Hardeep Matharu speaks to Tahir Butt, a Muslim campaigner who spent nearly 30 years in the police, about his experience of racism and identity

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A ‘divide and rule’ dynamic reminiscent of the days of the British Empire between those in positions of power and ethnic minorities is contributing to rising Islamophobia and wider racism in Britain today, according to a Muslim campaigner.

Tahir Butt left the Met Police in 2017 after 28 years as a member of staff in various departments including the child protection unit. He now works to raise awareness around racism and identity.

He believes that old National Front supporters have metamorphosed into groups such as the English Defence League (EDL), Britain First and UKIP, which are now exploiting tensions within minority communities to engage “in an intellectual argument rather than beating you up on the street” – a type of ‘divide and rule’ strategy from colonial times.

“Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, racism was very overt – you had fights on the streets, you had skinheads, you had physical engagements,” he said. “Initially, it was an issue of you being different based on your race and ethnicity – they didn’t like you because of the colour of your skin and the fact you were from the Indian sub-continent. And that was understandable and was a battle that was fought, and mostly won, in terms of racism is bad, that sort of thinking is bad and it needs to stop and we need to deal with it, we need to have laws and legislation. 

“Now that hate has transformed. They couldn’t get away with just saying ‘we don’t like black people, we don’t like Pakistanis’. It’s now become about people’s religion, which – for me – is a deeper thing. You can’t say ‘I hate you because of your colour’ anymore. So, now people are feeling comfortable enough to say ‘I hate you because of your religion and I have a right to… because that’s freedom of thought and expression’.

“Within our own minority communities, there are tensions. But, we managed to unite around racism and discrimination because it’s a common issue. Now, Muslims are coming to the forefront and have been left and allowed to be demonised. The [Far Right] say ‘well Sikhs are on board because they identify radical Islam and bad Muslims, they’re with us’. ‘Some elements of the black community are on board as well because they’re not racist, they just don’t like Muslims and their religion and their ideology’.

“It’s that colonial mindset that, if the natives aren’t happy, it’s not about us talking to them, but educating them”

Tahir Butt

“So, the racists have become smarter. Lots of elements of the wider community do realise this, but a minority are using their own prejudices to link up to that and say that’s okay and not speak up around it. That’s dangerous because, once they focus on Muslims and you get a rise in Islamophobia, they’re going to come back and go after the other communities too.”  

The debate on how Islamophobia should be defined in law – the Government wants to call it “anti-Muslim hate” rather than racism – is part of this intellectualisation of prejudice based on a ‘divide and rule’ mentality, Tahir believes.

Child Sexual Abuse Becomes a Pakistani Issue

Tahir joined the police in 1989 to the amazement of his friends and family – because of the negative perception minorities had of the service.

But, having been born and bred in east London to Pakistani parents, what motivated him was “growing up as an outsider in a society and sitting between two cultures” and “the fear of society changing around you and you no longer being accepted”.

Deciding against becoming a bobby on the beat because of how his community viewed police officers, he instead took on a number of staff roles within different departments in the Met.

In his last 12 years in the force, Tahir worked as a computer forensic examiner in the Met’s child protection and high-tech crime unit.

“The racists have become smarter. Lots of elements of the wider community do realise this, but a minority are using their own prejudices to link up to that and say that’s okay”

Tahir Butt

His experience there, collating evidence on the perpetrators of online child sexual abuse, provided an interesting insight, he said, on the development of Islamophobic narratives. As 99% of the perpetrators of online child abuse he came across were white, Tahir said he raised concerns about the lack of ethnic minorities being caught – just as the street grooming gang cases came to light in Northern towns such as Rochdale and Rotherham. 

What followed was a lack of reasoned analysis, by the media and some in politics, of the different perpetrators of different types of child sexual abuse – resulting in the whole issue of child sexual abuse being characterised simply as a Muslim, Asian problem.

“When the grooming gangs crisis broke, the narrative in the media was that this [whole issue] was a Pakistani, Muslim issue and is there something about their religion or culture which is encouraging them to abuse children?” Tahir said. “The evidence I was seeing was totally contradictory to that.

“Everything is telling me that this is racism and the way the media is reporting this is wrong. And, to this day, the Far Right is using this to progress their agenda and it’s how this has now been internationalised in terms of migrant rape gangs.”

Tahir believes that claims the police were being “politically correct” and treating Muslim and Asian perpetrators better “because they were worried about racism” runs contrary to well-documented issues of disporportionality of minorities in the criminal justice system, which have been raised as a concern time and again.

British Empire Becomes a Colonial Mindset

The 52-year-old sees the relationship between minority communities and those in positions of power in Britain as underlined by a “colonial mindset”. 

“You can understand it in different ways,” he told me. “You can understand it in the Indian subcontinent 200 years ago when the British were ruling half the world. You can also understand it in our current context in terms of institutional racism. It’s the notion that ‘we know better than you’.”

For him, the tensions between different parts of the Muslim community are used as part of a ‘divide and rule’ dynamic, whereby organisations such as Quilliam – which receives Government funding and supports its controversial deradicalisation Prevent strategy – are analogous to the days of Empire, when a band of individuals in the colonised country cooperated with the colonisers. 

When Tahir sat on the Home Office’s Prevent and extremism group, following the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, Tahir said the group raised foreign policy as a factor in radicalisation – but that then Prime Minister Tony Blair was against this.

“If they conceded that it was related to foreign policy, in order to correct what was going on, they would have to address unethical foreign policy and they weren’t prepared to do that,” he said. “That’s why Prevent moved into being about the need to ‘educate’ the Muslim community as opposed to engaging the Muslim community. 

“It’s that colonial mindset that, if the natives aren’t happy, it’s not about us talking to them, but educating them. I’m sure my grandparents, who grew up under British rule in India, were going through similar processes.”


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