It’s been a month since Khalid Masood drove his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge – injuring around 50 people and killing four – before going on to crash it into the perimeter fence of the Houses of Parliament where he stabbed to death a police officer before being shot and killed.
As soon as Masood’s identity was made public, the media homed in on how he was from Birmingham. Following a raid on his flat on the outskirts of Birmingham city centre, camera crews and journalists from the world descended on the Hagley Road address at which time I like many of my peers were called on to give interviews, most asking us to explain that which we didn’t yet know.
My remit included speaking to news outlets from Belgium, France, Switzerland and the US as also the UK. Almost all of the interviews focused on why Birmingham was a ‘capital of jihadism’, the ‘new Londonistan’, and as one a Belgian journalist put it, the new Molenbeek (the Brussels suburb where police raided a number of houses in March 2016 in connection to the Paris terror attacks four months earlier). The same was true of others too.
Among the British news media a similar line of enquiry emerged. Take for instance the Financial Times and a quote describing Birmingham as a ‘hotbed’ for Islamist activity or the Independent when it referred to the city as a ‘breeding ground for British-born terror’. It was the Daily Mail that surpassed itself and indeed all other reports. Under the rhetorical headline, ‘So how DID Birmingham become the jihadi capital of Britain?’ the piece focused on where Masood lived and hired the car used to commit the atrocities. As the Mail put it, both were “in Birmingham. Birmingham. Birmingham. Birmingham. It’s always Birmingham”. For the Mail, the blame for Masood’s actions was undoubtedly Birmingham.
The Mail sought to substantiate its claim by drawing on a recent report by the right-wing Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank the Charity Commission recently considered taking regulatory action against in response to allegations it received money to wage a propaganda campaign. In doing so, it noted that within a few miles of Masood’s flat, 26 of the country’s 269 ‘jihadis’ had been ‘produced’ in Sparkbrook. Despite noting that Masood’s flat was in Edgbaston, the Mail was never going to let a ‘few miles’ spoil a good story. As such it went on to deride Sparkbrook as if Masood lived there, describing it as a ‘segregated’ ghetto ‘where few British-origin households remain’. It added that Sparkbrook was shaped by the failures of multiculturalism, of “mass, uncontrolled immigration” and that ‘a significant section’ of its residents did not speak English. In adding that Sparkbrook was also home to 22 mosques the underlying message was loud and clear.
But as noted previously, it wasn’t just Sparkbrook that was to blame; the problem was Birmingham. Pulling together a number of disparate and unconnected issues and incidents, the Mail cited the now defunct Project Champion and Operation Trojan Horse more recently as evidence of why Birmingham was “becoming synonymous with extremism”.
For those that are unaware, Project Champion began in 2008 when 200+ ANPR and CCTV cameras were installed around two areas of the city with high density Muslim populations. Noting how local residents in both of the affected areas had been misled about the purpose of the cameras, an independent review by Thames Valley Police resulted in the cameras being dismantled a few years later. Despite this, the Mail claimed that the cameras were “justified”.
Operation Trojan Horse began in 2014 with a report in the Sunday Telegraph alleging a ‘plot’ to take-over a number of state schools in Birmingham by Islamist-inspired extremists. While the letter was understood to be a hoax, subsequent investigations by Birmingham City Council, Ofsted, West Midlands Police and the Department of Education all failed to uncover any evidence of any take-over. The investigations did identify some governance issues in a handful of schools however.
Despite authoritatively citing both as ‘evidence’ of the problem of Muslims in Birmingham, the truth of the matter is that the Mail’s claims were extremely weak. The only positive is that it chose not to cite the utterly farcical claims made by so-called ‘expert’ Steven Emerson on Fox News in 2015 that Birmingham was ‘totally Muslim where non-Muslims simply don’t go in’.
With a month having elapsed, the claims made about Birmingham following the Westminster attacks seem even more lurid.
As regards Masood, the Telegraph suggests that he had in fact lived in Birmingham for little more than a year before the attacks. It is worth stressing that despite him having lived for longer in various locations in Kent, Luton and Saudi Arabia none of these came under as much scrutiny as Birmingham did. Likewise, we also now know that Masood had a history of violent knife crime resulting in him having served two prison sentences. It is claimed that during one of these stints, Masood – who was born Adrian Elms and had a series of different identities over his 52 years – converted to Islam.
Despite the Mail’s allegations of Masood having ‘contacts’ in Birmingham, Neil Basu – Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Senior National Coordinator for UK Counter-Terrorism Policing – said Masood acted alone. Noting that the exact motivation for the attacks may never be known, Banu added that while Masood had an interest in Islamist-inspired extremism, there was no evidence of links with Islamic State or al-Qaeda be that in Birmingham, the UK or indeed elsewhere. Consequently, all twelve of those arrested in Birmingham in the immediate aftermath of the attacks have now been released without charge.
As regards Masood’s engagement and interaction with Muslims in Birmingham more widely, there is no evidence he had any firm or established links with any specific community, group or mosque. Despite the Mail’s inference otherwise, this included any Muslims in Sparkbrook. Without doubt, no evidence exists to suggest that any Muslim in Birmingham were either complicit in the atrocities he committed or had any knowledge of what he had planned.
Contrary to how Muslims in the city had been portrayed, a number gathered in the city centre on the 25 March under the banner of ‘Not in Our Name’. Weeks later, Birmingham’s Muslims were opening the doors of the Central Mosque to all; hosting a ‘Best of British Tea Party’ in defiance of the English Defence League’s shameless and opportunistic attempt to stoke tensions in the city when it relocated its planned rally to Birmingham from elsewhere in the Midlands.
Of course, it is true that there is an extremely small number of Muslims in Birmingham that – like Masood – are attracted to extremist messages. But so too are there non-Muslims in the city who are also attracted extremist ideologies albeit those which aren’t Islamist-inspired. This is not to detract from the fact that over the past decade or so there has been a number of high-profile terrorism-related arrests and convictions in the city. Likewise also, it might be expected that Birmingham has a higher number of arrests and conviction given that it has the largest Muslim population outside of the capital. While such arrests and convictions are unwanted, the same must not be allowed to negate the excellent counter-extremism initiatives that are ongoing in the city. Involving West Midlands Police, Birmingham City Council, the city’s Prevent leads and the many Muslim organisations, groups and individuals working within communities at the grassroots and street levels, much of this goes unnoticed. As one Birmingham Muslim undertaking this type of work recently said to me, trying to find those who present a threat to us is like “trying to find a needle in a haystack”. That’s how rare and covert these individuals are.
For too long now, the ordinary and everyday lives of Muslims in the city are routinely and repeatedly perceived by those looking in as something far more extraordinary, insidious and dangerous. In this way, the everyday has had the very real potential to be misconstrued as evidence of another as yet undiscovered conspiracy, of being ‘proof’ that Muslims are an ‘enemy within’, or indeed any other Islamophobic construct that some are eager to conjure in the public’s imagination. Given the occurrence of such, many Muslims in Birmingham will again be feeling anxious and fraught.
While some will insist there’s no smoke without fire given the coverage and perception of Birmingham, my experience is that most in the city are open and honest about the problems and challenges we face together. However, those same problems and challenges bear little resemblance to the picture painted in the wake of events in Westminster a month ago. It is highly unlikely that this will be the last time the city will be misrepresented and so it’s imperative we remain united in the face everything that is thrown our way.