The Taliban are in London too
In the city's Muslim neighborhoods, an Afghan reporter finds a few too many uncomfortable reminders of home
I still don't know who wanted me dead. I was sitting in my car one day last november, not far from my house in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar, when a group of strangers walked up. One of them pointed a pistol through my window. I remember he wore a turban and shalwar kameez—the tunic and baggy pants common in the area—and he had a long beard, dyed red with henna. He shot me in the chest, hand and arm, and then fled with his friends. Miraculously, none of the bullets hit any arteries or vital organs, and as soon as a doctor patched me up and I was strong enough to travel, I booked a flight to London. I planned to lie low for a while, to rest and seek further medical help for a bullet that was lodged in my arm. But more than that, I just wanted to be somewhere calm and safe, far from AK-toting gunmen, suicide bombers and the daily, random violence of Pakistan's borderlands.
London was a revelation—cold, clean and orderly—but my sense of relief didn't last long. In one of the city's many South Asian neighborhoods, I saw a tall young Afghan who reminded me of my would-be assassin, striding down the street like a bad dream. He too wore a shalwar kameez, and a big turban of white silk was wrapped loosely around his head. His beard was long, and his hair was shoulder length. Anyone dressed like that in Islamabad would be immediately picked up for questioning by the police. I had flown halfway across the world to get away from killers who resembled this young Londoner. I stared after him until he was gone from view.
But as days passed I spotted him again and again. He stood out even in a neighborhood full of Asians dressed in traditional garb—shalwar kameez, saris, abayas. Locals had a nickname for him: Talib Jan. It's a friendly Afghan slang term for a Taliban member, something like GI Joe for Americans. The area's crowded, rundown row houses had become home to hundreds of Afghans who first arrived in England as fugitives from the Taliban's intolerance and brutality. Nevertheless, most of Jan's neighbors spoke of him tolerantly or even approvingly.
In fact, during my three-month stay in England I met a surprising number of Muslims who shared Jan's fascination with the Taliban. The older generation, urbane and relatively well educated, had little love for the extremists. But among some younger men, frustrated and marginalized in British society, I discovered a fury that was depressingly familiar. I met many immigrants who were blatant, vocal and unquestioning in their support for what they imagined to be "jihad." Few seemed troubled by the brutality that characterized Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's reign, or by his banning of music or girls' education. Indeed, many looked back on Omar's rule as a kind of Islamic utopia, and they eagerly snapped up the Islamist leaflets handed out after Friday prayers at various mosques around town.
I first introduced myself to Jan at one of those mosques. I complimented his taste in clothes: that's how people dress back home in Afghanistan, I said. (I was born in northern Afghanistan; my family fled to Pakistan in 1979 to escape the Soviet invasion.) His fierce appearance to the contrary, Jan turned out to be friendly and outgoing. He listened with interest to my story, but mostly he talked about himself, his Islamist views, his fierce support for the Taliban and his contempt for the Brits and Americans fighting them.
His vehemence surprised me. Twenty-three years old, Jan had been born in eastern Afghanistan and attended a madrassa in Pakistan. The Taliban still ruled Afghanistan when his parents paid a people smuggler to sneak Jan to England at 14. There he applied for and was granted political asylum, claiming that the Taliban had persecuted him and his family. Now he's a legal resident, yet openly cheers for his supposed oppressors to defeat troops from his adopted homeland in Afghanistan. The irony seems lost on him.
Jan is a terror to his neighbors. He prowls the streets as a one-man, self-appointed morality patrol. He castigates young Muslim couples he sees holding hands in public, and he badgers acquaintances for shaping their beards into what he disapprovingly calls a "French cut" that frames the mouth. His diatribes can be frightening. Several young men told me they were afraid Jan had friends who could create problems for them or their relatives in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Some feared they might be disowned if Jan got word to their families about their "immoral" living in London.
At a neighborhood restaurant one day I noticed that my waiter looked miserable. Khalil is a clean-shaven, broad-shouldered young Afghan who wears a gold ring in one earlobe. I asked why he was so unhappy, and he told me his story as he cleaned the table and took my order. He said he had been dumped a few days earlier by his girlfriend, a beautiful young Englishwoman. They were out walking when Talib Jan marched up and began denouncing Khalil, threatening to let his family back in Afghanistan know that their son was having a forbidden affair. The girl was frightened by Jan, but more than that, she was furious at Khalil for lying to her: he had told her he was Turkish. She told him they were through.
