In the years after Britain withdrew from Iraq, allegations of misconduct by British troops were coming thick and fast. In 2010, the government established the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat). This was an investigative body that was supposed to bring together all the allegations and deal with them quickly. Perhaps predictably, that was not what happened. The investigation spiralled out of control and closed in disgrace in 2017. In the process, the entire field of human rights law had been called into disrepute, while stories abounded of soldiers whose lives had been put on hold during protracted investigations.
For my latest report for the Guardian’s Long Read section, I spent months interviewing people involved at all stages of the process to piece together how it went so wrong. As Britain faces the possibility of investigation by the International Criminal Court, this could have far-reaching consequences.
The collapse of Ihat seems likely to mark the end of serious attempts to investigate alleged crimes by British soldiers in Iraq, leaving questions about the scale of abuses and accountability unanswered. After such a public failure, what politician would want to reopen the issue? Yet, behind the headlines of corrupt lawyers and incompetent investigators, the true story of Ihat is more complicated. Both military advocates and human rights defenders agree that the scandal around Ihat was at the very least, politically convenient for the Ministry of Defence. With human rights lawyers cast as the villains, the MoD could avoid uncomfortable questions about its own role in training soldiers in procedures that breached the Geneva conventions. “At times, the MoD has been tempted to throw the uniform under the bus,” says Johnny Mercer, a Conservative MP who was instrumental in Ihat’s closure.
In 2014, a series of allegations surfaced about schools in Birmingham. The central claim was that a group of Muslim men had conspired to take over governing bodies in order to “Islamise” schools. The story quickly became a national – even international – scandal. The media descended on a small corner of Birmingham, and the ripple effect went up to the highest levels of government.
Yet three years later, there is still no evidence that there was a conspiracy. So what happened? I spent over a year working on a piece for the Guardian’s Long Read section, investigating events at Park View – the school at the centre of the scandal – and schools affiliated to it. I spoke to former teachers, students, politicians and council workers to try and build up a picture of what happened and what went wrong in the handling of it.
Three years on, the Trojan horse affair remains perhaps the best known and most polarising story about Britain’s relationship with its Muslim citizens. For many, the story has come to symbolise the failures of multiculturalism and the threat that hardline Islamic ideology poses to the future of the country. It was mentioned in the 2017 Ukip manifesto, and it is rare for a month to go by without some reference to the scandal in the rightwing press. (Several reports this year in the Telegraph and the Times have warned of a “new Trojan horse plot” in different parts of Britain.) For others, it is a confected scandal promoted by rightwing newspapers, the product of a climate in which all British Muslims are viewed with suspicion, and complex questions about faith and integration are reduced by politicians and the media to hysterical debates about terrorism.
You can read the full story over at the Guardian, and the clipping is below. (I also wrote about the Trojan Horse affair at the time, in this 2014 article for the New Humanist)
Late last year, I travelled to Karachi to spend a week with Muhammad Safdar, an ambulance driver for the Edhi Foundation. This is a huge charitable empire which fills many of the gaps left by the state – including the world’s largest voluntary ambulance service. In Karachi, a city that for years has been riven by gang crime and terrorist violence, the job of an ambulance driver can be perilous. The Edhi Foundation also tends to unidentified corpses, along with a dizzying array of other services.
Karachi’s ethnic conflict and violent gang war was in full flow. On his first day, Safdar went with another driver to collect one of the unclaimed bodies frequently found on the streets. He couldn’t look. The other driver slapped him in the face. “What do you think this is?” he said. “It’s a human being. What are you? A human being. Why are you behaving like this?” Safdar picked up the corpse.
“It takes time to get used to this work,” he says. “A lot of people leave after a week or so as they can’t take it. They have fear in them.”
The profile of Safdar and the Edhi Foundation was originally written for Mosaic, a magazine run by the Wellcome Trust. It was syndicated by theGuardian’s long-read section, and will be appearing in Esquire Malaysia along with a few other places. It’s accompanied by wonderful photos by Akhtar Soomro (a full gallery is available on the Mosaic website).
Earlier this year, I travelled to Karachi (where I lived in 2012) to spend some time with the city’s crime reporters. This is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world, plagued by political conflict, organised mafias, and now, terrorism. The city is enormous, so gang wars can change one area into a battlefield while others remain totally untouched. This is something I’ve noticed acutely when staying with family (my mother is from Karachi and many of our relatives still live there); in the luxurious houses and beautiful gardens in the elite districts, you might barely notice the tension consuming the city at large – were it not for the armed guards outside every house.
Reporting on Karachi’s crime wave and tracking the shifting nature of the threat from gang wars to terrorist strongholds is a high stakes, dangerous job. I spent some time with Zille Hyder, a television crime reporter who proudly proclaims his place on a terrorist hit-list, exploring the day-to-day reality of his job and trying to work out why anyone would choose to do something that puts their life at such risk. The piece was months in the making and I’m really proud of the result, which is published in the Guardian’s long-read section on 21 October. You can read the piece (around 6000 words) here, or the clipping is below.
It falls to Hyder and the city’s crime reporters to make sense of the throbbing disorder of Karachi. The fact that crime has infiltrated every aspect of life there puts them in the curious position of being minor celebrities; Hyder regularly receives fan mail and is often recognised in public. The Karachi airport attack shows that reporters can sometimes go overboard – but deciphering the shifts in ethnic conflict and gangland alliances is a vital job. The fate of Pakistan depends on Karachi, the megalopolis that provides a quarter of the nation’s GDP, and the fate of Karachi will be decided by the power struggles between its gangsters, terrorists, police and political groups.