By Alex Preston
28 October 2015
When three schoolgirls from the Bethnal Green Academy in east London fled the UK and travelled to Syria to join Isis in February, teachers in the capital were sent an open letter to read to their students. “You won’t know me but like you I too am British and Muslim,” it began. “Some of your friends may have gone out to join Isis and you are also considering going out too … I have no other intention in writing this letter but to tell you that you are being lied to in the wickedest of ways.” The three girls – Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase – were not the first to fly out and into the arms of Isis recruiters. As many as 700 young Britons have left since 2012, and teachers were understandably nervous. My sister, who works at George Green’s school on the Isle of Dogs, where the majority of students are Muslim, recalled the impact of the letter. “All of the form tutors read it out,” she told me. “It spoke more eloquently than any of us could about the reasons not to go, imploring the students to think twice before making the same mistake.” The letter was written by Sara Khan ofInspire, a women’s rights organisation that has rapidly taken its place at the forefront of the British government’s ideological campaign against Isis.
Photo: Kadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase going through security at Gatwick airport on their way to join Isis. Photograph: Metropolitan Police/PA
The letter was addressed “Dear Sister …” and, in language that was at once approachable and rigorous, systematically deconstructed Isis’s recruitment manifesto. Central to Khan’s argument was the idea that Isis and its “self-appointed caliph Baghdadi” had misrepresented a host of essential Islamic doctrines, from the necessity of hijra (migration) to the Islamic State, to the concept of the caliphate itself. The letter, which was viewed 40,000 times within a day of going online, and reprinted in newspapers across the world, ended with a heartfelt plea from Khan to the young Muslim girl she is addressing: “Dear sister, do not destroy your life and your families’ lives by buying into a lie. You will find many of your fellow Muslim sisters have also rejected the call of Isis as they have seen through the poisonous ideology it peddles. Feel free to contact me directly if you would like to talk more.”
Khan’s letter had something rare and valuable in the propaganda war against Isis: authenticity. Khan was addressing British Muslims in a voice that marked her out as one of their own, that spoke of shared experiences, of mutual respect. She has been particularly successful in reaching young Muslim women. If the orthodox government line is that British Muslims should consider their loyalties to their country before those to their faith, Khan’s argument has been subtly different: identify yourselves as women first, then as Muslims; understand that you are being manipulated by men who are using your faith to spirit you from your families and communities and into danger. Her letter attempted to divert the rage of the young women who had fallen under the sway of Isis’s army of online recruiters away from perceived intrusion and harassment by British government agencies, and towards the men who were attempting to enlist them as martyrs and sex slaves.
Only a few years ago, Khan was running Inspire out of the kitchen of her Watford home, receiving little or no funding and taking no salary. Since then, concurrent with the rise of Isis and its increasingly sophisticated recruitment drive, her ascent has been vertiginous. She has now become the face of moderate Islam in the UK, appearing regularly on television and radio. In July, she was named on theBBC Woman’s Hour Power List, along with Caitlyn Jenner and Angelina Jolie Pitt. Her work in schools and community groups, teaching young people and their parents how to resist the siren call of radicalisation, has earned her extraordinary recognition from politicians and the press. She has sat on the Home Office Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation working group and on the Department for International Development’s external expert advisory group on Girls and Women, while home secretary Theresa May backed her 2014 Making a Stand campaign against extremism, writing an opinion piece in the Sun in support of Inspire.
Khan has been a vocal proponent of the government’s Prevent strategy, one of the cornerstones of the Contest anti-radicalisation programme (the UK government is keen on bellowed acronyms). Prevent, which receives £40m a year from the Home Office, is theoretically the least heavy-handed arm of the programme, designed to make early interventions with those at risk of radicalisation. Prevent operates through a variety of channels, including local authorities, community organisations and its own specially trained police force, all charged with identifying and “diverting” potential extremists before they are fully radicalised. This can take the form of training local authorities to spot early signs of extremism, barring incendiary speakers from visiting to the UK, funding local community groups “which can effectively rebut terrorist and extremist propaganda”, shutting down extremist websites, and gathering information on those suspected of extremist sympathies. While other strands of the strategy, such as Pursue (which goes after known terrorists) attempt to catch terrorists in the act, Prevent relies upon the monitoring of communities perceived to be at risk, and the anticipation of future crimes. In 2009, the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, called Prevent “the biggest spying programme in Britain in modern times and an affront to civil liberties,” while Dal Babu, a former police chief superintendent, described it as a “toxic brand”.
