So why would anyone, yet alone a British Muslim student, wish to travel to Iraq at such a time? This was certainly a question that appeared to stump Dermot Murnaghan when speaking to Khan on BBC News. On a break from studies at Egypt’s University of Alexandria, he had initially travelled to Jordan at the start of a planned pilgrimage to find the Saudi embassy closed. “So I considered Iraq as an alternative and took a £7 coach down there. I was there for tourism”, he calmly says. “I wanted to see how the people of Iraq were coping with the new situation.”
Whilst it appears unanimous since his return that his intentions were pure and far from the Kurdish officials’ accusations that he was attempting to join Ansar al-Islam, Khan is perhaps guilty of naivety. “Once I figured out that they were convinced that I was some kind of terrorist who had come to fight against coalition forces and weren’t bothered about what I had to say, only then did I think it wasn’t a good time to come to Iraq. It didn’t matter that I knew I hadn’t done anything because they were adamant I was guilty.”
He found the atmosphere tense and uncomfortable in the Iraqi city. “In the short time I spent in Baghdad, it was quite clear to me that the American presence had done little to reassure anyone of their personal security.” He disagrees that perhaps such stability would be a long-term process. “The coalition presence is a destabilising factor. I think when America starts appointing members of the interim government and Iraqi governing council, one finds it hard to believe that it will just disengage from the political process if and when all guns fall silent. The presence of a foreign occupying army surely cannot help people to breathe freely, and live in an atmosphere without fear”.
During his several interrogations by the Kurdish Democratic Party, questions asked, including ‘Do you love Osama bin Laden?’, were centred around allegations of Khan entering the country as someone wanting to fight against coalition troops. “I had to be careful in the way I answered the simplest of questions. I was aware of the fact that every response would be treated with suspicion. Knowing my innocence, I felt the best way to respond to the interrogation was to communicate the truth of my story and circumstances in a calm and balanced manner.
Remarkably laid back following almost seven weeks in various Iraqi prisons, Khan was held by Kurdish and later American military officials. “Throughout my imprisonment, my beliefs were the bedrock of any strategy I had of how I dealt with prison life. Different people respond to similar circumstances in a variety of ways. I don’t feel my response was the best or the worst way of responding to the circumstances I was in. I dealt with it as best as I could, in the best way I knew how”.
Initially reported in The Times earlier this month as a suspected terrorist unable to give an explanation to military officials of his whereabouts, he attacks the inaccuracy of the media. “I think any press organisation which manipulates a story in a way which inevitably perpetuates prejudicial ideas amongst society is acting irresponsibly in terms of its role which is to communicate the truth. Responsible reporting is about relaying the facts and explaining a story, not about empty sensationalism”.
Being an integral member of Manchester University, last year representing the arts faculty in the student union, Khan believes that all Muslims are able to enrich and contribute to the society in of which they are part of. "In no way have I ever found my Islamic beliefs pointing me towards anything other than helping those around me and in fulfilling my duties as a citizen”.
It is known that life has become increasingly difficult for many British minorities in the last years. “After September 11th, the Muslim community in the West were put under greater scrutiny and allegiances and loyalties were questioned.” He says that profiling in itself is a source of discrimination, resulting in a system where there’s more bad than good as a result. “For example, look at how young black men in the UK are constantly stopped and searched by police. Profiling propagates the assumption of stereotypes. That’s all it’s based upon, on the belief that certain groups are more likely to be guilty of something than others. If you follow this route you’ll arrive at a position where you end up holding everyone guilty to the crimes of a few.
“I’m not naïve enough to assume that law enforcement authorities will give up the system of profiling because it offends a few people. But I think what’s worrying now is the extreme confidence they put into this system and the high levels of injustice it leads to. It’s almost as though being from a certain ‘category’ acts as a waiver in terms of the rights you hold. For example, if white British citizens were being held abroad without any access to legal advice, in direct contravention of international law, there would of course be outcry. The fact that there’s Muslims in Guantanamo Bay being held in America means many turn a blind eye. When the unacceptable becomes acceptable for a certain group of people, you are in danger of a two-tier justice system.
“I’m concerned by the number of people detained by the British police on the basis of suspicion of terrorism. I think it’s reached the level where allegations of scapegoating the Muslim community can no longer be shrugged off by the government. The continuation of this policy runs a serious risk of not only alienating British Muslims but seriously damaging community relations in this country. If you infringe on the basic human rights of any individual within a society, you have effectively opened the door to injustice for the whole of that society”.
Moving on, I ask for his opinion on wearing of the Hijab recently being banned in France. “The involvement of the French government in determining what is acceptable or not in the realm of personal belief and restricting freedom of action is a dangerous step. It is in itself a great irony, going against the values of ‘Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite’. I am concerned about President Jacques Chirac’s recent comments, as an infringement on personal freedom in any EU country, in particular with regard to minority groups, cannot bode well for Europe as a whole."
As for the war on Iraq? “If we have international laws amongst nations we must abide by them. There’s no question in my mind that US foreign policy over the past century is tarred with hypocrisy. I recognise there are those that argue for a strong interventionist strategy on behalf of western nations around the world to further an ideology which they believe to be the best way forward for all of humanity. Personally, I feel people should have the choice over how they wish to live. But it is a sad reflection on our world, that the USA, the nation recognised by many to be the greatest liberal democracy on the planet is hell-bent on occupying other nations.”
Khan’s release saw significant effort from many bodies, with Stockton South MP Dari Taylor highlighting his plight at Prime Minister’s Questions, to be told by Blair that the British office in Baghdad were looking at the case seriously. “I thank my MP wholeheartedly for her efforts, as well as the Foreign Office and the consular staff, especially in Baghdad but also those working for my case in London”, he finishes with. “I’d like to thank my family and friends, in particular the wide support I received from the student body at Manchester University”.
Oh, and the Americans still have his mobile.
- Anjool Malde is News Editor at The Oxford Student
- Interview not necessarily exclusive to Indymedia and may be published shortly in the student press.