UK’s first Muslim MP to run Pakistan’s most populous province

Britain's first Muslim lawmaker Mohammed Sarwar and his wife Parveen at Edinburgh High Court, January 25, 1999. (Reuters)

Britain’s first Muslim lawmaker, who once faced down racist death threats from his opponents, has returned to his native Pakistan as governor of the country’s most populous province, he told Reuters on Wednesday.

Mohammed Sarwar, a former member of Britain’s parliament representing the opposition Labor party, had to renounce his British citizenship to take on the largely ceremonial post in Punjab. He was officially appointed on Tuesday.

“Everything that I have learnt in my time in Britain – the knowledge and how to run institutions - I can use it for the benefit of Pakistanis,” said Sarwar, 60, who was born in Punjab.

“I can be a bridge between overseas Pakistanis and Pakistanis here and work for the betterment of both.”

Punjab is home to half of Pakistan’s 180 million people and is the country’s wealthiest province, thanks to its fertile fields and industry in the booming city of Lahore, home to an ancient Mughal fort.

But like other parts of the South Asian country, Punjab isalso plagued by unemployment, power blackouts and growing militancy - a challenge Sarwar said he was ready for.

“I believe life is in the hands of God. If you are in politics, you have to do the right thing and some people are not going to like it,” Sarwar, who served three terms as a member of parliament for Glasgow, told Reuters by telephone from Lahore.

Reflecting on his years in British politics, Sarwar said he had received death threats from racist groups and was also once threatened after helping bring Asian gang members to justice.

The men had tortured and killed a Scottish boy and fled to Pakistan. Britain and Pakistan have no extradition treaty but Sarwar stepped in to broker a one-off transfer in 2005.

Like many Pakistani immigrants, Sarwar left his native Pakistan and followed his future wife, Perveen, to Scotland 35years ago to build a new life in a country which is now home to the biggest overseas community of people with Pakistani roots.

He started off in the wholesale sector, gradually expanding his cash-and-carry grocery business into an empire making millions of pounds. In 1997, he won his first election.

“When I was elected the first Muslim MP, I felt very proud,”Sarwar said. “I was representing all the people in my constituency. They came from maybe 50 different cultures and religions.”

Sarwar did not stand in the last British election, but his youngest son, Anas Sarwar, has followed in his father’s footsteps. He is now deputy leader of the Scottish Labor party and MP for Glasgow Central, the seat his father previously held.

Sarwar was appointed governor by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is himself from Lahore, after his party swept to a landslide victory in May elections in Pakistan.

Sarwar said he hoped to use his experience in Britain to improve education in Punjab, working alongside UN special education envoy and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Pakistan has one of the world’s lowest rates of literacy.

Britain has promised to give Pakistan 446 million pounds ($680.57 million) next year in aid. The biggest chunk will pay fees for poor students and improve schools in Punjab.

Last Update: 17:55 KSA 20:55 - GMT 17:55