Human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar talks about the death threats he’s faced

Aamer Anwar at Kelvinbridge subway station. Picture: John Devlin
Aamer Anwar at Kelvinbridge subway station. Picture: John Devlin
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“There have been times when my faith has been shaken. When Asad Shah was murdered. I have friends in the police telling me that my life is at risk, and a police officer sitting in my house telling me it is extremely dangerous because they can’t control it.”

Aamer Anwar, one of Scotland’s leading human rights lawyers, says the death threats he received after calling for unity within Scotland’s Muslim community following the murder of the shopkeeper in Shawlands in Glasgow in 2016 and how the aftermath affected his elderly father “rocked a lot of things I believed in”.

Asad, an Ahmadi Muslim, was murdered by a Sunni Muslim.

Speaking ahead of his appearance on Tuesday at the Edinburgh International Festival of Middle Eastern Spirituality and Peace 2019, where he will discuss his faith for the first time, Anwar also admitted he was a “part-time Muslim”.

Anwar will reveal how he is often reduced to tears but finds the resilience to tackle some of the most harrowing cases to reach Scotland’s courts through the mental strength he repeatedly encounters in the parents, especially mothers of victims, as they battle against “the men and women in grey suits” thwarting meaningful institutional change.

Anwar said the anger which propelled him to become a lawyer after he was beaten up by a policeman who told him “this is what happens to black boys with big mouths” while a student at Glasgow University in 1991, is still there. But it is now accompanied by reflection and maturity.

It was during this time that Anwar’s father, worried about his son, travelled to Glasgow from his home in England.

“My dad realised the danger I was in. He said ‘think about your children’. I said ‘I am thinking about my children. I said ‘my children have been brought up as Muslims, I want them to be able to hold their head up high in this community, not to have to apologise for every atrocity and act of extremism which takes place in society.’

“I told him that if that is to be true I do not expect extremism to fester in the dark side of our community, I expect people to stand up and speak about it.”

Anwar said that following meetings with police and religious leaders, people united and spoke out, reducing the “temperature within the community”.

However, it was when seeing his father off at the train station that he realised the toll it had taken.

“I still remember this moment because it was the first time I’d seen my dad cry. And he was 80 at the time. My dad, for the first time in his life, looked like an old man to me and he was always this big giant in my life, a disciplinarian. I thought ‘oh god he’s aged overnight. What’s happened?’

“A few days later I got a phone call from my sister and she told me my dad had had a stroke but they hadn’t told me because they were worried for my life. I was heartbroken at that. I thought ‘what have I done? this is my fault.’

“I questioned my faith and I questioned my beliefs.

“It was a gradual decline for my dad. He’s not the man he was before all this started, so it has rocked a lot of things I believed in and I have little time for those I might have listened to before in terms of those who are rigid and conservative in their beliefs. I certainly don’t have time to spend with them and I’m not going to spend my life convincing these people.”

Describing his faith and image he said: “People don’t often tend to associate peace and spirituality with me . I don’t fit into what is probably the stereotypical box of what a Muslim is.

“Yes, I am ‘part-time’ but I’m very conscious of a moral compass about what’s right.

“I’m not highly religious, spiritual yes, and I pick and choose what I think is acceptable to me. My views will often conflict with others that I may well have to defend.

“I do not pray five times a day, it’s on public record that yes, I do drink alcohol, and that I’m relatively liberal and Westernised in my points of view, and that conflicts with sections of my community.

“But I will stand up and I will fight for the Muslim community when they’re under attack but in no way is that different from standing up for other sections of the community under attack.”

However, Anwar said it was the dignity of parents, especially women such as Gurdev Chhokar, whose son Surjit Singh Chhokar, 32, was murdered in 1998; Margaret Caldwell, mother of Emma Caldwell, 27, found dead in 2005, and Linda Allan, whose daughter Katie, 21, took her life in Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution, which sustains him.

“Lockerbie also had a profound impact – Rev John Mosey who despite his pain at losing a daughter is able to forgive, not seek vengeance but the truth.

“And Jim Swire to have blamed Megrahi but his belief in God, the Bible, enables him to do what would be impossible for so many – along with Jim they have fought for 30 years when so many would have given up,

“These families are often met with sheer arrogance. I would say ‘woe betide’ because people do not realise the strength of character and the force that exists in terms of a family or parent who loves their child.

“They could be bitter, they could be twisted, they could be vicious, in the way they deal with it, but no, it’s always with elegance, and compassion.

“I’m sick to the back teeth now, I am full of rage, and I’m full of anger and despair at those men and women in grey suits who talk in sound bites, who produce report after report in which they produce recommendations but you see exactly the same in 2017 as you see in 2016, 2015, 2014...,in those inspection reports presiding over this culture which allows this to continue. presiding over this culture which allows this to continue.

“And it takes a family to stand up to it and all of a sudden they’re running around like headless chickens, but we know in reality they don’t give a damn. They don’t give a damn. They give a damn about their own job. And the system operates in a way to silence people.”

Anwar says his greatest pleasure is spending time with his three young children.

“The one peaceful element I have in my life is my children. It’s the one element which gives me joy, the peace and the madness, because that’s mine, it’s switched off, it’s nothing to do with anyone else, it’s not a campaign, its just unconditional love.”

An Evening with Aamer Anwar, Tuesday, 7pm-8.45pm, Augustine United Church, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. Tickets £1-£5. or on door