Saturday, 31 July 2010

More Project Champion spin

Following a mauling by the public, politicians and civil liberties organisations, the supporters of Project Champion, the hair-brain plan to encircle particular Muslim communities with spy cameras, are trying to regroup.

Their new strategy is to try and play Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook wards off against each other. We got a taster in the Birmingham Mail last week. They ran a story which might as well have been written by the police themselves. Apparently, 'Washwood Heath residents back use of CCTV'. The article includes quotes from some residents who were asked their views about the bagged cameras, and surprise surprise, responded by saying that if the cameras helped reduce crime and protect property, they were welcome. Sometime you can get the answer you want in the way you frame the question. And if the distinction between normal CCTV cameras and those which have a specific anti-terrorist surveillance remit is blurred, of course in areas with high crime rates people will invariably respond positively to their installation.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Council cuts will put most vulnerable children at risk

Birmingham city council has been under public scrunity again after the findings of the review into the death of seven year old Khyra Ishaq found it was 'preventable'. There was a litany of neglect. From her mother and stepfather, from her father as Deborah Orr rightly points out in an excellent article in yesterday's Guradian, from the family GP, and from Birmingham city council, in particular its Social Services and Education departments.

But rather than feel reassured that lessons have been learnt, I feel the opposite. The recent Ofstead report points out that "critical practice shortcomings, particularly within children's social care and health, mean that not all children are being safeguarded and protected." And with the city council planning hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to services over the next four years, the words of Councillor Les Lawrence, cabinet member for children, young people and families, that the council will create "a children's social care service that better protects our young people from those who would harm them", rings hallow.

The planned cuts will put the most vulnerable children more at risk. Khyra' s memory deserves better than this.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

From Soweto to Gaza

When British Prime Ministers lambast Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, you know something is in the air. Palestinian solidarity is reaching new heights as outrage over their suffering grows. Echoes of the anti-apartheid movement are strong and the lessons of that movement relevant.

In the 1970s and 1980s Soweto became a global watchword not simply for the murderous brutality of the racist Apartheid regime but also for the heroic resistance of the South African people. Solidarity with Soweto became a huge, popular international movement which helped isolate Apartheid.

Today, Gaza requires that same wave of support. To that end my friends in Philosophy Football have produced a delightfully simple T-shirt design on a non-profit making basis. They are actively supporting and raising funds for the September 2010 aid convoys to Gaza organised by Viva Palestina.

Not everybody can go on the convoy but we can all wear 'GAZA' on our chest and help spread the message of solidarity. The t-shirts are available in sizes S-XXL, plus womens' skinny-rib fit at JUST £9.99. They can be ordered here. Show your solidarity with the Palestinians and buy one today!

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Justice for Kashmir

Concern about recent violence in Kashmir has been a hot topic of conversation among residents in Sparkbrook last weekend. On Friday, my colleague Councillor Shokat Ali joined a picket of the Indian consulate, and I attended a very large Kashmiri event in Anderton Road mosque on Sunday night. As Open Democracy point out there are real concerns that the Indian security services are operating a shoot-to-kill policy against stone throwers on the streets of Kashmir. Indeed, the authorities there have openly deemed stone throwing a criminal offence punishable with death or a lifetime in prison.’ Even the Israelis have not gone that far, at least not publicly. Investigations have been launched into shocking allegations that Indian soldiers are killing innocent Kashmiris under the pretext that they are ‘terrorists’ in order to claim combat bonuses.

Like the situations in Palestine and Northern Ireland, the roots of this conflict have their origins in the British Empire. Britain bequeathed Kashmir to India against the wishes of the Kashmiri people, when they partitioned the country in 1947. The result of that decision has been decades of brutal occupation and an armed resistance that has cost the lives of many thousands of people, and brought nuclear armed India and Pakistan to the brink of war on at least three occasions.

