Deeyah Khan and the story of British jihad

Deeyah Khan and the story of British jihad
Feature: A recent British documentary goes some way to explain the involvement of British Muslims in the Islamic State group.
5 min read
30 June, 2015
Khan (left) has won awards for her documentaries [photo supplied]
In light of a string of attacks by the Islamic State group and bearing in mind that hundreds of British citizens are thought to be among the militant group's ranks, the phenomenon of "jihad" is increasingly important for Britons to understand.

In an attempt to examine the subject, Emmy award-winning filmmaker Deeyah Khan's documentary, Jihad: a British story, was screened on the ITV channel in June.

The film saw her interview prominent preachers who enlisted young British Muslims to fight for "Islamic" causes abroad.

"I wanted to make a film that goes beyond the usual conversations around radicalisation which either centre around western foreign policy or jihadist ideology," Khan told al-Araby al-Jadeed. "I wanted to look at the human face of this topic and the personal stories behind the stereotypes."

Making the film was not without its challenges.

"I started off feeling very apprehensive, that this was going to be a difficult experience that they wouldn't want to speak to me with complete openness," she said.

"But I found that the human connections are strong, particularly with the more reflective interviewees, and that I could relate to their stories on a human level a lot more than I expected I would."

Among other interviewees, Deeyah Khan talked to Abu Muntasir, who fought with the mujahidin in Afghanistan and Bosnia during the 1990s, and encouraged "thousands" of young Muslims to do the same, saying that he "opened the doors" for recruitment to IS and al-Qaeda.
     They were able to express why they became drawn to the violent jihadi movements and what ultimately made them walk away from violence

During the interview, Abu Muntasir broke down in tears with regret at his actions.

"It takes great courage for someone to speak with the inner strength and profound truth the way the characters in my film did," said Khan. "They were able to express with such clarity both the reasons why they became drawn to the violent jihadi movements and what ultimately made them walk away from violence, anger and aggression."

During the documentary, Abu Muntasir said that he did not know why he wasn't arrested for his extensive militant activities in the UK.

Khan describes British policy towards Islamic extremism and the mujahidin as "very hands-off" at the time. 

Remember that there was support for the Taliban as long as they were fighting the Soviets, and this relationship didn't really sour until the first Gulf War," Khan told al-Araby.

"The UK allowed extremists to operate in the country under this expectation that if any violence occurred, it wouldn't be in the UK. Obviously, that turned out to be a misguided policy in every way."

On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that, following attacks over the weekend on British tourists in Tunisia, IS could be preparing attacks on UK soil.

Although most would condemn British citizens heading to engage in terrorist activities, Cage, an advocacy group for victims of the war on terror, told al-Araby that targeting British Muslims are fighting with legitimate Syrian opposition groups is hypocritical - when ex-military figures fighting alongside Kurds, or British citizens serving in the Israeli military, is totally acceptable. 

"People have been inspired by all kinds of overseas struggles, and volunteered to take part in them throughout history, from the Middle Ages onward," Khan said.

However, she feels that there is an especially violent aspect to British citizens going to fight for IS.

"What is particular about this case is that it isn't the defence of an existing state, but the creation of a new one," she said.

"Volunteers taking part in an occupation, and one which they promise to be a permanent and expanding colonial regime, bringing more and more people under its autocratic rule."

Many of her interviewees documented racism at home, and witnessed the persecution of co-religionists abroad, for example in Bosnia, Iraq and Palestine. But these injustices cannot justify violence, said Khan.
Three British girls made headlines when they reportedly joined IS last year [Getty]

"On one hand they rightly reject the violence of the West, but then they are themselves inflicting incredible human suffering on a tremendous scale," she said.

The documentary also explores the social reasons for "jihad", with interviewees explaining that second-generation migrants struggle to fit in, both with conservative communities and families, or with British society that often isolates them.

Many Imams in the UK are religiously conservative and sometimes lack English skills, and are thus unable to guide British Muslims how to integrate "the various strands of identity", said Khan.  

Radical preachers are often more effective at resolving this, she added.

"They [propose] this new identity, solely predicated on religious position and then tie into political activism, which then winds up to violent extremism," Khan said.

"For a young person searching for their place in the world, and searching for answers about complex and uncomfortable realities, this black and white simplistic view and approach to the world becomes convenient and appealing."
     We need to ensure that all people have the same rights and access to opportunities so that society is fair and inclusive.

Although some of these problems are specific to a Muslim, or South Asian diaspora, Deeyah believes that communities should not be treated "in isolation".

"We need to ensure that all people have the same rights and access to opportunities so that society is fair and inclusive," she said, saying that discrimination should also be eradicated.

"But this also means we can't have any more abuses within families and households excused on the grounds of 'cultural difference or cultural sensitivity'."

Ultimately, Abu Muntasir rejected jihad during a mission in Burma - when he said he realised the corruption that pervaded the commanders of the mujahidin, and their exploitation of young Muslims.

"If people want to call me a coward... fine, I'm a coward," he said in the film.

In the documentary, another former jihadist said that the feelings of disenchantment and injustice towards the UK may once have been converted into civil activism, but instead was channelled towards jihad.  

"That's the tragedy - these forms of extremism take young people's idealism and perverts it into a cult devoted to savagery," said Khan. "They take people's empathy and limit it to their own chosen group.

"There are over two million refugees in the Middle East due to the Islamic State [group], people who have left their homes and livelihoods.

"Those who are drawn to IS could be working to raise funds for support for the refugees, working democratically to research and inform policy and promote a culture of peace and development - instead they are creating a humanitarian disaster."