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UK: Jihad: A British Story

Sunday 22 May 2016, by siawi3


Deeyah Khan: What IS do is like grooming - they prey on guilt, loneliness and anger
Film-maker Deeyah Khan asked British extremists about their path to radicalisation and entered a warped world of hyper-masculinity. She tells Rosamund Urwin about the sexual allure of jihad


Monday 23 November 2015

Photo: Radical thinker: film-maker Deeyah Khan at Plateau restaurant in Canary Wharf. She has made the film Jihad: A British Story. Matt Writtle

A British jihadist in Syria recently watched Deeyah Khan’s documentary about extremism and wrote to her, incensed. “Why are you making us look like losers?” he raged. “We are noble. We are brave.” She could only laugh. “It’s telling that that’s what bothers him. I’ll do more of it to piss him off.”

What angered him was that in Jihad: A British Story, Khan explores not only the ugliness of Islamic extremism but also the “goofiness and stupidity”. One former extremist calls a gun a “penis extension” and describes radicalism as a form of machismo, a way to get women.

“It’s the kind of men who feel emasculated — small, pathetic, weak,” she tells me. “It allows them a hyper-masculinity because masculinity and violence are so closely linked in our societies. They can put on this persona: ‘I’m a holy warrior. You don’t respect me but you’re afraid of me.’”

The 38-year-old film-maker and human rights campaigner is forthright and articulate. The only time she stumbles is when I ask if she herself is religious. “Errr, yeah. I mean no.” A pause. “I come from a Muslim family. The label ‘Muslim’ is one aspect of me but it’s not the only part of me.”

Khan spent 18 months interviewing ex-extremists to understand why people join IS in the hope of preventing others being radicalised. “Often we talk about them as if they’re monkeys in cages. They’re people. Let’s talk to them.”

Her pessimism starting the film turned into hope by its end. “I believe what IS is doing, we can do. They tell a story that is compelling to our young people; we have to tell a better story than them.” What surprised her is that even extremists are capable of redemption. “I wasn’t convinced that was possible before.”

Photo: Khan spent 18 months interviewing ex-extremists to understand why people join IS (Image: Matt Writtle)

Khan feels frustrated about the media debate after the Paris attacks. “One guy will say, ‘it’s all about Islam’. The other will say, ‘it has nothing to do with Islam’. I want to throw something at the TV! What are we doing about it? We don’t have time for douchebags in suits to be pointing fingers at each other. Of course Islam has something to do with it — people are doing it in the name of Islam — but it’s also about human vulnerabilities — needs that get filled somehow.”

IS, she notes, spends hundreds of hours recruiting each fighter. It builds an intimate connection on Skype: finding out who this person is, their dreams. “IS takes the yearning, the sadness, the anger, preys on that and draws people into becoming cannon fodder.”

Perhaps because we’re sitting in a Canary Wharf restaurant, Plateau, surrounded by Savile Row suits, I suggest IS may be the ultimate headhunters. Khan nods. “They are. It’s also like grooming. They find out what all your needs are, they build that loyalty and love.”

Love, she acknowledges, seems a strange word to use when we’re talking about a hateful ideology. “It doesn’t start with hate. It starts out as a human need that is not being met, and with love and loyalty between the recruiter and the follower.” Those radicalised by former über-recruiter Abu Muntasir describe him as the father they wished they had had.

There’s no single route to radicalisation. Common themes, Khan says, are discrimination, difficult childhoods and sexual frustration. Guilt can be a factor: a 17-year-old told her he had planned to join IS because someone told him “once the martyr’s blood hits the ground, all his sins are forgiven” and he’d sinned. “Jesus Christ! What could he possibly have done that he believes his life has to be exchanged for forgiveness? Did he look at a girl?”

Some recruits are lonely; IS provides a “band of brothers”. Others are “straight-up criminals dressing up their criminality in something righteous”. Still more see it as political engagement. “They’d tell me, ‘I want to stand up against injustice’. IS has convinced them that violence is the vehicle through which you do that.”

