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 French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.