The train passengers’ calm consumption of crisps and bored checking of emails on the 11.43am to Birmingham suggested they hadn’t heard the news. Their destination, a city of more than a million people, had shockingly become Britain’s first caliphate and a no-go zone for non-Muslims – at least, according to an “expert” on Rupert Murdoch’s US-based Fox News channel.
“There are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in,” Steve Emerson, a commentator on terrorism, told millions of viewers on Sunday.
“You know what it sounds like to me, Steve?” said the show’s concerned host, Jeanine Pirro. “It sounds like a caliphate.”
Emerson, who describes himself as one of the leading authorities on Islamic extremist networks and who regularly briefs the US government and Congress, made the staggering comment as millions marched in Paris against the Islamist attacks last week that claimed 17 lives.
On Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron branded Emerson “a complete idiot” and said the comments had made him choke on his porridge. Emerson issued an apology to the “beautiful city of Birmingham”.
Britain’s second-largest city has one of its largest Muslim populations, with 22% of residents identifying as Muslim in the 2011 census, and it has had to wrestle with Islamist controversies, notably the Trojan horse scandal in which five state schools were accused of trying to advance hardline Salafist ideals.
But on Monday the people of Birmingham laughed off Emerson’s comments, echoing a collective guffaw that erupted on Twitter. Adil Ray, a Birmingham comedian and creator of the BBC sitcom Citizen Khan, riffed on the common claim that Birmingham has more canals than Venice, tweeting: “One thing’s for sure, Birmingham’s got more mosques than Venice. #FoxNewFacts”.
A cricket fan posted a picture of the Birmingham-born England player Moeen Ali wielding a bat with the caption: “Terrifying photo of how a typical Muslim from Birmingham guards the city gates against infidels.” The Bullring shopping centre was reimagined as the plaza around the sacred Kaaba in Mecca.
There is a Mecca in Birmingham – a bingo hall, located in Acocks Green, birthplace of Jasper Carrot, a veteran Birmingham comedian who some joked was the city’s true caliph.
Beneath the twin minarets of Birmingham’s central mosque, which prides itself on including Sunnis, Shias and Sufis as well as non-Muslims, there was bafflement at the idea of an Islamic takeover.
“It is not possible for Muslims, Jews, Hindus or Christians to cover the whole of the world,” said Mohammed Talha Bukhari, a soft-voiced 54-year-old imam who came originally from Uttar Pradesh in India. “God created the world as a garden with different flowers and if there were only one type of flower it would not be a garden.”
Professor Carl Chinn, chair of Birmingham University’s community history project, invited Emerson on a tour of the city, which he said had had a growing Muslim community since the arrival of Yemeni sailors in the 1930s.
“I’ll show him how we live and work together,” Chinn said. “There are no no-go areas in Birmingham. There has been an increased tendency for minorities of all kinds, including the white working class, to gather together and that is an issue we need to address without hyperbole.”
Three wards in Birmingham’s inner suburbs recorded more than 70% of people identifying as Muslim in the 2011 census – Washwood Heath (77.3%), Bordesley Green (73.9%) and Sparkbrook (70.2%). In Ladywood Road in Sparkbrook, part of the city’s Balti Triangle, there are few non-Asian faces, but also plenty of off-licences stuffed with crates of beer to wash down the curries.
The Lahore restaurant – specialising in cuisine from Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled northwest frontier region – welcomes a mixed crowd. Sitting beneath a picture of the Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, a 31-year-old white civil servant who asked not to be named said he came here daily for lunch, and sometimes dinner too.
As he polished off his kebab, his message was simple: “It is not a no-go area and there’s nothing to suggest it is becoming one.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015