Show caption Sajda Mughal … ‘People have been emboldened to be openly racist, openly Islamophobic.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian The outspoken Sajda Mughal: The woman who survived 7/7 – quit her job and fights for a better world After the tube she was commuting on was blown up, Mughal’s life changed for ever. A Muslim herself, she was horrified to hear Muslims had been behind the attack. So she quit her job and started her own programme to take on extremism Arifa Akbar @Arifa_Akbar Wed 28 Jul 2021 12.34 BST Share on Facebook
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Sajda Mughal was on her daily commute to her dream job in City recruitment on the morning her world was turned upside down. It was a July day in London, 16 years ago, one that throbbed with the summer heat, and Mughal was running late for work. She ducked into Turnpike Lane tube station in north London, as she usually did, and boarded the Piccadilly Line train. The one thing she did differently that morning was not getting into the first carriage of the train. “Every day until 6 July 2005, I would sit in that first carriage. Maybe it was a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or maybe I knew the first carriage was where I’d get a seat. But, on that particular day, I was late, so I rushed on to the platform and, instead of doing my usual thing, I just got on.”
This detail became all-important when, a few stops later, at King’s Cross, the 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay got on to Mughal’s train, boarding the first carriage, and blew himself up. “Twenty-six people died, most of whom were in the first carriage,” she says.
For a while, surviving the bombing left Mughal, then 22, emotionally incapacitated. She was signed off work, needed counselling and is still unable to travel on public transport without feeling anxious. But alongside the trauma, there was a profound – and audacious – recalibration of her life choices.
Mughal is a Muslim with a strong religious ethos, and she was shaken to the core when she discovered who had been responsible for the carnage that day. “The fact that it was carried out by Muslim men was incomprehensible to me. My first feeling was: ‘Why would you do that? This is not what Islam teaches us.’ There was a level of anger there.”
There have been times when I have thought to myself: ‘Is this the place for my two young British girls?’
But her experience on 7/7 also left her with a determination to make a difference. She left recruitment, as much as it hurt to abandon the career she loved, and took over the JAN Trust, a charity for black, Asian and minority ethnic women and mothers. It provides support, advice and counselling in Haringey, north London, and Mughal turned it into a dynamic NGO. At the trust, she spearheaded campaigns to prevent radicalisation in the UK and beyond, and raised community awareness of extremism – first Islamist and then rightwing terror.
Today, at 39, she looks like a true survivor as she bounds out of her taxi. Warm and ebullient (“I talk a lot and think a lot”), she is married with two daughters and was awarded an OBE in 2015. But the legacy of her trauma is there in the terrible detail with which she remembers the day of the bombing.
“After the tube left King’s Cross, 10 seconds into the tunnel, there was this loud bang. I’d never heard such a sound and I lost some hearing. The lights went out and people fell from their chairs. Some people were helping a pregnant woman, others were taking out bottles of water and offering them around. There was screaming, banging on the glass doors, people trying to break them …”
Mughal didn’t scream. She sat impassive, overwhelmed by panic: “I went into a state of shock. I remember people tugging at me asking: ‘Are you OK?’ but I was still, quiet, frozen. Thick, black smoke started to come through the vents, which made me cough and choke. I was wearing a business suit, so I took off my blazer and covered my face with it.”
She thought they had hit a tunnel wall, which carried its own terror. “It was rush hour and I thought the next tube would smack into us, that there would be a massive collision, a fireball and that we’d be burned to death. I started to think that I hadn’t said goodbye to my mum, I hadn’t had kids, I hadn’t got married.”
After about 50 minutes in the tunnel, they were rescued. “That felt like a lifetime to me. Then, I heard a voice shouting: ‘It’s the police. We’re coming to get you.’ I have never again felt the relief I felt then.” At King’s Cross, Mughal was left to return home on her own. “I ran across from the station into McDonald’s. I went to the toilets and broke down in tears.” For hours afterwards, she believed she had been caught up in a derailment. It was only after she walked home and put on the early evening news that she realised she had been in a terror attack.
Mughal’s inner steeliness can be traced back to her mother, who died three months ago at the age of 81. Mughal’s parents, Rafaat and Faiz, came from Uganda to Britain for their education in the 1960s before returning – her father to work as a chartered electrical engineer for the government and her mother to run her own school. After Idi Amin’s expulsion of Uganda’s Asian minority, they emigrated to England and were placed in the RAF’s Stradishall camp, living in abject conditions. They moved to Kenya soon afterwards, where Mughal was born. But, after the country experienced a coup, they returned to London. Mughal’s father died when she was 18, and her mother, a former Labour councillor for Haringey, brought the family up single-handedly.
It was Mughal’s mother who founded the JAN Trust in 1989, and received her OBE in 2014, a year before her daughter, for her work. “Many Muslim women saw my mum as a figure in the community who had skills and was willing to help. They started coming to her with their problems – medical problems, problems with speaking English, with abuse in the home, and with hate-crime incidents and attacks. I grew up seeing these women in our home.”
Mughal, working as head of the JAN trust. Photograph: Jan Trust
After the London attacks, Mughal was plagued by why the young bombers had chosen to blow themselves up, and turned to her mother’s charity for answers. “You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to carry bombs on your back. It takes time for that to happen, and there must have been signs. Why were they not picked up? I wanted to make a difference. I could have started at a policy level or got into the civil service and formulated strategies. I chose not to. It was staring me in the face that the best place to make a difference to people’s lives was to work in the heart of communities. So that’s what I did. I left my dream – and it was my dream [to work in corporate recruitment] – to begin this journey.”
The controversial Prevent programme (part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy) was in place when Mughal began her work. “We were initially not willing to work with the government because of the community’s concerns about the programme – they felt they were being targeted, distrusted and, essentially, spied on – but I came on board in the interest of making a difference. I noticed in the pre-2011 strategy that there was no real mention of women or the internet – it was just a paragraph here, a page there. But I knew, because of our users, that there was radicalising material online.”
She launched her acclaimed Web Guardians programme in 2010. The programme raises awareness of online extremism and gangs among mothers, and helps them prevent their children joining a gang or being radicalised. “Many mothers said that the programme was a wake-up call,” she says. “They didn’t know before the programme about the range of material online, and didn’t know how to safeguard their children. The programme enabled them to have important conversations with them.
“Over the years, I’ve travelled the UK and heard first-hand concerns from mums, some who have had children join Islamic state,” she says. She formalised her research for a report, Internet Extremism: Working towards a Community Solution, in 2012, which she presented to the House of Lords. She also developed the award-winning initiative Another Way Forward in 2017, to empower young people and girls to take a stand against extremism and racism.
However, she became increasingly frustrated by Prevent: “Civil servants kept asking why we work with women and mothers in the community.” To Mughal, it felt like sexism. “At the time, I thought: ‘Not only do we as Muslim women have to deal with this sort of behaviour within our own communities, but we also have to deal with it in wider society.’”
In 2017, the JAN Trust withdrew its support of the government’s strategy; Mughal felt that Prevent was not engaging with communities enough, instead regarding Muslims – especially Muslim children – as a threat to national security. “I felt the strategy was toxic.”
Today, she believes the bigger problem of extremism comes from the far right, hate crimes and Islamophobia. Increasingly, she has found herself at the receiving end of this, and with little protection from trolls issuing death threats. “Being a vocal Muslim female, I have suffered racist abuse. There have been death threats, rape threats and Islamophobic abuse – towards me as well as the trust.
“On social media I’ve been called the N-word, I’ve been called a terrorist sympathiser, a bitch and told to go back to my country. We have had Islamophobic abuse and material sent to our charity on email. We have had English Defence League signs outside our centre, and windows have been smashed. I have had to have police protection, and changed address for my children’s safety and my own.
Receiving her OBE from Prince Charles. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
“I have also heard what our users have suffered over the years in terms of Islamophobic abuse and incidents: headscarves being pulled off on the tube. The big one I have heard is of attacks and abuse in parks. Dogs are set on Muslim women. Graffiti is daubed outside their homes, pork is left on their cars.”
So is rightwing extremism – race hate and Islamophobia – really now a much bigger threat to the nation than Islamist radicalisation? “Yes, it’s the biggest issue by far. I was raising it for years in meetings with the government. It’s not just online, it’s on the streets. People have been emboldened to be openly racist, openly Islamophobic.
“Our government took a very firm stance on Islamist extremism, and social media groups removed material fast enough. When it comes to far-right extremism, why is material not being removed? I want to see more done in terms of abuse online. As a sufferer for well over a decade, I know how it feels and I know where it can put some people in terms of their mental health.”
Some state attitudes to Muslim women also don’t help, she says – especially when it comes to the hijab: “There was the EU’s recent European court of justice ruling [which said private employers had the right to ban their employees from wearing headscarves]. I think it’s disgusting. The west often talks about Muslim men telling Muslim women what to wear. Actually, what are you doing now? You are policing what Muslim women wear. For some young Muslim girls, the headscarf has become about identity. It is saying: ‘I am here. You will accept me,’ and I stand in solidarity because why should we police what people are wearing?”
On the anniversary of the London bombings this year, Mughal said she felt Britain was in a dark place. What did she mean? “It’s not the Britain I grew up in. It’s not the place I’d like to see future generations grow up in. There have been times when I have thought to myself: ‘Is this the place for my two young British girls?’ They are 12 and eight, but when they were four, we started them in taekwondo. Why did we have to make such a choice? Because I know, in my line of work, that things are bad in terms of Islamophobia and racism, and they are going to get worse.”
But, amid the many fights to be heard, there have been proud moments, too. The recognition for her work has buoyed her. What about receiving the OBE, I ask. “Yeah, it was a proud moment. My little daughter literally grabbed the medal and there are photos of her with it so really it’s her proud moment!” she says, laughing.
Developing Web Guardians has given her the greatest sense of reward: talking to women who are vulnerable and marginalised, developing relationships with them – and then the joy of being told that she and her staff have made a difference in their lives. “That’s what gives me my sense of drive. It’s been blood, sweat and tears – and I’ve given everything to it.”