Extremism, radicalisation, terrorism. One hardly goes a day without hearing some mention of the, be it on the news or during play-ground mutterings, everybody knows about it. So often we hear about the young girls who simply disappear off the face of the Earth only to reappear on Fox News one Monday morning as proud “jihadi brides” or the families of twenty strong simply packing their bags for Syria one day with no explanation. Radicalisation: we all know about it… but who actually knows about it?
This guy does.
Shahid Butt, a British Muslim who has had first hand experience with racism, radicalisation and terrorism in the UK. I was lucky enough to meet this man and have him share the story. Now, I’m going to attempt to tell it… as well as I can.
Shadid grew up in Birmingham during the 1960s, a time in which violent racism against his community was common place. At aged 11, he was attacked by a gang of white men on his way to school, “skin-heads” likely associated with the BNP and Combat 18 who were known to operate around the Birmingham area. His school also received visits from coaches full of the same men, armed with baseball bats, threatening and intimidating the Asian children.
Since then, unsurprisingly, he became very racist himself, developing a hatred towards the white community.
Later on in his teens, he joined a street gang named Lynx. They were a gang of approximately 50 and consisted of mostly young people from ethnic minorities. They were well respected and “worked the streets,” trying to protect other Asians from abuse. But as the gang grew in power and numbers, their methods became increasingly violent. Many members went on to become serious criminals.
“A lot of the people I grew up with are dead or in prison. Out of the 15 people in Lynx, maybe 5 of them are still alive.”
He was suspended from school for fighting and never received a proper education.
After he left school with almost nothing to his name, it was during this time that Shahid re-discovered his religion and became a devoted Muslim. Shahid tells of how this changed his life completely; it was his religion that helped him to get off of the streets and to overcome his racism. He decided to get involved in charity work, building a new mosque for his community instead.
Unfortunately, Shahid suffered racial police brutality whilst taking part in protest. “We’ll stuff a pork sandwich down your throat, that’ll teach you” was one of the racial slurs used during custody (the circumstances to which remain unclear).
Shahid, despite experiencing disgusting racism like so many other Muslims around the UK, had done well in that he expressed his feelings towards his mistreatment in a (mostly) peaceful manner… until he met a man in the street who gave him a graphic video tape on the Bosnian genocide.
Shahid was unsurprisingly shocked and affected by what he saw in the video, and, in 1995 was inspired to go to Bosnia and give aid to the Muslim victims there. Although he was throwing himself into a war zone to hand out food and water to Muslim refugees in Bosnia, Shahid remembers most vividly the thoughts and emotions the experienced stirred inside him.
Shahid describes mostly the immense anger and frustration he experienced at not being able to help everyone, and being forced to leave some without food. Leaving anyone behind, especially when you’ve risked your life to help them, is never easy, He most vividly remembers the faces of the ones he had to abandon without help while they pleaded for food for their children.
It was then that Shahid’s attitude began to change. His compassion and good will morphed into resentment towards the people who harmed his community, and he began to question why he should sit back and do nothing. It is this passion and will to defend your community that leads young people into war zones like Syria, where 9 million people have already been displaced. Like many young Muslims of today, he made the decision to travel to Afghanistan to fight.
“I believe the media has mis-portrayed the whole situation. Anybody who goes to Syria is a mad, crazy, warmongering, bloodthirsty person. This is wrong.”
From here, Shahids life comes under shadow. But soon after Afghanistan, things took a turn for the worst. In 1998, aged 33, he was arrested in Yemen on suspicion of planning a terrorist bomb attack and sentenced to 5 years in prison. He denies these accusations, but his case is well documented.
During his years of living alongside violence, terrorism and extremism, he admits to having purposefully radicalised people. He has since renounced his racist and extremist views, and now travels around the country giving talks, Q&A sessions and workshops to both the young and old in an attempt to bring an issue that too often remains only on our TV and on our radios, into the real world.
“We must keep these issues above the surface. If you shut down these conversations and you make them veto, it’s out of sight and creates ignorance and paranoia.”
He stands by and aims to prove that “Islam does not condone terrorism,” a concept that many young Britons confuse far too often.
“Terrorism has hijacked Islam.”
“The minds of terrorists are warped. They’re very vulnerable people who don’t have a good understanding of Islam.”
He also works to rehabilitate extremists and offers advice to young people that are thinking about travelling to the Middle East.
“It’s a long, difficult process. You must be thick-skinned.”
“Dealing with any type of racism or extremism, you have to understand their thinking. Listen to them, give them a chance to speak in a controlled space. You may find that there are some genuine problems.”
I found Shahid’s presentation extremely enlightening in that it gives something that we see only in the media and in casual gossip another dimension to it. Too many Britons, Americans, young and old people from all over the world, do not see these issues as something tangible and real until the person they hear about on the news in staring them in the face.
I mean. when you think about it, Shahid is absolutely right. If you stifle someone, they’re only going to resort to more and more extreme methods of getting your attention. At the end of the day, they’re just protesters with an opinion nobody wants to hear.
Perhaps we need to focus on the individual rather than the idea they stand for. Nobody is suggesting that we accept, adopt or even agree with their radical Islamic beliefs, but perhaps, if we allow them to speak, we can identify the true source of the problem, and we’re one step closer to fixing it.
As Shahid said, extremists and Muslim that travel to Syria are not mindless savages by nature. They are real people with real problems.
We might even be able to help them.