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Tuesday, 29 January, 2002, 09:02 GMT
Tipton in shock
The news that three of their own have been captured by US forces in Afghanistan has come as a shock to many people living in Tipton, in the West Midlands.
They are not used to seeing their home turf hit the headlines, and many seem unsure how to react.
UK security services are investigating reports that Shafid Rasul, 24, Asif Iqbal, 20, and Ruhal Ahmed were members of a radical Muslim prayer group based in the area.
Mr Rasul, a law student, and Mr Iqbal are being held among Taleban and al-Qaeda suspects at Camp X-Ray in Cuba., while Mr Ahmed is being questioned in the Afghan city of Kandahar.
He added he was anxious not to pre-judge what the men had been doing in Afghanistan.
But many local representatives are keen to deny any extremist activity exists in the area, and most of those willing to speak on the matter insist Tipton's ethnic minority population lives in harmony with the rest of the community.
Adrian Bailey, the Labour MP for West Bromwich West, who spoke to the Rasul family on Sunday, said the community as a whole was "shocked and amazed" at what had happened.
"The Muslim community in Tipton is old established, well integrated and moderate, and there is very little sympathy for the al-Qaeda cause," he said.
A leading member of the area's Pakistani community, who did not want to be named, said local Muslims had been mainly supportive of the American action in Afghanistan since the 11 September attacks.
"You'd maybe more expect it within other larger communities like Bradford and Birmingham but we have a relatively small Pakistani community here.
"We haven't had any information prior to this to suggest that there have been young men going to fight in Afghanistan. Often you get into a situation where it's common knowledge within the community but there's been nothing like that."
Ian Binnie is head teacher of Alexandra High School and Sixth Form Centre which both Mr Rasul and Mr Iqbal attended, and where Mr Ahmed is now also reported to have been educated.
He described the Rasul and Iqbal families as "sound Asian Tiptons", adding that the two former students were remembered by staff as "average" pupils who were "involved in occasional scrapes but nothing serious".
There was obviously no indication at the time of any extreme fundamentalist views.
"Talk of gang involvement or any such issues within the school at the time is completely untrue," he said.
"Tipton is a multi-cultural, multi-faith community.
While residents are keen to defend their community, the area does have a number of social problems.
With a history of long-term unemployment, it is one of the poorest places in Britain.
Much of the workforce is employed in manufacturing, and Tipton, like other centres in the West Midlands, was hit hard by Britain's industrial decline.
Tipton is part of the borough of Sandwell, a cluster of six towns in the heart of the Black Country, which make up the seventh most deprived district of England - the fourth worst outside London.
A report by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in 1998 described Tipton as "an area criss-crossed with railway lines, canals and roads with a large proportion of derelict and vacant land."
It said there was 18.7% unemployment, low educational achievement and poor housing and health.
Unsurprisingly, it also said Tipton had a "high dependency on benefits or low income households".
The area also has smaller numbers of people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, who arrived in the 60s and 70s to take up manual jobs in the manufacturing industry.
Tipton's ethnic minority population has attracted considerable attention from members of far-right organisations.
Despite residents' insistence that life is "harmonious", the British National Party gained 24% of the vote in the Tipton Green ward in the May 2000 local elections.
Cllr Jones, who represents the Tipton Green ward, said at least 80% of the Park estate where the Rasul family lived were from ethnic minorities.
Despite his claims of an extremist fundamentalist group operating in the Tipton area, he said: "There are a lot of moderate Muslims who live in the area in harmony.
"Like all other areas you're going to have tension.
"We do get some far-right activity around election times which is regrettable, but on the whole it's no different from other areas.
"That's how it has come as a surprise, the seriousness of this situation - it has come as a shock," he said.
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