The ongoing conflict in Kashmir has huge implications for the security of all of South Asia. But when David Miliband, then the Foreign Secretary, spoke of the need for a resolution to the conflict, there was an outcry from the Indian government. They showed they were in no mood for compromise. This may not be surprising after the horror of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, but it is clearly in the long term interests of both Pakistan and India that this issue is resolved. And if there is to be a resolution then there will have to be some compromises. History awaits the emergence of an Indian Nelson Mandela who has the vision to try to bring peace to Kashmir.

Because of its historical connections Britain could play an important role in this, and has a moral responsibility to do so. As David Cameron embarks on a state visit to India today this could be a good opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, so far, he has chosen not to make any public comments, apparently keen not to antagonise the Indians; keen as he is to attract their cash while imposing immigration caps to keep Indian people out of the UK. India is an important economic power, but that should not prevent us speaking up for justice for Kashmir.


Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Lib Dem voters feel cheated

According to a new survey four out of 10 Lib Dem voters feel cheated. They would not have voted Lib Dem at the General Election if they had known their votes were going to prop up the Tories. I am not surprised Lib Dem voters are angry. And Birmingham voters even more so. Lib Dem council candidates made no mention of the £230 million worth of cuts they are foisting on us when they were seeking votes in May. And they have  no mandate for them. With the Lib Dems already haemorrhaging support in the polls, the next round of local elections in May promises to be very interesting. 

Monday, 26 July 2010

This law needs to be enforced

Yesterday's Observer carried a disturbing report about female genital mutilation (FGM). According to medical professionals up to 2,000 British school girls could be subjected to it over the summer months. In the majority of the cases FGM is carried out abroad. The practice is common in parts of Africa and the Middle East. The young girls think they are just going to visit family relations unaware of what is in store for them.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Lift this death sentence

Yesterday I went along to a protest in Victoria Square to highlight the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. She is the 43 year old mother of two who was facing death by stoning in Iran after being accused of having an 'illicit relationship' with two men. The threat of stoning has been lifted, but she is still facing execution.

I don't know whether there is any truth in the allegation about her 'crime'. It does not matter. What consenting adults do in private is their own business. It certainly should be of no concern to any state. Sakineh has already received 99 lashes. The flogging was barbaric enough. Execution, by whatever means, is even more so. I hope the international outcry about her plight will force the Iranian government to show her some mercy.

I can't stand double standards. Women the world over are on the receiving end of them much too often. I doubt very much if a hetrosexual man anywhere would face such extreme sanctions for actions in their private life.

But I also cannot stand double standards from those in the West who cry crocodile tears about the plight of Muslim women while cheerleading the awful brutality of wars that kill and widow them, supposedly in the name of their own 'liberation'.

No doubt, as with women of Afghanistan, there will be some who seek to exploit the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani for their own ugly ends. Regardless, what is happening to this woman is morally unjust. She should be freed immediately.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

£230m worth of council cuts to come

Council boss Stephen Hughes has given a glimpse of the future the 'progressive partnership' have in store for the people of Birmingham. In a revealing interview with BBC WM's Steve Dyson he says there are at least £230m cuts on the way over the next four years. There be less council staff, less council services, less funding for community organisations.

These cuts are in addition to a multitude of government cuts which, when they cascade down, will have a devastating impact on those communities most in need. Cuts to housing benefit alone are set to leave poorest £600 worse off.

This government's austerity package is unnecessary and driven by dogma. The Tories are exploiting an economic crisis caused by private sector greed as an excuse to slash public spending. But I expected no different from them. It is the behaviour of the Liberal Democrats that is especially shocking. They have sold their soul and no amount of libertarianism on personal freedoms can disguise it. They will have no role to play in protecting Birmingham's poorest from the coming storm. They should be made to pay the price for their craven ambition at the ballot box .

Friday, 23 July 2010

Action needed on private hire taxi safety

At lunchtime yesterday I attended a memorial on Broad Street for the murdered taxi driver Mohammed Arshad. It was one of a series of events held across Birmingham in which taxi drivers had a minutes silence on the first anniversary of his death.

Mr Arshad’s murder highlighted the risks for drivers in the private hire taxi business. Yet one year on there has been a lack of progress from the city council in minimising those risks. The production of a pocket size Drive Safety Pack with personal safety advice is to be welcomed, but it is not much of a deterrent to those who recognise that private hire drivers are vulnerable to attack.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Letter to the Birmingham Mail

Earlier this week I sent a short letter to the Birmingham Mail about the deaths of two Midlands soldiers in Afghanistan. Since then another two soldiers have been killed in what was hitherto regarded as the safer district of Lashkar Gah in Helmand.

The call for a dramatic change of strategy in Afghanistan is getting louder. The Guardian had a particularly strong editorial on Tuesday: 'While our armies continue to fight there, we provide the Taliban with a glue more binding on the disparate groups and clan loyalities comprising this insurgency, than Pashtun nationalism and supra-ethnic Islamism combined...The presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is their central rallying cause. Put more troops in, and their determination to fight becomes all the stronger.'

My letter to the Mail is below.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

War criminal still at large

Remember Tony Blair's claims about the deadly threat posed by Saddam? Remember his denials of any link between 7/7 and our foreign policy? It now transpires that the person best placed to make an accurate assessment of both, gave him completely the opposite advice. In her testimony to the Chilcott Enquiry, Lady Manningham-Buller, the head of the security services at the time, said she told Blair that Saddam posed a 'very limited' threat, that the invasion of Iraq would 'substantially' increase the threat of 'terrorism', and that the impact of our foreign policy had radicalised 'a few among a generation' of British muslims.

'Blair lied, thousands died' was a chant on the anti-war demos at the time. Instead of parading around the world as an elder statesman, Tony Blair should be on trial facing war crime charges. Shame on him, and shame on all those Labour MP's and councillors too spineless or indifferent to both Iraqi and British lives to stand up and be counted at the time when they were most needed.

'Anger over review into spy cameras in Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath'

Good article from the Birmingham Mail. You can read it here here though for some reason the original link no longer seems to work. Full story below.

'ANGER was mounting today after it was revealed that the police officer chosen to head an independent review into a highly controversial camera surveillance scheme in Birmingham, also sits on the board which designed and financed the project.

The Muslim community were outraged when the cameras, some of them covert, appeared in April without consultation, claiming they were being used to spy on them, though the police said they were to help fight general crime.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Education is a right, not a privilege

I received a free university education, as did most of the politicians now pulling up the drawbridge behind them as they look for more ways to turn education into a privilege and not a right. For myself, and millions of others, a university education was made possible by a society that valued higher and continuing education, and was willing to invest in it.

Increasingly education is treated as little more than a commodity; to be snapped up by those most able to pay. Bit by bit, the principle of free education has been replaced by the notion that students are ‘consumers’ who should pay for the benefit they get from studying.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Government reject calls to ban niqab

Immigration Minister Damien Green is to be congratulated for dismissing calls for a ban on the niqab. In response, Philipe Hollobone, the attention seeking MP behind the bill calling for a ban, has said he will not meet any constituent who wears a face veil. In acting in such an intolerant manner Hollobone undermines one of the fundamental principles of the 'British way of life' he claims he wants to protect: the right of every citizen to expect equal representation from their MP. Having crossed swords with Hollobone a lot over the last week in the media I can safely predict that the irony of his stance will be lost on him.

Like many Muslims I find this all depressing. But it also provokes feelings of bemusement. One European government after another apparently feels compelled to proscribe the clothing choice of a tiny percentage of their population. It would be funny if it was not so sinister. In Belgium, it is said that only 30 women in the entire country wear the niqab. In France, it is less than 2,000 out of a population of 64 million. With Europe in the middle of its greatest economic crisis in over half a century you might be forgiven for thinking there are more serious issues to address.

