'Jihad': My Journey Into the Roots of Islamic Radicalism in Britain

15/06/2015 09:29 | Updated 14 June 2016

I have watched the spread of violent extremism and jihadism across Europe and the UK with dismay, particularly given my history of experiencing threats, abuse and harassment by Muslim fanatics. This personal concern, mixed with my curiosity as a film-maker, inspired me to look beneath the surface of these movements: to talk to the people involved - to try to find out how and why they became radicalised.


From my previous film, Banaz, the story of a young Kurdish woman murdered in London, to my latest work with the Exposure series for ITV, Jihad: A British Story, one of the main strands of my work has been addressing the issues arising within our diverse societies, for individuals straddling multiple cultures. I myself grew up between two cultures, growing up in a warm Pashtun/Punjabi household, but breathing in the crisp air of Norway. Living through the intersections of cultural diversity has given me an intimate understanding of the dynamics of living between the dimensions of East and West, traditional and modern, and political and spiritual.

While I could relate to some of the realities of women like Banaz - in many ways, close to my own experiences as a woman growing up within the restrictions of South Asian 'honour' - I couldn't grasp what would attract young people to leave their comfortable homes to die in fields far from home. How can anyone look at the deranged death cult of the so-called Islamic State, a group notorious for beheadings and sexual slavery, and feel drawn towards it?


As a person with secular, liberal convictions it was difficult on a personal level, but I tried to put my prejudices aside in order to try to understand the allure of extremism. As well as speaking with ordinary young Muslims who hadn't embraced extremism, I spent the last two years talking with some of the most prominent figures in the British jihadi movement. I was surprised by their willingness to discuss both the violence they participated in, and what drew them to exit the world of extremism. My investigations brought me to a man who can be described as one of the founders of jihadism in the UK in the 1980s and 90s, amongst other former extremists who have been in conflicts across the world. Islamist fighters from the West have fought, killed and died with jihadist movements in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya and Burma for three generations.

Unlike the current generation of radicalised young Muslims, the people I spoke to have had the benefit of retrospection - which has allowed them to process, examine and articulate their experiences. I learned from them that terror thrives on discontent and pain.

deeyah khan

In this film I wanted to explore the human dimension and to get behind the political posturing. I found that there were often underlying issues of emotional and psychological turmoil: difficult family relationships were a common theme, where older generations were authoritarian, leaving the younger with little ability to express themselves or make their own life choices, and obsessed with family 'honour'. This repressive atmosphere in the home was often exacerbated outside, where experiences of discrimination and exclusion combined to increase feelings of alienation, which has only been intensified by the political atmosphere after 9/11 and 7/7. These leave young people feeling unmoored, finding a place neither in their homes nor outside them. Some drift into crime or drugs before finding themselves a home within Muslim extremism. The fellowship of radicalism provides a surrogate family and community that embraces and accepts them, while the jihadi mission provides a sense of purpose, whipped up by emotive propaganda materials, which present the cause as righteous, and those who participate as heroes. For young men who feel emasculated and powerless, this is an exhilarating combination.

No-one is born a terrorist, but the route to become one is surprisingly easy. We need to listen to those who have been there, and those who have made their way back, if we want to stop others from taking their first steps down this same path into darkness. I entered this film project feeling quite pessimistic, but at its end, I feel hope. Each one of those young people drawn into violence has the potential for change, even those now fighting in Syria and Iraq. We need to work together to understand how to support and protect our young men and women from taking this path into savagery, and to help those who have gone down it to turn themselves around.

Exposure: Jihad: A British Story ITV 10.40pm tonight

Deeyah Khan is a critically acclaimed music producer and Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentary film director