Labour representative, Mariam Khan, was a front runner in organising the countermeeting with Islamic book stores along Alum Rock road. The Councillor from Washwood Heath spoke to Asian World about what it means to stand together as a community in a time where division is rife.
What was your initial reaction when you heard about the Brain First invasion?
I was made aware that they visited Alum Rock on the day they were scheduled to be in Birmingham. I was aware that they had visited Stratford road so I was keeping an eye on Tommy’s Twitter feed to see where else they were going.
I then saw that they had visited this particular book shop and I later phoned them just to say that I heard that members of Britain First had come and to ask them if they were ok, because I know that sometimes the political group’s behaviour can be quite evocative.
They told me that it was ok and that the son of the owner who was in at the time had simply responded by asking them for examples and proof, so I didn’t think it was a big deal.
It was the next day, when that footage emerged online on all the major social media platforms that my feelings changed. My reaction to the event changed, because as a Muslim it made me angry to see the way Jayda Fransen had behaved when she grabbed at the different books and called the Qur’an evil. It angered me, but I could also see the potential repercussions of footage like that going out to the public, especially in the local community where people would probably want to retaliate.
How did the community respond to the events?
That evening I had many people calling me and texting me expressing their anger. I took to Facebook to mention the fact that, Hamza who was in the shop at the time handled the situation so well and that needs to be highlighted.
A lot of people would not have reacted the way that he did and many people would have given Britain First exactly what they were looking for in terms of confrontation and decent footage for the to portray Muslims and Islam in a negative way.
I wanted to enforce the fact that if you get targeted, this is the way to deal with it. No matter how bad they try to make us look, people can still see that the people being targeted are not acting the way that Britain First have portrayed.
What action did you take following the visit?
I spoke to the police and we agreed that we’d go visit the book shop and some of the other businesses. We discussed our strategy in how we think we should deal with this situation, as tensions were rising in the community. Even after our visit the following day, group of angered individuals who live in the area were gathering at the bookshop. They told the police how invasive it was and that it’s not going to be tolerated. One member in particular mentioned how there are non-Muslims who have lived within our community for decades and they’ve never disrespected our religious so how can we accept these individuals.
Have the police been quite cooperative?
The police have been really helpful, in helping the bookshop itself as well as playing a positive role in the following meetings. After a lengthy discussion with members of the community and authorities, we agreed with the police that if any repeated incidents were to occur they would respond ASAP.
So how did you get that positive message out there?
We realised that we needed to do something positive to show that as a community, we’re not affected the way in which Britain First wants us to be and also to give some reassurance to other business that operate on Alum Rock road, it could have been any of them.
On the evening before Easter Sunday, we arranged another walk-through Alum Rock road to reassure any community members and businesses that may have concerns.
While arranging with the police, we discussed the potential of having people of multiple faiths joining in. we have a few Churches in the local area, and being Easter Sunday, I knew it would be a stretch, but I still contacted a few of the different Church groups to see if anyone was available to join and we had a really good response.
It’s so important to show the truthful portrayal of how Christians work side-by-side with Muslims. Britain First present themselves as a religious/political group, but we had Christians with us having tea and coffee with the owners of the book store in question. It was a true reflection of what it means to be a true neighbour living in Birmingham. It was a really nice afternoon and a lot of the shops were really welcoming and were so pleased that he people from the Church and the Vicar came out on Easter Sunday.
Have the efforts made by you, authorities and members of the Church helped to disperse the growing tensions?
I think it definitely has, it’s almost as if things have calmed down over the weekend. There was a potential for lots of tension to build up, but the way in which we’ve turned the story around has sent a message and it’s been really well received.
We’ve had lots of shares on Facebook and Twitter, as well as other papers picking up on the story and also the people who visited from the Church have shared onto their social media as well so we have had a really positive response.
This has happened so soon after the EDL March in Birmingham that went viral with the image of Saffiya Khan, do you think a counter narrative is finally in place?
Having a counter narrative in a positive way is working out for Birmingham. The people who are from Birmingham know exactly what it’s like to live in a city that is so multi cultural, people of all faiths and no faith live and work side-by-side.
With Saffiya Khan, I think that was a strong powerful image that completely shows the EDL is all about. On the same day we had Central Mosque organise a tea party, which again was attended by different people of all backgrounds, which shows that you can carry on inciting hatred but you’re not going to succeed.