I am against the imposition of dress codes on women, whether they live in Saudi Arabia or Southampton. It is a woman’s right to choose how to dress and nobody else’s. It certainly is not the right of any religious authority, father, husband, brother or politician to impose a dress code. Everybody should have the right to freedom of expression as long as in so doing they do not infringe on the rights of others. It is a simple principle that does not mean we have to agree with each other. Incidentally, that is a principle that some Muslims should think about more deeply. We rightly demand that our rights to practice our faith are upheld. We rightly insist that we are treated equally and with the same respect as all other citizens. It seems to me that it is hypocritical to demand these rights for ourselves, but to object when gay people, for example, demand the same equality as citizens. It is a basic principle of pluralism and civility that we don't only defend the freedoms of people whose choices we happen to like. Indeed the real test of tolerance and freedom is defending the  rights of people whose choices we may actually dislike or disagree with - as long of course they do not harm or infringe the rights of others.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

The NHS is not for sale

Andrew Lansley, the Conservative Health Minister, has blown the trumpet call for the privatization of the National Health Service. Using the fear that has been well-stoked by the ConDem government, a major attack on the principles of free health care in the UK has been announced. Without an ounce of shame, Lansley declared a complete dismissal of the promises made by both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats during the general election campaign. In other words, no-one voted for this but the government wishes to do it anyway.

After 13 years of New Labour changes in the NHS, including creeping privatization, the very last thing needed was a new re-organization. Lansley has confirmed that General Practitioner (GP) practices will be expected to take on planning and commissioning of health care over the next four years, thus removing the role of Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) in planning.

Dr Kay Phillips, a practicing GP and National Chair of the Respect Party, was not impressed by the changes. 'GPs are trained in clinical diagnosis not financial planning or management. Most GPs do not want to be finance managers; they just want to be left to treat patients. This re-organization will put GPs at the forefront of making cuts and bringing in private companies.'

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Steve McCurry exhibition

Earlier this week I managed to pop into the Waterhall Gallery to see the Steve McCurry retrospective. It is a fantastic exhibition, literally teeming with colour and humanity. McCurry is most famous for a striking photograph he took of the Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula and there is an interesting documentary accompanying the exhibition about his attempts to track her down nearly two decades later. I was not surprised to read on his blog that McCurry is a critic of the war in Afghanistan. He has too much love for humanity, and seen the reality of war up close in Afghanistan and elsewhere, to be indifferent to its devastating consequences. This exhibition is really not to be missed. To get a taste of what delights await, check out the galleries section on Steve McCurry's website. Well done to the staff at the Waterhall for providing the opportunity to appreciate the work of a great photographer.

Friday, 16 July 2010

George Galloway on Question Time

I thought George Galloway was a breath of fresh air on Question Time last night and by far the best panellist. You can watch the programme here. Well done George!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Balsall Heath in Bloom

Earlier today I joined students and staff from Percy Shurmer School, residents from Kinver Croft Tenants Association, and staff from Balsall Heath Forum in giving a guided tour around Balsall Heath to judges from the Britain in Bloom competition. Balsall Heath has been literally transformed over the last decade, and local residents taking pride in the appearance and upkeep of their area has been a critical factor. The children and young people should also be congratulated, not only for their litter picking activities, but also for their enthusiasm and skill in growing vegetables which the judges were treated to in a delicious meal for lunch. As a councillor I am proud that in Balsall Heath we are not just cultivating plants, but attitudes as well!

George is on Question Time tonight

George Galloway is one of the panellists on Question Time tonight. The programme is broadcast at 10.35pm on BBC One. George always gives a brilliant performance and I am sure tonight will be no different. Make sure you watch it!

Central News interview on face veil ban

I have been doing a lot of media interviews about whether face veils should be banned. You can see last night's interview on Central News here.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

We are wasting lives in Afghanistan

New opinion polls show that 75% of the British public want the troops out of Afghanistan either immediately or ‘within the next year or two’. NATO strategy is in growing crisis and the case for withdrawal is gaining momentum. Later this evening I will be speaking alongside Andrew Murray at the Stop the War AGM about how we can bring this senseless war to an end before more lives are wasted. The meeting is open to the public.

