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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6 Responses to “Jihad and the road back”

  1. damon

    Looks interesting and I will watch it.
    This kind of radicalism is not something that’s going to end any time soon and we are just stuck with it for the coming couple of decades at least. You can deradicalise individuals one at a time maybe, but its still always going to be there, and is attractive to young people as we’ve seen. So children who are now innocent twelve year olds in school, will be getting sucked into this ideology over the next few years and even if you prevent many through education, enough will get drawn in, because it’s such a seductive cult-like network that many thousands will be intrigued with it at least.
    Maybe flirting with radicalism is just a phase of some young Muslim’s upbringing now.
    And you hope that for most it will just be looking at a bit of jihadi porn online for the novelty of it and that it won’t go any further than that.


    It is better to put mad dogs down. It is the most humane thing.

  3. JohnRich

    Islamofascism is just like the other sort of fascism. It has to be confronted and defeated.

  4. blarg1987

    Part of the problem is that we have been focusing to long on diversification rather then integration.

    This is probabaly where the problem arises in society and will take years if not generations to redress.

  5. Patrick Nelson

    Personally I’m all for hanging terrorists and silencing the likes of “saviour sect”
    and “al-Muhajoroon”, but the ever growing list of things on the government’s extremism indicators are a threat not only to non-Islamist law abiding Muslims, but also to devout Christians, Orthodox Jews and many other people (as has been proven by Ofsted harassment against Christian and Jewish schools).

    The threat to British liberty posed by knee-jerk popularity seeking measures from the government in reaction to newspaper headlines is far greater than any threats from terrorists or extremists. Governments are very good at taking liberties away, but it is very rare that they ever give them back.

  6. blarg1987

    Think there is a slight difference I am not in favour of removing liberties, just more in favour, of better integration.

    Notice how a person of an ethic minority can call a white person “white boy” yet if turned on its head it will be classed as a racist insult.

    Integration means all parties to be treated equally, so that either means it we can claim discrimination if someone calls somebody “white boy” and ba ba rainbow sheep should be classed as discriminatory, as the rainbow is used as a symbol by Lesbian and Gay society.

    No flag should be allowed to be flown to cause offence either.

    The law should however ensure all parties are treated equally and not use any protections as a group to claim favour while throwing in effect stones on other groups in society.

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