Sunday August 13, 2017

Britain's top Muslim lawyer refuses to be silenced after Manchester attack

Nazir Afzal's unique position and perspective as a prominent Muslim lawyer in the U.K. has made him both a successful prosecutor of terrorism cases and a valued advisor to governments around the world.

Nazir Afzal's unique position and perspective as a prominent Muslim lawyer in the U.K. has made him both a successful prosecutor of terrorism cases and a valued advisor to governments around the world. (Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Listen 31:50

As a self-appointed warrior against what he calls "gender terrorism," Nazir Afzal has often focused on the protection of women and girls as a key pillar of justice in British society.

He's a champion of Muslim women's groups fighting against honour-based violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.​

As a British Muslim, he also speaks candidly about radicalization among young Muslims, and how to fight it. His unique position and perspective as a prominent Muslim lawyer in Britain has made him both a successful prosecutor of terrorism cases and a valued advisor to governments in the U.K. and beyond.

So when a radicalized youth detonated a bomb at an arena in Manchester — after a concert attended largely by young girls — Afzal refused to remain silent on the matter.

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The May 22, 2017 bombing in Manchester, U.K. claimed 22 lives and injured 250. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

When the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners advised him not to comment, claiming it would be inappropriate to do so, Afzal left his post as the organization's chief executive.

Afzal tells The Sunday Edition's guest host Susan Bonner that he felt compelled to speak about the tragedy as a way to put his community at ease.

'If I hadn't said something, I think there was a gap that just wasn't being filled.'- Nazir Afzal

"Nobody was talking about the broader issues around the impact on communities, the impact on community safety, the anti-Muslim hatred that was in some places," Afzal recalls.

"I felt it absolutely essential that I said something that was reassuring, that was enabling people to put this in some context. If I hadn't said something, I think there was a gap that just wasn't being filled," he explains. 

Earlier this year, the BBC aired a three-part series called "Three Girls," a dramatic depiction of the real-life story behind a notorious 2012 child sex grooming case in Rochdale, England. Millions of Britons watched it.

They learned — if they didn't know already — that justice was only served when Afzal, then a newly-appointed chief crown prosecutor, decided to reopen the case against the nine men involved. Most of the accused were, like Afzal, of Pakistani origin.

They were all convicted.

As a result of the highly publicized case, Afzal's family required police protection after receiving persistent threats and abuse from the far right. He was also vilified by members of the Muslim community, who accused him of giving racists and Islamophobes "a stick to beat them with."

"I say that our communities should be carrying their own stick. We should be dealing with these issues ourselves," Afzal says.

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Nine men were convicted of sex trafficking, child sexual exploitation and other offences in Rochdale, England in 2012. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Despite the past few tumultuous years in the U.K., including the murder of British Labour Party MP Jo Cox, the controversial Brexit campaign and multiple terror attacks, Afzal believes the nation is not as divided as it seems.

'Those who hate want to divide. That's their raison d'être. That's what they're about.' - Nazir Afzal

Related: Husband of murdered British MP Jo Cox on grief, resilience and carrying on her fight

According to Afzal, this was especially evident in the wake of the Manchester attack, when Britons of all backgrounds and religions came together to stand against intolerance and violence. He recalls mosques opening up to Jews and Christians and synagogues doing the same. He says even people of no faith were mixing with people of faith, "gelled together in their belief that nothing will split them apart."

"Those who hate want to divide. That's their raison d'être. That's what they're about," he explains.

"Therefore, the fact that we stand together at times like this completely destroys them. And we need to do more of that."

Nazir Afzal is a member of the Order of the British Empire and a former chief crown prosecutor for Northwest England. Click 'Listen' above to hear his full interview with guest host Susan Bonner.