How Muslim Drug Dealers Square Their Job with Their Faith
We spoke to a criminologist who spent four years hanging out with young British-Pakistani dealers in Bradford.
(Illustration: Ella Strickland de Souza)
When police shot Yassar Yaqub dead in the passenger seat of an Audi on the M62 in Yorkshire earlier this year, rumour quickly surfaced that he was a player in the local drug trade.
Police had stopped the car, driven by Yaqub's friend, after receiving a tip-off that one of its occupants was in possession of a pistol, later found in the passenger footwell. Yaqub claimed to be a car dealer, but a former "associate" told reporters soon after the shooting that the 28-year-old father of two was a feared crack and heroin dealer. In 2010, Yaqub was acquitted of attempted murder. In 2015 he was treated for shotgun wounds after being ambushed by two hooded gunmen, an incident which prompted him to cover his outside walls in CCTV cameras.
After the shooting, groups of young Pakistani men took to the streets of nearby Bradford to protest at what some branded an "assassination". His funeral took place at the family's local mosque in Huddersfield, and Yaqub's grieving father denied his son was a criminal. Comparisons were made to the case of Mark Duggan, an alleged gang member shot and killed by police while in possession of a gun in a taxi in north London in 2011, whose death led to an unprecedented spate of rioting.
Whatever the truth about Yaqub's involvement in the drug trade and why the police felt they needed to kill him, what is not open to question is the significant role played by British Pakistanis in the drug business in this part of England.
Earlier this month, 35 criminals linked to a Bradford-based drug network caught smuggling heroin into the UK from Pakistan in the lids of pens were jailed for almost 200 years. Last year a West Yorkshire-based British Pakistani gang were jailed after shipping heroin from Pakistan concealed in boxes of tables. In 2014, Mohammed Azam Yaqoob – a millionaire from Dewsbury known as "Mr Sparkles" because of his carwash business – was jailed for nine years for his involvement in a drug smuggling ring. The list goes on, with heroin destined for West Yorkshire from Pakistan seized in everything from Afghan rugs to baby powder and chapatti ovens.
Drug conviction data obtained by a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Justice by VICE reveals that, in Yorkshire and Humberside, more British-Pakistanis (12) were convicted for importing class A drugs into the UK over 2013 and 2014 than white British people (11). At distribution level – while not sole traders in the region's drug market, as some tabloids would have it – British-Pakistani dealers are a major presence in areas such as Bradford, Leeds and Huddersfield. They accounted for a fifth (211) of the 1,058 people convicted for class A drug dealing in Yorkshire and Humberside in 2013 and 2014: four times that of British-Caribbeans (51) and almost half the number of white British dealers, despite British-Pakistanis only making up 4.3 percent of the region's population.
So the question arises: why are such a large number of young men from religiously and culturally conservative Pakistani communities choosing to earn a crust in the distinctly un-Islamic crack and heroin underworld?
Up until now, Britain's Asian drug scene has been little understood. There is no Dewsbury version of Top Boy. But in 2010, criminologist Mo Ali Qasim began a four year project in which he hung out with a close-knit group of young Pakistani Muslim drug dealers in Manningham, a deprived suburb of Bradford.
It is an area, according to Qasim, of "decayed grandeur, disappointed hopes and ever deepening despair". He grew up playing cricket and football with some of the boys, which is why they took him into their inner circle. Qasim, who is writing a book on West Yorkshire's drug trade, wanted to find out what had driven this generation away from the kind of careers their parents followed and into drug selling. How do these young men square their class A drug selling with a religious faith that shuns the use and sale of drugs and demands severe punishments for the crimes they are committing?
Most of the gang moved onto selling crack and heroin at a young age, tutored by older dealers. They did so for the same reason most young people start dealing: as a way of escaping poverty and earning money; locked out of a mainstream economy by a bad education, criminal records and increasingly high unemployment. As it is with young black people, young British-Pakistanis experience a far higher unemployment rate (45 percent) than young white people (19 percent). Joblessness not only breeds addiction, but drug dealing. The boys told Qasim their employment prospects had worsened due to an increase in the negative portrayal of Muslims as Britain's "enemy within" in the media, a factor that also resulted in a rise in police harassment.
