From tumult of London riots, a father's voice emerges

Tariq Jahan, whose son Haroon was killed in the London riots, has gained Britain's ear with his dignified but urgent pleas for calm.

By , Staff writer

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    Tariq Jahan, whose son Haroon Jahan was killed in the London riots, speaks during a peace rally in Birmingham, central England, on Aug. 14.
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A week after harrowing riots in London that spread to other British cities, the voice of a first-generation Muslim whose son was killed may prove to be the most eloquent cry for sanity.

Hours after failing to revive his son Haroon and two others killed in Birmingham by a car that drove at high speed into a sidewalk crowd, Tariq Jahan, born in Pakistan, was able to stand before a crowd bent on revenge, and say, "I lost my son. Blacks, Asians, whites: We all live in the same community. Why do we have to kill one another? Why are we doing this? Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home, please.”

Mr. Jahan’s few hundred words shot out of the multiethnic Birmingham neighborhood, lighting up the Twitter and YouTube worlds and becoming a kind of anthem of sober reflection for all Brits, forged out of pain and loss.

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Jahan is getting credit for reaching average people in a way that political leaders have been unable to. His story and his deeds are getting daily play here; a Financial Times editorial, “Disunited Kingdom,” found Jahan’s example the “most inspiring” from a “torrid week” and a “reminder of the obligations of community.”

“Tariq Jahan’s dignified pleas for calm, in spite of his own loss, have helped diffuse tensions,” says Paul Bickley of Theos, a London think tank on religion and society. “Cities and towns across the UK will need many more people of faith to build solidarity over the coming months."

Jahan was in a crowd that was protecting shops in a Muslim community when he heard a car crashing. He first tried to help two brothers and then found that his son was the third victim. He tried first aid, and whispered to Haroon to stay alive while an ambulance arrived. But the 21-year-old did not survive. Jahan later read from prepared notes to an angry crowd, backed by local leaders of different races. (Listen to his speech here.)

Cameron chides a 'broken society'

British leaders today fought to define why and how violence could spontaneously combust in London and Britain for three days of looting. Prime Minister David Cameron blamed fatherless families and lax schooling. Today, he called the riots evidence of a “slow-motion moral collapse” that will require tough policing. Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband has blamed a culture of wealth and banking that is alien and impossible for youths to participate in, and criticized politicians for a lack of leadership and for offering “knee-jerk gimmicks” in now trying to deal with the problem.

Yet in the uneasy calm on the streets today, and amid the high-level bickering, Jahan is in some ways the Rodney King of Britain, even if he had no role in the riots.

In 1991, Los Angeles police officers were caught on camera brutally beating Mr. King, an African-American, after he led them on a high-speed car chase. Despite public outrage over the beating, a jury cleared the officers of almost all charges in April 1992, sparking five-day riots across the city that left 54 people dead and caused millions of dollars in damages. But King’s later spontaneous plea, “I mean, why can’t we all just get along,” seemed an antidote to raw feelings.

The British media swarmed for details on the unlikely hero, Jahan. It turns out he is the kind of person, both a devout Muslim and an ardent British patriot, that the often embattled immigrant community has long said are typical but rarely noticed. He is a delivery man of Pakistani and Indian parentage. As a young man he was found solace in a radical cleric, but later rejected the message and found his own sense of self and peace in doing good for others in his Muslim community.

"A vast majority of first-generation Pakistani Muslim immigrants came here to live with the hope of leading peaceful, prosperous lives, and see it as in their interests to hold communities together,” notes Mr. Buckley of Theos. “Although the riots have not been racially motivated, they have threatened to exacerbate tensions between different communities.”

Jahan gave a news conference last week thanking young people for apparently hearing his message (he had initially expressed doubt that younger people would listen) and on Sunday presided over a memorial service at Summerfield Park in Birmingham.

At some very basic level, the sudden rioting appears to have been a mass uprising of have-nots vs. haves, with an old grudge against British police in the background. It was sparked by the shooting of a young man in the Tottenham area of London by police who earlier identified him as a gun carrier, though it appears he did not fire a weapon at police. (The official police explanation is pending an investigation.)

Why did it happen?

Yet as it spread, the anger and looting cut across vast differences in ages, race, class, and locales and has defied easy explanations.

One of the first looters to appear in court was a teacher’s assistant. At the sales counter of a Waterstone’s book store in London, copies of William Golding’s novel of anarchy, "Lord of the Flies" were on sale. The riot debate may have knocked out historian David Starkey from his TV commentary role after he praised British fascist leader Enoch Powell and said that “black culture” and whites who “have become black” were responsible.

Adding to the Tory argument of family breakdown and the Labour view of disparity of wealth, the riots have been variously attributed to spiritual vacuity, nihilism, a lack of hope or stake in the future, or pent-up anger while British elites were at beachside villas in Italy and Spain.

One possible explanation for the spread of looting beyond London is the use of riots to settle older local scores. The British riots, in this view, quickly became an excuse for gangs to fight each other with impunity.

This may be one explanation behind the killing of Jahan’s son Haroon. He and other young Muslims were protecting shops in Birmingham against looting by other ethnic groups, mainly said to be African-Caribbean, with whom there have been tensions.

In Jahan’s initial plea for peace he called Haroon a “good lad” who “stood up for the community,” and later added that, “I miss him dearly, but two days from now the whole world will forget – no one will care.”

In this, Britain may have shown that Jahan was mistaken.

Meanwhile, one immediate dispute in the post-riot fallout is whether to hire American “supercop” William Bratton, who had success in New York and Los Angeles with limiting gang homicide, and who appears eager to come. Mr. Cameron has favored the idea but Home Secretary Theresa May and Police Association chief Sir Hugh Orde have said the US and UK are too different. Mr. Bratton told the Guardian today he would be willing to change his passport to take a top job, but odds are he may be retained as an adviser.

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