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.

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What does the working-class boxing community think of the Labour party?

Traditional boxing gyms are often the only refuge and means of empowerment left in communities. How do they feel in these places about each of the leadership candidates?

After Brexit sucker-punched the political establishment, many have been looking for a counter shot. For some in the Labour party (I could say in the blue corner, but I won’t throw any low blows), the idea has been to elect Owen Smith. They feel that Jeremy Corbyn, in the far left corner (sorry), is not a proposition traditional working-class Labour voters can support.

Leeds is a tricky southpaw of a city, substantial affluent patches alongside some of the most deprived areas in the country. The majority of the council is Labour, as are its MPs. The latter range from the likes of Smith supporter Rachel Reeves to Corbyn-supporting Richard Burgon. Yet it is also a city that only just voted to remain in the EU, and has three Ukip MEPs compared with its two from Labour.

I often say one of the few places you’ll find all of the city's myriad social groups in one place is in the city’s high-quality boxing gyms, be they Irish traveller, black British, Asian or white working class. I have spent a large amount of time in them as a practitioner, trainer and journalist. Boxing gyms are almost always in a city’s less glamorous location and Leeds is no different, located at various points within the "circle of deprivation" around the city centre. These gyms are often the only refuge and means of empowerment left in communities long ago stripped of communal centers, libraries or efficient transport links to the wider area.

I know a large number of people who voted leave – not because they are racists, bigots, idiots, or any other accusation levelled at them. But simply because they feel abandoned and ignored by the status quo.

People in boxing are self-made, be it due to dedication to training around working a day job, volunteering time to train the next generation or setting up there own community gym. They are the kind of individuals Corbyn or Smith need to inspire when the leadership election is over. 

In its current guise however, the party as a whole is a disorganised mess, which offers little incentive to support it. I truly don’t believe, from conversations I’ve had, that people care about Blarites, Trots or any of the numerous other examples of incessant petty name-calling. The suggestion from die-hard supporters of either leadership candidate that one could suddenly sweep the board and regain or retain votes simply isn’t realistic. Boxers, and by extension, working people, are not ignorant or stupid. But few know or care who either candidate even is – not very dissimilar to Corbyn not knowing who Ant & Dec are.

Dave Allen, a title contender heavyweight from South Yorkshire, another area with pockets of deprivation and a huge tradition of voting Labour, expressed a common opinion. A Labour supporter, his main wish is that the winner is someone who is actually honest with voters, and provides factual information from which to make opinions. “I would to think that Labour, moving forward, will do all they can to support working-class people by giving them an opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns and that these are listened to and acted upon,” he says.

My personal opinion is that Corbyn at least offers an alternative to people who have long lost interest in career politicians, and an ideology upon which campaigners can hang their hat when in the community. Smith is the kind of identikit politician who people I speak to believe is parachuted into areas, unleashes some soundbites like a quick one-two punch and then bounces out of range, unaccountable. At least Corbyn has a substantial supporter base within his own party, who can try and campaign on his behalf within these communities and try and turn that tide of apathy.

Complacency is a boxer's biggest enemy – it really can only take one shot. As a Labour supporter and voter, I hope many in the party don’t succumb to being knocked out for the count.

James Oddy is a freelance sports writer, boxer and trainer. He tweets @Oddy1J.