We Visited One of Britain’s Most Muslim Areas to See If It’s Really an Islamist Ghetto
Dame Louise Casey's review this week suggested ethnic or religious groups have become increasingly divided from the general population – so we went to Birmingham to speak to some of the people her report is about.
"Community cohesion does not feel universally strong across the country," writes Dame Louise Casey. To tabloid headline writers, her "2016 Integration Review" proved Britain is a balkanised dystopia of ethnic enclaves, kept from Jihadist apocalypse by a thin veneer of patriotism and Marmite.
The Review purports to address all potential causes of injustice in modern Britain – "even your gender". In truth, it is a broadside at Islam, "putting communities... of Muslims of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage... under the spotlight".
At one point, Dame Casey lists the ten communities most swamped by "a minority faith or ethnic community". I visited Birmingham's Washwood Heath – number four in the chart, at 77 percent Muslim and 57 percent Pakistani – to see if the locals were really "contrary to British values and sometimes to our laws".
"I've not heard of one person going to Syria," said Sadia scornfully. The estate agent has lived all her 26 years in Washwood. "Growing up here there's nothing to do; there's no services, and the police pick on Asians for drug offences – they should focus on that."
Iram, 62, agreed: "We celebrate Eid, Christmas and Diwali together with our neighbours," she said.
Yet isolated "terror threats" – like the one allegedly caused by mentally ill local man Zahid Hussain – swallow up headlines and resources. Stabbings and shootings aside, Washwood last made the news when the government was caught planting multi-million pound CCTV cameras to spy on its inhabitants.
Some of Dame Casey's proposals, such as improving IT literacy among at-risk women, are reasonable enough. Others – such as a compulsory "Oath of Integration with British Values" for migrants – have the tea-and-jam-sandwiches stench of neo-Imperialist fascism.
Most chillingly, Dame Casey is "proud and unapologetic" in valorising the Prevent anti-terrorism strategy, condemned by experts and community leaders as ineffectual, illiberal and racist. As she observes with mild understatement, Prevent is "not explicitly a programme to improve community cohesion".
Speaking outside Shahjalal Jami Mosque, Saf said he once spent two days being questioned by terror police after a raid on a Wolverhampton mosque. "But I have nothing to hide," he said. "I love this country, I've worked when I've been able to, I've paid taxes." He was later released without charge.
Highly-strung, with a history of incarceration and class A substance abuse, the 36-year-old was five days clean from a heavy weed habit. "Jihad means struggle – hundreds of different things for different people," he said. "For me it's fighting addiction – ISIS has nothing to do with it."
Though evidently vulnerable, Saf is only a threat to himself. He became distressed recalling the addiction that cost him access to his wife and kids, and a peer mentor from the mosque was there to soothe him. It is in Washwood he finds the "real peace" and "real support" he needs.
Leaning over the counter of his smoothie bar, Emran showed off a 2009 newspaper clipping. "Emran fled the terror of the Taliban at age eight," runs the headline, above a picture of a grinning, gap-toothed kid. "Now he has a home in our city." The contrast with the media welcome offered to 2016's child refugees – "give us your teeth and fuck off" – is stark.
Discussing the constantly-documented cock-ups of Prevent officers, Dame Casey admonishes against "allowing only critical narratives to dominate in the media". Muslims themselves are not offered any such protection. "Some... have argued that sections of the British media have on some occasions gone further than failing to highlight positive stories about Muslims," she concedes. That's one way of putting it.
"The media spreads hate against Muslims now. They pick up negative aspects of different Asian cultures and claim it's Islam," said Emran.
To 60-year-old corner-shop owner Yassin, it is not the madrasa but Morrisons that is isolating local Muslims. "Since big out-of-town superstores opened, people from neighbouring communities don't come into Alum Rock to shop any more," he said.
In Yassin's 40 years in Washwood, many of his white British neighbours have scraped together the funds to move elsewhere – this is white flight, for which communities of colour shoulder unfair blame. "We live here because we're working class, not because we're Muslim," Saf emphasised. "I'd live somewhere more diverse if I could afford it."