On 19 October, David Cameron announced sweeping extensions to the government’s anti-extremism strategy. Central to the new powers is a move against so-called “entryism”, meaning the infiltration of British institutions by those peddling extremist ideologies. The announcement also confirmed that the hard-hitting anti-terror legislation initially proposed by Theresa May in March has survived largely intact, notwithstanding objections from civil rights organisations (and members of her own party). The most striking aspect of Cameron’s speech, though, was the strident steps taken against what he termed “non-violent extremism”, aiming to clamp down on “key radicalisers” within communities, even if they have broken no laws. The announcement was met with dismay by Muslim groups and civil rights campaigners, with the Muslim Council of Britain issuing a press release that said: “Today’s ‘one nation’ counter-extremism strategy continues down a flawed path, focusing on Muslims in particular, and is based on fuzzy conceptions of British values. It risks being counter-productive by alienating the very people needed to confront al-Qaida or Daesh-related terrorism.”
The growing perception, particularly within Muslim communities, that this is a government bent on imposing draconian measures on the peaceful Muslim majority necessarily makes Sara Khan’s work more difficult. She is not directly employed (or funded) by the government, and she insists that her only concern is safeguarding young Muslims against the sinister recruiters of Isis. And yet she is associated by many with the worst excesses of the government’s anti-terrorism strategy. Earlier this week, the Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah – who unseated George Galloway in May – told Buzzfeed that Inspire was one of “the most loathed organisations amongst Muslim communities”, and said it should face questions from parliament about its role in supporting the government’s counter-extremism strategy.
Searching for Khan online, you find criticism in abundance. Reading through blogs from even relatively moderate Muslim commentators, there is a sense that she has been tarnished by her closeness to Cameron’s policies. One blogger, citing Khan’s vocal support for Prevent and her decision to launch the Making a Stand campaign in the Sun, wrote that Khan “has really lost the plot, from a reasonably Islamically grounded Muslim to, well, a frankly confused stooge who has completely lost her way”. On Twitter, the attacks appear to emanate from both Islamic conservatives and non-Muslim liberals accusing her of toadying to a repressive state.
The speed with which Khan has risen to prominence testifies to how urgently Cameron needed someone like her to mediate his anti-radicalisation rhetoric. Yet she relies on her standing outside official channels to confer credibility. She must remain as comfortable in the tightly knit Muslim communities of the north (she grew up in Bradford and retains a Yorkshire accent) as she is at Westminster or in Scotland Yard. Her position is a desperate balancing act, caught between her loyalty to the young people she interacts with daily, the increasingly onerous demands of government, and vitriolic attacks from those who view her as nothing more than a government pawn helping Cameron and May peddle their hardline anti-Muslim tactics.
Khan’s great problem is that, in supporting certain elements of the government’s anti-terrorism strategy – the requirement for teachers to report on students at risk of radicalisation, for instance – she is perceived by many to be endorsing it in toto. This raises difficult questions for Khan and Inspire – how can you do effective work in a community that suspects you of working hand-in-glove with a government that treats its members as a latent threat? But it poses an even more grave challenge to the government: shouldn’t it be possible for people to do this sort of advocacy work without facing the kind of abuse that Khan regularly suffers? Her case is a stark illustration of how sclerotic and entrenched the anti-radicalisation debate in this country has become.
On the 24 April this year, Khan was due to speak about the dangers posed by Isis’s recruitment drive to a teachers’ conference at the Mermaid theatre in Blackfriars. A crowd of more than 500 were tightly packed into the main auditorium. With new Prevent-led regulations that came into force this summer, schools have a statutory duty to protect their students from the threat of being drawn into terrorism. Particular focus now falls on the online activities of students, and schools are being asked to take responsibility for their safety both there and offline. Khan has been hired by the Association of School and College Leaders to give a series of nationwide seminars explaining the duties of teachers under the new regulations.
