“I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill all of you Jews — you killed my brothers” shouted Shazad at a Jewish motorist in Stamford Hill, until he was subsequently arrested and cautioned by the Police.
Over the next two years after his arrest Shaz, as he was known in East London, had earned a reputation for his anti-semitic rhetoric. Shaz was not considered to be a practising religious individual by the community; he had a girlfriend and dealt drugs to supplement a part time labouring job.
Shaz approached me in Ilford town centre wanting to debate around the subject of Muslims being oppressed. He was 6ft tall and very gaunt resembling a heroine addict. This was the effect of the psychotic ‘skunk cannabis’ that he was addicted to. He wore combat trousers and a white hooded top with a pattern made up of machine guns. As we walked to the coffee shop, I saw that he received nods of respect from those I knew to be street dealers.
The religious identity based upon an ‘us and them interpretation’, fitted easily into Shaz’s world view. His god was, in his own words; “a god of vengeance”. He was a product of the Jihadi Gangsterism that is now ubiquitous around the UK.
Over the next year and a half I spent a few hours a week not just with Shaz, but also with his parents and siblings. He lived at home and was of Pakistani heritage. His father was a liberal black cab driver and disliked what he saw as the rigid value system of Islam.
I have been dealing the most dangerous Islamist Terrorists within the British Prison system since 2009, often working with individuals and families on a pro-bono basis. Written requests from individuals, some of whom are IS returnees, came via their solicitors post conviction. This was due to individuals becoming aware of the legitimacy of our approach, which is backed by worldwide scholars.
I have watched with growing concern the mutation of Jihadism into a form that is easily adopted by those involved in criminality because it asks nothing of them in terms of discipline, but delivers the validation, recognition and position of belonging to a worldwide gang.
I’m often asked, what it is that changes people and their ideology? When high level ex-Jihadist volunteers counter the message of extremists, what is their message that carries legitimacy and weight? What is that message?
That response is – “It is love”!
The Prophet Muhammed described God’s love for each human being as akin to that of the Mother, hence if you want to know God; love what He loves; He loves all of his creation.
“That’s too idealistic bro!” was Shaz’s response.
“You’re talking about faith and God Shaz. Why wouldn’t you believe in the greatest ideal?” I replied.
He nodded becoming emotional; his eyes brimming, holding back the tears.
I continued, “ there is no pretence in the approach, no dogmatic nonsense just sincerity because that is what I have experienced from my teacher, Shaykh Aleey Qadri.”
“If you cut your finger you bleed. If you cut down all the trees, you suffocate to death. So who are you?
You are part of the trees, you are part of the animals and you are part all of humanity. You cannot disconnect. You are one with everyone”.
I scanned the room my eyes moving between Shaz and his father, they were both silent.
My teacher had asked the same question of me fifteen years ago.
Over the many hours that I spent with the family, Shaz and his father represented bi-polar world views with whom the heated discussions allowed me to start challenging the principles that they were both functioning from.
I stressed that everyone starts as innocent children. It is fear and ignorance that creates hate and violence. This simple demonstration of the essence of people allowed us to move away from the ugliness of exceptionalism to true humanism. When asked the reason for my passionate defence of the Jewish community, I explained I was only defending my own community; humanity.
Contrary to public opinion, the Jihadist deviant sub-culture is less about theological belief systems and more about extrinsic attachment or belonging. This is not to be misunderstood as an ideological vacuum but rather a philosophical or worldview stance that cultivates brotherhood across the fabric of society and a rejection of utilitarian consumerism. This rejection means that the moral relativity that is currently used to diagnose and then impose interventions onto them falls short e.g. psychological, practical and theological interventions. This reductive approach means that the issues that need to be addressed outside of the individuals issues are never addressed and can remain dormant or unaddressed until they are triggered.
The interventions I undertook had to take into account many variables around the needs of the individual whilst re-contextualising reality within a universalist set of values. This was also focussed on addressing those grievances through positive social activism.
If there is one thing that the Covid 19 crisis has made evident, it is that disease does not differentiate. We are all human and we are all reliant upon each other and the environment.
Usman Raja is the CEO of the Unity Initiative and has been involved in counter-radicalisation and deradicalisation work within the Prisons Service. This article reflects his views.