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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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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