Anna Cole, the association’s parliamentary specialist, told me that the headteachers she represents are “baffled about the amount of change they’re being asked to put through on a limited and diminishing budget”. In order to earn a rating of “outstanding” from inspectors, schools now have to demonstrate exemplary practice in safeguarding students against radicalisation. Khan, she said, had played a huge role in explaining the new responsibilities and why they were needed. “What Sara is fantastic at doing is making it come to life and making it real,” Cole told me. “She gives people permission to discuss these things, because she’s doing it ... She makes it very human, she brings in human stories. I think she’s absolutely amazing, fearless, and I’ve learnt loads from her. She’s doing all this in a vacuum and it’s astonishing.”
I took a seat in the auditorium among the headmistresses and the IT teachers, clutching sandwich boxes on their knees. There was a certain festival air at a day out of the classroom. Khan walked onto the stage, to the sound of a few habitual shushes from the heads. She looked tiny behind the lectern, a flash of electric blue in high heels and an expensive haircut (I found out later she’d just been shot for Vogue). The headmistress from Croydon sitting next to me had come specifically to see Khan. “We just know so little about it,” she confessed to me in a whisper. “We’re all bloody terrified it’ll be our school in the papers next.” Khan was the day’s star attraction, a touch of danger and glamour amid lectures on the computing curriculum and Ofsted inspections.
Khan’s speech analysed the role social media played in radicalising and recruiting the Bethnal Green teenagers; the Manchester twins Salma and Zahra Halane; Cardiff schoolboys Nasser and Aseel Muthana; and Yusra Hussien, a 15-year-old from Bristol. There is no typical profile of the young person who accedes to the utopian allure of the caliphate, she said (although many have been academic high-achievers). Crucially, all were active users of social media – Facebook, Snapchat, Ask FM and Twitter. The Easter holidays were approaching, and Khan spoke of the “clear and present danger” of young people using the break to journey to Syria, and the need for teachers and community leaders to be on their guard, particularly with regard to the online behaviour of students. Khan talked about one Isis supporter who tweets as @JihadMatchmaker – promising to “link up those seeking marriage in Syria in a halal manner”. One tweet read, bluntly: “Fact: Many brothers are seeking marriage but don’t find the time to meet suitable families alongside their jihad.” @JihadMatchmaker is there to help these brothers out.
Khan drew our attention to another notorious online recruiter: Aqsa Mahmood, a 20-year-old woman from Glasgow who fled to Aleppo in 2013 and married an Isis fighter. In September, Mahmood was placed under official UN sanctions. Khan brought up a slide of Mahmood’s “shopping list” for aspirant migrants to Syria, in which she recommends packing “good quality yoga pants”, “running shoes try and get darker colours (x2)” and “if I could advise you to bring one thing it would be organic coconut oil (maybe grab an extra jar for me as well lol).” There was a brief chuckle, until Khan brought up another one of Mahmood’s blog posts, which warned: “Know this Cameron/Obama, you and your countries will be beneath our feet and your Kufr will be destroyed, this is a promise from Allah swt that we have no doubt over. If not you then your grandchildren or their grandchildren. But worry not, somewhere along the line your blood will be spilled by our cubs.”
Khan had already overrun her allotted time and the moderator was looking twitchy in the front row. The audience, though, was rapt; the headmistress beside me scribbled furiously. The final section of the speech was devoted to the critics of Inspire and the government’s Prevent strategy. “Prevent is about safeguarding, not scapegoating,” Khan said. “You would report any other form of grooming or abuse – why would you not report this?” She talked about the politically-correct discomfort in labelling Muslims as pedlars of far-right rhetoric – of opportunities missed and lives ruined because woolly liberals did not want to be seen as Islamophobic. “It’s important for me as a mother and as a Muslim to say all this,” she said, looking towards the back of the room. “Young people are being fed illiterate religious views by people with only a very superficial understanding ofIslam. It’s up to us to stop these children making the worst mistake of their lives.”
