bgnsIn August, it was reported that Kadiza Sultana, one of three teenagers who had left their homes in Bethnal Green to go to Syria, had been killed in an airstrike. The three girls had become one of the best known cases of young Brits travelling to join ISIS, their photographs published on the front of every newspaper. In this report for the New Statesman, I spoke to the family lawyer and people from local communities about what happened, and interviewed experts about why young women might decide to make this journey at all.

In Syria, out of the glare of the world’s media, Sultana soon regretted her decision to join Isis. Her husband, an American fighter of Somali origin, was killed in late 2015. She was scared. “She simply did not feel safe or comfortable there, she didn’t feel she could trust anyone other than her immediate circle and she didn’t want to stay in that environment any longer,” says Akunjee. Sultana spoke regularly to her eldest sister, Halima Khanom, who is 33 and lives in London. It was difficult for her to convey her fears given the risk of phone calls being monitored by Isis.

The full piece is available at the New Statesman website, and a clipping will follow.

In this June 29, 2010 photograph, Pakist

During my latest trip to Pakistan in spring of this year, I traveled around the country and reported on different aspects of extremism in the country. I recently wrote a long feature for the New Humanist (Summer 2016 issue) looking at the country’s notorious network of madrasas (religious seminaries), examining their relationship to terrorism and the reasons why successive attempts at reform have failed.

Mohammed Ishfaq and Naeb Amir, two of the teachers, stepped outside to talk to me. “Things were good before this, but now there are problems teaching and praying here,” said Amir. “The number of students – even boys – has decreased. People are afraid to visit. Many don’t want to send their kids here.”

Ishfaq jumped in. “We are teaching an approved syllabus to the boys, but we don’t know what Halima was teaching the girls. There’s no evidence that she changed the syllabus, and we didn’t know about it if she did. We never heard her mention Syria or ISIS or sectarianism. Everyone was surprised.”

I asked what they thought of Cheema’s actions: had she done the wrong thing in going to Syria? “She did wrong,” Ishfaq said, immediately. “Women cannot travel without the permission of their husband. She went against Islam.”

The full piece is available at the New Humanist website and the clipping is below.



Luton Extremism

In the aftermath of the EU referendum on 23 June, I wrote a few reported features from different parts of the UK, talking to different communities.

For Politico Europe, I went to Luton, one of the few places in Britain where the “white British” are a minority and famed for both far right and Islamic extremism. Luton has a substantial ethnic minority population, yet voted in favour of Brexit. I spoke to local residents to find out why.

But in Luton, class concerns — cutting across the town’s disparate ethnic groups — may have played a more decisive role in driving the Leave vote. The vast majority of jobs on offer in Luton are low-skilled. Both white and Muslim Asian communities are worried by the wage depression caused by Eastern European migration.

For the New Statesman, I visited Bradford, another city with a substantial ethnic minority population and a history of racial tension. In this post-industrial northern town, unemployment and economic decline certainly played a role. (The clipping is below)

More often than not, young people in search of skilled work are forced to leave. “People who graduated with me in biomedical sciences are working in retail because the jobs aren’t there,” says Samayya Afzal, a recent graduate of the University of Bradford and a Remain campaigner. “It’s bleak. Bradford is my home – my family is here – but I can’t see a future here. It’s difficult to describe how that feels.”

For Al Jazeera, I interviewed members of Britain’s Roma community, an already vilified minority concerned about its future in the UK after the referendum result.

“Roma migrants tend to have the double whammy: they’re not just Eastern European migrants, they’re also Roma Eastern European migrants,” says Shay Clipson, an advocate with the National Alliance of Gypsy, Traveller, and Roma Women. “They may be Czech Roma, or Slovak Roma, but the other Czechs and Slovaks don’t particularly like them either. Many are here because they are escaping persecution in their countries of origin. They are not just here to make a living, they are here so that they can live,” says Clipson.

