The Blog

It's Time to Cut the Rot of Radicalisation

One thing is clear: radicalisation doesn't happen in a vacuum. The bullies who seek to twist and darken the souls of confused young men (and they are largely young, and men) prey on this, pouring poison into their ears.

I was 17 when I watched my first, and last, jihad video.

It came as a surprise when Hamza (not his real name), the older boyfriend of my younger sister pulled it from his jacket. From the white front it was obvious that it had been recorded on a DVD burner. A copy, not the sort you bought at a shop. In place of a title were handwritten Arabic scribbles and a date, 2000.

Images flashed on the screen. At first they were indecipherable, until the handheld camera on which they were recorded zoomed into focus revealing the dismembered bodies of dead children. Strewn across a bombed out concrete block rubble covered their bloodied arms and faces.

The camera panned out. A woman was crying holding a fleshy looking bundle of clothes. Wailing. Where its arms and legs had once been were left just lifeless stumps, its face distorted so unrecognisably it was hard to imagine this was ever a human being. A child.

"They bombed that building, killing 32 kids. The Americans and the British kuffurs [enemies of Islam]." He commented.

The shot changed. Men wearing black and white keffiyehs obscuring their faces held guns, shooting at anything in the sky that moved. The shot changed again. This time to one man. He sat calmly against the backdrop of a black flag with two crossing swords and the Muslim crescent, below which Arabic writing was displayed. The subtitles on the screen read 'Death to the Kuffurs'. He spoke softly, only raising his voice to utter "Amrika" [America] with revulsion.

"It's disgusting. Them white people and Jews are murderers." Hamza added.

I was disgusted.

Although I was a lot fairer than my sister, Hamza saw me as someone who could relate to his anger. This was according to him on account of my dad - an immigrant to the UK but raised a Muslim back home. Although we lived with mum, a British Catholic, we were one of the few non-Pakistani families living in the area at the time.

Being children of mixed parentage was a cross we learned to burden. The combination of my sister's darker skin and olive oil sheen hair made her a curiosity to people at school. "What a lovely complexion you've got... those Asian genes give you good hair you know," teachers would claim.

The word "Paki" wasn't an uncommon refrain shouted at both of us when out with dad. The irony wasn't lost on him, given he hailed originally from Iran.

Hamza wasn't unlike a lot young men in Bradford. He was angry. Conflicted. He lived at home with his Pakistani parents who dutifully marshalled him to Mosque every Friday for prayers. We'd see him after school dressed in Shalwar Kameez, hanging outside the local Masjid. Yet at the weekends he frequented Bradford's nightclubs, chasing girls and dabbling with strong strains of cannabis.

He wasn't a nice man. When driving us around in a car of questionable provenance, he claimed to run an unforgiving protection racket with the local convenience shops, extorting money from them to fund his secret lifestyle. But he wasn't a fanatic.

I was curious, therefore, to read the Sun's claim this week that one in five British Muslims have "sympathy for jihadis".

The headline made me think of Hamza.

An angry young man, conflicted in his identity, he was growing up in a city with palpable tension between its communities. It was only a year after this particular incident that Bradford fell victim to some of the worst race riots in recent history. A city with one of the lowest proportions of working age people in work in the region. But fundamentally, a city divided and one where many men of Hamza's age were forced to choose between, or hide from, the sometimes strict expectations of their parents and the trappings of what that generation might have seen as the corruption of youth.

Around 700 people from the UK are believed to have travelled to support or fight for jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq. At least ten are from Bradford and its surrounding areas. The most notable and perhaps most tragic is that of three sisters from the city who took their children to the conflict. They haven't since been heard from.

The question which burns in my mind is: why?

I haven't stayed in contact with Hamza. I don't know what he is doing or where he is. I don't want to.

Yet to understand why, it is necessary to understand the divisive and disenfranchised world that many like him found themselves in. Why did Hamza show me, a mixed race young man with conflicting religious affiliation, what might today be called a recruiting video. A misplaced sense of rebellion, or something more malevolent?

One thing is clear: radicalisation doesn't happen in a vacuum. The bullies who seek to twist and darken the souls of confused young men (and they are largely young, and men) prey on this, pouring poison into their ears.

It isn't unemployment, or conflicted identity, or racism, or estrangement from family or even anger at the products of an unjust politics which account for those signing up to the noxious ideology of ISIS. That would be a simplistic and quite frankly misplaced answer. Kids I grew up with suffered all of these disadvantages and not yet once would they consider such a heinous act. Of that I'm sure.

But the seeds of that lethal doctrine can, and unfortunately are being sown in the malaise of these conditions.

To cut out the rot we must first tackle the environment in which it festers. This is a generational challenge. Where vulnerability lives, we must give hope. Where division gnaws, offer understanding, and unity.

I don't want to ever watch a video like that again. I hope we can make sure the Hamza's of this generation don't want to either.