Felipe Araujo
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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. 

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.

“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.” 

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

PHOTO: JEFF OVERS/ BBC NEWS & CURRENT AFFAIRS
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Thatcher’s long shadow: has the “miserablist” left exaggerated her legacy?

A new book argues that Britain is far from the “neoliberal nightmare” decried by Corbynites.

In the archives of Newsweek magazine is a 2,000-word article credited to Margaret Thatcher, published in April 1992, and headlined “Don’t undo my work”. It is an amazing thing: a vulgar rendering of the basic argument of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, mixed with the pain of a once-powerful politician who now had precious little to do with her time, and outrage at the European Union’s Treaty of Maastricht. “I set out to destroy socialism because I felt it was at odds with the character of the people,” she wrote. “We were the first country in the world to roll back the frontiers of socialism, then roll forward the frontiers of freedom. We reclaimed our heritage.” In its final flourish, she refers to herself in the third person: “Thatcherism will live. It will live long after Thatcher has died, because we had the courage to restore the great principles and put them into practice, in keeping with the character of the people and the place of this country in the world.”

Up – or down – in the hereafter, what must she make of the strange point reached by the country she once ruled? Britain’s exit from the EU is an essentially Thatcherite project, which may yet result in the kind of laissez-faire dystopia she and her followers always wanted. But at the same time, we have seen something they thought they had ruled out for ever: the revival of an unapologetically socialist Labour Party, which is seemingly backed by a convincing majority of people under 40, and is possibly on the verge of taking power. Meanwhile, no end of wider developments – from the crises of such outsourcing giants as Carillion and Capita to mounting public unease about corporate tax avoidance – suggest that a sea-change is coming. Perhaps, in the midst of Brexit’s mess, we might be starting to wake up from what some people see as the 40-year nightmare of neoliberalism.

But what if Britain was never that neo-liberal, and there was not much of a nightmare in the first place? This is the argument attempted by Andrew Hindmoor, a professor of politics at Sheffield University. He wants to discredit an oft-told story: that “Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 marked the start of a still-continuing fall from political grace”, manifested in “dizzying levels of inequality, social decay [and]  rampant individualism”, and the surrender to free-market ideology of the Blair-Brown governments.

His contention is that “neoliberalism has had a surprisingly limited impact on our collective understandings of the world around us” – and that the realities of inequality, privatisation, and the shrinking of the state have not turned out to be as awful as some people think. He wants to nudge Corbynite readers away from the idea that the New Labour era represented a long period of political drought. Britain, in his reading, has obvious problems but is hardly the scene of a disaster – and the people he maligns as left-wing “miserablists” ought to recognise it.

At a time when polarised argument on social media has obscured the fact that politics is usually cast in shades of grey, his nuanced case ought to be welcome. Indeed, as a trigger for thinking deeply about what has happened in and to this country – particularly since the mid-1990s – the book just about does its job. Part of its argument is based on a familiar script, and a list of (mostly) undeniable New Labour achievements: “significant public expenditure increases, the introduction of tax credits, a minimum wage, devolution, and freedom of information”.

Hindmoor also eloquently sets out evidence that public opinion, in so far as it is measured by pollsters and academic researchers, is now more socially liberal than it has ever been, and also full of the kind of left-of-centre thinking (redistribution of wealth, nationalised utilities) that Thatcher thought she had expunged. From time to time, all this skirts close to the blindingly obvious, but it’s at least built on solid facts about the country’s recent history. Hindmoor’s problem comes when he pushes his arguments into much more contentious areas, and everything threatens to unravel.

Whether his points are always sincere or sometimes part of an academic thought experiment is unclear. Among his other arguments, he underplays the severity of post-2010 austerity by citing both slight increases in real terms in overall public spending, and the Conservatives’ failure to convincingly cut the deficit. But neither detracts from millions of people’s experience of cuts, whether through the NHS crisis or the savaging of services provided by local councils – something he half-acknowledges before dropping a real clanger. “The costs of austerity have not been loaded on to the poorest and most vulnerable,” he writes, which is most of the way to being absurd.

Elsewhere, Hindmoor claims that in education policy, “academisation [sic] is not a form of privatisation”, on the basis that schools run by independent trusts are funded by government and subject to Ofsted inspections. He apparently refuses to entertain the idea that if schools are snatched away from elected local authorities and put in the unaccountable hands of often questionable organisations (some of which are now in grave financial difficulties), something significant has happened. In an equally flimsy treatment of the health service, he says that there should be an argument “whether the contracting out of NHS services to private companies is… tantamount to privatisation”, which is some logical somersault to attempt. And he has almost nothing to say about what has happened to the benefits system, in which a once collectivist, benign set of institutions and arrangements has been replaced by a machine that represents individualism – or, if you prefer, neoliberalism – at its nastiest.

A section about inequality is stuffed with graphs and desiccated numbers that ought to strengthen his case, but end up adding to its weakness. “The UK is a country in which a significant redistribution of income still occurs,” Hindmoor says, which is true, but still leaves open the question of whether “significant” equates to “enough”. His evidence for an upbeat verdict largely rests on a rather laboured concept – also used by the Office for National Statistics – which includes basic public services in its definition of “final income”. The problem there is that you end up trying to make a positive case for the state of the country based on the continuing availability of free roads, schools and hospitals, which strikes me as an argument built on somewhat lowly aspirations.

His reliance on macroeconomic statistics, moreover, cuts him adrift from reality. Inequality is not just about numbers but people’s sense of opportunity, having a stake in the future and connection to the rest of the country. In the end, even Hindmoor does not seem convinced. “Inequality did rise significantly in the 1980s,” he writes. “Wealth inequality is growing. Social mobility is poor.” The abiding impression is of someone needlessly tying themselves in knots.

Does believing that Britain has been repeatedly pushed in the wrong direction over the last three decades make you a “miserablist”? Not at all. Like many others I think Thatcherism wrought damage that has never been healed, and that New Labour swallowed far too much of its legacy and set precedents for subsequent Conservative politicians. The invasion of Iraq was probably the single biggest policy disaster in post-war history, and compared to the hallowed Labour government of 1945-51, the Blair administrations’ institutional legacy – beyond Sure Start centres, which are now being closed at speed – was pitiful. At the same time, I well know that Blair and his colleagues improved the country in lots of ways, and it would perhaps be nice to go back to the halcyon period of 1997-2003. But that is now impossible, thanks to a range of watershed developments that point to the need for something very different.

Hindmoor’s text only briefly touches on them, but in case anyone hasn’t noticed: wages have been stagnating for more than a decade, near-zero interest rates have not triggered any surge in investment, unsecured private debt is at its highest level since the 2008 crash, and the idea that profit-making corporations are the answer to the modernisation of the state looks increasingly threadbare. Put another way, an era that began in the early 1980s may well be in its death throes, a realisation etched on to the upbeat faces of the people who now crowd into Jeremy Corbyn rallies, and rarely look like “miserablists”.

For many reasons, their politics is not really my thing, but I can see why their movement fits its time, in a way that this book’s glossing-over of deep political and economic failures does not. Its author should maybe bear in mind the closing lines of Thatcher’s Newsweek piece: “You always have people who take the soft option. The apparently easy way out is the way that gets you into deepest trouble. The lesson is, you don’t soften fundamental principles. You positively push them forward into the future.” 

John Harris writes for the Guardian

What’s Left Now? The History and Future of Social Democracy
Andrew Hindmoor
Oxford University Press, 285pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist