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Tariq Jahan tells Mehdi Hasan: “I don’t see a broken society”

In the aftermath of the riots, Tariq Jahan’s quiet dignity over his son’s death made him a national hero. Here, he speaks movingly about losing a child, and the radical Islamist past he abandoned to become a father.

There is a small crowd of mourners gathered outside the home of Tariq Jahan in Winson Green, to the west of Birmingham's city centre. "That's him. That's the guy," says my cab driver excitedly, pointing at Jahan, who has come out of his house to speak with the people standing in his driveway. Passing drivers wave at him; two police community support officers wait to shake his hand.

In the early hours of 10 August, as riots raged across the UK, Jahan's son Haroon and two friends were mown down by a car in a hit-and-run attack. Two men and a teenager have since been charged over the deaths.

With his hugely dignified response to the death of his youngest son, and his repeated calls for people not to seek revenge and to avoid interracial violence, Jahan has become a national figure. He has been hailed as an inspiration by both the left and the right as messages of support and condolence have flooded in from around the world.

The image of 46-year-old Jahan, holding a photo of his dead son and speaking outside his home, adorned the front pages of Britain's newspapers. "His appeal for calm. . . was a beacon of hope amid the tumult and carnage of a horribly dark week for Britain," observed A N Wilson in the Daily Mail. "Amid all the bad news, Tariq Jahan made me feel proud to be British," said the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan on his Telegraph blog. Jahan was praised by both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition. The Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, wrote a poem in tribute to him.

Jahan - well built, with a full beard, prominent nose and grey, spiky hair - spots me coming up his driveway and breaks off from the group of mourners to lead me through to the front room of his semi-detached home. He has squeezed this interview into his busy schedule; he is awaiting a phone call from Prince Charles and has a meeting scheduled with the Lord Mayor of Birmingham. He and the other members of his family, all of whom are fasting for Ramadan, have also spent the previous few days trying to arrange the release of his son's body from the coroner for burial.

I begin by asking about Haroon. What was he like? Jahan looks up at the mantelpiece, where a photo of his school-aged son is propped up. He sighs. "He was a very, very intelligent young man. He was in the prime of his youth."

Haroon - or "Harry", as his father affectionately referred to him - would have been 21 in November. He was a mechanic whose passion was not just fixing, but racing, cars. He was also a keen amateur boxer at the local community centre. Ferociously bright but also shy, Haroon was the baby of the family; Jahan has two older children, his son Tahir, 23, and daughter Sophie, 21. But, he tells me, Haroon was "the favourite". In one of the most poignant moments of the interview, Jahan says that, after Haroon's death, he and his wife, Tahira, discovered a bag full of cash in his bedroom. Tahira told her husband that their son had been secretly saving up to buy his dad a new car.

The last heartbeat

So why was Haroon out on the streets that night? Birmingham, the country's second-biggest city, had been hit by a second night of rioting and looting, Jahan says. "We got together as a community and said we're all going to stand together as a community and defend the area."
Cars had been overturned and set alight at the bottom of their street. "I called for my sons to be with me, but Haroon was still on the main road, getting some food."

Leaning forward and twirling a black Biro in his hand, Jahan looks off into the distance as he slowly recounts the events of that night. "It was around 1am. I was outside when I heard the impact [of the car]. The first thing that runs through my mind is, 'Something's happened, there's been an accident, somebody must be injured.' So I ran round the corner and I saw one chap on the floor." It was Shazad Ali, aged 30, who had been standing with his brother Abdul Musavir, 31. "I immediately checked his pulse but there wasn't one. I started CPR and got a response."

I interrupt. How did he know how to perform CPR? "Over the years, I've worked as a service engineer and a Corgi-registered plumber and they teach you CPR. I also worked in the security trade, as a bodyguard and a bouncer, and we were trained to save people's lives as part of the job." CPR, he says, "is second nature to me".

As he was trying to revive Shazad, he says, someone in the crowd behind him shouted: "There are two more here on the ground."

