We need mentors to save our young men

22nd August 2014 at 01:00
An exceptional teacher changed the life of Britain's first Muslim Cabinet minister. Now the MP wants more role models to step up

Naz Bokhari, the first Asian and first Muslim secondary headteacher in Britain, made an immediate impact as soon as he entered the assembly hall of Ernest Bevin School in south-west London. I was 13 at the time and growing up in an environment where most of my teachers were white, most lawyers were white and most politicians were definitely white. Mr Bokhari inspired his pupils to strive to be the best we could be and was determined to teach us that nothing should limit us.

Years later, as a human rights lawyer, MP for Tooting in South London and a shadow Cabinet minister, I can truly say he made a real impact on my life and the lives of others. Mr Bokhari was my mentor, my role model and he went on to become my friend.

His key message was simple: that the best way to overcome racism was through good results. Under his guidance, Ernest Bevin's A*-C GCSE pass rate rose from 18 per cent in 1999 to 60 per cent in 2003.

By simply being decent, hard-working and noble, Mr Bokhari created a better life for young Muslim men in Britain and acted as a role model to many. Recent figures show that British Muslims are under-represented in many walks of life, from politics and the law to the senior ranks of teaching and the media. Yet at the same time, more than a quarter of London's prison population is Muslim and the number of Muslims in British prisons has doubled in a decade.

Where are the role models now to lead them to a better path, away from crime? When I was growing up in Tooting, Mr Bokhari had to face a number of incidents of overt racism. But he never gave up - and it wasn't long before he was known in the area as "Mr Tooting" because of his presence in the community, his work as a governor of many other schools and his role as chair of the Wandsworth Policing Consultative Committee. Under his watch, Ernest Bevin, a truly multicultural school, became one of the most improved in the UK.

The 2005 terror attacks in London were a wake-up call. They highlighted the need for British Muslim role models to show that it is possible to keep one's Islamic faith but to hold other identities, too. To be British, Asian, of Pakistani origin and much more all at the same time - no one identity is mutually exclusive of the others. And now, with record numbers of British Muslims under the age of 16, the need for positive examples has never been stronger.

When Mr Bokhari (Naz to his friends) died three years ago, his children set up the Naz Legacy Foundation in his memory, seeking to follow in his footsteps by helping educational establishments to reach out to diverse communities. Their hope is to create a new band of mentors for young British Muslims.

The foundation's most recent initiative is the Diversity Programme. With the support of TES, the deputy prime minister's office, mentoring network Mosaic and the National Portrait Gallery, the programme hopes to provide opportunities for young people from some of the country's most deprived areas to visit galleries, museums and theatres. I have little doubt that Mr Bokhari - who had the same ambitions for disadvantaged pupils from his own school - would have been a supporter.

This is the message that Mr Bokhari spread as a headteacher: to educate, to reach out to all and to let the young lead. Because there is still work to be done. Despite the historic and presentday contributions of Islamic traditions to British society, Islam is often still viewed with a focus on terror, intolerance and the subjugation of women.

I hope a new batch of role models for young British Muslims will emerge. Under their leadership, let us hope the ignorance that leads to the misunderstanding of our communities and adds to the appeal of Islamophobia and its hate crimes can continue to be confronted - just as it was by Mr Bokhari.

In his words: "It is not what you do in your lifetime that really matters, it is the legacy that you leave behind for the next generation to follow that makes a difference."

Sadiq Khan was the first Muslim to serve in the Cabinet and is now shadow justice secretary, shadow Lord Chancellor and shadow minister for London. The Naz Legacy Foundation won a Big Society Award 2014 and is shortlisted for a 2014 National Diversity Award. www.nazlegacy.org

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