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Inside the British ‘caliphate’: It’s fantastic, Mr. Fox!

Al Jazeera America went to Birmingham to investigate claims the city had become an Islamic state within a state

BIRMINGHAM, England — Six years ago, I traveled to northwestern Pakistan’s war-ravaged Swat Valley to report firsthand on how the Taliban had seized territory, imposing their brutal interpretation of Islamic law as they slaughtered opponents, conducted public floggings and bombed girls’ schools. So I had to investigate last weekend’s warnings by a Fox News “terrorism expert” that the city of Birmingham had fallen to a new “caliphate” and was now a no-go area for Christians.

I happened to have been born in Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city, though I remained there only a few months. My parents were pleased to leave the famously grim metropolis shortly after my birth in search of warmer climes. But from what I was hearing on Fox News, the weather was now merely the most prosaic of Brum’s horrors.

“Muslim density is very intense, where the police don’t go in, where it’s basically a separately country within a country,” Steve Emerson told the network on Sunday. His host, Jeanine Pirro, looked nonplussed. “It sounds like a caliphate within a particular country.”

As in Pakistan six years ago, a fact-finding mission was required.

Driving into the neighborhood of King’s Heath, a church loomed ahead, apparently in a state of advanced decay. The brick structure was mostly blackened. This, I later learned, was a product of not some Taliban-style assault but the accretion of Birmingham’s notoriously unclean air. Inside there were no parishioners. Even on a Sunday, local residents reported, it attracts fewer people than fit on the top deck of a Birmingham bus.

Of much greater prominence, of course, was the Birmingham Central Mosque. The imposing domed building cast a long shadow over the highway that runs alongside it. In the parking lot, dark long vehicles were emblazoned with ominous messages. “Every soul shall taste death,” one read. There was a long wooden box inside that strikingly resembled a coffin.

I assumed that the central mosque would be the seat of power of the Brummie caliph, from which he would presumably exhort the faithful to take up arms against the infidel threat and expand his domain. With Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon an hour away and the original town of Hollywood even nearer, great symbolic victories lay within reach.

Inside, however, the mosque looked almost abandoned, not unlike the church I saw earlier. There were no worshippers crowded under the vast chandelier that dangled from the peak of its dome. For afternoon prayers, there weren’t enough to fill the first row. Most traipsed quietly onto the streets afterward, without a single “Death to America” or similar chant.

As he slipped his shoes back on, I asked Basharat Hussain, a 39-year-old neatly bearded taxi driver, about the claims that he now lived in a de facto caliphate. “I don’t know about anything like that,” he said. “I just work and go to the mosque.” Most of his clientele are non-Muslims. “It’s all right. Most of them are friendly.” He was equally enthusiastic, in a Brummie sort of way, about his city. “It’s all right, I guess.”

Near the pulpit, an elderly prayer leader was delivering a spirited harangue. I hastened over to catch his words. It turned out to be a disappointing disquisition on the merits of maintaining silence in a mosque. “Why are people talking when they come to God’s home?” asked Muhammad Farhan Muhammad, 83.

What did he think of the massacre in Paris?

“It’s wrong. Very wrong,” he said. “How can you just attack someone like that?” He then quoted a saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “You have to love for all the people what you love for yourself. You have to think for all the people what you think for yourself.”

Confused by his timidity, I began searching elsewhere for this caliphate’s elusive power center and for signs of its influence. At the Malt House pub, there were suspiciously few drinkers, although the barmen were happy to serve. Apparently this wasn’t an act of heroic defiance, though, because the caliphate hadn’t managed to eliminate many traces of the British culture around it. “Nightlife in Birmingham is pretty bad,” said Steven Ingram, an ale-sipping factory worker. He insisted that the principal division in Birmingham is social class rather than race or religion.

Ingram and his friends were crestfallen when they realized the Fox News clip wasn’t, in fact, a piece of accomplished satire. “At first, I thought it was quite funny,” said Sam Doran, 30. He was, however, aware of the city’s tattered reputation. “To be honest, there are worse cities,” he said as persuasively as he could. Perhaps the local tourism board might adopt that as a marketing slogan.

Amy Alcock, 22, was unsure why anyone would visit Birmingham. “People come here from America,” she said, saying it was because Bill Clinton had visited the city. “Surely there are lots of other places he’s visited too?” She was even more disbelieving of Spanish visitors. “Why have you come from Spain to here?!” she asked in disbelief.

It may be Britain’s second city, but it doesn’t have its own edition of Time Out. I asked the drinkers if they could suggest a nearby attraction. “You could go to …” Doran started to suggest, before remembering, “Oh, yeah, that’s now closed.” Perhaps the religious police were active after all?

Eventually they agreed on the Birmingham Library. “It’s like the biggest library outside America,” said Ingram approvingly. Presumably, the local Taliban hadn’t gotten around to burning the books.

Along Broad Street, I encountered Catherine Jones, 27, a lawyer. She was well apprised of Fox’s analysis. “It must be a stealth operation,” she said. “I haven’t noticed anything like that.” Does she, a former Londoner, enjoy Birmingham? “It’s a normal English town,” she said without any discernible cheer. “It’s very multicultural.”

At the library, many hadn’t seen the video. As they watched it on my phone, listeners leaned in, their faces assumed a look that blurred the line between alarm and incredulity. “Where are they talking about? What, here?!”

In the foyer, an exhibition depicts the first wave of Muslim arrivals from the 1950s — the generation of my grandfather, who abandoned Pakistan for Britain. I searched the display for their motives, keeping a keen eye for out for any hint of their imperial ambitions in Birmingham.

“The first time I came here, I saw the lights,” read a quote from Mohammed Sajawal. “I thought this is a rich country. I liked everything here.” Rashida Sharif was equally taken by the place. “It was all weird at first,” she was quoted as saying, “as we had not seen electricity or sanitation before.”

By the exit was a stall testifying to the new caliphate’s awareness of the need to promote itself. It bore a mountain of T-shirts, mugs and caps bearing the legend “I (heart) Birmingham.” In the minds of some, that might be the equivalent of a black flag bearing the shahada. But for the most part, the Birmingham caliphate is doing a fearfully good job of camouflaging its true nature — under a façade of pervasive ennui.

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