In May and June, I followed Khan through her blistering schedule of engagements: a meeting in a swanky SW1 hotel with Rachida Dati, the former justice minister of France who now leads the EU’s anti-radicalisation efforts; brainstorming sessions at Scotland Yard (where I was ordered to switch off my tape recorder); and a host of talks and workshops at schools and community centres. I got a sense of a life overrun by demands from all corners – a symptom of the scarcity of people willing to do what she does.
“I know how important it is to go directly into Muslim communities,” she told me, “going in to talk to women. There’s just no one doing this on a regular basis, certainly no one they can identify with and trust.” Khan sees herself as fighting one of the key fronts in the battle against Isis – the war of ideas. As Isis has rolled across Iraq and Syria, its success in enlisting European fighters to its cause – more than 4,000 so far – has been matched by the sophistication of its PR machine, its expertise in using YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, its skilful deployment of propaganda.
Most of Khan’s anti-radicalisation work takes place within schools. In late May, I watched her address the students of the Crest Academy in Neasden, a Muslim-majority college on the Department for Education’s special measures list. In a talk to a group of around 60 young men and women, Khan spoke about feminism and positive female Muslim role models. She showed the students slides of a series of high-achieving Muslim women, including the Iranian women’s surf team (who compete in veils). One of the young women in the audience came up to me afterwards and said: “That was so inspiring. To have someone like her come and speak to us, it makes us feel we can really achieve something.” She told me that one day she wanted to go back to Afghanistan and run for president, but that she needed to go to university first.
On another occasion, this time in the latter weeks of the summer term, with concerns about the coming holiday providing opportunities for young people to flee to Syria, Khan and I visited Regent high school near Euston, where she chaired a morning training session on identifying signs of radicalisation for a group of 40 local parents. By the end of her talk, which used an interview with the mother of 9/11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui to reinforce its message, many of the mothers in the audience were in tears.
Khan was born and grew up in Bradford, privately educated in a school where she was one of only a handful of Muslim girls. Her father was a successful businessman, working in insurance, and her mother was a housewife. Her parents lived staunchly secular lives, energetically embracing bourgeois British culture, and it was a surprise to them when Khan made an early foray into religion. “I started wearing my burka when I was 13,” she told me. “This was a time when there was a real surge in charismatic Muslim preachers, from within and outside the UK, aimed at young people. And a lot of us identified ourselves as these kinds of Muslims – charismatic, on fire – we loved it. I suppose a lot of young people are drawn to that type of movement. Not all of the preachers were extremists, but Islam was the in thing and these preachers encouraged us to be more and more devout.”
It didn’t take long for doubts to begin to creep in, though. “I slowly began to realise that there were so many Muslim clerics and preachers who were using faith to advocate patriarchy. They were all so fascinated with women, with women’s clothing, with what they can and can’t do. It really started to get on my nerves. For me, the decision to take off the veil was about removing the authority of religious clerics. It wasn’t just the unveiling, it was a statement – ‘I reject your obsession, your authority.’” This didn’t mean religion wasn’t still important to her. “I feel like Wahhabism and Salafism” – which Khan calls “bastardisations of Islam” – “have stolen my faith away from me, completely altered the perception of Islam. This is one reason that motivates me to do what I do – reclaiming my faith from these fascists.”
Khan’s first job was as a hospital pharmacist (she gained her masters in pharmacy from the University of Manchester), although she campaigned in her spare time, becoming president of an Islamic youth organisation in 2002. She went back to university to gain an MA in human rights, and in 2009 launched Inspire, which started off campaigning on issues such as FGM and forced marriage.
“I realised,” Khan told me, “that women were often the real victims of radicalisation, but that they also held the solution.” She is married with two children. I asked her whether her children understood what she did. She laughed. “I do get some strange questions. I have CNN or BBC News on the whole time and I try to talk to them about it.” How does her husband react to the constant threats and abuse? “I don’t like bringing it home,” she said. “We don’t really talk about it, to be honest. We do if it’s something really big and we have to call the police, but otherwise it’s part of the job and you just get on with it.”