He then turned to the second prostrate body - Abdul Musavir. There was no pulse. And there was a third body, also lying face down in a pool of blood. "I spun him over like a rag doll and to my horror it was my son, Haroon." Did he freeze? "With hindsight, I don't know why I didn't freeze. It was almost like military-drill training, though I've never been in the army. I checked his pulse. Nothing. Then his breathing. Nothing." He moved from pumping his son's heart to giving him mouth-to-mouth. "I started to blow down his mouth. Each time I blew in, blood came rushing out of his nose." After a few minutes, Jahan checked his son's pulse again. He had a heartbeat.

“I put my arm under his neck and - I will never forget this for the rest of my life - I lay down beside my son on the ground. I put my other arm over his chest and I started talking to him. 'Harry, nothing will happen to you. I'm here. It's your father, it's your dad.' I told him: 'Even if the angel of death comes to ask for you now, I won't let him take you.'" His voice breaks; for the first and only time in the interview, his eyes well up. But he doesn't cry.

Jahan says he waited for the police and ambulances to arrive, allowed the paramedics to take over and then, dazed and blood-spattered, walked back to his house around the corner, less than a hundred yards away. "I think that's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life: having to come home." His hands, mouth, beard and clothes were covered in his son's blood. Tahira was in the kitchen. "I sat her down at the table and told her that Haroon had been injured. The first thing she asked was, 'Is he dead?'"

Jahan and his family - his wife and two other children - jumped in a waiting car - "Whose car, what car, I don't remember" - and were driven to the nearby City Hospital on Dudley Road. The two brothers soon passed away, one after the other, as doctors battled to keep Haroon alive. "My son was the only one still alive and I was thinking to myself: 'OK, maybe one will survive out of three.'" But it was not to be.

A doctor called Jahan out into the corridor and advised him to spend a final few minutes at his son's bedside. "I was told not to touch him. So I got as close to his ear with my lips, and I begged for his forgiveness: 'Son, I'm sorry. I lied to you. I couldn't save you.' I read a dua [prayer] in his ear, and said 'Allah Hafiz' [may God protect you].

It was left to Jahan to break the news of Haroon's death to his wife and children back in the waiting room. "They all broke down." He decided to gather his family together and head home. They walked the short distance from the hospital to their house, where they were greeted by a reporter with a microphone. "He said to me: 'Mr Jahan, is there anything you'd like to say about the loss of your son?'"

It was then that Jahan delivered his remarkable address to the crowd of journalists and local people. It wasn't, he notes, a pre-scripted speech - it was spontaneous and "from the heart". "Apparently," he adds, turning to look at me for the first time, "the public took to it. They actually listened to the words." Millions tuned in to the nightly news bulletins on the BBC, ITV and Sky News to hear a grieving father "plead with all the youth to remain calm, for our communities to stand united . . . This is not a race issue." He added: "Blacks, Asians, whites - we all live in the same community. Why do we have to kill one another? Why are we doing this?"

“No one else must die," splashed the Times the next day, quoting Jahan's words. "Grieving father's voice of sanity," proclaimed the headline on the front of the Mail.

What makes Jahan, a delivery driver born in Slough to immigrants from India and Pakistan, such an unlikely British hero is that he is a British Muslim. As a friend of the family told me: "This was the week Muslims, Asians and Pakistanis everywhere were liberated. Thanks to Tariq, we're all seen in a different light now - not in a negative light, not just as terrorists."

In his public statements since the death of his son, Jahan has stressed that it is his faith that has helped him through this difficult period. I wonder if he has always had such strong beliefs? "I've gone through phases. My father was a religious man but when I was younger I wasn't always inclined that way."

He was, he confesses, a "miscreant" who came late to Islam. In a surprising admission, Jahan tells me that when he was in his late teens,
living in Slough, he began to move 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.

Hot-headed youth

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. Curiously, Jahan still refers respectfully to Bakri Mohammed as "Sheikh". So I ask him for his opinion of modern Muslim extremism. Jahan says some young British Muslims need "to cool down", and adds: "There are too many bleeding extremists now."

The Conservative Party election manifesto pledged to outlaw Hizb ut-Tahrir, but Jahan considers a ban to be unnecessary and self-defeating. "If you've got an extremist group, sit them down and communicate with them," he says. "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?"