Now Khalil worries that same routine will be repeated with every girl he meets in London. He's convinced that Jan knows how to find his family in Afghanistan and can make big trouble for him there. "I wanted to marry that girl, but now I have no hope," he told me. "My family lives in the insecure countryside. If I go back and the Taliban know I have an English girlfriend, they will behead me." I asked if he thought Jan was an actual Taliban member. "No," Khalil answered. "He is not with the militias, but he is a big headache for every Afghan who knows him."
As far as I could tell, Jan is an armchair jihadist. I saw no sign that he had direct ties to the Taliban, or that anyone was paying him to proselytize. On the contrary, he works hard to support himself with business deals like buying and selling used cars. I often found him in a little store that sells mobile phones and watches at a London shopping plaza. A crowd of young, bearded men hangs out there: more armchair jihadists. The shop's 35-year-old owner, a Pakistani from Peshawar, loves to show them the latest Taliban videos on his mobile phone, featuring beheadings of alleged anti-Taliban "spies" and ambushes of U.S. forces. When asked if he worried that British authorities might discover his collection of videos, he told me: "If our Taliban brothers can stand up to B-52 bombing and modern U.S. war technology, it would be cowardly of me to be afraid to watch and share their heroic actions."
Brave words, I thought, but still the shopkeeper disturbed me. He was relatively well educated and a former banker, but made no secret of his Islamist leanings. Giving change, he avoids touching a woman's hand. He also tells a chilling tale—maybe true, maybe not—of his days as a radical religious student in Peshawar in the mid-1990s. He claims that he and a group of friends murdered several prostitutes there in what he called a "moral cleansing drive." He warned me against speaking against the Taliban even in London: people's loved ones at home could get hurt, he said darkly.
Jan, too, is always glad to pull out his Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone and share streaming videos of Taliban training camps and Coalition convoys hitting IEDs. He even has Taliban ring tones—fire-and-brimstone sermons and Qur'anic recitals from jihadist mullahs. If you want copies, he'll transfer them to your phone or point you to the right Web site. "I'm winning converts to a holy cause every day," he says. As for the cops, Jan says he's careful to break no laws and claims he's never had problems with the police. They seem to regard him as a deeply religious man, he says, or at least as a harmless eccentric.
In fact, Jan embodies a powerful need among many young Muslims in Britain to preserve a sense of identity in a strange land. One 50-year-old engineer told me he worries constantly about his four children, especially his two sons, ages 19 and 20. He says they seem addicted to Internet porn, but what scares him even more is the amount of time they spend on jihadist Web sites. He worries as well about extremist operatives who hang out at local mosques trying to recruit young people to the Taliban cause.
Extremism's appeal is especially strong for immigrants fed up with hard times and bigotry. In economically depressed Birmingham I met an unemployed man from Kandahar. He said he had just lost his job and feared he wouldn't be able to feed his family. "If I get hit by a car or bus one day crossing the street, who will look after my family?" he asked. "It would be better for me to go and fight and die with the Taliban. Then at least I could see paradise." One 35-year-old British Muslim told me he's infuriated by widespread discrimination. An office worker, he says he hasn't had a promotion in 10 years. The reason, he believes, is that he's an ardent Muslim who wears a long beard and never joins his coworkers at the local pub. "This kind of behavior is what makes Muslims extremist," he said. Jan himself says most Britons look on him with "love and kindness," but others occasionally stare at him with "hate" and won't sit next to him on the train. Their hearts, he says, "are black and full of enmity toward Muslims."
Most of these young men, even Jan, would probably never give up their lives in Britain to join the jihad in Afghanistan. But something of that far-off fight, some tinge of blood and chaos and hatred, has certainly seeped into London's streets. Alokozai, 27, arrived in London a year ago after an arduous trip via the Afghans' underground railway. He used to be an interpreter/fixer for British troops in Kandahar. The pay was excellent by Afghan standards—some $1,600 a month—but then the death threats began. His family's life would be worthless unless he left his job, the anonymous letters warned. He quit as he was told; in Britain he applied for political asylum, thinking he had finally escaped the Taliban's wrath.
