Birmingham is the United Kingdom’s second city and home to a sizeable Muslim community -- one that has, at times, had a tense relationship with the city’s police.
In recent years, Birmingham has seen some high-profile terrorism cases: a plot to behead a British soldier; a terror cell that planned 7/7-style attacks and several other convictions for the funding and supporting of terrorism. Many of those arrested, from the Muslim population that makes a fifth of the city’s whole, have been released without charge.
That and the tactics used by the police in these investigations have become a source of controversy and suspicion. ‘Project Champion’ was an initiative to install over 200 cameras, some of them hidden, around mainly Muslim parts of Birmingham and was paid for with a fund earmarked for tackling terrorism. They were later removed after a community outcry against the clandestine and surreptitious nature of the operation.
Such a controversial history means worshippers at Birmingham Central Mosque were shocked when they found out about the mosque’s involvement with West Midlands Police’s counter-terrorism unit. The police donated £5,000 used to buy 50 transmitters the mosque uses to broadcast the call to prayer, sermons and question and answer sessions to people at home or work.
The decision, according to the unit’s Chief Inspector Dale Randle, was made as part of the UK government’s controversial program for tackling violent extremism, Prevent, which was launched after the 7/7 bomb attacks in London. Though Prevent has been seen as a method for spying on communities, Randle says it is actually a way of building engagement within them -- which is why he agreed to fund the transmitters when asked by the mosque.
"In return we are given a little bit of air time, previously we've worked with radio stations and purchased airtime and advertising time, and this is a little bit similar," said Randle. "We can work with the mosque and do some Q&A sessions and talk through some of what we do, and hopefully break down any barriers."
Muhammad Ali, the mosque administrator, said it has a good relationship with the police. "There are many organizations involved and we have many sponsors, the police is just one of them."
"We have not told our congregation yet," admitted Ali.
When told about the program, several mosque attendees said they were shocked. One of them, Faisal, told the Anadolu Agency: "It’s a concern to me, why are the police involved in the first place?"
Jahan Mahmood, a historian who has advised authorities on radicalization at a local and national level told the AA that many Muslims view Prevent with suspicion. "Many Muslims were deeply annoyed by the fact that the Prevent agenda appeared to be entirely focused on Muslims," he said, adding, "West Midlands Police have a history of mishaps when it comes to dealing with Prevent and the Muslim matters."
"In the early stages of Prevent in Birmingham, West Midlands Police seconded one of their officers to Birmingham City Council to head outreach projects. This aroused suspicion. Then there were rumors that West Midlands Police were visiting nurseries looking for early signs of radicalization in children as young as 5,” he told the AA, adding that after the fallout from Project Champion "West Midlands Police and Muslim relations haven't quite been the same."
Randall said that suspicion is why his counter-terrorism unit invested in the transmitters.
"If we can help explain why we do things, as best as we can, it sometimes helps communities understand what we do," he said.
One of the issues they want to talk about is humanitarian aid trips to Syria, after the government revealed its concerns about UK nationals fighting in Syria’s civil war.
“It gives us a good space to talk around Syria, which is a real issue at the moment. Which is certainly having an impact on the local community, regionally and nationally," said Randall.
Steve Jolly a leading campaigner and activist against Project Champion still views the police with suspicion, claiming that "listening is a main feature" of the project. "What are police doing in mosques?" he said. "I'm surprised that mosques have been so friendly and co-opted by the police, they are beginning to resemble police stations."
“Mosques are so keen to cooperate with police and prove that they are not terrorists, or terrorist sympathizers that they are willing to do anything, I don't think it will do them any good,” he added.
Though Randle insisted that the program was transparent, he admitted that the decision to donate was initially made with a view to listening to the subjects being discussed but they did not pursue that option, believing it would raise suspicion within the community.
Mahmood said that while there is concern among residents, some of the blame for the controversy lies with the mosque. "This latest move has triggered criticism among some Muslims who feel West Midlands Police are once again invading their privacy but the truth is all this could have been avoided had the Mosque requested the money from elsewhere."