Sara Khan: The activist about to step up the fight against extremism

Sara Khan: The activist about to step up the fight against extremism

The Home Office appointed Sara Khan (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Compared to the ballyhoo which surrounded Theresa May's Cabinet reshuffle, the appointment of a new counter-extremism tsar barely made a ripple in the media.

But the recruitment of Sara Khan as head of the new Commission for Countering Extremism is arguably more significant than any of the jobs handed out by May in her recent rejig. And her backstory is certainly more interesting than any of the big beasts in the Tory jungle.

Khan is arguably the most influential Muslim woman in Britain today. Her role as an activist, author and influencer has forced her to fit a bomb-proof letterbox in her home, and brought forth a litany of evil threas on social media. Yet still she ploughs on, showing the sort of tenacity which will serve her well in her new role.

Khan is perhaps best-known as a crusader for women's rights in the Muslim world, believing that "when women are silenced, sidelined, societies are less stable, more prone to extremism." It was this drive which led her to co-found Inspire, an independent counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation, in 2008.

The organisation is predicated on the belief that many Muslim organisations were not tackling the issues of extremism and rights for women. It holds gender equality and counter-extremism sessions for Muslim women and has trained more than 5,000 teachers in the UK on how to ensure children learn about human rights. It has also provided training for thinktanks, Government departments and law firms.

Khan's tireless pursuit of women's rights also led her to write an open letter to Muslim girls in 2015. The missive was penned after three girls from Bethnal Green were thought to have travelled to Syria to join Isis. Khan told girls who may be encouraged to follow this treacherous trail that they were being "lied to in the wickedest of ways."

Khan is no stranger to working with the Government. Following the 7/7 bombings in London she became part of the Home Office's Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation Working Group.

She has also served on the Department for International Development’s External Expert Advisory Group on Girls and Women, and most recently she sat on the Education Department's Due Diligence and Counter-Extremism Expert Reference Group.

Her close collaboration with the Government, and her status as a Muslim woman in the public eye, has brought plenty of criticism. Tory peer Lady Warsi claimed many British Muslims view Khan as a "mouthpiece" of the Home Office rather than an independent figure, and she has also been called derogatory names on social media, even threatened with gang-rape by Isis. The police insisted she must have a petrol bomb-proof letterbox at home in order to protect her and her family.

It's all a far cry from the start of Khan's journey, when she received a harrowing insight into the extremist mentality when she started wearing a veil. This was not imposed by her family and she claims in fact her mother stopped talking to her and her father did not say much. 

Khan told Vogue: “There were all sorts at university. Groups promoting a caliphate even then, and dreaming of flying a flag over Number 10. I was reading a lot about religion. Activist circles were advising women to wear [the veil].”

Based on her own experience of wearing the veil as a form of self-identification, Khan has suggested that many young people fall into extremism out of a desire to stand out, a wish to stamp themselves on the world. How this belief will inform her work in her new role remains to be seen.

It was this that made her cover her head and she suggests it's because young people are trying to identify themselves that they can sometimes fall into the wrong belief system, for example extremism. 

As well as the many achievements already mentioned, Khan is also a trained pharmacist and has an MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights.

She's the author of The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, and has written a chapter in Sensible Religion which was about Islam teachings and women's rights.

With all these achievements behind her, it's no surprise that Khan has received several awards, including being named as Marie Claire's groundbreaking activist in 2016 and being one of the BBC Woman's Hour Top 10 Influencers in 2015.

Perhaps, after all the criticism about her Government and its key appointments, Theresa May has got this one absolutely spot on.