Tariq Jahan interview: "I don't see a broken society"

The grieving father talks to the New Statesman about tougher sentencing, and his Islamist past.

The grieving father talks to the New Statesman about tougher sentencing, his Islamist past and his memories of his son.

In this week's New Statesman, on the newsstands tomorrow, Tariq Jahan -- the grieving father whose son Haroon was killed during the violence in Birmingham last week -- speaks to me about tougher sentencing for criminals and looters, David Cameron and the "broken society", his own surprising Islamist past and, of course, how he is coping with the loss of his young son.

Here are some extracts from the interview (and it was probably the most difficult and heartbreaking interview I've ever had to do):

On tougher laws and sentencing

In a rebuke to the Prime Minister's call for a "fightback" and "crackdown" against the antisocial elements of British society, Jahan says there is no need for "more stringent" laws:

To David Cameron, to parliament, I say: don't make the laws any more stringent. Don't make the laws any tighter. It doesn't help. Joe Public hates authority. Don't make yourselves out to be tyrants, oppressing the people. We don't need to be pushed back against the wall.

Later in the interview, he again remarks:

I don't think tougher action will make any difference . . . We've had enough tough laws as it is.

Jahan is particularly concerned that the police will overreact in future.

What I don't want to see are the stop-and-search seizures all over again.

Nor is he interested in harsher sentencing -- for the looters or for the killer of his son:

Don't change the law just because my son was killed. Changing the law to make the punishment even greater does not bring my son back. It doesn't bring those two brothers back.

On the "Broken Society"

He rejects David Cameron's rhetoric about society being "sick" or "broken":

I don't see a broken society. I see a minority of people who took advantage of the country when the country was in crisis. They didn't think of the country and only thought about themselves, their own personal greed and satisfaction.

And Jahan says he will "never, never blame England for what happened to my son. It wasn't the country's fault. Was the whole country after my son? No."

He is scathing about the conservative historian David Starkey's recent attempt on BBC Newsnight to blame the rioting and looting on black gang culture.

Nonsense. Why blame the black community? Why point fingers? I totally disagree.

On his Islamist past

In a surprising admission, Jahan tells me that, as a teenager growing up in Slough, he was a "miscreant" who started moving in Islamic religious circles that grew increasingly extremist. He ended up attending events held by Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), the radical Islamist organisation that has been accused of being part of the ideological "conveyor belt" of violent extremism and terrorism.

He wasn't ever, he says, a card-carrying member of Hizb ut-Tahrir but he does admit to working as a bodyguard for the reviled cleric and former HT leader Omar Bakri Mohammed, who has since been banned from Britain.

At the age of 20, Jahan says, he got married, moved to Birmingham and left "HT and all those other religious groups" behind:

I got involved with my own family and had my three kids.

Asked for his opinion of modern Muslim extremism, Jahan says some young British Muslims need "to cool down" and he adds:

There are too many bleeding extremists now.

However, he says he disagrees with the Conservative Party election manifesto pledge to outlaw Hizb ut-Tahrir and advocates a dialogue with home-grown Islamists:

If you've got an extremist group, sit them down and communicate with them. We've been at war in Afghanistan for the past ten years and now we've decided we want to talk to the Taliban. If we can talk to the Taliban, why can't we talk to these [domestic] extremist groups?

On his son's death

Jahan speaks movingly in the interview about Haroon and how hard it has been to cope with the fallout from his murder during the riots:

Publicly, you won't see a tear from me or my family.

In private, however, it is a different matter:

Me and my wife, we sit down in our bedroom each night, we put our heads together and we cry and we cry and we cry, until we can't cry any more.

 

Mehdi Hasan (left) with Tariq Jahan. Credit: Lorne Campbell

Tariq Jahan.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

COREY HOCHACHKA/ALAMY
Show Hide image

He went in to report on crystal meth – before long, Luke Williams was hooked

The journalist moved into a house of meth addicts to investigate the drug. Within a month, he was using, too.

