Politics and media have failed young British Asians, says editor

Paul Owen discovers how 'Eastern Eye' newspaper is trying to offset the negative stereotyping of Muslims
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The Independent Online

Hamant Verma is one of the youngest editors in Britain, but is arguably among the best placed to assess the relationship between the Government and young British Asians. As the editor of Britain's leading Asian newspaper, Eastern Eye, Verma, 27, believes Prime Minister Tony Blair is no longer capable of having the trust of British Muslim youth. "His party may be, but he is not," he says.

"The Government can beat extremists by winning the hearts and minds [of British Muslims], but the trouble is Tony Blair's policies are giving extremists all the ammunition they need," he says. "On the Middle East, Blair did not call for an immediate ceasefire. We went into Iraq on a false premise. We're opening ourselves up to charges of hypocrisy about democracy and human rights, for example [when we associate ourselves with] Guantanamo Bay, where people are incarcerated with no hope of trial. The extremists don't have to work, because the examples are there."

The fact that Muslim politicians felt that they had to go public to get their message across to Blair was also "worrying" for British Asians, says Verma, a Hindu whose ethnic background is Indian and Kenyan. "In my newspaper, we try to encourage young British Muslims to get involved in politics, but if their prime minister is ignoring Muslim MPs' views it is hard for us to get that message across." Verma says he is trying to use Eastern Eye to balance damaging stereotyping in the national press. "We show how bright, confident and vibrant the British Asian community is today - in contrast to the bunch of con men and terrorists that we regularly appear as in the mainstream media." The issue of racial prejudice in British society seems to have drifted off the media agenda altogether.

"No other paper is talking about racism. That's why I commissioned a survey after the Zahid Mubarek inquiry, which showed how British Asians fear racism more in their everyday lives today than 10 years ago. We must publish stories such as Usman Ali, a married father of three from east London, who was caged for five days, and later released, on the basis that a terror suspect had his phone number in his diary. Eastern Eye is an anti-racism newspaper at heart."

Verma praises The Independent, The Guardian and the Daily Mirror for their coverage of Islamic extremism, and says: "The broadsheets tend to cover it well, because they cover foreign news. But if you're picking up the big-selling tabloids, they don't, so how's the reader of The Sun supposed to appreciate the importance of foreign policy?"

But he criticises all mainstream papers for "a habit of printing everything the security services tell them", leading to reports claiming that there were hundreds of al-Qa'ida suspects at large in Britain. "Are there really 500 al-Qa'ida suspects in this country?" he asks. "If I walk down Brick Lane [the predominantly Asian area of east London], will I see them?" Asians only ever appear in newspapers in stories about "terrorism, con men or people living in a tree in India - oddball stories", Verma claimed. There is also a dearth of Asian bylines.

"How are the media going to [engage Asian readers] if they have no Asian staff?" He points out: "Half my staff are Muslims. If I want to find out what Muslims feel about Tony Blair all I have to do is read out our front page. They're very liberal with [expressing] their views." Verma, who studied international relations and performing arts at De Montfort University, Leicester, before taking his journalism diploma from the Editorial Centre in Hastings, said that his age had helped him to reach out to a young, Asian audience. "I can relate my experiences to my readers'. If I were 50, getting a chauffeur-driven car to my office, I wouldn't be able to tell what were the most important issues for Asians."

Were there any drawbacks to his youth? "Sometimes I wish I was a bit more experienced in dealing with very big stories," he admits. After covering Westminster and central London for North West London Newspapers, he left to become chief reporter at Eastern Eye in December 2004. When the paper's editor, Amar Singh, left to join the London Evening Standard in November 2005, Verma stood in temporarily and then won the job. "They let me have a crack at it," he says, with some self-deprecation. "I'm probably too young, but so far, so good."

He argues that young Muslims are now turning away not just from the Labour Party, but "there is a risk that they'll turn away from politics altogether". Their faith in the police had also been severely damaged by the killing last year of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician mistaken for a terrorist by the police, and the bungled raid on a home in Forest Gate, east London, earlier this year, he claims. "The police need intelligence from British Muslims to win this battle, but their recklessness means that people are scared that if they give information they will be implicated. You can't underestimate what a disaster for the 'war on terror' the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes was."

Verma is sceptical of calls - such as that made by Sir John Stevens, the former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police - for searches and security checks to be focused on young, Asian men in order to save valuable resources. "If it happens once, you think, OK. But if you're getting stopped three or four times, it's humiliating. It may help to have a Muslim copper there," he suggests. "The police don't want to turn Muslims against them. If a young Muslim is detained by police he goes home and tells his family and his friends. Suddenly everyone has a bad view of the police." Has he ever been stopped? "Not yet." The 7/7 attacks had been a disaster for British Asians, he said. "On 8 July last year, Muslims couldn't go out that night. When they see [Mohammed] Sidique Khan or Shehzad Tanweer, they think, in some ways, they've ruined their lives."

Verma, who grew up near Hayes, Middlesex, recalls his own experiences since the attacks. "For 10 years I never had a problem. On 8 July [2005], a guy came out of the Tube and took a couple of swings at me." Since then he has been physically attacked twice, and has had racist abuse shouted at him. "They wind the windows down and say 'Paki'," he says. "The weeks after 7 July were awful." Meanwhile his newspaper received telephoned death threats. He said that the attacks "terrified British Muslim parents, because they knew the power and the skill these extremists have".

"Some of these kids [young Muslims], they only read part of the Koran and they think it permits terrorism," he continues. "If they read the whole thing they would see it promotes peace, not blowing up a bloody bus to try to convert people to your way of thinking. I've never met a British Muslim who says 7/7 was a good thing. All they've said is that unless we change our foreign policy we will risk more attacks like this."

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