Project Champion and the stigmatisation of Muslim space

Arshad profile picArshad Isakjee

This article is part of a series on the legacy and future of Prevent.

March 2008 saw the initiation of Project Champion, a crime prevention programme based in Birmingham that involved the installation of over 200 closed-circuit television cameras. Such surveillance is always controversial, but, as Arshad Isakjee explains in this article, the fact that these cameras were secretly being used for the purpose of counter-terrorism, and were located only in the city’s Muslim areas,  meant they prompted widespread anger, eventually leading to a successful campaign by local residents to have the cameras removed.

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Of all the domestic police operations in the UK aimed at countering terrorism in the UK since 9/11, Project Champion[1] is arguably the most notorious. The installation of 216 security cameras in two of the most densely populated Muslim suburbs of Birmingham would surely have not been planned and implemented if there was any deference to due process. What’s more, Project Champion represented a more advanced form of surveillance – 106 of the cameras were Automated Number Plate Recognition devices, designed to track the movements of vehicles in a given area. These worked by capturing and logging the number-plate of every vehicle that passed through a given junction.

As it happened, neither The Association of Chief Police Officers (Terrorism and Allied Matters) (ACPO TAM), West Midlands Police nor Birmingham City Council, all of whom were partners in constructing the scheme, made any attempt to be open about the project. This partly explains why it is that when the scheme was finally uncovered by persistent residents in the affected and neighbouring areas, the outcry from both Muslims and civil-liberties groups in the city was so furious.

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“When Project Champion had been exposed, the anger of visitors to the affected areas of Birmingham was palpable.”

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However there was another aspect of the scheme which few have acknowledged which also explains the depth of feeling of Muslim – what Project Champion was saying about Muslim space. For those unfamiliar with Birmingham, the city’s inner-suburbs have a distinct character. Post-war migration into the city took place in waves from different corners of the empire, and with each wave there were specific places where immigrants would look to live – usually the cheapest lodgings that could be found in the city. Around these neighbourhoods ethnically-specific business would flourish and certain spaces would become the focus of belonging for many of Birmingham’s ethnic minorities. The concentrations of economic and cultural capital in these neighbourhoods is why Lozells might be perceived as having a Black-British character, why Handsworth is famous for its Indian cultural and religious sites and why Digbeth and Deritend are still known as the Irish Quarter.

Surveillance_camerasProject Champion was focussed on two spaces – the first encapsulates Alum Rock and Washwood Heath, the second Sparkhill and Sparkbrook. These spaces are defined by the main roads that run through the heart of them; Alum Rock road and Stratford Road, high streets which are teeming with Asian fashion stores, religious book-shops, halal food-shops providing a taste of South Asia and the Middle East, shisha-smoking and dessert-shops where young Muslims might socialise away from establishments that serve alcohol. Walking through these spaces, it’s not just the ownership of space, but the soundscape of Asian and African languages, Bollywood songs and Islamic hymns – and also the smells emanating from South Asian street-food stalls, that define its distinctiveness. These high-streets are visited by Muslims from distant towns and cities, looking to buy goods unavailable elsewhere. And when people speak crudely of ‘Asian areas’ or ‘Muslim areas’, these are the kinds of spaces they are referring to.

Project Champion therefore not only had significant implications for residents in the neighbourhoods of Birmingham affected, but also had a symbolic impact for Muslims more widely. The securitisation enacted by Project Champion was not of individuals, but of perceived Muslim space. During the research I carried out during the summer of 2010, when Project Champion had been exposed, the anger of visitors to Sparkhill and Alum Rock was palpable, with visitors from as far-afield as Leeds and Newcastle stopping to sign petitions against the scheme and voice their feelings of disappointment, derision and even disgust at the lack of openness or trust shown by authorities towards not only its Muslim populations, but even its elected Muslim officials.

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“Project Champion saw spaces that had become focal points for feelings of attachment being reconfigured and stigmatised as foreign and dangerous.”

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Residents of both areas affected, too, commonly spoke of how they felt spaces in the city were being differentiated; between the ‘dangerous’ neighbourhoods where Muslims lived and the safe spaces alongside. Furthermore, the monitoring of local spaces, an awareness of being ‘watched’ or tracked, whether this was real or imagined, impinged on their experiences of everyday life. Local protestors against the scheme spoke passionately about what they felt was a malevolent gaze following even their most mundane activities.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from the experience of Project Champion, especially for authorities, most obviously on the importance of trust and reciprocity in engaging with Muslim citizens and communities. It was with this in mind perhaps that Thames Valley Police’s review of the Champion controversy suggested that community relations had been ‘put back a decade’. Whilst that conclusion might have been somewhat hyperbolic, one important lesson that Champion can teach us is that such schemes and increased civilian-focussed  surveillance in general can undermine the sense of belonging of those very citizens it seeks to protect. Project Champion saw spaces that had become focal points for feelings of attachment for residents and recent migrants, being classified as requiring monitoring. British spaces had been reconfigured and stigmatised as foreign and dangerous.

Arshad Isakjee is a social and urban geographer based at the University of Birmingham who specialises in identity, belonging, security and the governance of communities. His doctoral research investigated the political-identity and governance of Muslim communities in Birmingham, in light of the Government’s emerging set of counter-terrorism and anti-extremism policies.


[1] More details about Project Champion, and the successful campaign against it by local residents, can be found in Ken Fero and Tariq Mehmood’s documentary ‘Defeat of the Champion’ (Migrant Media). See http://vimeo.com/35962437

The image of security cameras is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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