Jihad and the road back

We must work towards a deeper understanding of what draws people into extremism


Jihad: A British Story will be on ITV at 10.40pm on 15 June. In the film, Deeyah Khan, an activist and film-maker, who has herself faced threats from extremists, sets out to find out why the jihadi message is so alluring to young Westerners. 

As a young South Asian woman, growing up in Norway, I felt the difficulties of being between two cultures. The door of my house opened into a world quite different from that of my schoolmates, and I often felt awkward, suspended between the world of my parents and that of my friends.

I used this dual culture to forge my own identity. Music allowed me to blend my parents’ age-old traditions with the pop I encountered outside the home.

Cultural clashes do not always lead to this kind of creative synergy. As a young musician I was hounded, harassed, and forced into exile by angry men who felt that women should not sing and that music, even the beautiful millennium-old traditions of South Asian music, went against their austere vision of Islam.

Angry men like this are today in Syria and Iraq, smashing the treasures of Mesopotamian antiquity, instituting a brutal regime of floggings and executions, assassinations of professional women and the rape of enslaved women.

Parents are hiding the passports of their children to prevent them from flying to Syria to join an organisation that beheads and burns and destroys.

I wanted to find out why young people wanted to be part of such brutality. For my documentary JIHAD I spent two years interviewing people who had been tempted by the call to Jihad: former radicals who were prepared to tell me about what had led them into extremism.


For many, the cultural contrasts around them were not the rich source of artistic cross-fertilisation that they represented for me, allowing me to build new paths and find my own identity. Instead, these people found hostility and racism outside the home, and stifling and dysfunctional relationships inside the home.

Here, radicalism provided their new identity, providing a sense of belonging while stoking their resentments and rage against non-Muslims and the ‘wrong kindsof Muslims; in the process inspiring a sense of superiority within people, often with low self-esteem, naïve and vulnerable to the black-and-white thinking of extremists.

I also learned the extent and chilling efficiency of networks of radicalisation, spreading a narrative of victimisation and presenting violence as the solution, and murderers and criminals as heroes and martyrs through families, institutions and the internet. Here, a person with charisma and guile can gain status through being part of the recruitment pyramid.


Due to the gang and cult-like sense of belonging, as well as the prolonged grooming process, it is often extremely difficult for a person to leave a radical group. For the people I spoke to, painful revelations up-ended and exposed the brutality underlying their fantasies of power and control, such as the vicious prejudice against ‘dirtynon-Muslims, and the fact that the main victims of Muslim extremist violence are themselves Muslims.

The journey back for some of these people involves healing their wounded pasts and addressing the clash of cultures creatively: speaking to lost young people like themselves, guiding them away from the traps that they themselves fell into.

But we cant only rely on the few who return from the tide of radicalisation. We do need to recognise that there is more to violent extremism than politics or religiosity itself. Prejudices between communities need to be dispelled; conflicts between generations need to be healed; and simplistic good-and-evil narratives need to be challenged, not least the narrative around extremists themselves.

Deeyah Khan is an activist and Emmy award-winning documentary film maker. Jihad: A British Story will be on ITV at 10.40pm on 15 June.

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