The West unintentionally fuels that view. “When they commit atrocious violence, even Obama looks at them. There’s something seductive in that — someone who is otherwise invisible now feels like a rock star.”

Photo: What about the women drawn to IS? Khan says it can be “almost a liberation” if they’re escaping something else (Image: Matt Writtle)

What about the women drawn to IS? Khan says it can be “almost a liberation” if they’re escaping something else. “An exaggerated expression of religiosity gives more freedom. The younger women have gone at that age where most Muslim families bring up marriage.” Some of the older women she thinks are victims of domestic violence.

Khan believes young Muslims of both sexes often feel powerless. “You’re born and the script of your life is already written by your family and community: what you will be when you grow up, who you will marry. Your job is to strive for that. If you don’t, you bring dishonour.” Some have found a way to redress this power imbalance: religion. “It’s the one thing the parents can’t argue back on: ‘Mum and Dad, you’re not even proper Muslims.’ It’s genius. Parents have curfews; ‘but I’m going to a religious studies group’” — Khan gives the finger – “It’s a trump card that almost puts kids in the dominant position.”

She cites a woman who wanted to marry a black man. “There was no way in hell — secular, liberal, whatever — a Pakistani family was going to let her marry a black guy. She talked to a radical preacher. He says ‘no problem, as long as he converts to Islam’. They’ve figured out how to bypass the parents — we never did.” Khan says her father, though extremely liberal, controlled everything. “He’s a feminist, pro-human rights, and even he was suffocating.”

Khan was born in Norway to an Afghan mother and Pakistani father. Her father pushed Khan to be a singer — “not my forced marriage but my forced career” — believing music was a sphere where people weren’t judged by race. “He misfired terribly. Music, performance and a woman is very rarely accepted within Muslim communities.”

As she became famous, death threats started. Aged 17, Khan felt forced to leave Norway. It was front-page news. “Nobody said ‘hang on: a 17-year-old, the symbol of our multicultural state, has bought a one-way ticket to London’. I felt like that last suitcase on the baggage carousel that just keeps going around and no one claims it. I didn’t belong to the Asian and Muslim community, but white, Norwegian society didn’t claim me either.”

She was scared for many years. “In many ways, [extremists and I] are each other’s natural enemies, so recognising them as human beings is surprising. If I can do that, more of us can too. Which shouldn’t excuse violence, but the point is to have more compassion for people who haven’t reached that point yet. They make it very easy to hate them — I have hated them for most of my life.”

How, then, do we reach out to those on this path? “Rather than shutting down free speech, we need to broaden it, to make it possible for young people to say even the things we dislike so we can talk them down. And we need politicians to articulate a picture of the future that includes all of us. Not British values but shared human values.”

Nobody is tackling this properly, she feels: the far Right acknowledges the issue but doesn’t want solutions, it wants to divide. The Left wants “to give the impression all non-white people are victims of something and all perfect. That’s not true and very patronising.”

To destroy the ideology, we have to engage. Khan uses the reaction of a group of Palestinians to dissuade wannabe jihadists. “I told the Palestinians, ‘There are young Muslims in the West willing to die in your name’. They got angry: ‘Tell them don’t die for us: come here and bring books and hammers so we can build something’. Shame on you! You’re perverting their suffering into your own wish for retribution.”

The far Right and Islamists share a view of this clash of civilisations. “They want the same thing — for us all to hate each other. So we must not only preserve our multi-ethnic societies — we will strengthen them. What frightens IS most isn’t our bombs, it’s us getting along.”

Paris seems to confirm that. “They didn’t attack political or military targets, they chose multi-ethnic areas where bohemian people, anti-racists, mixed. They live and laugh together. This was IS sending us an invitation to the worst places of ourselves: our hatred. We must try to resist walking into their trap.”

That means welcoming refugees. “When so many left, IS released so much propaganda. ‘Why are you going to the land of disbelievers? They hate you!’ When refugees are treated humanely, that damages their story.”

Given that Khan has endured a backlash in the past, does she fear one again from this film? “No,” she says defiantly, her eyes flashing. “We risk losing much more by remaining silent.”