Birmingham Stop the War AGM
Wednesday 14 July
Carrs Lane Church Centre (opposite Moor Street Station) 
B4 7SX

Face veils: a woman's right to choose

You can see my debate here with Tory MP Phillip Hollobone about whether we should ban the face veil.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

I will be on BBC2's The Daily Politics Show today

I am literally dashing out the door to go to London for an appearance on BBC2's The Daily Politics Show. I will be debating with Conservative MP, Philip Hollobone his plans to enforce restrictions on the rights of Muslim Women to dress as they choose. The programme is broadcast from noon.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Interview on Brazilian TV

This is a recent interview I did for Global TV, the biggest television network in Latin American. The feature is about Muslim women and the burka, and a lot of it is in French with Portuguese subtitles. My interview is at near the end of the piece.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

The bravery of Katie Piper

Last week I was privileged to meet Katie Piper. Katie was a model who was horrifically disfigured in an acid attack by her ex-boyfriend. We were both among the guest speakers at a ‘Smiles Better’ fundraising event in Birmingham organized by the charity Islamic Help, which does fantastic work for acid burns victims across South Asia. Although Katie has done lots of interviews this was her first public speaking engagement and her courage was an inspiration to all of us lucky enough to hear her. Katie was one of the first people to benefit from pioneering new surgery and the organizers of the dinners are hoping to raise money in order to train doctors in South Asia in the latest techniques.

Acid throwing is a particularly vicious crime, all the more distressing because invariably it is committed by someone close to the victim. In some South Asian countries there are encouraging signs of public opposition, but there is still a long way to go before it is completely eradicated. Charities like Islamic Help, and brave victims like Katie Piper, are doing their bit to bring that day closer.

Friday, 9 July 2010

‘Afghanistan is a catastrophe’

‘Our leaders would rather avoid embarrassment than be honest about the horrific futility of the wars we are fighting.’ Another timely article from the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

A visit to Small Heath School

Earlier this week I was invited to address some teachers and pupils at Small Heath School on the theme of community cohesion. I was touched by their warmth and hospitality. I started by making reference to the spy cameras debate which has been prominent in the news here. I made the point that community cohesion goes both ways. Demonising entire communities and making them feel like they don't belong is a recipe for disaster. But we are not powerless when incidents like this occurs. We have the ability to react in a positive way, in a way that actually strengthens community cohesion. That is what is so great about the campaign against the cameras. It has consciously gone out to unite people from all communities, and in the process diminish a sense of isolation among the Muslim community. And it has been successful in that regard. (Sparkbrook resident and playwright  David Edgar being the latest to voice his concerns).

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Remember 7/7

Today is the fifth anniversary of the horrific bombings in London which claimed the lives of 52 innocent people and injured over 700 more. My thoughts and prayers are with all those who lost loved ones and all those whose lives were so cruelly affected by this murderous and immoral act. 7/7 was an attack on all of us, irrespective of race or religion. As the Muslim Council of Britain note 'this was an attack on the very concept of an open pluralistic society and all those – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – who wish to be part of it. Among those killed there were four promising young Muslims who came from diverse backgrounds.'

Five years on, we are told that the risk of terrorist attacks has not gone away. But neither have we seen, as many feared we would, a wave of similar atrocities. We can continue to hope that the fears of another 7/7 never become a reality. That means it is right that we reflect on some of the lessons of the past five years, in an attempt to make our world and our country a safer and more peaceful place.

'Terrorism: In the face in fear'

'Five years on, Blairite plans to close mosques and force the courts to churn out control orders are forgotten, even if Robert Lambert's description to today's Guardian of a "flawed neconservative" security agenda retains some validity. The departure of a crusading imperialist from the White House helped to cool things down, as did the courageous decision of the then opposition to see off Labour plans to jail terrorism suspects for 90 days and then – once that pitch failed – for 42 days before they were charged. Above all, however, reality intruded. The political edict that barred any admission of the linkage between foreign policy and the terrorism threat collapsed under the weight of intelligence connecting the two.'