Jahan at least practises what he preaches. On 14 August, an Islamist troublemaker tried to disrupt a peace rally held in Summerfield Park, Birmingham, telling assembled Muslims to go home because un-Islamic music was being played there. Jahan, who had been invited to speak at the rally, challenged him from the podium. "It was a peace rally; it wasn't an Islamic funeral for the three boys, or a remembrance ceremony," says Jahan. "It was a rally for the whole community and not just the Muslims. So I took the mike and told the Muslims who were there not to be offended, to be more liberal and understanding for the sake of the whole umma."

His use of the word umma - community - is intriguing. Most Muslims, especially of the Islamist variety, tend to use it in a very narrow, exclusivist and self-selecting way; umma becomes "the Muslim world", or "the global Muslim community". For Jahan, however, it represents a much broader idea. "My son died defending the umma - and 'umma', since the time of the Prophet, has referred to a community of Muslims, Jews, Christians and even worshippers of pagan gods."

His is a voice of moderation and, to quote the Mail headline, "sanity". So, how did he escape his own extremist past? At the age of 20, Jahan tells me, 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," he says. For him now, older, wiser and a family man, faith is more personal and spiritual, rather than ideologically motivated or group-focused.

And remarkably, rather than weakening his faith in God, the death of his son has bolstered his belief. Jahan says he takes great strength from his son having died, protecting his family and his community, in the holy month of Ramadan. "Allah says in the month of Ramadan, the gates of hell are closed and the gates of heaven are open. For my son to die in the month of Ramadan, I feel blessed . . . My son is in good hands now, in the Lord's hands, and he is being looked after."

From the moment Haroon was run down, his grieving father has gone out of his way to prevent people exploiting his death for their own political or ideological ends - especially in a city blighted by long-running tensions between the Asian and African-Caribbean communities. Rumours that the driver of the car that killed Haroon was a black man had already provoked fury among local Asians. It was only six years ago that a nearby area of Birmingham, Lozells, suffered race riots that were triggered by the unfounded rumour that a 14-year-old black girl had been gang-raped by a group of Pakistani youths.

Jahan says: "People ask me: 'What does the person who killed your son look like? What caste, colour, creed, race, does he belong to?' People, especially Muslims, should have more sense than to ask such questions." Why? "Because when a man in, say, Afghanistan goes on a suicide mission, we Muslims all seem to be tarnished by that and looked at as terrorists. Yet it's one man in Afghanistan who commits the offence; one man who has committed the crime.

“So if I turn around and say it was a Chinese fellow [who killed Haroon], do we then go out and tarnish whole Chinese community?" he asks. "If I say it was a pink-coloured fellow, do we go out and chase pink people? We Muslims should know better than that, we should know what it is like to be tarnished with a brush we had nothing to do with."

He sighs. "Why is there so much hatred in the world? I just don't understand."

Jahan 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," he says, his voice rising, as much in frustration as in anger. "Why blame the black community? Why point fingers? I totally disagree."

It is not difficult to understand why Jahan has attracted so much praise and publicity: he is a model of moderation. But, I wonder, would he have reacted differently as a younger man? What would he have thought in the days when he was moving in more extreme circles? His answer is brutally honest. "If something like this had happened 25 years ago, I can tell you now I would have asked for war. I would have wanted to burn the people who did this to the ground." Jahan says he is grateful to God for giving him the strength to be restrained in his response to his son's death. "Had I been dumb and said the wrong things, had I let anger show through . . ."

His voice trails off. The consequences for Birmingham would have been horrific. "People from Bradford, Manchester, Leeds were ringing up saying they were on the way to Birmingham, ready to take revenge against the blacks," says a friend of Jahan, who asked not to be named. "But Tariq said: 'What for? Why? Don't come.'"

The chief constable of West Midlands Police, Chris Sims, has described Jahan's words as a "decisive intervention in terms of Birmingham not suffering tension and violence between communities". Few individuals can be credited with almost single-handedly stopping a race riot - but Jahan is one of them.

