Deeyah Khan May 2015


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 parent’s 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 them 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 with 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 it represented for me, allowing 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 kinds’ of Muslims, 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, and the prolonged grooming process, it is often extremely difficult for a person to leave radical groups: 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 ‘dirty’ non-Muslims, the fact that the main victims of Muslim extremist violence are themselves Muslims. The journey back for some of these 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 can’t 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; simplistic good-and-evil narratives need to be challenged, not least the narrative around extremists themselves.

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