Even if Washwood's Muslims are "alienated and isolated" by "grievance and unfairness", with reported Islamophobic hate crime rocketing by 326 percent in a year, it's hard to blame them. "Muslim people live together because it's safer," said Emran. "If they go into a white neighbourhood they might be in danger."
Yet, Dame Casey concedes, "white British and Irish ethnic groups are least likely to have ethnically mixed social networks". Even in Washwood, the fourth-most Islamic of Britain's 7,669 electoral wards, two-thirds of residents were born in the UK. English is a household language in every single home, and a main language in 80 percent. Only 3.7 percent of residents cannot speak it at all. These figures hardly seem insurmountable.
As the Review highlights, those who cannot speak English are often women, isolated in the home away from education opportunities – and reporters. Twice as many British Muslim women cannot speak English as Muslim men, and 1,220 potentially forced marriages (primarily among Muslims) were referred to the government last year. On the other hand, Dame Casey found "the highest rates of domestic abuse are experienced by women from white, black Caribbean (14 percent) and Irish (12 percent) ethnic backgrounds", and noted the 19.2 percent gender pay gap across society as a whole.
Yet she dwells obsessively on Muslim "lack of integration", rather than government spending cuts – which have led to 80 percent of BME domestic violence survivors being refused support. Speaking outside Washwood Job Centre, nursery volunteer Sy said: "It's difficult for women to find work around here – that's what the government should focus on." Thanks to Arabic lessons provided by a Washwood community centre, the unemployed 32-year-old hopes to soon find teaching work.
"If one Asian commits a crime, the government says all Asians are terrorists," said Sadia. "They would never say that about one white person." Her argument maps on to gendered violence. Asian men are not inherently more or less sexist than their white counterparts: rather, a transcultural hatred of women is warped through different cultural contexts into different forms of violence.
The same applies to Islam and conservative Western ideologies. Dame Casey sketches a ghoulish picture of mosques as "breeding grounds for radicalisation and terrorism", but in the heated half-hour of mosque debate I attended, no one voiced an opinion more extreme than that bluster of a hang-em-and-flog-em Ukipper, with one man speaking sympathetically of Saudi-style corporal punishment – "it gets the job done" – though emphasising Sharia law should only be applied in Islamic countries to people who choose to follow it. "Under Islam, I have no right to hurt an ant," he said.
The congregation was united in fierce condemnation of ISIS. And, of course, the government that paid Casey to condemn Saudi influence in British mosques also brokers billions of pounds in UK-Saudi arms deals.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Washwood really is just England: kids giving girlfriends knock-kneed backies on BMXes, trampled Carlsberg cans cluttering hedgerows. Like any impoverished community, it faces its own challenges: a 37 percent child poverty rate, some of the worst child mortality ratings in the country, right-wing Islam as opposed to right-wing Christianity. People like Sy and Saf benefit from the care of the Muslim community, and a small number of women and children doubtless suffer in its blind spots – as they do everywhere else in society.
The real problem is not Dame Casey's bland suggestions for tackling these particular social issues, but how she gets there. She fails to attack the government for driving extremism in communities made up of "former colonies and territories of the British Empire" through arms sales and brawling interventions in the Muslim world, or to follow the lead of Islamic feminists in "accepting [Muslim] input as a two-way street".
Instead, she proudly trumpets an "absolute belief that we are a compassionate, tolerant and liberal country". Communities like Washwood must be hammered into drab alignment with post-Brexit Britain, "from the Monarchy and the BBC to queuing and talking about the weather", or suffer the consequences. This is weak tea, weak humour and crypto-fascistic.
To ordinary Muslims in Washwood, Dame Casey's relentless criticism of Muslim communities reveals a baseless obsession with ISIS bogeymen, rather than the genuine crises faced by Muslims. "Why would I become radicalised?" Saf asked. "That's not going to win my wife and kids back, is it?"
All quotations and statistics from the 2016 Integration Review or the 2011 Census unless otherwise stated.