In the shadow of Saddam Hussein’s mosque

So much for the No-go zone for Non-Muslims...

So much for the No-go zone for Non-Muslims...

Birmingham is a hotbed of Islamist extremism where xenophobic propaganda falls on fertile ground. Profil took a look at how immigration plays out in Great Britain’s second largest city before the British elections on May 7th.

Text: Tessa Szyszkowitz
Photos: Alex Schlacher

The Saddam Hussein mosque is a place of great joy. At least it was this last Thursday, when Sonia Akhtar and Ibrahim Mohammed got married in the presence of their respective clans. They are both Sunni Muslim, but the groom is from an Indian family while the bride has a Pakistani background. „Mixed marriages are completely normal here“, smiles Anwar Sheikh, manager of the mosque. Sonia and Ibrahim are 24 years old and have British citizenship.

When the Iraqi dictator was toppled in 2003, the Mosque was officially renamed. But people still call it Saddam Hussein Mosque as he was the original sponsor. The mosque is located in Aston, a district of Birmingham that is famous for its football club Aston Villa. It is also known for its high crime rate.

Birmingham has seen a massive change in population in the past years. In 2001 70% of the population called themselves white. By 2010 the number had shrunk to 57%. In 2020 white people will still be the largest group here, but they will not have an absolute majority anymore. Birmingham is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Britain, making immigration and integration some of the biggest issues of the general elections on May 7th.

After the ceremony Ibrahim gets hugs and kisses from all aunts and cousins from both clans. „I went to the parents and officially asked for Sonia’s hand“, he smiles. Ibrahim works as a security guard. Meanwhile, Sonia clasps her bridal veil which looks in constant danger of slipping off. She is clearly not used to wearing a headscarf. The 24 year old works as a receptionist in a hotel. The couple wears traditional clothes only for special occasions like their wedding.

Mecca is far away. „For our honeymoon we are flying to Mexico“, says Ibrahim. Then the guests put on their shoes at the entrance of the mosque and go to celebrate at the wedding party.

Sharon McIntosh sits at the „Wetherspoon“ pub in Northfield in front of a pint of beer. It glistens gold in the afternoon sun. Sharon comes here frequently. The customers are almost all exclusively white. The 47-year-old woman wears her hair short and carries a small cross around her neck. She works as an IT expert in a children’s hospice, from which she is currently on sick leave. „Because of stress“, she says and takes another sip. Who will she vote for on May 7? „For UKIP“, the United Kingdom Independence Party, a xenophobic anti-EU and anti-immigrants party. Why? „Nigel Farage is the best of all of them“, interrupts drink partner John Lee. The leader of UKIP, he states, is „the new Winston Churchill“. Sharon adds: „We need change.“

Birmingham is Great Britain’s second biggest city. One million „Brummies“ live here. One third is Asian, one tenth African in first or second generation. Only half of the inhabitants are Christians. 20 percent are without religion. 25 percent are Muslim.
As the city’s population starts to change the pub menus are becoming a lot more interesting. Fish & Chips is now accompanied by kebabs and curries. But the multicultural experience also creates strong tension between ethnic and religious communities. „What we see in Birmingham are multiple modern cultures, but very little cross cultural integration”, says Rashad Ali. A former radical Islamist, Ali now works in counter-extremism groups. After working as a teacher in Birmingham for years he recently stopped out of frustration about the non-functioning structures: “People live here socially disintegrated. In terms of authority the municipality is doing a terrible job. Local municipalities are failing not because they are unfriendly, but because they are not particularly concerned about different cultures. We need to start saying that we do not have a multicultural society, but multiple modern cultures.”
If integration fails, problems escalate. 500 young people from Birmingham have gone into the „holy“ war for the Islamic State IS in the Middle East. Last Tuesday it happened again: Metropolitan policed arrested 21-year-old Waheed Ahmed at the airport in Birmingham. His father is a Labour councillor in Rochester.

