September 4 2016, 12:01am, The Sunday Times
Like all the most effective activists, Sara Khan has perfected the art of being cheerfully cross. She hobbles into the central London hotel on crutches and, for the next hour, is both engaging and enthusiastic despite being barely able to contain her rage. Khan is the head of Inspire, an anti-extremist charity, and a leading voice in Britain’s efforts to stem the flow of more than 800 young people thought to have gone to Syria since 2007.
She and her staff go into schools around the country, training teachers and warning students about the dangers of the radical preachers lurking online.
When three schoolgirls, Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, ran away from Bethnal Green Academy, east London, last year, Khan’s open letter, sent to hundreds of schools, was reprinted by newspapers around the country. “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.”
It is vital work that requires conviction, authenticity and patience, all of which Khan, 36, has in abundance. Lately though, that patience has started to run out. It is not the Isis radicalisers who are getting to her but a new battle much closer to home. “The Salafi Islamists absolutely hate me,” she laughs. “I think the fact that I’m a woman, that I’m opinionated, that I don’t wear a headscarf, gets to them,” she says, tucking her bobbed hair behind one ear. Internet forums are brimming with loathing for Khan, the “traitor”, while hardline commentators dismiss her as a government “stooge”.
What annoys her even more is that people who ought to know better are falling into their trap. “Sections of the British left have aligned themselves with the Islamist far right who think that people like me are Islamophobic,” she says. “When that happens something has gone horribly wrong with discourse in British society.”
She says many Muslims are grateful for what she is doing: “The number of emails I get — these are your silent majority who will say to me we love what you are doing but we don’t want to speak out because we are scared.”
Her new book, The Battle for British Islam, is an attempt to understand the chaos engulfing her religion but also to make people realise that “we are maligning the very voices we need to support on the front line of the battle against Islamism”.
It does not take too much inquisition to figure out whom she is talking about. In 2014, about the time that Isis declared its caliphate, Khan says “something shifted”. Inspire launched a campaign encouraging Muslim women in Britain to speak out against radical preachers, providing them with counterarguments to give to their children.
She won the backing of the Theresa May, then home secretary, and wrote an opinion piece in The Sun. The response was vitriolic. “I’ve lost count of the number of articles written about me by Salafi Muslims, smearing me and calling me an Islamophobe and an informant because the campaign was supported by government.”
She was bombarded with abusive messages on social media. Some threatened to kill her, others said she would be gang-raped. She installed a fireproof letterbox. Her husband, a lawyer also of Pakistani descent, supports her. “He tells me to ignore it and do what I want,” she says.
I ask whether she was scared. She nods. “When the police said maybe you should consider changing your route to drop the kids off at school.” The abuse has continued, more or less, to this day. Her greatest fear is “that I will have some nutty 18-year-old standing outside my door with knife who just might do something stupid”.
Khan comes from a middle-class family in Bradford. Her father, a businessman who worked in insurance, arrived here from Pakistan and “loved it” she says. “He very much embraced British life. He always said, ‘This is your home. Yes, your roots are in Pakistan but you have to contribute to the wellbeing of British society’.”
As a teenager she dabbled briefly with the more fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. She started wearing the veil at 13 (and continued to wear it until her early thirties). She had qualified as a pharmacist and completed an MA in human rights when, in 2008, she co-founded Inspire. It was born from a feeling that groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain were failing in two key areas: gender inequality in the Muslim community, and extremism. “I’ve seen more and more young British Muslims expressing extreme Islamist views and thinking that’s acceptable,” she says.
For the first few years they focused on Muslim women, “some of the most marginalised people in this country”, she says, campaigning against forced marriage and educating them about their legal rights. But it was the rise of Isis and the willingness of third-generation Muslims to travel to Syria that propelled Khan into the public eye.
She believes there has been an “explosion” of puritanical ideologies, not just in Britain but globally. Where once the Salafists and the Islamists were staunch enemies, they have now united and created an incredibly powerful lobby, pushing “a very hardline interpretation” online, on campuses and on social media.
The “9/11 generation”, as she calls them, find their identity in this global Islamism from preachers who argue that their faith must take precedence over their British identity.
One of the reasons Khan is a target for the Islamists, aside from her bright red nails and refusal to keep schtum, is her association with Prevent, part of the anti-terrorism strategy launched by the last Labour government. It puts the onus on teachers and community groups to identify and “divert” potential extremists.
Before she left her post as director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti called it “the biggest spying programme in Britain in modern times and an affront to civil liberties”. It has generated a number of ludicrous stories including one child hauled out of class for drawing a bomb — which turned out to be a cucumber.
Khan admits that Prevent “is not perfect” but argues that it is still doing a lot of good. In her book she tells the story of a 13-year-old girl from Birmingham, radicalised online, who believed that Syria would be an “Islamic Disneyland”. Her behaviour was flagged up early enough and she is now back at school.
I ask whether the strategy alienates people who already feel marginalised. She denies it. The problem is the “Islamic lobby” spreads lies, “telling children that if they grow a beard they’ll be questioned under Prevent”.
The government often fails to allay those fears: “If young people think ‘I’m going to be referred to Prevent for growing a beard,’ then there has clearly been a breakdown in communication.”
She is happy to criticise the Tory government and believes that May’s anti-extremism bill, announced in the Queen’s speech, goes too far. “I don’t believe that we are going to solve this battle by banning organisations, gagging orders or closing venues. These are not going to help. Rather than driving discussion underground, we need to be openly challenging it.”
Khan, I sense, could happily joust with a bearded fundamentalist for all eternity (she believes it is important that her two young daughters learn to “stand up to bullies”) but what bothers her is when the rest of us fail to back her up. She was recently invited to speak at a school but when an Islamist group told them she was “Islamophobic”, they cancelled. “This from a group who are openly anti-semitic,” she says.
She is constantly meeting “well-meaning, liberal teachers” who will meekly agree to the demands of strict Muslim parents on the modesty of a school uniform or skipping religious education classes.
“I tell them, ‘You have to stand your ground. This isn’t a faith school’.” She gives me a warm, tolerant smile: “I wish our society had a bit more backbone. I think most Muslims would be grateful.”