Khan said that most of the abuse she receives comes from other Muslims. “But then I was speaking at a conference the other day, talking about the challenge of coming up against Muslim preachers in communities who are saying that the role of women was in the home – spouting this extreme, misogynistic stuff. A white, middle-class feminist stood up and called me an Islamophobe. And this was for daring to condemn Muslim extremist preachers who don’t give a shit about women’s rights. Where’s the feminist sisterhood there? It’s gone down the pan.”
She is accused by the left of fuelling campaigns by the likes of the English Defence League to cast Islam as misogynistic and barbaric. “People say, ‘Why are you talking about forced marriages in the Muslim community? You’re just feeding the far right.’ It’s always thrown at you and many times it’s thrown at you to silence your voice. There are preachers in this country who have hundreds and thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter, and who are speaking on university platforms and in community centres and in mosques and spouting things that, if they came from a far-right extremist group rather than Muslim extremists, we’d say, ‘This simply isn’t acceptable. We won’t stand for it.’ When you have someone from the EDL saying, ‘Oh you shouldn’t send your children to Muslim doctors,’ I can show you a Muslim preacher saying exactly the same thing about non-Muslim doctors. And yet when we point this out, we’re accused of being Islamophobic.”
The problem, she argues, is that both in the media and in local communities, undue prominence has been given to those campaigning against the government’s anti-radicalisation efforts. “Their whole mission in life is to spread myths and lies about Prevent,” Khan told me, pointing to Cage, which describes itself as an advocacy group for communities affected by the war on terror. “These are the people who called Mohammed Emwazi [the Isis fighter dubbed “Jihadi John” by the tabloids] a beautiful man. They were in Bradford and they gave a talk about how important it was to stay away from the CTS [Counter Terrorism and Surveillance] bill and Prevent – about how they were about the state trying to take your children away from you. Because of this, some Muslim families who might have approached someone because of genuine fears for their children will not be able to. And that’s a tragedy.”
Sometimes, Khan admitted to me, she feels like giving up in the face of the criticism that comes her way, but she is motivated, she said, by the stories she has heard from women within her community. “I spent 20 years having nightmares about the things I was hearing from young Muslim women,” she told me. “Sometimes I think that it doesn’t matter that we’re living in a country with some of the best equality legislation in the world, because it just doesn’t touch a lot of these women. I’ve met women who’ve told me that they’re slaves in their homes, they’re not allowed to do the school run. And a lot of Muslims don’t like us talking about this, but it’s going on in their back yards and we need to address it. It infuriates me when these Muslim organisations spend all their days talking about how they’re living in this anti-Islamic country and suffering this constant persecution, but then the moment I say, ‘What about discrimination against women?’ They just don’t want to hear it. That was why I set up Inspire.”
One of the things you notice about Sara Khan is how little she changes as she moves between the various worlds that she inhabits. Whether in the offices of headteachers, meetings with politicians, or the anonymous reaches of lecture theatres and conference centres, she is the same passionate and energetic presence. There was a revealing moment at the teachers’ conference in Blackfriars, when a gaggle of important-looking suits were waiting to whisk her off to a meeting, and she stopped for a long conversation with a young, bearded, thawb-wearing IT teacher from Plaistow who had approached with a question. The quality of her attention was extraordinary, and her answers – at least from what I was able to earwig – both subtle and sensitive.
It is hard to equate the genial, apparently guileless figure I saw over the course of 2015 with the manipulative double agent presented by many of her critics, but there remains a swell of insinuation that Khan is – wittingly or unwittingly – the tool of a repressive government keen to marginalise British Muslims. Online attacks on her are vitriolic and sustained: she recently asked Twitter to suspend her account. “For women, Twitter has become like walking down a dark alleyway at night,” she told me. While most of the insults are mindless trolling, some appear to come from a genuine fear that the Conservative government’s anti-radicalisation strategy, of which Khan is an important public face, is driving a deep wedge between communities. The most recently announced legislation, and Cameron’s increasingly hardline rhetoric, must make Khan’s position more and more tenuous. With a government keen to target what the prime minister called the Muslim “silent majority”, Khan will find it harder and harder to argue to Muslims that her role defending Prevent and the government’s anti-radicalisation strategy is entirely benign. Equally, given the extent to which Khan has been pilloried, there will surely be few eager to fill her place.
