Imran Khan says the lessons of Macpherson have not been learnt
?I FELT very crushed by the defeat. It was a huge, huge blow.? Imran Khan winces as he recalls the failure to secure a private prosecution of the racist thugs who murdered the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
Khan sits high in the Top 100 list of most influential British Asians. And with good reason. After the private prosecution failed, he helped to secure a full inquest for the Lawrence family into their son?s death. Out of failure came success. The Macpherson report changed the landscape of British policing. It put the concept of institutional racism firmly on the map.
Khan speaks quickly: a self-deprecating voice that is punctuated by laughter. His office is small, the furniture modest. As a prominent British Muslim, he worries about terrorism: ?My vision of the future is bleak ? where the Muslim community becomes ever more introverted, producing exactly the kind of reaction the Government wants to avoid. It?s fomenting it. The Forest Gate episode and the de Menezes shooting are symptomatic of the problem with the State, which says, like it did pre-Macpherson: ?We can do it, we can get away with it because we?ve created a climate in which fear is really the option. We are policing by coercion. We are coercing the community to co-operate.? That will produce precisely the sort of individuals the Government wants to prosecute. It feeds terrorism.
?The police and the Government are saying that all Muslims ? and this generality is clear in some quarters ? are all complicit in acts of terrorism either by not condemning or not revealing those who do it, or you?re planning it. In some way, you?re all complicit. That makes the Muslim community introverted and try to defend itself. You produce a cycle. Why haven?t we learnt? We?ve had Macpherson. The lessons apply equally to Muslims.
That?s what?s so depressing ? the same police officers who talk wonderfully about race relations have no idea how to approach Muslims.
?Senior government ministers simply don?t accept when I tell them what?s happening in Bradford, Leeds and elsewhere. When they talk about Muslims and terrorism, they don?t understand what impact that has. As one minister said, it is those communities committing those acts, so they?ve got to expect to be stopped and searched disproportionately. That sort of statement produces a self-defence mechanism. At meetings in Bradford, two or three hundred people are absolutely petrified. They don?t know what they can speak about, what they can publish, what sermons they can give at mosques. It gives comfort to white racists who want to attack them. I draw a parallel with Lawrence. Those who killed him did so in an environment where they knew they could get away with it. That?s what happening in the Muslim community.?
What about young Muslims who admire al-Qaeda? ?When I meet people who are inclined to support terrorism, I can understand them. That?s what government needs to do. To use Tony Blair?s phrase, not just tackling crime but the causes of crime. You?ve got to look at the root causes, to use the law to fight the struggle. I?m just one part of it. I say to them: ?If you?re frustrated, if you?ve got a grievance, there is a legitimate route where you can fight. The Lawrence case was a success. Mubarek, too. There are legitimate means. I?m trying to show that path.?
Born in 1964, Khan moved with his family from Karachi to London when he was 4. The racism he encountered in Plaistow made its mark. From the public gallery of the Old Bailey, he watched QCs Michael Mansfield and Helena Kennedy: ?They brought the politics of the street into the courtroom.? After university, articled at Birnberg Peirce, he learnt that: ?Every case matters. You fight every case as if it was the most important you?ve ever had.?
Two years later in 1993, he was contacted about Stephen Lawrence. Khan was only 29. ?I didn?t want to do it at first,? he confesses. ?I got a call: ?There?s been a murder. The family needs help. Can you come straight down?? I knew nothing about it. You ask a lawyer that in the middle of their working day and they?ll say no. What happened next was sheer laziness. I said: ?Look, I can?t come today, but I?ll come over the weekend.? On Sunday, I arrived, knocked on the door. The Lawrences had gone to church. I thought, ?I?ll sit in the car for five minutes and hopefully they won?t come back and that?s the end of my involvement. As luck, or destiny, would have it, they came back within five minutes. The rest is history.?
Serious crime with a racist dimension is the lifeblood of Khan?s practice. When he heard about the death of Zahid Mubarek ? murdered in 2000 by his racist cellmate at Feltham Young Offenders? Institution ? he was initially unmoved: ?It may sound callous but I get so many phone calls that I?m immune to shock. When a case like that arrives, you don?t say, ?Oh my God?, because you?ve been dealing with Oh my God?s for most of your life. Mubarek will hopefully change the way in which prisons operate.?
And our legal institutions? ?The English legal system is pale, male and stale. We need positive discrimination, affirmative action. Take QCs. You?ve got black lawyers, probably at the bottom end in salaries, when applying for silk costs thousands. It?s prohibitive, so fewer apply. The numbers who got through this year approximately reflect the overall population as a percentage. But many more should be there. They are being overcautious in appointing them.?
A fuller version of this article appears in the September issue of Independent Lawyer out next week