’ that this information even existed, let alone whom it concerned. According to the council, also, the health and safety of such groups or individuals “outweighed the public interest”. Following this response I asked for a review, arguing strongly that this information is by definition in the utmost public interest, it being to do with public facilities and public safety, as well as freedom of speech–but had that rebuffed too. I will leave it to the reader to make up their mind about what this says for the state of open discussion in the city. And even if one were to ignore the totalitarian potential of this measure and assume it had righteous intentions, it will do nothing to address the real cause of extremism in the city, rooted as it is in the atomised structure of its society.

In which case it is now time for those in this city who claim to speak for entire groups of people based solely on their ethnicity or faith to stop or step aside, along with anyone who thinks it is in such people’s best interests to be lumped together while having all their internal problems ignored. If its elected leaders and the media continue to define its individual citizens by identity groups, thereby creating a cycle in which these people can only see themselves as such, Birmingham will continue the production line of extremism which has already destroyed so many lives across the world, including those of Muslims.

It is vital, then, that from council to college campus, the ranks of the obsequious should be made to feel the discomfort of the world’s gaze as it turns to study, just as it did in the Eighteenth Century, not only the microcosmic example of Birmingham’s manufacturing techniques but also its exports, among the principal of which today is terrorism. This is a city with a proud history and great potential, but it is long overdue another industrial revolution, along with a great deal more enlightenment.

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