It is true that young Muslims in this country are being watched and monitored in ways that go deeper and further than ever before. I asked John Hayes, the security minister, about these concerns and received a response so bland it is barely worth printing; amid a long defence of Prevent he said: “There is no contradiction between promoting freedom of speech and taking account of the wellbeing of students, staff and the wider community, nor is there anything in the duty or any other aspect of Prevent which curtails genuine political debate.” This is not how many Muslims see it: in the decade since the 7/7 attacks in London, as Mehdi Hasan wrote this summer, “British Muslims would be subjected to unprecedented scrutiny; tagged as a suspect community, the enemy within … Wherever you turn, it seems, those dastardly Muslims pose a threat to you, your families and your way of life. Meanwhile, Muslim grievances are mocked or ignored.”
Khan’s critics accuse her of being one of the authors of this false narrative – that Muslims’ loyalty to Britain should be perceived as suspect. “Her way of thinking is extraordinarily outdated,” Zara Faris, one of Khan’s most vocal opponents, told me. A graduate of Soas, Faris is a speaker and researcher for the Muslim Debate Initiative. Her main problem, she said, was that Khan relied on outmoded notions of patriotism to justify her arguments. “The idea that extremism is somehow a lack of Britishness is just absurd,” Faris said. “The problem is that Sara Khan heavily posits the idea that Britishness is somehow an antidote to terrorism. This is where the problem arises, because it creates a situation where Muslims feel like they have to choose between being British and being Muslim.” Khan would argue that this complaint conflates her argument with those of the government: her position is that second- and third-generation Muslim Britons feel very differently about Britishness than their parents and grandparents; but rather than suggesting that this abstract concept of Britishness is somehow the cure, she identifies its absence as part of a larger problem of self-identification for Muslims living in Britain.
Faris, along with many others, also attacks Khan’s view that non-violent extremism represents “the next frontier” in the war on terror. I met Faris before the government announced its expanded anti-radicalisation strategy, but even then, there was a sense that broadening definitions of extremism would open more paths to persecution. “Now extremism includes non-violent extremism,” Faris said, “there’s a sense that no one really knows what these phrases mean, and so it’s up to an individual to interpret them on a case-by-case basis. It will be stretched to mean any number of things. What does non-violent extremism even mean? Does it mean wearing the veil? Does it mean self-segregating? Does it mean wanting your children to have an Islamic education? It leaves the floodgates open. For many Muslims it means that just living has become a somewhat fearful exercise, with this constant worry that you’re going to be branded as something that you’re not and taken away from your family.”
Faris’s colleague from the MDI, Abdullah al-Andalusi, told me that Khan’s arguments were fatally tainted by cleaving too closely to the government’s own flawed line. “Sara Khan says she follows liberalism and feminism, but her viewpoint is so close to that of this government,” he said. “Prevent is all about the idea of allegiance. They think that if Muslims feel grievances against the British government it’s because they have no allegiance to Britishness.” When I met al-Andalusi at the South Bank in London, I recognised him immediately from the television. He has a wide-ranging media presence, most of it collated on an impressive-looking website in which he appears at the top, looking brooding in a kufi skullcap with a rocky shoreline behind him. There is an interview with BBC news after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in which he speaks about the marginalisation of French Muslims, a newspaper article where he discusses homosexuality and gay marriage in a manner that might be generously described as traditionalist, a blog critical of Sara Khan and her feminist interpretation of Islam. When we first met, he bristled at any questions about his personal life, and then apologised for his initial wariness. “In this kind of climate anyone in the Muslim community feels like a target, to some extent,” he told me. “If you’re not touting the government narrative then you’re automatically suspect.”