Sober and sensible editorial from the Guardian on the fifth anniversary of 7/7.

World Tonight interview

You can hear my interview about the spy cameras for BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight here. It is 26 minutes into the programme.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

From Birmingham to Gaza

Plans are afoot for a new aid convoy to Gaza. Viva Palestina director Kevin Ovenden outlines them here. I intend on travelling with the new convoy when it leaves Britain on September 18th and tomorrow I will be addressing a meeting with Kevin to kick start the organisation of the Birmingham contingent. Show your solidarity with the Palestinians. Come along to the meeting tomorrow night and help us build the aid convoy from our city.

Viva Palestina Organising Meeting
7pm Wednesday 7 July
Balsall Heath Church Centre
100 Mary Street
B12 9JU

Monday, 5 July 2010

'Police apologise for spy camera outrage'

Read the Birmingham Mail's report of yesterday's fantastic meeting here. The spy camera scandal quite rightly continues to generate media attention. Earlier today I recorded an interview for Radio 4's  The World Tonight which is due to be broadcast this evening.

Both pictures are the work of local photographer Timm Sonnenschein.

Community says 'NO' to spy cameras

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Lessons from Ireland

I am a strong supporter of the Irish peace process and believe there is much to be learned from it for conflict resolution in Kashmir, Palestine and Afghanistan. This video gives a flavour of the recent London conference on Irish unity which I participated in. You can read my speech to the conference here.

And for those who might have missed it, check out this video on the experiences of the Irish and Muslim communities in Birmingham.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Stop the War to step up Afghanistan campaign

At the June meeting of the Stop the War steering committee, Steve Bell outlined the "new stage of crisis for the NATO occupation of Afghanistan". His report is worth reading in full, and is reprinted here.

Steve notes the increasing sense of 'disengagement' on behalf of many allies of the US operation, and argues that the election of the new ConDem government has brought into the open some of the 'tensions' surrounding the British role in Afghanistan.

With public services facing the chop, a £5 billion a year bill for this war is increasingly hard for its advocates to justify. But more than that, they clearly do not know how a war like this could ever be 'won'. David Cameron has ruled out sending more troops, and now says that Britain cannot be in Afghanistan in five years time. The occupation is in crisis, and those leading it are refusing to face up to the obvious necessity of starting the search for peace.

Steve's report concludes that, "...the anti-war movement must be aware of how vital it is to increase its activity. Parliament is full of new MPs, many of whom can be placed under real pressure..." He is right, and now is the time for us to revitalise our campaign.

Birmingham Stop the War is holding its annual general meeting this month. I will be speaking alongside Andrew Murray (National Chair of Stop the War).

Birmingham Stop the War
Wednesday 14 July
Carrs Lane Church Centre (opposite Moor Street Station).

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Speak out against spy cameras

On Sunday, there will be a public rally organised by Birmingham Against Spy Cameras (BASC) in opposition to the mass surveillance scheme being implemented in the Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath areas of Birmingham. I will be one of the speakers at the rally, which brings together a diverse range of organisations and individuals who strongly oppose the scheme and are calling for it to be scrapped. Come and find out why, and add your voice to the campaign.

Birmingham Against Spy Cameras
Sunday 4 July
4.30 pm
The Bordesley Centre
(Camp Hill roundabout, Stratford Road, B11 1AR)

The event will be chaired by broadcaster and journalist Adrian Goldberg and speakers confirmed so far include:

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI, Director of Liberty

GARETH PEIRCE, human rights lawyer

SALMA YAQOOB (Leader of the Respect Party and Councillor for Sparkbrook)

ALEX DEANE, (Director, Big Brother Watch)

RAY GASTON (Methodist minister, Inter-faith enabler and author)

JOHN HEMMING (LibDem MP for Birmingham Yardley)

TANVEER CHOUDHRY (Lib Dem councillor, Springfield ward)