In the city where Lon­don at­tacker lived, Mus­lims say they fear a back­lash

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - RICK NOACK More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ blogs/world­views

BIRM­ING­HAM, Eng­land — When alerts went off Wed­nes­day, break­ing the news of the dev­as­tat­ing Lon­don ter­ror­ist at­tack, many in Birm­ing­ham hoped that the trail would not lead to their city, which is ap­prox­i­mately 100 miles to the north of the cap­i­tal. But the next morn­ing, he­li­copters cir­cled over Birm­ing­ham, and res­i­dents there im­me­di­ately sus­pected the rea­son.

For­mer Birm­ing­ham res­i­dent Khalid Ma­sood had com­mit­ted the at­tack.

Now his for­mer neigh­bors are be­ing asked to ex­plain why.

For years, the city has fought its im­age as a “hot­bed of ter­ror­ism,” which emerged be­cause many of Bri­tain’s vi­o­lent ex­trem­ists are in some way con­nected to it. Some of Bri­tain’s most de­prived Mus­lims live in dis­tricts where poverty, crime and un­em­ploy­ment have played into the hands of rad­i­cals for decades. But many lo­cal Mus­lims voiced fears Fri­day that the cur­rent de­bate about the city might end up wors­en­ing the sit­u­a­tion of Mus­lims in their com­mu­nity and across Bri­tain.

“You can­not fight ex­trem­ism by putting a com­mu­nity with its back against the wall,” said res­i­dent Ha­may­oon Sul­tan, 38, who was leav­ing Birm­ing­ham’s cen­tral mosque after mid­day prayers.

“There is a lot of anger in the com­mu­nity. We live peace­fully to­gether, and then one per­son comes and de­stroys it all,” said Muham­mad Afzal, the mosque’s chair­man.

Since Wed­nes­day, there has been a sharp rise in hate emails and threats against Birm­ing­ham’s cen­tral mosque. The ten­sions threaten to undo years of progress that have put the city at the fore­front of Bri­tish coun­terex­trem­ism ef­forts.

“In real­ity, the col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween author­i­ties and the lo­cal com­mu­nity has so far worked bet­ter in Birm­ing­ham than on a na­tional level,” said Chris Allen, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Birm­ing­ham.

This has not al­ways been the case in Bri­tain’s sec­ond-largest city, where more than 20 per­cent are Mus­lim. In 2010, author­i­ties in­stalled sur­veil­lance cam­eras across the city to mon­i­tor the move­ments of Mus­lims sus­pected of ter­ror­ism — plac­ing all Mus­lims un­der uni­ver­sal sus­pi­cion, crit­ics ar­gued at the time. The project was stopped, but by then, it had al­ready se­verely dam­aged re­la­tions be­tween Mus­lim com­mu­nity lead­ers and author­i­ties.

“The Mus­lim com­mu­nity in Birm­ing­ham has long felt un­der watch,” said Raf­faello Pan­tucci, di­rec­tor for In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity Stud­ies at the Royal United Ser­vices In­sti­tute in Lon­don.

In re­cent years, how­ever, there has been a change, com­mu­nity lead­ers and ex­perts said.

A mo­ment of si­lence was held at the cen­tral mosque early Fri­day af­ter­noon in the pres­ence of Po­lice Com­man­der Mak Chishty, who is Mus­lim. But the show of unity could hardly hide the fears and the anx­i­ety of many Mus­lims in the city. They worry that there will in­evitably be a back­lash against their com­mu­nity in the com­ing weeks.

Asked by a by­stander why Mus­lims were be­ing asked to con­demn the at­tack of a man who “was not a real Mus­lim,” Chishty re­sponded: “Peo­ple like him dam­age you, and they dam­age me. We have to con­demn such ac­tions to­gether.”

Ma­sood, whose birth name is Adrian Rus­sell Ajao, had lived for years in apart­ments in the Bri­tish Mid­lands. Orig­i­nally from Kent, he later moved to Birm­ing­ham. His for­mer neigh­bors there knew him as a de­voted gar­dener, but he oth­er­wise re­mained all but in­vis­i­ble. Ma­sood left few traces be­sides crim­i­nal con­vic­tions and a trip to Saudi Ara­bia.

“He was a con­vert,” said Ali Kahn, 25. “And his crimes are not con­nected to our re­li­gion. If he did this in the name of Is­lam, he didn’t un­der­stand our re­li­gion.”

For Birm­ing­ham’s Mus­lim com­mu­nity and author­i­ties, mak­ing the dis­tinc­tion is a bal­anc­ing act. In Birm­ing­ham’s cen­tral mosque, for in­stance, vis­i­tors are now greeted by a book­let ti­tled “Ter­ror­ism is Not Is­lam. 2nd edi­tion.” Chishty would agree with that, but he wants Mus­lims to look out for po­ten­tial ter­ror­ists, re­gard­less.

Re­la­tions be­tween the po­lice and Birm­ing­ham mosques have sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved since 2014 be­cause par­ents started to be­come afraid that their chil­dren might leave the city and join the Is­lamic State in Syria or Iraq. “The po­lice is now much more wel­come in Birm­ing­ham’s Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties than it was three years ago, which has made things much eas­ier,” Allen said.

On Satur­day, Birm­ing­ham res­i­dents were ex­pected to march at a rally in the city cen­ter to con­demn the at­tack and to show that “Mus­lims are united against ter­ror­ism,” ac­cord­ing to the or­ga­niz­ers.

But many here worry whether that will be enough to calm ten­sions. “I’ve al­ways feared the day Bri­tain would be struck by a ma­jor ter­ror­ist at­tack again,” said 43-year-old Mo­hammed Elmokhtar, stand­ing at a vigil in Birm­ing­ham’s bustling city cen­ter Fri­day evening where can­dles were lit.

“This will make our lives much more dif­fi­cult.”

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