Arguably, al-Andalusi would fit the definition of one of the “non-violent extremists” that the government’s expanded anti-radicalisation strategy is intended to target. (Several weeks after we met, he was the subject of a hostile piece by Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph, alleging that he was “one of Britain’s most notorious Islamic extremists” and yet worked “at the heart of the security establishment”. In fact, he was merely a civil servant at Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, with no access to sensitive security data.) “I do debates – so what?” he told me. “What is the big issue? But that’s not good enough because the government views it as an issue of allegiance, not recognising that any number of people feel grievance against the government, from animal rights campaigners to anarchists. It doesn’t mean that they’re not British or an enemy of the state … So far the British government hasn’t said, ‘You must eat pork,’ which the Spanish inquisition did to try to integrate Spanish Muslims. But what they are doing is saying that the expression of certain beliefs is in itself wrong and we want to ban individuals who express these beliefs.”
Later, in an email, al-Andalusi came back to Sara Khan and her role as the acceptable face of Prevent. “The government only wishes to engage Muslims who parrot the government narrative,” he wrote, “and act as essentially yes-men and sycophants. These individuals add nothing to the public discussion of how to deal with terrorism; instead, their utility is merely to act as enablers, allowing the government to transgress upon a minority’s rights. The problem is quite obvious: none of the government-approved Muslim personalities are mainstream within the Muslim community.”
“I do find it insulting,” Khan told me in an email, after I listed the accusations from critics who regard her as a quisling tucked safely in Cameron’s pocket. “I’m described as the government’s ‘house Muslim’. It almost implies that as a Muslim woman if you’re passionate about something and you’ve created something positive from scratch and you’re making a difference – you couldn’t have done it off your own merit, hard work – no, you must be a government stooge.” Her opponents present Khan as an officially sanctioned figure surfing on a tide of government funding – but Inspire continues to look vaguely amateurish, carried along by nothing more than Khan’s energy and enthusiasm. (Khan repeatedly makes the point that it is an NGO, and that she receives no direct funding from the UK government, although councils and schools pay her for workshops and conferences with funds they obtain from Prevent.) As Khan sees it, she has spent the last six years fighting for Muslim women, often with the conviction that she is the only one standing between the young girls she meets every day and the manipulative monsters trying to recruit them to join the jihad in Syria.
When Khan and I exchanged emails in the wake of the government’s October strategy announcement, there was a new weariness to her tone, as if the attacks – most recently in the Socialist Worker, which called Inspire “apologists for state Islamophobia” – have finally hit home. Though many accuse her of playing a central role in Cameron’s counter-terrorism programme, she was not consulted on these latest moves, and she feels that the government has gone too far. “They’re excessive,” she told me, “and I’m not even sure they’ll get passed as a bill.” She said that she welcomes some of the measures announced, such as greater funding to groups like Inspire, but that she feels other elements will be counter-productive. “We are concerned that the banning of ‘extremist’ organisations, extremism disruption orders and the closing down of premises is not the way forward and may violate the civil liberties which we must defend at all costs, especially when seeking to counter extremism,” she wrote. “Such measures may instead give fuel to extremists and their cause.”
Khan is about to head off on a fortnight’s holiday in Pakistan – an escape from the relentless abuse, she said – and will return to continue her work in schools and communities. She still believes that groups such as Inspire are a necessary element in the drive against extremism, and that the response to the government’s immoderate impositions is for Muslim communities and the groups that represent them to take the lead in combating radicalisation. “I’ve always stated illiberal measures like banning orders, disruption orders etc – as wrong as they are – have come about because of the failure of civil society, and Muslim organisations in particular, to organise themselves effectively to challenge Islamist extremism. This is now the challenge for civil society – while making sure we protect our human rights.” For David Cameron and Theresa May, Khan’s position ought to be poignant and salutary: a one-time supporter disenchanted with the ferociousness of the government’s latest strategy decisions, a champion of Prevent from within the Muslim community who has been fashioned into a straw woman, a magnet for the rage that would otherwise be wholly directed towards them.
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This article was amended on 28 October. An earlier version of the piece incorrectly stated that Zara Faris is a co-founder of the Muslim Debate Initiative (MDI). She is, in fact, a speaker and researcher for the MDI.