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A well-known British Muslim scholar has said that frustration with injustice is one of the root causes of extremism. Ahtsham Ali, Muslim advisor for Her Majesty’s Prison Service and President of the Islamic Society of Britain, says: ‘We need to channel this frustration into proper legal society-changing mechanisms.’ He was addressing a Greencoat Forum on ‘Beyond extremism’ in the London IofC centre on 21 June.
Ali, who is in charge of the Imams who serve Muslim prisoners in all British jails, spoke about the elements that lead to extremism: where the ideology comes from, why it resonates well with some people, the attitudes and opinions it generates and challenges in preventing it. Following Ali’s talk, Urfan Azad, co-founder and manager of the Black and Asian Services in Alcohol and Narcotics (BASIAN), told his personal story as a former extremist [See below].
Ali defined extremism as ‘the process whereby experiences and events in a person’s life lead them to support or engage in illegal violence to resolve perceived grievances held by themselves or a wider associate group.’ He emphasized that such violence is often against innocent parties.
He said Islamic extremism was sometimes born in the hearts of Muslims who had been tortured by other Muslims for political reasons. Their tormentors would stop torturing them at prayer times and then return to their task. Victims felt that their tormentors, and their chiefs, could not be good Muslims while behaving like that. Victims came to see the whole political and social system as impure.
Ali said that Osama Bin Laden’s blame of the West for lacking consideration for Muslims who were dying, and Muslim glorification of their dead, had resonated in the hearts of some people. They had blindly followed Bin Laden when he stated that killing Westerners, including civilians, was a form of justice. ‘People were so frustrated and unhappy, their minds were so locked up, they accepted it,’ said Ali, who read out Bin Laden’s fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) which launched the Al Qaeda movement. Ali reminded his audience that only muftis (specialist Islamic scholars) could issue a fatwa. Bin Laden was not a mufti but an engineer, so he was not qualified to issue such a verdict.
Most extremists had been exposed to extremist ideology through books, DVDs and the internet, Ali said. Some had been attracted by a charismatic leader giving them a sense of belonging, ‘like a surrogate Dad’. He dismissed the link sometimes made with Salafism and Wahhabism ‘because these movements are not violent at their core’.
According to Ali, most of the 70 or so Muslim terrorists in British jails are men and only two are women. Hardly any were scholars and most of them had a low self-esteem and a sense of victimization. There were ‘conspiracy theories galore,’ he said. Extremists were trapped in a medieval Islamic view about the land of Islam and the land of war: ‘What was conquered once can never be lost; it will always be the land of Islam.’
He reminded the audience that the sacred text of Islam, the Quran, was the word of God while the actions of the Prophet are the Sunna. Extremists ‘misunderstood following the Prophet in an extreme way,’ Ali continued, illustrating this with a story from his experience. Muslim students in Newcastle University had refused to go to prayers because the imam wore a tie and the Prophet never did. ‘There is one thing that the Prophet always did and they don’t. They don’t smile. None of them observes this.’
Ali listed the numerous challenges faced by extremists: internal challenges such as the rights of non-Muslims in Islamic states, and where Muslim loyalty lies first: in British citizenship and laws or in Islam? There was also the intolerance of impossible friendships with non-Muslims, and the vision of a world divided into two: Muslim countries and countries where ‘we’ are at war.
Another important challenge was the misinterpretation of jihad, meaning struggle. Ali explained that in its original meaning, 95 per cent of this struggle is internal—the struggle against the self within and not the struggle against the other. The other five percent is external struggle and this included—not 'but only applied to' —‘standing up in front of a tyrant ruler’. Another external challenge in the UK was the fact that some community Imams are disconnected with the country they live in.
Ali went on to discuss the history of extremism. He pointed out that extremists views and groups could be found in many faiths and political movements. Among the examples he cited were: the Spanish Inquisition, dating back to 1480 onwards; Guy Fawkes; the Lord’s Resistance Army, a sectarian and military group based in northern Uganda; the massacres, involving Reverend Jim Jones and David Koresh in the US; the American Christian Doomsday cult; the Irish Republican Army (IRA); and the late Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, who was part of an underground Zionist group.
Ali concluded: ‘Injustice is galore and people get away with it which generates a lot of frustration. We need to channel the frustration into proper legal mechanisms, and tell them, “Do what you can but don’t break the boundaries”. But the problem is that young people want to see change straight away.’
Full edited highlights are available on YouTube:
Urfan Azad, from Reading, told how he had grown up interacting with white children. But at university he gradually got into drugs and became a dealer. His father flew him to Pakistan in an attempt to get him back on the right track. ‘I was given a military education, I was taught my religion. For the first two weeks I was there, I was withdrawn from drugs. They would give me spiritual guidance. But after that they started introducing me to weapons, explosives, how to create bombs.’
Coming from a world of crime he found this new experience fascinating and appealing. The men there would talk to him about Kashmir, Palestine, Iraq, and the atrocities committed by ‘them’. ‘This is the sort of thing they would tell me on a daily basis, they pumped me up in rage.’ He fought with the Taleban against the Northern League in Afghanistan. ‘For me this was amazing, it was like a movie. Back in England I had dreamt of this, fighting for my religion and doing things right.’
But seeing mutilated bodies and death every day became too much for him and he asked to go back to England. He returned with a lot of hatred for whites, though all his friends were white. ‘I decided to become a renegade and stop drug dealing in my area.’
Azad said that what changed him was to hear other interpretations of the sacred texts, not just verses taken out of context. People from his network, especially those who knew him in Afghanistan, were surprised by his change.He wanted to do something for people going through the same vulnerability as he had with drugs and crime. He ended up dealing also with extremism. Now, he said, he brings them other interpretations of the Quran.
Ali and Azad took questions from the audience, including how to stop a young person on the path to extremism. Azad said that a young person needs scholarly advice, an argument that he will accept. Ali added: ‘We have to combat their vulnerability, work on their self-esteem or their belief in themselves, combat each of the keys to their behaviour one by one, break down their arguments, make them see an alternative.’
Ali added that another way to prevent, as much as to cure, extremism is to make people meet those who are part of the group they hate. ‘The problem often in England is that you don’t meet different people; you stay in your area so you know no one different.’
The meeting was chaired by Don de Silva, Head of Programmes, Initiative of Change UK. De Silva pointed out that Initiatives of Change had over 60 years of experience in dealing with extremism from various religious and political hues. He said that IofC offered a dynamic alternative to change society, challenging people to be the change they want to see in others. He pointed out that IofC was not a political movement, but was focussed in putting positive movement into people to change injustices in society.
Ali commented: ‘The work you do in IofC is a hidden gem.’
Urfan Azad story on YouTube:
Further Ahtsham Ali clips can be seen at:
Don de Silva's introduction is at:
Who we are: Initiatives of Change (IofC) is a world-wide movement of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, who are committed to the transformation of society through changes in human motives and behaviour, starting with their own.
Purpose: We work to inspire, equip and connect people to address world needs, starting with themselves, in the areas of trustbuilding, ethical leadership and sustainable living.
Omnia Marzouk, President, IofC International
'Nothing lasting can be built without a desire by people to live differently and exemplify the changes they want to see in society.'