“I don't want revenge," he tells me, in a matter-of-fact way. He is so composed when he speaks about his son's death that it is almost disconcerting. "Revenge against who?" he asks. "The man who killed my son? I want the law to deal with him, in the way that [the authorities] know best."

Unlike other grieving parents, Jahan is not 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," he says. "Changing the law to make the punishment even greater does not bring my son back. It doesn't bring those two brothers back."

So does he blame anyone for the riots? His answer is a surprise: he blames everyone. "We're all guilty. Bad people went out on the streets - but where were the good people? Why weren't they out on the streets stopping the riots?"

He and his sons, of course, were on the streets trying to protect local homes and businesses from the looters. Does he regret encouraging Tahir and Haroon to go out and defend their neighbourhood that night? "Throughout my life, whenever I've seen anyone who needs help, I've stepped forward. I always told my sons to intervene if they see someone who is weak being oppressed or beaten or robbed." (It was Jahan who encouraged both of his sons to become amateur boxers: Tahir is a heavyweight and Haroon was a lightweight.)

Would he do it all again? Would he, say, make the same decision to take to the streets with his surviving son in the middle of a future riot? He pauses and takes a deep breath. "To the media and to the world, I might say yes but, truly, in my heart, to see my son in that state again, I wouldn't want to go through that again. To sacrifice my son's life? No."

He continues: "But he's gone. And that is God's will. He gave him to me and He took him back. He was God's gift to me. And I will never forget the time, the short time, I spent with my son. He was the uncut diamond of our family."

I wonder aloud whether his view of England, where he was born, raised and educated and where he brought up his own children, has changed for ever. "No," he says animatedly. "I 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 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."

Does he support the Prime Minister's promise of a "fightback" and "crackdown" against these antisocial elements in our society? Again, Jahan shakes his head. "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 there will be an overreaction from the police in the future. "What I don't want to see are the stop-and-search seizures all over again."

And pausing, he mumbles, almost under his breath: "No disrespect to any MPs, or the government, or whoever is in charge. I have no right to say anything to them."

Throughout the interview, he repeats again and again that he is just a "common man" and not a politician. But, given his eloquence, passion and new-found prominence, could he see himself one day going into politics? For the first time, he lets out a laugh. "Never. That will never happen."

His brow furrows as he looks away again. "I wish for the legacy of the three boys to remain. As for myself and my family, after the funeral
I am going to ask the press to give us time to grieve and leave us be; let us get back to our normal lives . . ." He stops himself. "But there'll be no normality [for us]."

Finding his voice

Throughout our conversation, I am in awe of how articulate, coherent and composed this man is, in the midst of his grief. Astonishingly, he had never spoken in public before his son's tragic death. "It was the first time I had ever spoken. I'd never given any speeches before. But working on the doors as a bouncer, years ago, I learned one thing: there is never a situation in which you have to get into a fight, and that you can't talk your way out of. If you can find out what your opponent wants and make it clear that you can help him or absorb his anger, then most likely he will calm down. I've never come across a situation that I couldn't talk my way out of . . ."

He pauses. His voice becomes quiet. "But this situation was different. I couldn't talk my way out of the death of my own son."

The pain is etched on his face, but he doesn't cry. At one stage, he looks directly at me and says, bluntly: "Maybe I don't show you any tears, but inside, believe me, it hurts. It hurts."

I don't doubt it. I ask how the rest of his family has coped with the trauma of Haroon's death. His elder son, Tahir, he says, is "pretty inconsolable" and his wife too distraught to face the media or the public. "She's lost her baby," he says, grimacing, as he stares at the laminated floor of his lounge.

He is able, he says, to get through each day thanks to the knowledge that Haroon and his two friends did not die in vain. During the riots, "it was absolute pandemonium. Everyone feared something was going to happen to them and no one felt safe. Thank God that the sacrifices of the three guys have put an end to the riots. It wasn't me. I'm no hero, no special person. It was the three boys and their sacrifice that made me say what I said and thank God the country listened."

But how hard is it to stay so strong, calm and dignified in front of the cameras and the crowds? "Publicly," he says, "you won't see a tear from me or my family." In private, however, it is a different matter. A son is dead. A family has been ripped apart. "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 is the senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman

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.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?