The struggle to counter Islam’s call to arms
- 14 Jun 2015
- The Independent on Sunday Back to Portfolio
The struggle to counter Islam’s call to arms
Karen Atwood meets film-maker Deeyah Khan, who has interviewed the founding fathers of British jihad
Anyone wishing to understand why thousands of Western-born Muslims are leaving comfortable homes to fight with Isis would do well to watch Deeyah Khan’s powerful new film Jihad: A British Story.
The award-winning filmmaker spent 18 months interviewing some of the founding fathers of jihad in the UK out of a “personal obsessive curiosity” to find out what was driving young people to sign up to such a violent movement and by doing so, find ways to prevent it.
The film, which will be shown on ITV on June 15 as part of their Exposure series, includes extraordinary interviews with a number of British Muslims who were at the forefront of the movement to recruit, raise funds for and fight in wars ranging from Afghanistan in the 1980s through to Kashmir, Burma, Bosnia and Chechnya.
What many people fail to understand is that “this movement is not new”, says Khan. “It is three decades old in the west. The trend of taking western based people from the UK, Denmark, Belgium, began in the early to mid -80s and since then it’s been one conflict after the other. We are only seeing it now because Isis is so absolutely viscous and so public and they are using cameras to disseminate it. In the west our attention only woke up from 9/11 onwards.”
The human rights activist is well placed to examine such an explosive subject. Khan grew up in Norway to immigrant parents from Afghanistan and Pakistan and says she “understands very well the culture clash of coming from this in-between place”.
Khan’s father was liberal but rather than “arranging my marriage he forced me into a career that wasn’t (my choice)”. He believed there were only two professions where you were not judged on your gender and race – music or sport – and so he encouraged his daughter to become a singer, throwing away her toys from the age of seven and getting her to undertake intense music lessons.
His plan worked and Khan became a successful pop star at the age of ten, lauded as an example of multicultural Norway, but before long she was receiving death threats from members of the Muslim community who felt that a women should not be performing. Constantly being harassed on the street and fearing for her life, Khan fled to London at the age of 18 but after achieving some success in the UK, the death threats started again and Khan ended up moving to the US and giving up performing music all together.
In this “darkest space and darkest time” Khan says she “didn’t have a clue what to do with myself anymore”. “I was so lost but I started volunteering with young people. I went on pause for a couple of years and after working with these young people I woke up more rested, calmer and happier than ever.”
She also began to hear from young people from the UK who were going through similar struggles within their communities and families.
“When I saw these people struggling in the way I had done for years for different reasons, people trying to suffocate you, force you into a marriage or not allowing you to be gay, whatever it was for these various kids, I just realised I have to do what I have never had the courage to do in my life, which is just be myself and take these issues on and no longer be the person who remains silent and no longer be the person who allows this problem to continue.”
It is at this point that she decided to make her first documentary the Emmy-winning Banaz: A Love Story which was ground-breaking in its coverage of the so-called ‘honour’ killing of British women Banaz Mahmod and the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of her father, uncle and cousins for the parts they played in her rape and murder. The film is now used as training material for police and social services around the world.
“The fact that it is being used in that way means so much to me, honestly, that means more to me than the Emmy – that is just a bonus and a wonderful thing – but really it was to create something to help people understand,” Khan says. “My new film is also so people can understand a little better.”
Khan says she is not satisfied by the public discourse we are having about why young people are joining jihad. “What we are constantly talking about is an ideology and the political response to it is a call for more surveillance powers,” she says. “It’s very clear to me, and it doesn’t take a particular genius to see, that whatever we are doing, and whatever we are understanding about this movement, it’s not working, because it is gaining strength and gaining more of our children so the supply of human life is increasing.”
Although Khan says she was pessimistic at the start of making the film, she is now more hopeful after discovering some of the reasons why young people are attracted to jihad.
“If they were just monsters – they eventually become monsters – but if they were just monsters from day one, then there are limited options that we can have,” she says. “But all the underlying reasons (for going) are very human reasons, basic psychological reasons.”
Some of these were “not finding a sense of belonging or a sense of family, struggling with how they fit into the world, what do I want to do with my life? Why am I here? What can I do? How can I be helpful?”
“These are questions these guys are asking themselves and they are going for the super macho, the gun-toting, super masculine expression of it,” she says. “They just don’t know that there are many more options than that.”
She says it is also clear that while the men she interviewed often joined jihad “to stand against injustice” they realised when they got there that “it wasn’t about the suffering of Muslims, it was about local politics and local control and these foreign fighters were nothing but cannon fodder”.
“That trend is not any different,” says Khan. “Our British boys, our kids, are nothing but cannon fodder for these local games and these boys don’t even know it.”
“We have to do a better job in responding to it,” she says. “We might not be able to completely dismantle this movement but I believe that we can significantly reduce the number of people it manages to draw.”