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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.