Birmingham, England – A greying railway bridge serves as the entrance to the Birmingham neighbourhood of Sparkbrook, nondescript except for the quote written beneath the welcome sign bearing its name.
“If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it,” it reads.
The quote by Muhammad Ali is one of several tributes to the legendary American boxer put up in Birmingham after his death last year.
Ali’s legacy has a special resonance in the neighbourhood and not just because of his achievements as a boxer; more than 70 percent of Sparkbrook’s 32,000 residents share his Islamic faith.
Together with its adjoining districts, the area houses much of Birmingham’s 234,000-strong Muslim population, the largest in the UK, outside of London.
Theirs is a community that last week found itself at the centre of international media attention when it emerged that the city was the last place the Westminster attacker Adrian Elms, or Khalid Masood, had lived in before carrying out the attack that left four people dead.
Some British newspapers portrayed the attack as the latest example of extremist violence linked to the country’s second largest city.
The Telegraph described Birmingham as one of “Britain’s terror hotspots” and the Daily Mail asked how the city had become “the jihadi capital of Britain”.
That designation has been challenged by residents of Sparkbrook.
“It comes down to us being Muslims,” said engineering student Abdullah, venting frustration at the media coverage, as he and a group of friends headed from Friday prayers to one of the area’s many Middle Eastern cafes.
Born in Birmingham and raised in Sparkbrook, the young man of Yemeni origin, said he was “hurt” by the reports that followed last week’s attack.
“They [the media] make out that it’s the community here that’s responsible for this whole problem, but we’ve got nothing to do with it.
“It was one person who did it but we all get the blame.
“We live side by side with our neighbours, we have no problem here.”
That sentiment is hardly unique among Birmingham’s Muslims.
There is sadness at the fact the attack happened, frustration at the resulting media coverage, surprise at the reputation the city has attained, and fatigue at having to answer for somebody else’s actions.
At a Syrian cafe in nearby Moseley, Al Jazeera spoke to Belal Ballali, originally from the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, but a resident of Birmingham for the past 24 years.
In a Scottish accent with slight hints of the local West Midlands, Ballali explained that the city did have a “small number of extremists” but cautioned against thinking the city was exceptional in that regard.
“There’s no hard and fast rule about who becomes a terrorist,” he said, explaining those who adopted such ideas developed them in “isolation from the Muslim community” and often with contributing mental health factors or substance abuse problems.
Like Abdullah in Sparkbrook, Ballali criticised the media coverage after the Westminster attack for its focus on the Birmingham connection, which he said had exaggerated the connection Elms had to local Muslim communities.
“[Elms] lived in a flat above a takeaway on Hagley Road … anyone who knows Birmingham knows that it’s detached from Muslim communities and mainly home to students.”
Ballali, who is of Libyan and Egyptian heritage, said that incidents that were criminal in nature were being spun by right-wing media outlets and think tanks to paint the entire Muslim community as problematic.
I want to ask the people who push these idea that it's so bad here: what is about you that makes you assume the worst in people you don't know?
“When you have people constantly pushing the narrative that Muslims are a problem, that they want to take over, it’s no surprise that people come up on Fox News and say things like Birmingham is a Muslim no-go zone,” he said, referencing an infamous incident on the American network where pundit Steve Emerson described the city as “totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in”.
“Well look around you,” Ballali said gesturing to the other, mostly white, customers in the cafe.
“How many Muslims do you see here?
“I want to ask the people who push these ideas that it’s so bad here: what is about you that makes you assume the worst in people you don’t know?”
‘Emblematic of migration’
When it comes to the issue of security, only the police and intelligence services definitively know the scale of threats emanating from the city, said academic and Birmingham native, Kamran Khan, of Kings College London.
Khan noted that perceptions of the city have been shaped by factors that have little to do with actual security threats.
“We have a large Muslim population in the city and it’s a city that has traditionally welcomed migrants,” Khan said
“It’s very easy to stoke up fears about a city which is so emblematic of migration. The Irish went through it for many years and now it’s Muslims.”
Like Ballali, he said the city’s Muslim community was not a major factor in the process of radicalisation.
“There’s quite a lot of literature now about online radicalisation as the space where people are taken down that path and that’s, of course, open to all regardless of their city.”
Whatever the origins of the notion that Birmingham is a hub for those sympathetic to violent groups, it is a reputation the city’s Muslims are aware of and eager to eradicate.
At the Birmingham Central Mosque, one of the largest in the city and a short walk from Sparkbrook, congregants at Friday prayers were flanked by several posters declaring that “Islam is against terrorism”.
In a font visible from across the prayer hall, the posters quoted sayings from the Prophet Muhammad where he forbids the harming of civilians.
After the prayers had concluded, hundreds of worshippers at the mosque stayed behind to listen to the area’s police commissioner David Jamieson, as he offered a message of solidarity to the Muslim community in advance of an upcoming demonstration by the far-right English Defence League (EDL).
According to its promotional material on Facebook, the EDL wants to protest against the “continued increase in Islamic terrorism linked to Birmingham”.
“They’re coming from outside the area and will attempt to divide us by spreading a message of division and hatred,” Jamieson said.
“They will not succeed in doing that, because we in Birmingham of all faiths share the British values of tolerance and mutual respect.”