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.

Show Hide image

Euston has to be the most horrible station in London, especially before ten in the morning

So off I go to Birmingham, the city where J G Ballard meets Captain Kirk.

A friend posts an ad for the John Lewis Soft Touch Washable Mattress Topper on a social medium. She doesn’t usually post adverts. “This actually will change your life,” she writes, “in the sense that you will not get out of bed and your muscles will atrophy and you will be penniless.”

I am tempted, I must say. Lately I have simply not been getting out of bed. The trick is to wake up at, say, eight in the morning, and then utilise that early-morning grogginess to go back to sleep. That way you wake up again around noon feeling deranged from the extra-weird dreams you’ve been having. The one where I stole my ex-girlfriend Debbie Milton from Prince Charles, whom she had unwisely married, and escaped with her in a white Rolls-Royce while an enraged Greg Chappell chased after us was quite something. (All details true, promise.)

But Saturday comes and I have to get out of bed because I am off to Birmingham. Why Birmingham? Because I’m being paid to. I am also chairing a talk between Diego Marani, whose most excellent novel New Finnish Grammar I am proud of having introduced to a wider audience than it might have received, and Frank Witzel, a German author of whom I know nothing, but the title of whose prize-winning (untranslated) novel, The Invention of the Red Army Faction By a Manic Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969, is suggestive of greatness to follow.

My train is at quarter to ten in the morning. That is horribly early, and it’s from Euston. Euston has to be the most horrible station in London. Crammed with fast-food outlets and shops selling tat, it is a wholly commercialised space, beneath which the trains hulk in confinement on their platforms like trapped beasts. They are also mostly Virgin trains, and bitter experience has taught me that these are unreliable and that one should never, under any circumstances, use their toilets. It’s best to Go before or, at a pinch, to soil oneself. After all, using one more or less amounts to the same thing.

I don’t have much experience of Birmingham, bitter or otherwise. I once gave a talk at Birmingham City University and was distracted by the Ballardian architecture of the place and by an audience member’s beauty, so much so, in the latter case, that I could not speak for a couple of minutes. But my attention is drawn to the fact that the Star Trek convention is taking place at the National Exhibition Centre in the city at the same time, and I think that as my event ends at around three I’ll skip over to the convention and, for a mere £15, have myself photographed on the set of the original Enterprise, sitting in the Captain’s chair.

I would have done anything for Captain James T Kirk when I was a child, and to this day you can catch me, from time to time, punching light switches with the fleshy part of my fist, the way he answers the internal comm-system in the TV series.

But it turns out, I learn from a friend who has had the same idea but actually committed himself to it, that there is a huge entry fee and the queues for the Captain’s chair are “apocalyptic”. So I decide not to go, and ask the hotel staff instead where the nearest decent old man pub is. They steer me in the direction of the Shakespeare round the corner.

This splendid pub huddles amid another Ballardian cityscape of car parks and stunted skyscrapers. The barman is nice, but does not know how to pronounce “Laphroaig”. “I wouldn’t even try,” he says. I teach him. It occurs to me that the whisky in the bottle is probably older than most of the buildings around it.

Why do we do this to cities? The view from my hotel is of a vast building site, behind which the few survivors of Birmingham’s Victorian heritage cluster like exhibits in a freak show: “See the Amazing Buildings Built More Than Twenty Years Ago!!” Still, at least Birmingham Library is, as modern buildings go, rather cool: and then I realise this is because the outside is modelled on the Sam Browne belt worn by Lieutenant Worf in Star Trek: the Next Generation.

I sigh at my nerdiness and take my place on stage. The chair, I decide, is suitably captainesque, and in front of us lies the flag, blue with yellow stars, of another federation, different from the one Gene Roddenberry dreamt of. I remember being excited, as a child, about the future, thinking of the progress we would make as it happened. The desire to go home, and dream, returns.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood