Navid Akhtar revisited his British-Pakistani roots to make a TV documentary on the aftermath of the London bombings – and what he found made him fear for the future
Just after the 7 July attacks on London I felt a second wave of intense horror as it emerged that three of the four suicide bombers hailed from my community. Like me they were British, Pakistani-Kashmiri and Muslim.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised: they were not the first British Pakistani terrorists, but the successors of young men such as Omar Khan Sharif, who attempted to blow up a bar in Tel Aviv in 2003.
But for many in our community the London bombings were a watershed and left us feeling the time had come to face up to some harsh realities. The community has failed to address a growing crisis of identity.
Since the bombings I have been making a film for Channel 4’s Dispatches series, Young, Angry and Muslim, in an attempt to understand and explain what it is about my community that has put us at the centre of terrorism. I’ve had to examine painful truths about our failure to combat the alienation of the younger generations and the rise of extremism.
We now have three generations of Pakistani Muslims in the UK, but we are not part of the ‘Asian Cool’ success story, like other South Asian groups from India and East Africa. Our community is fracturing – we live in the most deprived areas of Britain, family ties are breaking down, personal conflicts and ‘honour’ killings are on the increase.We have low educational achievement, high unemployment and one of the largest prison populations for any ethnic group. A once law-abiding community is now plagued by drugs, crime and violence.
Part of the problem is the disenchantment with the government’s foreign policy. But the community’s failure to integrate is also based on daily experiences. Akram Sharif, a taxi driver in Leeds, sees the seedier side of British culture. ‘They swear, they are abusive because they are intoxicated. People try to smash your car window in, just for a taxi.’ Akram told me he felt as if he were caught in the middle. I understood; to be both British and Muslim now is to be torn in two very different directions.
Close to one million strong, 45 per cent of all Muslims in Britain are of Pakistani origin and 80 per cent come from villages in Kashmir and Punjab. They brought with them a rural tribal mentality, where everything remains in the family group. Marriage, business, religion – who your friends are, who you vote for, everything from the cradle to the grave – it’s all designed to keep power with the elders, who are in turn answerable to clan elders, who may be answerable to senior members in Pakistan. This clan system is called the Biraderi.
In a community with two thirds aged under 35, the closed doors of clan power mean frustration. Clan elders have for years provided huge vote banks for mainstream parties, in return for positions and influence in local politics. Uneducated, even illiterate, Biraderi elders can get elected as councillors. Younger members of the community talk about a closed hierarchy, which does not recognise talent or ability. I am No 53, in a huge extended Biraderi, and no amount of personal achievement will change that.
Things are changing, however, and young people are standing up for the kind of life they want, no longer giving blind support to old clan loyalties. I met Fatema Patwa, a lawyer who prosecuted an electoral fraud case in Birmingham. She told me people were bribing postmen to get postal ballots and altering the votes of family and friends. People who had trusted these individuals felt abused and disgusted. This wasn’t British democracy, it was Biraderi.
Young Pakistanis are losing faith in mainstream politics. Tribal people are reluctant to break old relationships, so despite anger over foreign policy clan elders continue their relationship with Labour. The effect is rising support for radical parties, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir which campaigns for restoration of the caliphate and sharia law, basically a return to Islamic rule in the Muslim world.
What stands out is the overwhelming sense that the younger generation is being hemmed in by both their own community, with its cultural responsibilities, and a wider society focused on individualism. In this pressure cooker tension, a political Islamic identity offers an attractive alternative. It gives clear answers: good guys, bad guys. You know where you stand.
For Fatima Khan, from a large tribal family, joining Hizb ut-Tahrir, then the al-Mahjiroun group was a twofold rebellion, first against her elders, then against British society, neither of whom she felt truly understood her. ‘Not only was I accepted, I was suddenly exclusive,’ she said. ‘I’m part of something that’s bigger, greater – we’re going to heaven. We thought everyone else had got it wrong.’
Many of these groups were fronted by foreign extremists, thrown out of their own countries. In Britain they were quick to spot angry and directionless young Pakistanis, calling them the ‘Orphans of Islam’.
But Fatima recalls: ‘We weren’t sitting around plotting and planning how are we going to blow up this and how we’re going to blow up that. It was about getting empowerment. It was about changing the way you were thinking.’
Fatima realised in time that all she was being offered was more frustration. Eventually she left the group and began to cultivate a spiritual understanding of Islam and her place in British society.
Other young British Pakistani Muslims who feel marginalised by both cultures find solace in drugs. Reformed drug addict Javaid said: ‘My father had his own way of bringing us up, which was strict. There was nothing I could really choose in life… the only thing I chose in life was drugs.’ Hanif Ali helps drug users kick their habit – most of his clients are Muslim.
Both Javaid and Hanif say the community is ashamed of the problem so the elders often fail to tackle it. Younger members distrust the police. This failure to face the problem has left a vacuum, in some areas filled by extremists.
Taji Mustapha of Hizb ut-Tahrir speaks proudly of reforming dealers. ‘Some of our activists got about four of the top drug dealers and got them into the study circle to think about Islam … When these guys became in tune with Islam and changed their ways, demand has fallen, supply has fallen, so there has been a drop in the problem.’
The terrorists who emerged from my community followed this pattern of youthful excess to radical religion. Amar Omar Saeed Sheikh, born down the road from me, got into trouble for drinking and flings with older girls before discovering radical Islam, helping the 9/11 bombers and being sentenced to death for his part in the beheading of the American journalist, Daniel Pearl. The Derby-born Hamas suicide bomber, Omar Khan Sharif, was expelled from his school for disciplinary problems; Hasib Mir Hussein was known for drinking and shoplifting before becoming the man who blew up the bus in Tavistock Square.
I believe the future of my community lies in finding the right blend of all that is British, Pakistani and Muslim. Change can only come from within, but we have to accept out faults first. It is from the young people, in particular women, that grassroots solutions will begin to emerge.
∑ Young, Angry and Muslim goes out on Channel 4 tomorrow at 8pm