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29 March 2017

In Birmingham after the Westminster attack: “You can’t paint everyone with one brush“

The city where Khalid Masood used to live tries to shake off its "hotbed of radical Islam" label. 

By Felipe Araujo

For young Muslims living in Birmingham, this is a routine that has become all too familiar. A madman claiming to practice the same religion as them commits a heinous crime; during their investigation authorities discover he has spent some time in the UK’s second biggest city. A media circus, albeit temporary, descends upon town. It has happened before. It is happening now.

A day after Khalid Masood drove his car into a crowd at Westminster Bridge, killing four people and injuring dozens of others, I too jumped on a train from London heading to the West Midlands. According to the Met Police, Masood was born in Kent but had most recently been living in Birmingham. 

During my stay in the city no one I spoke to, Muslim or otherwise, had anything remarkable to say about the man. “He used to come in often to get some Red Bull and cashew nuts,” Raviyar Sedighi, whose shop sits under Masood’s former flat, told me. “He was a body builder.” 

Farhad Makanvand, the owner of the flat where Masood used to live, told me he didn’t even know who he was renting his property to. “Everything was done through an agency,” he said. 

Birmingham’s population is 22 percent Muslim. For years the city has fought against the label of “a hotbed of radical Islam,” after a number of religious extremists were found to have lived or spent some time in the area. Still, for Muslims born and bred in Birmingham, the city’s infamous reputation as an epicentre of jihadism doesn’t match the community they know.

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“Nah, that’s absolutely wrong,” says Shazad Ahmed after Friday prayers at Birmingham’s Central Mosque. “I totally disagree with that. You can’t paint everyone with the same brush. I would say 99 percent of the Muslims are totally opposed to that, but then you have that one percent who are out there and they do what they do in the name of Islam and that’s totally wrong.”

Although they spoke openly to journalists in the mosque’s parking lot, they bemoaned a media narrative which continues to perpetuate stereotypes. “No chopping and changing, yeah.” One of them shouted. “I know that’s what you guys like to do.”

Inside, Imam Hafiz Ahmed Ibrahim Patel, flanked by a number of local faith leaders as well as police representatives, was about to give a news conference. The mosque’s personnel already knows the drill. With the unwanted spotlight of terrorism hovering once again over their community, it is essential to allay the fears of the wider public. 

“Birmingham is a very peaceful city, it has a very diverse community,” said Chairman Mohammad Afzal. Sat a couple of chairs away, Bishop David Urquhart read from a statement: “We completely reject any attempt to see an opportunity of blaming a particular widespread community group, or faith, or any other community in this city for the perverted actions of an individual.”

According to a study by the Henry Jackson Society, West Midlands comes second on the list of UK regions with the most Islamism-related offences between 1998 and 2015, at 18 percent. Of these, 80 percent (14 percent overall) were living in Birmingham. 

But for those working on the ground, statistics don’t tell the full story. Jahan Mahmood is a historian and counter-extremism expert who used to work for the government but resigned over its counter-terror strategy. He now works freelance, going around the country giving counter-extremism talks – an initiative, he says, has previously put young men off going to fight in Syria.

“We’ve had a drastic fall in convictions since 2013,” he tells me. “That’s promising, but it doesn’t seem to have been picked up [by authorities]. So I don’t buy this idea that we are some kind of hotbed because I have yet to meet an individual who is at that level of thinking.”

Back at the Birmingham Central Mosque I asked Scotland Yard Commander Mak Chishty, who drove all the way from London to be present at the press conference, about the criteria used for classifying Masood as a terrorist with potential links to radical Islam, as opposed to a violent criminal who set out to commit mass murder. 

“I don’t think it’s an ordinary crime,” he said. “I don’t think it is someone who has just driven across the bridge and randomly said ‘I will just crash into people, kill people, then get out of the car and try maim people.’ But by classifying it as a terrorist attack doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that we are pointing the picture at Muslim communities — that is wrong.”

In spite of the reassurances given, the tension between police and Muslims, specially the younger ones, is palpable. The government’s Prevent program, which, among other things, works in schools to spot and report signs of radicalisation in pupils has been a “significant source of grievance” among British Muslims, encouraging “mistrust to spread and to fester”, according to an independent review of terrorism laws. 

Jahan tells me the relationship between the two sides is in such a state, that if he were seen to be working with the government again his credibility with the local youth would go down the drain.

“I can’t bee seen going around giving these talks too often,” he tells. “People would start asking questions, wondering if I had an agenda and who I was working for.” 

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