„Today it is a double whammy for Muslims to educate a child“, says 34-year-old Aisha. Her two small daughters are having an ice cream at the high street in Alum Rock, a former Irish district, which is now mostly populated by Pakistani and Somali immigrants. The corner shop is called „Good Hijab“. The veil is the latest fashion in Alum Rock.
Parkview Academy is a few streets down the road. School inspectorate Ofsted recently delivered a damning indictment over the school: “The academy’s work to raise students’ awareness of the risks of extremism is inadequate.”

Ofsted became active after „Operation Trojan horse“ had been uncovered: According to a letter found by authorities a few individuals had plotted to introduce Islamist ethos in several schools in Birmingham. The conspiracy eventually turned out to be a bad joke. But in some schools there really is evidence of fiery Islamism being taught to students. School authorities and Ofsted often fail to reach the minds of young people in their care. Let alone manage to educate them. Few can hope for higher education or meaningful jobs in Alum Rock.

It is easier for Islamist preachers on the Internet to promise rewards. „Parents are always afraid that their offspring goes astray”, says young mother Aisha. But today this fear is extended to the threat that their children might fall for jihadi extremism and end up fighting in Syria. „We keep our eyes open. What IS does in the name of Islam has nothing to do with our religion.“

Aisha herself is ultra religious. She wears a black Niqab, only her eyes are visible. „I started to wear a face veil as a sacrifice for a better life in paradise“, says the housewife in perfect British English. She does not want to be quoted with full name and also refuses to be photographed. Does she always wear niqab? „Well, last summer on the beach I took it off“, she giggles under her black mask, „after all I wanted to get tanned.“

The image of the city has suffered. But the bad reputation is not always justified. Birmingham is a „totally Muslim city, in which Non-Muslims do not dare to enter“, declared Steve Emerson, a so-called Islam expert on Fox News last fall. A No-go zone for infidels? Emerson was „clearly an idiot“, as stated by British prime minister David Cameron. The author was forced to apologize fully and completely. But the damage was done, and Emerson’s expression stayed on as a bad joke.

„As if we would not have enough problems as it is“, says Richard Burden and rings at the next door. The social democrat on campaign trail has been MP for Northfield in Westminster for two decades. His constituency includes thousands of former MG Rover workers, who produced Minis and Range Rovers before the company closed down ten years ago. Burden has no time to loose. His shiny blue convertible shoots through the streets of Northfield in order to keep frustrated Labour voters from wandering off.

„My husband died last year from cancer“, says one woman, door in her hand. „I have enough of you, I’ll vote for UKIP this time.“ Burden gives her a flyer and goes to the next door. „Since the cars are not produced here anymore, people have to re-orientate themselves“, sighs Burden.

His seat will not fall to UKIP. Thanks to the British first-past-the-post electoral system small parties have a hard time winning seats and getting representation in parliament. The candidate of the Tories, however, is edging closer to Burden. The ruling Conservatives can point to a growing economy and falling unemployment – even if this is mainly attributed to the global economy. The latest opinion polls show Tories and Labour head to head.

Since the Mini stopped rolling off the conveyor belt, good news has stopped coming from Birmingham. 16 percent are unemployed. One third is obese. It was not by accident that private TV-station Channel 4 came here to produce „Benefit Street“, a reality TV show about the real life inhabitants of James-Turner-Street, who live off of benefits. The series was a big success. Main character White Dee aka Deirdre Kelly became a talk show star. Labour almost convinced her to run as candidate for the elections.

But the stars of Benefit Street also suffered from the negative attention the series brought them. Many called them benefit scroungers. Today White Dee is boarded-up in her house and prefers not to give interviews. Only new inhabitants of Benefit Street sit outside in the warm spring sun: „I came two months ago from Romania“, says Maria Florin Didio. The 42-year-old mother of two children left her husband behind to come to work in England for minimal wage as seasonal worker planting potatoes. The masses of immigrants UKIP predicted have so far not arrived at the shores of the British islands. Many think like Maria: „In two months I will return home.“

Some, however, stay.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz