Khurshid Drabu, Muslim civil society champion of good governance (2018)

This obituary was first published in The Muslim News, 8 June 2018

Khurshid Drabu’s passing away is the loss of a charming individual who led a charmed life. He achieved distinction in his career of choice while also placing his skills and expertise at the service of the public good, without expectation of fame or fortune. His loss is felt by many in civil society and beyond, from his local Southampton Medina Mosque that he had steered for thirty years, to various interfaith bodies such as the Joseph Interfaith Foundation of which he was a trustee, the Mosques & Imam Advisory Board (MINAB) whose Constitution he drew up and acted as legal advisor, and most importantly in the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) that looked to him   as a founding father and guide.  His last communication to the MCB was to welcome a new member of staff, just three weeks prior to his demise: “Delighted that you have become a part of our family. Congratulations. You will find the work that MCB does most interesting and challenging.”  He could be forthright with colleagues, but his humour and evident passion for good governance within Muslim institutions would win the day.  He had a particular vision and expectation of the MCB, which will remain a continuing point of reference. It is a loss keenly felt.

Khurshid Drabu was born near Srinagar, Kashmir, in a family with a record of public service.  His father was senior civil servant in this Muslim-majority principality ruled by a Hindu maharaja. His grandfather, Ghulam Ahmed Ashai, helped found the first university in Kashmir after Independence.  Khurshid entered student politics and had an engaging story to tell of his part in a demonstration: after being arrested for holding up placards outside the Chief Minister’s house, he was hauled up the next day to account for the disturbances but let off with only a stern warning when his distinguished family antecedents were realised.   These extra-curricular interests, accompanied with a talent in cricket, did not affect a brilliant academic career, which included a first class from the University of Jammu and Kashmir and in 1969  a gold medal for  LLB studies at the Muslim University of Aligarh. 

He first arrived in the UK in 1972, aged 26, and married his cousin, Reefat, who was studying Medicine at the University of Manchester. His first job was as a part-time Law Lecturer at the Salford College of Technology. He also worked as an immigration counsellor at the UK Immigration Service, and enrolled for the Bar, to be called in 1977. He was offered a plum position as Public Prosecutor in the State of Kashmir (Indian-occupied) but it was not a happy experience and he returned to work for the UK Immigration Service in 1980. He noted, “I knew if I wanted to succeed as a lawyer, I had to be twice as good.” With this determination his rise up the legal rungs was meteoric: Deputy Director, UK Immigrants Advisory Service, 1984-1989; Deputy Legal Director & Head of Litigation & Complaints, Commission for Racial Equality, London, 1990-96; Special Adjudicator, Immigration Appeals, 1996- 2000; Vice President, Immigration Appeals Tribunal, London 2000- 2005; subsequently Senior Immigration Judge at the Asylum & Immigration Tribunal, making him at the time the senior most Asian and Muslim in the judiciary.

As Deputy Legal Director of the CRE, Khurshid led a team with responsibility for deciding the cases to be pursued for discrimination on racial grounds under authority vested by the Race Relations Act (RRA 1976). He was also author of a report critical of the Immigration Service, for procedures that worked to the disadvantage of people from the non-White Commonwealth who were entering the UK.   He applied to the post of  Legal Director when it became vacant, but then had to launch a case of discrimination when due process was not adopted by the CRE itself!  This was settled by mutual agreement, with an appointment as Head of Litigation and Complaints.  In this position he was also given oversight of the network of race equality advice centres. Khurshid had a soft spot for younger professional colleagues, some of whom working for him at the CRE, such as Khalid Sofi and Makboul Javaid, later achieved professional distinction in their own right.

In the early 1990s Muslim advocacy groups began to hold meetings with the CRE, to make the case for legislation to apply to religious discrimination.  At the time the Establishment’s position was that RRA 1976 was adequate by its provisions of indirect discrimination. The meetings with Muslim representatives were facilitated by CRE Commissioner Bashir Maan, with Khurshid involved as legal advisor.  This was his first contact with the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs (UKACIA) that included Iqbal (later Sir) Sacranie and Sher Azam, joint-convenors of UKACIA, and also  Dr. Manazir Ahsan of the Islamic Foundation, Leicester. 

Khurshid’s own work had made him aware that discrimination was not just racial but religious, and so he was soon providing Muslim colleagues with advice and guidance from the perspective of a senior lawyer with an insider’s knowledge of how best to make the argument to bring about change.  They became aware, for example, with the CRE’s own dissatisfaction with the indirect discrimination provisions of the Act.  Khurshid’s involvement was also a personally transformative one, causing him to re-appraise his views on the efficacy of protests directed against Satanic Verses, though he was not one to favour demonstrations and dramatic acts of book burning.

The Satanic Verses affair and the Bosnian Crisis served as a wake-up call for Muslim community groups, leading to the formation of the National Interim Committee for National Unity (NICMU) in 1994, a network of about fifty national, regional and city-based Muslim associations. This met regularly over the next three years, and after an extensive nation-wide consultation, recommended the formation of national, representative, umbrella body.  A survey was also undertaken to explore views on the priorities of such a body and its organisation structure.   The MCB emerged from these deliberations, with Khurshid closely involved in checking and refining a draft Constitution prepared by a NICMU working group.  After the MCB’s first annual general meeting in April 1998, he was requested to chair the Legal Affairs Committee and was also appointed Constitutional Advisor. Alhamdu lillah, at the very juncture when Muslim representation was girding up to become better organised, there were individuals like Khurshid at hand, ready to contribute their expertise, fi sabillilah.

The  MCB’s Legal Affairs Committee took up the campaigning efforts of UKACIA and other groups, such as the Association of Muslim Lawyers (AML) and Faithwise,  on religious discrimination and also the need to ensure the laws criminalising incitement to racial hatred were equally applied to incitement to religious hatred.   It is this type of   persistent and collaborative effort that contributed to a landmark event – the coming into force in 2003 of the Employment Equality Regulations, making it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of religion or belief in all aspects of employment.  However, the battle to outlaw religious discrimination beyond employment remained.  Similarly, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 criminalised acts intended to stir up religious hatred, but from the MCB’s perspective more work was needed, because the threshold was not at par with that set for racial hatred.   MCB’s statements on these types of issues were scrutinised by Khurshid before being placed in the public domain. He shaped, for example, MCB’s stand response when the formation of a new body to replace the CRE was announced in November 2004,  by proposing this deftly-phrased draft,

The Muslim Council of Britain warmly welcomes the Government’s announcement on the creation of a single Commission for Equality & Human Rights. This will provide the structure to create and sustain a level playing field for the Muslims in their right to equality and protection from discrimination. The MCB will measure the details of the Bills leading to laws on religious discrimination and incitement to religious hared against the clear and unequivocal commitment of the Prime Minister made at the last Labour Party Conference to “change the law to make religious discrimination unlawful . . . as with race, gender and disability”. We are confident that the government will deliver on its promise and we note with appreciation that the setting up of the CEHR is the first step in that direction. The MCB hopes that in setting up of the CEHR the government will ensure that the structural failings and weaknesses of the EOC (Equal Opportunities Commission) and the CRE will be left behind as well the inequalities and inconsistencies in the laws that these bodies are responsible to implement.

Though England was now his home, Khurshid Drabu always remained attached to Kashmir. He was a trustee of the  Kashmir Medical Relief Trust and a dynamo of the Kashmiri Association of Great Britain.  According to a report published in the journal Kashmir Today in 2005, “Mr. Drabu is passionate about economic as well as civic regeneration of Kashmir. He believes that the expatriate Kashmiris community, not only in the UK but elsewhere too, has great potential to deliver important and beneficial projects in Kashmir.”  He was much distressed when natural calamities affecting his birthplace.  He recently urged the MCB to appeal to UK charities: “the floods have had devastating effect with hundreds dead and more than a million rendered homeless. The [Indian] Government is doing NOTHING to help and poor Kashmiris are having to look outwards for help.”   He did not see much to admire in Pakistan-controlled ‘Azad’ Kashmir, but also deeply upset by the scale of human right abuses in the Indian-held territory. He believed the Kashmiris should have the right to decide their national destiny.

His wife Reefat once observed, “our life has been challenging. When he arrived home at eight or nine at night, his work did not stop. If it wasn’t Muslim Council of Britain, it was Kashmir Association of Great Britain or human rights.”  In 2001, Khurshid was requested by the MCB to take on an honorary position as Religious Advisor on Islam to the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces. In this role, the Chief of Defence Staff informed the MCB, “Mr. Drabu was [also] instrumental in persuading us of the importance of appointing a full-time chaplain (Imam) to the Armed Forces. This has been a powerful and tangible sign that we take religious diversity seriously”. 

Judges are required to remain aloof from public view to preserve their impartiality. When Khurshid was appointed Senior Immigration Judge at the Asylum & Immigration Tribunal in April 2005, it required some courage to continue his work in the voluntary sector.  In addition to serving as MCB’s constitutional advisor, he co-authored the organisation’s Internal Governance Protocols and served as Election Commissioner with great flair and panache, in all the election AGM’s held every two years since 2000. In this role he also chaired the first National Council meetings when new office bearers took up their term, reiterating a vision for the MCB that was true to its aims and objectives. Between November 2010 and February 2011 he conducted a Constitutional Review exercise that involved collecting evidence in London and Birmingham at six separate meetings. The outcome was  56-page report from which constitutional amendments were distilled for debate at the 2012 Annual General Meeting.   One outcome was the election of the Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General by the body of delegates at the annual general meeting rather than through  a smaller electoral college comprising National Council members, thus making the MCB more democratic and transparent in its governance process. He successfully championed the constitutional amendment that now requires the MCB’s National Council to have a 20 percent quota for women, showing true leadership as a change-maker,

We have got to think about making women real stake-holders, not just people being parachuted in through focus groups, but actually being there in their own right. So that is a constitutional issue – at the end of the day the Muslim community is men and women together. 

Khurshid drafted the Constitution of the Mosques and Imams Advisory Board, a registered charity established in 2006. He worked closely with Yasin Rahim of the Wessex Jamaat to prepare self-regulation standards that were published in  2010. He was a strong supporter of collaborations promoting good practice that transcended doctrinal differences , and the MINAB venture that began as a partnership of the  Al-Khoei Foundation, the Council of European Jamaats,  the Muslim Association of Britain and the MCB was always close to his heart.

He had a role to play following the Government’s decision in March 2009 to isolate the MCB because Deputy Secretary General Dr. Daud Abdullah had signed the ‘Istanbul Declaration’ which strongly condemned Israel for ‘Operation Cast Lead’.  Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government (CLG) – egged on by British Zionists keen to marginalise pro-Palestine voice called for his removal from post. The outcome was an impasse, because MCB rejected this demand as an interference in its internal running.  Blears’s replacement in June 2009 was John Denham, MP for Southampton, and a family friend of the Drabus.  In his tribute to Khurshid, John Denham had these words of remembrance,

I think his real strength was to be so deeply rooted in the Muslim community and to have such a clear insight into the majority community and the machinery of government and the public sector. He always seems to have a long-term vision of how the relationship between different parts of the community could and should develop, yet also an understanding that change inevitably took place slowly, and so had to be pursed with patience, persistence and realism. When I became Secretary to State at CLG, relations with the MCB had broken down. Khurshid gave me enormous help in rebuilding the relationship blessed on openness and trust.

Khurshid wished to keep the door of dialog open – supping with the devil but with a long spoon if necessary. He always urged the MCB to seek engagement with the Establishment, not confrontation. He opposed an attitude of mind that called for a boycotts or a rejectionist approach that would place a representative body in a self-imposed cage.  His advice to the MCB was to avoid the language of ‘demands’ but convey goodwill and magnanimity. His advice to office-bearers was that “in humility and balance lies the path to success.” For him, “MCB is not an organisation that has a theological base. We are an organisation that seeks common good for all including people of no faith and those who are not Muslims. The MCB has never and shall never in future too espouse, incite or condone violence against any person on any ground. MCB believes in engagement not confrontation”.

However, he was by no means an easy touch for the Establishment, as his own personal history in taking action against the CRE is testimony. When the next CLG Secretary of State Eric Pickles despatched a condescending letter in January 2015  to mosques calling on them to do more to fight terrorism –  with the implied premise that they were dragging their feet and not being responsible enough – the response from the Southampton Medina Mosque Trust, drafted by Khurshid, was biting,

We have reflected on the contents of your letter and not rushed with our response because the issues raised are of huge consequence to our communities. Whilst we do not take any issue with the good intention behind your letter, we are of the firm view that the letter was badly timed and certain parts of it implied that for the horrific murders in Paris, the Muslims living in the UK bore some kind of responsibility. We find such insinuations offensive and unacceptable as we do when such acts are linked to Islam and not to policies that our governments have and are still pursuing in different parts of the world that have majority Muslim populations.

Khurshid encouraged and supported the steps taken by the MCB to join campaigns in support of Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad, who had long periods of detention without being brought to trial in the UK.  In September 2012, their appeals against extradition to the US was rejected by the European Court of Human Rights, in measure the then Home Secretary Theresa May sought to conflate their cases with those of Abu Hamza.  As a human rights lawyer, Khurshid saw this as a travesty of justice as expressed in this note to colleagues in the MCB,

I too am extremely sad to learn of this outcome which I had hoped against hope would have up held the absolute nature of the right to life and protection against torture, inhuman and degrading punishment or treatment as set out under Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights. It appears to me that political exigencies held the sway here especially after the court had joined the cases of Babar and Ahsan with those of Hamza and others. Looking ahead we must do all we can to fight this battle on grounds of human rights of the two individuals in the context of their constitutional rights as British citizens. We must not allow this battle to become Islamic or Muslim phobic. And we have to make sure that we separate with clarity the cases of Babar and Ahsan from those of Hamza et al . . . We have to work with Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Liberty and interfaith organisations, civic society bodies to make this an issue of real significance. I am afraid no representations to the ” Head of the State” are going to work as our Government . . . is complicit in this tragedy. . .  I feel very strongly about the issue and the feeling of being powerless does not help. A word of caution. It is extremely important to join our partners in this campaign carefully. Keeping away from nutters is as important as joining those who are recognised to have a sane voice.

Khurshid was blessed with a happy family life, with his wife  Reefat a kindred spirit in matters of public service. She was no mean activist herself from early student days – participating in Qur’anic study circles at Manchester,  and also attending the annual conference of the Federation of Students Islamic Societies (FOSIS),  with her sister and fellow medic Yasmin, when it was held at Owen’s Park, Manchester in 1970.  She also provided considerable support to the MCB by chairing the Social and Family Affairs committee and leading an important project that organised Muslim role models to speak to schoolchildren. The award of the CBE to Khurshid by the Princess Royal on 5 October 2010, for his services  to community cohesion and interfaith work was a proud moment for Reefat and their four children. They will cherish his memory and a life lived to the full.

In 2014,  Khurshid Drabu was further honoured  with a Muslim News Awards for Excellence for his public service.  For Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, Khurshid Drabu was “friend and mentor”, a man “who spent his life bringing people from all walks of life together: young and old, rich and poor, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Jews and people from all backgrounds. All for a better and more cohesive society. I am grateful to have been able to visit him shortly before his death. May he rest in peace.”  Ameen.

Judge Khurshid Drabu CBE (8th March 1946 – 20th April 2018)