Then the phone woke him one night at 3 a.m. "Death angels will soon clutch at your throat," an Afghan voice warned. "Remember, we have Islamic brothers in the U.K. Your family should not rest easy in Kandahar either." He says he could only listen to the voice, too scared to say anything.
Alokozai worries all the time now. Too many Afghans in London sympathize with the Taliban, he says. He thinks many recent asylum seekers, especially from southern Afghanistan, have ties to the Taliban and remain under the sway of extremist ideas. "They will create trouble for Britain in the near future," he predicts. But equally disturbing to him are the thoroughly assimilated Muslims who also treat him like a traitor to his religion. When they find out he worked for British forces in Afghanistan, they ask him, "How many houses did you bomb?" and "How many innocents did you kill?" "These people are as narrow-minded and have as much hate in their eyes as the Taliban do in Afghanistan," he says. "I cannot understand how these Afghans and Pakistanis can wear Western clothes, dance and drink, and then condemn me and see the Taliban as their heroes."
Neither can I. As I was riding the train one day, Owais, a 27-year-old Pakistani from Kashmir, began praising the Taliban and talking seriously of going to live in Afghanistan after Mullah Omar returned to power. "My fervent wish is that next winter we may be able to breathe freely in the restored Islamic state of Afghanistan," he declared in Urdu. Here you can breathe freely too, I told him. "No, only in a true Islamic state can we be free," replied his friend Ishaq. A 25-year-old Afghan immigrant, Ishaq wore a long, white tunic over his blue jeans. "The West is destroying the spirit, soul and values of Islam. Muslims should avoid contact with and coming to the West." As I go home to my family, I too wonder and worry about such men. There is too much of Peshawar in them, and in London.
One in three Brits can't find an NHS dentist - and half can't afford one
Despite Government promises to improve access, research reveals that 35 per cent of adults are struggling to get the dental care they need - up from 23 per cent the year before. In some parts of the country, half the adults said they cannot see an NHS dentist - forcing them to go without treatment or to pay privately.
The credit crunch is also having an impact on the nation's dental health. The poll revealed that almost 50 per cent of the population say they are put off going to the dentist over fears of the cost. Last year the figure was one in five.
Abby Bowman from Simplyhealth, the private dental provider which carried out the survey, said: 'The NHS dental contracts introduced three years ago were supposed to give more people access to dentists, but as our research shows this is only getting worse.'
The survey of 1,700 people indicates that Plymouth is a leading NHS dentistry blackspot, with 51 per cent unable to find a dentist; followed by Southampton on 45 per cent and Manchester on 45 per cent.
The credit crunch is having the greatest effect in the capital, with 54 per cent in London saying they would be put off from visiting a dentist because of cost worries.
Dental charges have risen since the introduction of the new contract for dentists in 2006. Prior to this contract, the average cost of a basic NHS checkup was £5.54, and the price of a filling about £10. Under changes introduced in 2006, individual charges for NHS treatments were replaced with a system of bands with a maximum charge of £198. A check-up costs £15.90 and a filling £43.60. The contract was designed to improve access to the NHS, but around 500 dentists left the Health Service, claiming they were not being paid properly.
Figures released last autumn showed that the number seeing a dentist has plummeted by 1.2million in two years, so that fewer than half of all adults saw a state-funded practitioner. The situation has led to some patients being forced to pull out their own teeth because they cannot afford to go private. Others have turned up at hospital casualty departments for emergency dental work.
Even though dentists are seeing fewer patients their pay has soared - up 11 per cent since the start of their new contract to an average of more than £96,000. Yesterday the Government said dentists would receive a pay rise of 0.21 per cent - effectively a pay cut because of inflation.
Conservative health spokesman Mike Penning said: ' Perhaps this will finally persuade Labour ministers to scrap their ludicrous contract and to take real action to improve outcomes for patients.'
Susie Sanderson, chairman of the British Dental Association, said the problems facing NHS dentistry were well documented. But health minister Ann Keen said: 'These findings do not reflect reality. 'Thanks to over £2billion investment in NHS dentistry, recent official statistics show that access has actually increased and there's 655 more dentists than the year before.'