Birmingham: the questions remain

In Sparkhill, Shiv Malik finds that scepticism and "agendas" surround the alleged plot to kidnap and

"Scorpio", a Pakistani 15-year-old from the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is talking to his friend Ali about recent events. "It's bad," he says. "Now I can't go to people of other nationalities and say, 'I'm Pakistani, I'm the best of nations'." His friend interrupts. "No. But you can't go and join the British army though. Then you'll be fighting on the gora's [white man's] side against Pakistan." The two friends switch to Urdu, arguing over the rights and wrongs of Muslims joining the British army. At the end, Scorpio tells his friend: "Yeah, but who cares if you join?"

It's a good question. Nine arrested suspects are alleged to have cared about Muslims enlisting in the armed forces so much, that they were planning to put a Muslim soldier on "trial", sever his head as punishment and post the video on the internet as a warning to other British Muslims not to forget whose side they were on.

Yet there is doubt and confusion in Sparkhill. According to assistant chief constable David Shaw, from West Midlands police, this is partly the fault of the media: "Members of the community are bewildered by what is being reported," he said at a press conference last Friday. But also, "sources close to Shaw" revealed he felt the inquiry had been "hijacked", and that it was "obvious" there were "various agendas at work here".

On Saturday, around 150 people: elders, men with families, a few teenagers and even fewer women, gathered for a public meeting at the Birmingham Central Mosque, where they would hear well-known radical activists from Birmingham's Muslim community fill in the blanks on what those "various agendas" were.

Local Respect Party councillor Salma Yaqoob claimed that "demonising" Muslims was the government's "weapon of mass distraction" from policies abroad. Whitehall "spin" had now indelibly linked the images of Ken Bigley's murder with Birmingham: this was threatening community cohesion, causing further alienation and making Muslim youths susceptible to radicalisation. But at the same time, Yaqoob reminded those gathered that terrorism and events such as those of 7 July were "not a failure of multiculturalism". As with Northern Ireland, terrorism was a "political issue". Either way, it seemed the government was to blame.

Imran Waheed, lifetime Birmingham resident and lead spokesperson from Britain's largest radical Islamic group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, told the audience that the government was "playing politics with security". Like Yaqoob, Waheed explained that the government's "Machiavellian plotting" had been employed to "distract the people from their foreign policies in Iraq and Afghanistan".

Moazzam Begg, the Guantanamo Bay detainee was the last to speak at the 90-minute meeting. The former owner of the Maktabah al-Ansar bookshop, one of 18 premises to have been raided by the police, told the audience that he was acquainted with one of the alleged suspects. In fact, his friend - whom he wouldn't name - had helped him to draft a statement condemning the kidnapping of Norman Kember in December 2005. He said that he was "convinced" there was no plot, and the actions of the police represented a "fishing trip". When he announced that the sting had been codenamed "Operation Gamble", the audience erupted into laughter; and when he said that metaphorical "heads would roll" once the truth was out, he received an ovation.

The idea that British jihadists would want to behead fellow Muslims appears a particularly shocking new development in homegrown terrorism. But Shiraz Maher, a former recruiter for Hizb ut-Tahrir, who is also a Birmingham resident, explained to me that if the plot is real, then the tactics of kidnapping and beheading should be seen as a sign of the jihadist movement's weakness, rather than its strength. "The Muslim community has traditionally been nonchalant towards extremism or extremist mosques, and the terrorists have always used that to allow them to manoeuvre and operate," said Maher. "Now people are turning their backs on these groups. As a result, they have to target Muslims specifically in order to silence dissent and debate within the community."

A former member of the British jihadi network, who wished not to be named for security reasons, also suggested that the tactic of beheading should be viewed as a sign of weakness, or as he put it, a failure of "creative drive". Over the years, he explained, the British jihadi network was usually made up of people who were more ideological and strategic in their actions. But in the post-7 July environment, where many of those members have been arrested, killed, gone abroad or quit, the network may be having trouble educating high-quality strategists at a fast enough rate. The beheading plot could be a sign that the network is now operating on empty and has been reduced to employing criminals and simple "cold-blooded killers".

Shiraz Maher also said that, by playing politics with the information from the investigation, Whitehall may be doing the work of the terrorists for them. "The point that the alleged plotters may have wanted to make, which was to scare Muslims who are choosing to integrate, has already been made by leaking the details of the plot," he said. "In Muslim communities, that debate about joining the British army and the police is now taking place."

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood