Counterterrorism police have targeted hundreds of surveillance cameras on two Muslim areas of Birmingham, enabling them to track the precise movements of people entering and leaving the neighbourhoods.
The project has principally been sold to locals as an attempt to combat antisocial behaviour, vehicle crime and drug dealing in the area. But the cameras have been paid for by a £3m grant from a government fund, the Terrorism and Allied Matters Fund, which is administered by the Association of Chief Police Officers.
The funding arrangement was not made clear to the handful of councillors who were briefed that the cameras would appear in their area. Instead, they were told only that the money had come from the Home Office. “I raised my concern then: is this really about spying?” said Salma Yaqoob, a member of the Respect party and councillor for Sparkbrook.
Next week’s election promises a swathe of new faces in the House of Commons. Not only are we witnessing the largest number of MPs to retire in 60 years but, with a record number of Asian women also standing, Britain could have its first female Muslim MP.
This breakthrough moment in politics has already happened for Muslim men with Mohammad Sarwar voted in Glasgow Central in 1997. Khalid Mahmood was the first in England when he won the Birmingham Perry Barr seat in 2001 and the race to be among the first female Muslim MPs could also be played out in the second city.
Salma Yaqoob, according to one newspaper the most prominent Muslim woman in British politics, is the Respect Party prospective parliamentary candidate for the Birmingham Hall Green constituency. Labour’s Shabana Mahmood is fighting Clare Short’s seat in Ladywood along with Nusrat Ghani, who is standing for the Conservatives.
Sparkbrook – within the Hall Green constituency – and Small Heath now broken up between different wards – has the largest percentage of Muslim voters of any UK constituency at 48.8%, according to the 2001 census.
Salma Yaqoob is one of the most prominent Muslim woman in British public life. She wears a headscarf, a powerful symbol of a faith she has accommodated with her passionate left-wing politics. She is standing as a candidate for the tiny and fractured Respect Party.
In some streets around the new constituency of Hall Green in Birmingham, her poster is on every window. Since her narrow defeat for Westminster in 2005, she has built up support through her work as a local councilor, as well as building a national profile through her appearances on BBC’s Question Time.
Yaqoob was wooed by Labour after 2005. She acknowledges that “My values are traditional Labour, but New Labour has gone to the right”. She was even courted by the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, a tribute to her rare capacity for fair-minded plain speaking, most evident in her Question Time appearance earlier this year, at Wootton Bassett, when she earned respect for her handling of questions about British soldiers killed in Afghanistan, a war she opposes.
Yaqoob is well aware that she is a challenge to traditional Muslim political culture – not just because she is a woman, but because she is not afraid to speak her mind.
Na’ima B. Robert is a Muslim author, a wife and mother living in Britain. In the first of her regular articles for Faith Online she discusses the challenge of living the Islamic faith in a secular democracy. As a Muslim woman living in the embrace of a vibrantly secular, liberal democratic society, you are constantly caught between two very different worlds. On the one hand, there is your faith, Islam, a religion and way of life revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over 1400 years ago, a religion that affects the way you think, the way you act, the way you speak, dress and eat. It is the world of worship and sacrifice, of duties and voluntary charity. It is the world of faith. Then, on the other hand, there is the dunya, the “worldly life”, where you live, work, study, shop, entertain and unwind. It is a world of trends and societal pressures, deadlines and promotions, summer sales and summer holidays. It is, in a nutshell, the world that almost everyone else lives in full-time. And, interestingly enough, it is one that many non-Muslims are surprised that religious Muslim women inhabit at all. Despite the number of observant Muslim women active in public life in Britain (Respect party vice-chair Salma Yaqoob, editor and OBE Sara Joseph, activist and journalist Yvonne Ridley, novelist and dramatist Leila Aboulela to name but a few), media representations often fail to be anything more than stereotypes with subtle and not-so-subtle messages that Muslim women are oppressed, powerless, ghettoised, uneducated, devoid of ambition, with an unhealthy addiction to black clothes.