Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

"Complete Idiot" Steve Emerson's Birmingham Blunder

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

"Complete Idiot" Steve Emerson's Birmingham Blunder

Article excerpt

"There are actual cities like Birmingham [England] that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just don't go in," the American "terrorism expert" Steve Emerson told Fox News viewers in a Jan. 10 broadcast. Looking concerned, interviewer Jeanine Pirro said, "You know what it sounds like to me, Steve? It sounds like a caliphate."

As it happened, I was in the Birmingham "caliphate" when I first saw news of Emerson's statement, sipping a glass of wine and about to tuck into a non-halal meal. So were the religious police about to burst in and drag me away?

Not likely. The day before, I'd passed through the city center. In the pedestrianized main street just outside New Street Station, people of European, South Asian and African origin went about their shopping and chatted with their friends with no signs of friction. A prime spot at a road junction near the newest arcades was occupied by a group of evangelical Christians. One declaimed his faith loudly to whoever might listen, while others held out leaflets to passers-by; they seemed to be having trouble attracting attention, rather than repelling hostile Muslims. Later, as I traveled out of the center by train, I looked around at a skyline pierced in many places by church spires, with hardly a dome or minaret to be seen.

Birmingham does have a sizeable Muslim population, mostly of Pakistani, Kashmiri and Bangladeshi origin. According to the 2011 census, they make up 21.8 percent of the city's 1,192,000 inhabitants. More than twice as many people (46.1 percent) gave their religious affiliation as Christian and more than 200,000 (19.3 percent) said that they followed no religion. There are areas where Muslims form a majority of the population, but the presence of pubs, liquor stores and non-halal restaurants there shows that those of other faiths are able to go about their lives without experiencing intolerance or intimidation.

Now and then, Muslims in Birmingham have been in the news for the wrong reasons. At the time of the first Gulf war in 1990, attention was drawn to the Saddam Hussain Mosque, so called because the Iraqi leader had given money for its construction. The name was later changed. Last year, there was a scare story in the media about an alleged conspiracy by Muslim extremists to take over school boards, but despite a lot of outraged commentaries, the evidence for a far-reaching plot seemed thin. In both these cases, community leaders and the broader Muslim public distanced themselves from expressions of extremism and intolerance.

Emerson's comments were greeted with a mixture of anger and derision by Birmingham people of all religions. Spoof reports online included one that featured a photo of Birmingham's television tower captioned as a minaret. A cricket fan posted a picture of Moin Khan, a well-known Muslim cricketer from Birmingham who has played for England, with a raised cricket bat and the caption, "Terrifying photo of how a typical Muslim from Birmingham guards the city gates against infidels."

British Prime Minister David Cameron, on hearing of Emerson's remarks, referred to him as "a complete idiot."

Councillor James McKay, cabinet member for social cohesion, equalities and community safety, said: "These curious comments clearly have no foundation, and it's good to see an apology has been issued. …

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