“I got a story, a very good story,” writes the young Australian journalist Luke Williams in the first chapter of his new book, The Ice Age. “Only it wasn’t the one I was expecting.” For three months in 2014, he lived in a house of crystal meth addicts in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, to investigate the drug. Within a month, he had forgotten why he was there. He had become addicted himself.

What follows is a dizzying retelling of his experiences, which veers between stories of Williams’s psychotic episodes and facts about his drug of choice. His descent into addiction happened in a nondescript house in Pakenham, a suburb to the south-east of Melbourne – “one of the most badly affected meth areas in Australia”.

Williams, now 36, grew up nearby and went to school there. He already knew two meth users in the area well enough to rent a room with them – an out-of-work labourer called Smithy and his live-in ex-girlfriend Beck. It was they who gave Williams his first shot of crystal meth, less than three weeks into his stay.

The crystal form of methamphetamine, also known as “ice”, is an addictive and powerful stimulant that causes euphoria. It heightens alertness, energy and arousal, with comedowns that can lead to aggression and violence.

It has gained cultural significance in recent years because of the US television drama Breaking Bad, in which an otherwise mild-mannered and law-abiding chemistry teacher “cooks” and sells crystal meth. Yet not much is known about the long-term effects of the drug, which in some countries – such as the Czech Republic – is a graver problem than heroin. In the UK, crystal meth activity is low and mainly linked to the gay chemsex party scene, where drugs are used to enhance group sex experiences.


Photo: Scribe

The drug is linked to severe psychosis, which Williams experienced first hand. Detailed in his book in a neat little list, like a morbid twist on a teenage diary, are Williams’s delusions, entitled: “My psychotic ideas”. Some are harrowing. His conviction that his parents are trying to poison him, for example, which results in him threatening to kill them “with my bare f***ing hands”. Others are amusing: he abandons his journalistic endeavour almost immediately in the belief that his calling is to become a famous rap star.

“I think that I could maybe do spoken word, but rapping? No, no,” he chuckles, when he speaks to me via Skype from Nepal, where he is researching another story. He says that he wanted to investigate crystal meth use partly because he was bored. He had left journalism to work at a law firm, and his life “lacked a bit of kick”.

Although he describes himself as “white, middle-class [and] educated”, he was fixated by the characters from his youth on the city’s outskirts. “I missed [them] in the middle-class world; it seemed so polite and clean . . . I looked forward to getting back there, living cheap, and when I saw the state some of my friends were in, I was very curious to know what was going on with them. Nobody was writing about the working class and the underclass.”

Williams quickly shifted from observer to addict. In alarming and frank detail, his book tells of marathon masturbation sessions (his record was 16 hours), physical altercations and a thick fog of paranoia. He would search his name online and become convinced that anything written by, or about, the name “Luke Williams” involved him.

He became so obsessed with the memory of an ex-boyfriend called Nathaniel that he believed that Smithy had turned his ex “into a transsexual, so that he and his mates could have their way with the new female Nathaniel”.

After three months, Williams was kicked out of the house by an aggressive Smithy, who thought the journalist was stealing his cannabis (he wasn’t). The nearby hospital gave him no help, so Williams ended up on the streets. After a lot of persuasion, he eventually returned to safety with his parents. He has been recovering ever since.

There is talk of a crystal meth “epidemic” in rural and suburban areas of Australia, which has among the highest usage of the drug in the world. The number of people using it there tripled from 2011 to 2016, and 7 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 have reported using amphetamines or methamphetamines (in the UK, it’s 1 per cent).

Although Luke Williams’s story is an insight into one of the world’s most dangerous substances, it’s also a lesson in doing your research. The first time Williams took crystal meth, it was injected by one of his housemates and he believed that it was no different from powdered meth – more commonly known as speed – which he had been using occasionally to give him the energy to write.

The group called everything “meth”, regardless of what they were taking. “Our lingo just didn’t differentiate,” Williams tells me. “People don’t really understand the difference. I got the opportunity to say in the public domain that [crystal meth] is different . . . It eats away at your inside.”

The Ice Age: A Journey Into Crystal-Meth Addiction by Luke Williams is published by Scribe.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era