I’ve continued to report regularly on UK politics for Deutsche Welle, including this piece on Theresa May taking office, this on racism in the UK, this on hate crimes against Polish nationals, and coverage of this year’s party conferences.


leave remainIt’s been a tumultuous period for British politics. Since my return from Pakistan, I’ve been covering events in Britain for Deutsche Welle. In May, I wrote about the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London, the first Muslim mayor of a major capital city – an optimistic moment that already feels like it happened a long time ago.

As the referendum campaign heated up, I wrote numerous pieces, including these interviews with British people living in other European countries, this report on the different Leave campaigns vying for space, this visit to the bizarre UKIP flotilla that sailed to Westminster, this article on what might come next for Nigel Farage and UKIP after the referendum, and this profile of Boris Johnson who, at that point, looked as if he might be the next Prime Minister. (How quickly things change!)

In mid-June, the Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered in her Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen, a devastating incident that sent shockwaves through the country. As I reported, her murder raised questions over the tone of the debate – although sadly little seemed to change afterwards.

Politics ground on, and as Britain took to the polls I spoke to voters from the Remain, Leave, and undecided camps about their views. On Friday 24 June as it became clear Britain was leaving the EU, I spoke to members of the public – some celebrating, some shellshocked – about the surprise vote in favour of Brexit. The political fallout from the vote is just beginning; there was, distressingly, an immediate spike in xenophobic attacks, and both of the main political parties are embroiled in internal power struggles. I’ll be continuing to report regularly for Deutsche Welle as the fallout continues. You can see a full list of my pieces for the outlet here.


Out on patrol with Karachi police in the former militant stronghold of Sohrab Goth

The second part of my project for the Times, looking into support for ISIS in Pakistan, came out in the paper on 21 June.

This piece focused on ISIS cells and supporters in universities and amongst the intelligentsia: a very different profile to the usual militant in the country, who are traditionally drawn from lower income backgrounds. I met with several students who openly professed their support to ISIS. Rather than direct involvement in violence, the majority focused on fundraising, propaganda and logistical support. Most had links with other terrorist sympathisers overseas, both in the Middle East and in Europe and in some cases in Britain. The full piece is available at the Times website (paywall-ed) and the clipping is below.

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A street in Johar Town, Lahore. Three women left for Syria from this area in December 2015.

A street in Johar Town, Lahore. Three women left for Syria from this area in December 2015.

My most recent trip to Pakistan (from March-April this year) was with the Times newspaper, under the auspices of the Richard Beeston Bursary. As well as covering general news, I was researching support for ISIS in Pakistan. The authorities have been keen to downplay any threat from ISIS within their borders, claiming that it is non-existent as a political force there – but there have been numerous attacks claimed by the group’s supporters. I was surprised by what I found; while there is currently little evidence of an organisational presence of ISIS in any meaningful sense – for instance, a fighting force with the capability of capturing territory – there are significant pockets of support. Those that I met did not fit the stereotypical demographic of militants in Pakistan, who are stereotypically rural and from lower income backgrounds. The first of my pieces on the topic for the Times came out on Saturday 11th June, and looked at support for ISIS (and other terrorist groups) amongst educated women. You can read the piece at the Times website here (link behind paywall) and the clipping is below.

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IMG_0813I was delighted to be invited to give a talk at the Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery on 19th May. The talk was part of the gallery’s programme of talks around its current exhibition of Imran Qureshi’s work, “Where the Shadows are so Deep”. I spoke about Qureshi’s subversion of the miniature form of painting – particularly fresh in my mind after a recent visit to Lahore’s National College of Art, where Qureshi learnt his craft and where he still teaches. The paintings are beautiful but also unavoidably violent. The main focus of my talk was contextualising this preoccupation with violence: how does the perpetual threat of violence in Pakistan affect day-to-day lives, people’s relationship to their environment and society, and last but not least, it’s artistic and literary output? I’ll post the text of the speech in due course.