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Birmingham and the limits of English multicultralism

Our Deputy CEO, Asif Afridi, was recently interviewed by French news agency France 24 about the Trojan horse affair. You can read the original article here, but in case your French is a bit rusty here's a quick translation:

In Birmingham, a year after the publication of a letter denouncing the influence of Islamist groups on state schools, the country's second city struggles to find a "new model" of multiculturalism. Latest story from the dark side of the UK.

It was an anonymous letter which shook Birmingham in spring 2014. Entitled 'Trojan Horse', the letter alerted the authorities to the presence of fundamentalist Muslims within the management of six state schools in the city. The writer of the poison-pen letter – who was never identified – complained about the separation of boys and girls in classrooms, the prohibition of music education, organized pilgrimages to Mecca financed with public money, and the intimidation of non-Muslim teachers – or moderate Muslims.

If, a year on, an end has not been brought to this case, the Trojan horse affair – by the simple fact of its existence – has nevertheless highlighted some unease in the city. The anonymous letter lists enough incriminating evidence to shake the faith of the British in a model that the French would call communitarian. Should a death knell be sounded for multiculturalism in the UK in Birmingham, the second city known for its cultural, social and religious diversity?

In Small Heath, a working-class area with a very large Muslim majority (over 95%) to the east of the city centre, the issue is divisive. While part of the population praises the tolerance of Great Britain and sweeps aside the "wild allegations" arising from the Trojan horse letter, others recognize the existence of abuses related to community grouping. "There are too many Muslims here," Ahmed explains, for example, himself a Muslim, who came here from Sudan six years ago. "Everything is done for us. People are going to think that the only thing that interests us is our religion."

A new model
Some residents of the surrounding areas have indeed a rather pejorative view of Small Heath and are suspicious of these "streets filled with sails" – and niqabs. "I'm not racist, but schools are weird here," says John at the wheel of his car, making sure that no one hears his words. "We especially have a problem with Somalis and Pakistanis. They never mix with others," he added before starting up and speeding away.

Small Heath crystallizes the tensions of several worlds that coexist but do not mix. "The city has very many communities. There is a richness and there are many places where everything is going well," corrects Asif Afridi, deputy head of an association working for intercommunity dialogue in the city. "But there are also neighborhoods where tensions are stronger. [And not just between Muslims and non-Muslims] but also between Muslims and Sikhs, for example [...] the hardest thing is to find a way to link all communities. We need a new model."

But it's not easy to find this "new model" of multiculturalism when the British government, in full battle against jihadism, only approaches the case from the security angle. "During the whole Trojan horse affair, London dealt with the problem by adopting a terrorist approach. The population felt attacked," explains Asif Afridi.

Promoting British values – that does doesn't really make any sense!
In 2010, the government had already greatly annoyed Birmingham in a similar case. "Surveillance cameras had been installed in Sparkhill [another Muslim Quarter near Small Heath] ostensibly to monitor traffic. But the people discovered that they were in reality used only to identify the registration plates of individuals suspected of terrorist behavior," adds the deputy director of the association.

The result is that mistrust prevails. This is at least the analysis of Patrick*, an Anglo-French communications teacher in one of the schools in Small Heath. "After the Trojan horse letter, the government placed the school in which I work in 'special measures'. In practice, this means that the entire leadership was dismissed and not replaced," he explains. "The students have substitute teachers every two months. They are left to their own devices. They feel abandoned. How can you show leadership?" he laments, even while recognizing that his skin color [white] poses "a little problem". "We are then asked to promote 'British values!' That doesn't mean much for these kids when you have nothing to offer in return!"

For Asif Afridi, like Patrick, a few days before the elections, concern also revolves around possible political exploitation. "The extreme right threatens. They used to target attacks against Blacks. Today, they target Muslims," worries Asif Afridi. This concern appears justified when one hears certain sentiments: "You want to know what I think of Small Heath? You mean about this 'mini-Pakistan'?" joked a trader in Birmingham city centre on Thursday. He adds, in front of laughing and complicit customers: "They keep themselves to themselves, they only talk among themselves. So I think they should return home."

* Name has been changed