Not only did they feel alienated from British society, but some of them felt dislocated from their own parents and previous generations of British-Pakistanis. They had little respect for "back home", seeing Pakistan as corrupt and a place where they were seen as virtual Westerners. They found traditions such as week-long weddings and funerals a drag. It was this outsider mentality, cut adrift from the ties that bound their parents, which made drug dealing a more acceptable way of getting out of a tight economic spot.
While working in factories, corner shops and takeaways was good enough for their parents and cousins, to them these jobs were dead-end and degrading. Instead they aspired to lavish lifestyles, wanting to drive sports cars and wear expensive clothes and jewellery. And selling drugs was the quickest way of doing this.
Their drug selling businesses not only came to the attention of police – the boys were in and out of jail – but the local imams. When they turned up to pray at mosque sometimes their imam would try to deter them in speeches. One time, with the boys at the back of the prayer hall, he told worshippers: "I see brothers using drugs, selling drugs like they are doing nothing wrong. They forget that they are haram, and I swear to you that the money that they are making will not benefit them on the day when they will stand in front of their lord. Trust me, on that day they will plead and ask Allah to forgive them, but no, it will be too late." The imam advised them to attend a talk in a nearby mosque entitled "Do you want to be a bad boy?"
Although alcohol is strictly prohibited under Islam, most of the guys drank it, and some were heavy drinkers. But while they were happy to become involved in drug dealing and taking, in other respects, Qasim saw, they were religiously strict. For example, none of them would touch meat that was not halal, let alone pork. He also noticed that jail time usually strengthened their faith. However, this heightened faith was more likely to lead to them insisting on their sisters wearing hijabs, rather than preclude them from selling drugs.
"They drank alcohol, slept around with girls and were involved with the consumption and sale of drugs," says Qasim. "But the boys considered Islamic faith to be imperative. They were selective as to which of Islam's teachings they adhered to and which they did not want to adhere to. It could be argued that faith was a coping strategy in difficult times."
Essentially, these young drug dealers have adapted the way they follow their faith to suit the situation in which they have found themselves. They are anchored by their religion and family loyalty, but have made up their own rules, where selling drugs is acceptable, because it is the only way they know of providing three essentials for life: money, solidarity and status.
In the drug world, sellers with good connections to the source of a product have a head start against their rivals. Crack selling became a natural money-spinner for British-Jamaican criminals in the 1990s, partly because much of the cocaine smuggled into the UK then came via Jamaica. A similar dynamic applied to Colombian criminals in Britain, for obvious reasons, and north London's Turkish gangs, whose homeland has always been a key waypoint in the trafficking of heroin from Afghanistan into Europe.
The evidence from the courts show that British-Pakistani criminals have for decades taken advantage of their connections back home in order to smuggle heroin into the UK, and it is natural for this to have trickled down to street sellers and money launderers from within the Pakistani community. Nevertheless, as the British drug market has become more of a free-for-all – a vast network of firms with myriad specialisms – ethnic ties have become less important than they were.
Although Qasim's dealers did not discuss their supply in much detail, he was told that importation was down to an older generation, and that the boys sourced their drugs from "Turkish connections down south". The cocaine seemed to be supplied from Liverpool.
West Yorkshire's Pakistani drug dealers are part of the vast tapestry that makes up the British drug trade. Every wave of immigrants who have settled in Britain over the centuries – the Irish, the Huguenots, the Jews, the Jamaicans, the Indians, the Pakistanis and Eastern Europeans – have in some cases had to rely on the criminal underworld to get by. But as government figures for drug dealing, drug production and importing convictions show, the role of ethnic minorities is still dwarfed by that of white British people.
Qasim said that the boys, although sometimes violent, were essentially good people who would thrive if given the chance in mainstream society.
"Though stigmatised and regarded as outcasts by mainstream society," Qasim concludes, "the boys demonstrated many outstanding qualities: not just entrepreneurial skills but intense, if fractious, loyalty, a strong sense of duty to family and a strong, if eclectic, moral code. In many ways the boys are admirable, though their good qualities are rarely visible to themselves, and even less visible to the outside world."
Qasim's book 'Young, Muslim and Criminal' will be published by Policy Press later this year.