Brexit Britain

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.

Pakistan’s educated militants

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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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Female jihadis in Pakistan

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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Talking at the Barbican

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.

Travels in Pakistan

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Talking to Channel 4 news about the Lahore attack in April.

Over March and April this year, I spent six weeks in Pakistan on assignment with the Times. While I was there I traveled to all the major provinces of the country (Sindh, Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan) and reported on major news stories including the terrible Easter Sunday bombing in Lahore and the political fall-out that followed, and China’s economic ambitions in Pakistan.

The longer project I was working on, as part of the Richard Beeston bursary that I was awarded last year, will be published in the Times soon. In the meantime, here are a few of the shorter news pieces I wrote during my trip. (All links behind a paywall).

Easter suicide bomb in Lahore kills at least 56

5,000 suspects hauled in as bombers taunt Lahore (clipping below)

Fear a fact of life for Pakistan’s Christians

Christian boys’ Easter jaunt that ended in tragedy (clipping below)

China builds megaport on the Pakistani coast
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Recent scribblings

Outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Photo my own.
Outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Photo my own.

I’ve been working on some longer projects recently, but thought I would share links to some other bits and pieces I’ve been publishing. In January I wrote this column for the International Business Times about the news that a woman was suing Twitter over ISIS propaganda following the death of her husband by an ISIS-affiliated militant. I also wrote this blog for the New Statesman following the terrorist attack on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, looking at the difficulty of stamping out long-established militant networks.

I still write news and analysis on UK politics for Deutsche Welle. Recent pieces include this report on the case against radical preacher Anjem Choudary; this piece ahead of the results of the Litvinenko Inquiry; a report on David Cameron’s attempts to renegotiate the relationship with the EU; and this article on the media circus surrounding Julian Assange and the UN panel that agreed he is being arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorean embassy.

Cuts to ESOL

we-went-to-an-english-class-for-muslims-body-image-1453391069-size_1000In January, David Cameron announced extra funding for English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes, to be targeted at Muslim women in order to counter extremism. It was quite a semantic leap to link women’s language skills with the wider problem of extremism, and was particularly odd given swingeing cuts to ESOL budgets in recent years. To get a fuller picture of the story, I went to an ESOL class in east London, mainly populated by, yes, Muslim women, and found that extremism is less of an issue than slashed budgets that make it harder for colleges to access vulnerable students. You can read the article over at Vice magazine.

In this classroom in Tower Hamlets College, the majority of the 14 students are Muslim women, and all are originally from Bangladesh: the demographic Cameron claims his new initiative will be aimed at. The threat of deportation, says Rebecca Durand, another teacher at the college, has really shaken students here. “We don’t want language-learning to be linked to any sort of threat,” she says. “That’s really frightened the people I’ve talked to in my class. People are motivated because they want to learn English.”

The following week, Ofsted announced that schools could be downgraded if students wore the face veil and it was found to be affecting learning. (Are you sensing a theme here?). In another article for Vice, I spoke to teachers about their views on this potential ban of face veils in schools.

Best of 2015

shoaib

As 2016 gets going, I thought I’d share links to some of the pieces I most enjoyed working on last year. In no particular order, here’s my top 5:

1.Karachi vice (Guardian)

In my debut piece for the Guardian’s fantastic new long-reads section, I profiled a crime reporter in Karachi, often cited as one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

2. Naz Shah interview: “the victory is my mother’s, too” (New Statesman)

One of the stand-out stories of the May general election was the victory of Naz Shah, who defeated George Galloway in Bradford West. I went to Bradford to speak to Shah soon after the election and hear more about her extraordinary life story.

3. A deadly battle of ideas: murder in Bangladesh (New Humanist/Guardian)

In the cover story from the autumn New Humanist, I wrote about the spate of brutal murders of atheist writers, interviewing two survivors of these attacks and exploring the historical factors behind the violence. A shorter version of the piece also appeared in the Guardian.

4. Mohamed Soltan, the Egyptian activist who spent 400 days on hunger strike in prison (New Statesman)

Since the 2011 uprising, Egypt’s political system has gone through a series of convulsions, leaving many different groups of people vulnerable to state repression. I interviewed Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American arrested in Cairo after protesting. He spoke graphically about the torture he endured, and discussed his current campaigning.

5. Reading poetry written by jihadists could shed new light on extremism (New Statesman)

As soon as I came across a collection of Taliban poetry in translation earlier this year, I was fascinated with the idea of hardened militants sitting around and composing verses. This online piece for the New Statesman discusses the growing body of scholarship around the non-violent activities of jihadists and what we can learn from it.

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This is just a small selection of the work I did this year; if you scroll down, you can see a sample of my other reporting. I’ve got some really exciting projects coming up in 2016, which I’ll be sharing details of in due course. Happy new year!

 

Recent writing

peshawarAs the year draws to a close, here are a couple of pieces I’ve written recently. There’s this column for the International Business Times about Donald Trump’s absurd – but worrying – call to bar all Muslims from entering the US. I also wrote another column for the IB Times, this time looking at what has changed for women three years after the horrific Delhi bus rape.

I wrote a short piece for the New Statesman on the first anniversary of the Peshawar attack on 16 December 2014, when over 100 schoolchildren were slaughtered by Taliban gunmen

Analysts are urging the government to avoid complacency in the fight against militancy, pointing out that the military offensive must be matched by better policing and intelligence to eliminate networks across the country, and accompanied by longer term strategies to reduce the appeal of terrorist violence – such as improved education and regulation of the madrasa networks. As Peshawar grieves today, Pakistan is agreed that it has lost too many already.

And this is a couple of months old, but in late October, I interviewed Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American man who spent 400 days on hunger strike in an Egyptian prison. You can read the full interview over at the New Statesman.

Political periods

skyI recently appeared on Sky News’ Morning Stories segment, talking about the tampon tax. Why are sanitary items taxed as luxury items when all sorts of ludicrous things – edible cake decorations and exotic meats, to name just a few – are exempt? You can see my short rant over at the Sky News website.