Imran Awan: Why Muslims in Birmingham Feel Like a ‘Suspect’ Community
As I walk down some of the most vibrant and lively neighbourhoods in Birmingham I can feel a sense of unease and suspicion from the locals. Made up of a large South Asian population, the people of Alum Rock, Sparkbrook, Small Heath and Washwood heath tell me of a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ culture. They also remind me of past incidents which has led to a ‘breakdown’ of relationship between the police and the Muslim community in Birmingham. That form of anxiety and suspicion is epitomised in the words of Moazzam Begg, who in his last post on Facebook wrote: “Sometimes knowing too much can be a curse”.
Most people will know Moazzam Begg, as the former detainee of the US-run military prison in Guantanamo Bay, where he spent almost three years, following the post 9/11 ‘war on terror’ crackdown and released without charge. As part of my study, looking at the impact of counter-terrorism legislation and policies upon Muslim families in Birmingham, a number of people who I have interviewed, have spoken about their anger and distrust of law enforcement agencies and the political elite based in Westminster. One man, I spoke to stated that: “Terrorism Laws have been invented for Muslims, to arrest us and treat us all like terrorists.”
Another woman I spoke to added: “Muslims are being spied upon by the police and the state. I don’t trust them anymore.” That lack of trust is evident from previous cases where people have been arrested for counter-terrorism related offences, but are released and found to be innocent. For example, while studying for a postgraduate qualification in counter-terrorism, Rizwaan Sabir was arrested under the Terrorism Act for downloading extremist material, but was released without charge. In his case, documents from the professional standards unit of West Midlands police revealed that officers had ‘fabricated’ key elements of the case against him. In 2011, Sabir was paid £20,000 in damages by the Nottinghamshire police following his arrest. The case also raised important issues concerning the impact of counter-terrorism arrests upon a person’s family life.
In Sabir’s words: “This is finally some vindication and we can say proudly that I have proved to many, many people who may have suspected that I was a terrorist that I am actually innocent and always have been… It shows and it proves that [the police] were wrong to have behaved the way they did. They were wrong to put me through the torturous experience they did and they have finally accepted that.”
Sabir, is not an isolated case, Cerie Bullivant spent two years on a control order before he was acquitted of all charges. Bullivant was en route to Syria when he was detained by British authorities as a terrorist suspect. What control orders really did was to put suspects under house arrest. Some of the restrictions imposed included monitoring suspects’ activities throughout the day, who they can speak to, and who they can meet. There were restrictions on their telephone calls, travel, and use of the Internet. The police could also visit their home from time to time, and the suspects would also be electronically tagged. They had an impact on an individual’s right to freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of communication, the right to liberty and the right to a private family life.
The impact on Bullivant’s private life included him having to leave college and being shunned by his family and friends. My study which looks at the impact of counter-terrorism policies upon Muslim families in Birmingham shows a similar trend of fear, distrust and anger. I spoke to a number of Muslim families who were worried about counter-terrorism raids. One lady told me: “We are worried… scared they will come smashing down our door, simply because we are Muslim”.
This fear factor for communities in Birmingham, is enshrined in previous policies by the police such as Project Champion in 2010, when a number of secret covert and overt CCTV cameras in predominately Muslim areas paid for by the Terrorism Allied Fund were installed. This highlighted how, in practice, Muslim communities were viewed as a suspect community. An independent report into the project concluded that there was a lack of “transparency” and “accountability” by the police. As the author of the report notes: “the lack of transparency about the purpose of the project has resulted in significant community anger and loss of trust.”
The post, 9/11 ‘war on terror’ narrative, has revealed a new suspect community. Whether inadvertently or not, measures such as profiling, hard-line policing, stop and search and surveillance all have the potential to stigmatise an entire population, such as Irish people living in Britain during the conflict in Northern Ireland, and now the Muslim community in Britain. Clearly, the situation in Syria is complex, however confiscating people’s passports and removing people’s citizenship is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Whilst the situation in Syria unfolds, we must ensure that the golden thread that runs back to the principle of the Magna Carta which is based on justice, due process, and the principle of habeas corpus is not broken by these new measures which ultimately is leading to the Muslim community in Birmingham feeling like a suspect community.
Imran Awan’s study into the impact of counter-terrorism legislation in Birmingham will be published later this year.
Read more about Imran Awan’s study into Project Champion in Birmingham entitled:Terror in the Eye of the Beholder: The Spycam sage: Counter-Terrorism or Counter Productive published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice in 2011.