THE BLOG

I'm a Non-Muslim From Birmingham... A Fox News Expert Denied I Exist

13/01/2015 15:38 GMT | Updated 15/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Steve Emerson, a "terrorism expert" for the US TV channel Fox News, claimed on Sunday that Birmingham is "a totally Muslim" city "where non-Muslims just simply don't go". My very existence as a non-Muslim native of Birmingham (a Brummie) proves he was talking nonsense. Muslims make up just over 20% of my city's population.

I just spent a wonderful Christmas and New Year with friends and family back in the Midlands. The only religious group to affect this stay were Quakers, the Christian sect that founded Bournville, my south Birmingham suburb, a century ago. Led by George Cadbury, they built a community around his famous chocolate factory. They took care to provide nice houses, greenery and leisure facilities for workers. This was a revolutionary idea at the time.

There are no pubs in Bournville, and shops do not sell alcohol. Quakers do not drink because of how they interpret their holy book, which came from the Middle East thousands of years ago. I am not religious and I drink alcohol. But I did not mind walking a bit further to visit the pub with friends over Christmas to preserve the unique character of my neighbourhood. At least it smelled chocolatey on the way home. (Cadbury, taken over by an American conglomerate in 2010, announced yesterday they will stop using Dairy Milk chocolate to make Creme Eggs. If there were ever a justification for violent extremism in south Birmingham, this is it.)

Parts of Birmingham have the worst unemployment rates in the country. Its accent has been voted Britain's most unattractive. The city is unpopular and uncool, a target for comedians and professional pessimists, but this is nothing new. A character in Jane Austen's 'Emma' said "One has no great hopes of Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound."

Birmingham has absorbed hundreds of thousands of immigrants, Muslim and non-Muslim, in a short period of time. This has not been easy, but we have just about muddled through. Birmingham is now far more prosperous and more interesting than it was a few decades ago.

Some people make the strange claim that immigration is a taboo subject in modern Britain. On the contrary, it seems to be all anybody ever talks about in the run up to this year's election. On coldly rational grounds, there is a wealth of evidence indicating immigration is good for our economy. Shutting our borders to the bright and ambitious from around the world, or freezing out foreign graduates as Theresa May wants to do, would be an act of national self-mutilation.

But on their own, facts, figures, and pedantic point-scoring will never convince sceptics of immigration's merits. In Birmingham, where diversity is a simple fact of life, the unpleasant nativism of UKIP barely gets a look in. The party does well in areas which have seen few newcomers, and badly in areas which have had lots. It is easy to disprove Emerson's claim that everyone in Birmingham is Muslim. My existence is enough. It is harder to convince people that over time immigration makes most people richer, and makes their lives better in other ways as well. Only human relationships have that power.

I would love to take Mr Emerson to the Quakers' meeting house in Bournville and discuss with them their lifestyle and beliefs. I would then take him for a pint in one of my favourite pubs in Birmingham city centre. If we came over Christmas we could have drank German mulled wine or wheat beer in the huge Christmas market which comes over from Frankfurt each year, bringing jobs, money and tourists from afar.

We could then head to a predominantly Muslim area like Sparkhill or Aston. I would buy him a Balti, Birmingham's signature dish, a type of curry in a steel pan. We would probably get beers with our meal, something our Muslim hosts would happily facilitate but be unlikely to do themselves. Their reasons would be similar to the Quakers' reasons. They would cite similar passages from their old book, which also came from the Middle East long ago. But I am sure they would be happy to talk to us over tea or soft drinks about their job, their children, and their family's journey from Pakistan to Birmingham. Emerson's view of British Muslims might change as a result.

His silly comments were mocked relentlessly and quickly by Twitter users using the hashtag #foxnewsfacts. To his credit, he issued a full and unreserved apology and offered to make a donation to Birmingham Children's Hospital. Brummies should accept this graciously, and invite him to visit our pubs and Balti Triangle.

Good-natured mockery and generous acceptance is something that comes naturally to most of us in Britain, regardless of race or religion. It does not come naturally to violent jihadists or opportunistic bigots. Living alongside those who are different can be challenging. In Birmingham we disagree on Aston Villa or Birmingham City, Labour or Conservative, chilli sauce or mayonnaise. We also disagree on how to kill our Balti meat, on what to teach our children, on questions of Heaven and Earth.

Terrorists despise disagreement and doubt. So do bigots. Be suspicious of those who think there are easy answers, be they in holy books or in closing borders. These people look for belief and moral certainty in a society in which there is little.

We non-Muslim Brummies can cope with people doubting our existence. God surely can too. Sharing, disagreeing, and gently mocking are the most powerful weapons we have against extremism and bigotry. Familiarity does not breed contempt, it conquers it.