Published in the Times Education Supplement, Friday 22nd August
Mr Naz Bokhari, the first Asian and first Muslim head teacher in Britain made an immediate impact as soon as he entered the Assembly hall of Ernest Bevin Secondary School for Boys. I was thirteen 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. As pupils at Ernest Bevin, Mr Bokhari inspired us to strive to be the best we could be and was determined to teach us that there were no limitations. Years later, as a human rights lawyer and MP for Tooting, I can truly say he made a real impact on my life. Mr Bokhari was my mentor, role model and be went on to become my friend.
By simply being a decent, hardworking and noble man, Mr Bokhari created a better life for young Muslim men in Britain as role model to many. Recent figures show that although British Muslims are underrepresented in many walks of life ranging from judges to top positions media, from politics to top teaching jobs but more than a quarter of London’s prison population is Muslim, and the numbers of Muslim prisoners in British prisons has doubled in a decade. Where are the role models now that lead them to a better path, away from crime? As a teenager growing up in Tooting, I remember 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 growing presence in the community, his work as a governor in many other schools in the area and being Chair of the Wandsworth Police Consultative Committee. Under his watch, Ernest Bevin, a truly multicultural school became one of the most improved schools in the UK.
The terror attacks here in London in 2005 were a wake up call for the need for British Muslim role models nationally and in local communities also, to show it is possible to keep one’s Islamic faith but also hold other identities too; being British, Asian, of Pakistani origin and much more all at the same time, and that no one identity is mutually exclusive to the others. With there being record numbers of British Muslims under the age of 16, the need for positive role models has never been stronger.
When Mr Bokhari, or ‘Naz’ to his friends passed away three years ago, his children decided to set up the Naz Legacy Foundation in his memory, which seeks to follow in Mr Bokhari’s footsteps by mentoring and getting education establishments to reach out more to diverse communities. Their hope is to create a new band of role models for young British Muslims.
The Foundation’s most recent initiative is the Diversity Programme. Along with the TES, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, Mosaic and the National Portrait Gallery, the programme aims to provide more opportunities for young people from some of the most deprived areas to visit and galleries, museums and theatres. I have little doubt that Mr Bokhari – who was keen to ensure pupils from his school, from deprived backgrounds, had the chance during weekends and school holidays to visits museums and exhibitions, would have strongly supported the project.
The Foundation is continuing the message Mr Bokhari spread as a Headteacher; to educate, reach out to all and let the young lead. Because there is still work to be done. Despite both the historic and present day contributions of Islamic traditions to British society, the way Islam is viewed still continues to focus on issues of terror, intolerance and subjugation of women. Through the Foundation, it is hoped a new batch of role models for young British Muslims will emerge. Under their leadership, let us hope that the ignorance that leads to the misunderstanding of our communities, and adds to populist appeal of Islamophobia and the hate crimes it spawns, can continue to be confronted, as it was by my role model and friend Mr Bokhari. For 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”.