Government policies, isolation, misogyny, racism, despair and denial. Jihadism is fuelled by a poisonous cocktail that has been prepared for decades.
That’s the conclusion of Norwegian filmmaker and activist Deeyah Khan.
Drawing from her own experiences, as well as in depth reporting alongside those drawn to extremist causes, in Jihad: A story of the others she sets out a deep and compelling portrait of a “monster” that is threatening the world we live in.
Speaking to euronews’ Nelson Pereira, she said the hypocrisy of governments who had supported Jihadist groups when they were useful allies against communists or unwelcome powers undermined their ability to tackle the issue.
“The monster has grown,” she observes, “It has been fed, it has been armed. For very many years it was destroying only Muslims. For a very long time, these men and men like these were destroying other Muslims and Muslim societies, eating it from the inside, and nobody cared.”
She singled out two countries as particularly important in the formation of Jihadist sentiment – the UK, which serves as a centre for dissemination of radical teaching in Europe – and Saudi Arabia, where many extremist doctrines were born.
“One of main sources of this cancer is Saudi Arabia, it has spread this poison in all of our countries and all of our communities and Western leaders are ready to give it a medal for countering extremism,” she notes.
She explores how young people in Western societies can feel marginalised through a lack of role models, pure racism and exclusion from opportunities.
“The other thing also that is a fundamentally underlying issue in this entire radicalising thing is access to power. Most men or women of immigrant backgrounds do not have access to power, and cannot participate in power.”
The media plays its part, said Khan, by focusing on the terrorists and killers and ignoring those who oppose them.
She has launched her own magazine Sister-hood to address this and another key issue – the lack of voices for women in the discussion about Jihad.
Resisting often in silence, and suffering enormously, women are nevertheless excluded from the debate, Khan argues.
Read the full interview
Nelson Pereira, euronews – You say your interest was to understand why Western born Muslims are drawn by jihad. Why were so many of your sources in the UK?
Deeyah Khan – Just because the UK is one of the starting points of the movement in Europe. We have groups in Denmark, Netherlands, France, Germany, a lot of activity there, but everything in terms of the movement actually started in the UK and from there it went like this. When I started looking, I was actually going to do all of Europe, but then I ended up finding some of the core characters and I focused there.
euronews – Did the UK have the conditions for this that other countries did not have?
Khan – I think they have larger communities than most other places and I think also in terms of the messages being supported, they were growing much faster in the UK. So a lot of the preachers were coming from other countries also, they were coming to the UK and a lot of people from Europe would come and listen to them there. So like the man that I focused on, when he used to do his tours across the UK, there were Muslims from Germany, France, from the US, Denmark, everyone would come and they would listen and take that back to their own countries. They were just more active.
Euronews – Western governments reacted to ISIS as if it were something completely new, unknown. What do you think about this?
Khan – It’s nothing new. That was one of the reasons I wanted to make the film, also to explain that this is not something that fell out of the sky just yesterday. This is a movement; it’s been growing for the last 30 to 40 years. And it’s been growing sometimes with the knowledge of Western governments and other times because of their neglect or even indirect support. What has Saudi Arabia done to most Islamic societies?
And not just in Muslim countries, but also what they exported to Muslim communities around the world. And that´s our biggest ally, that’s the biggest ally of the West. Also the story of these men that I covered – what’s very interesting is that jihad was on the side of Western governments during that time. It was important for Western governments to build an Islamic “ring” in front of the communists.
So, the monster has grown, it has been fed, it has been armed. For very many years it was destroying only Muslims. For a very long time, these men and men like these were destroying other Muslims and Muslim societies, eating it from the inside, and nobody cared. Now they have turned their focus to the West and now everybody is waking up. People like Thatcher were saying “Jihad is a good thing”. When it was on the side of the West it was a good thing, but that monster is now big and on its terms.
We are still arming different groups and we don’t know which side they are. We have to start learning the lessons.
And the thing is we cannot, in one breath, speak about human rights and about the dignity of people and about Western values, and on the other hand support dictators, support oppressors, support abusers who are destroying all of that. Part of what has let this movement grow as much as it has, especially in the West, was the hypocrisy that these young people were seeing. They see that our governments say one thing but their actions are something else.
Euronews – Do you think young Western Muslims choose jihadism as a way to reject that hypocrisy?
Khan – Young people are not stupid, they are not idiots. The problem is… what hurts my heart so much is that a lot of the anger that young people have and a lot of the feelings that they have are perfectly understandable. It’s not that their questions are illegitimate – the problem is that to deal with these questions they are choosing violence. I pick up a camera. The means that they are using are illegitimate.
Euronews – Do you think they are mirroring that hypocrisy?
Khan – They are becoming another monster. The problem with that movement is that in one hand they are saying: ,We stand for the suffering Muslim, we stand against the oppression of any dictator,, but they are another oppressor themselves, so it’s not a viable alternative. The only viable alternative is the secular alternative; it has to be a human rights approach, human rights-centric, peace-centric alternative.
The jihadis are doing exactly the same thing, they are perfectly fine in saying in one breath: ‘We are fighting against injustice and oppression’ yet they are – just as much, if not worse oppressors than anybody else. So what we need our young people to understand is that this is not the movement for you to join. If you want to change the world, this is not how to do it.
These guys are doing monstrous things to everyone. They don’t care if you are Muslim, white or brown, black, American, they don’t care, they are destroying everything in their way. And they’ve been doing it since three to four decades.
Euronews – How much does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict influence the decision of these young people to join the jihad?
Khan – I think it is an attractive story for a lot of young people. It boosters the feelings of a lot of young people. When I speak to young people and they say: ‘Oh, Palestine! Oh, the occupation!’
I say: ‘Yes, I agree, but what are you doing? You are going and killing somebody in Syria, you are killing yourself.‘
I’ve spoken to Palestinians myself and I said to them: ‘Do you know Western Muslims are willing to die – in fact they are dying – in your name?’
And they get so angry. They say: ‘Don’t go and spill more blood in our name, come bring books, come build something, instead.’
It’s a part of the propaganda used on the jihadi side. Of course it’s a real issue, but the reason I’m calling it propaganda is because all these young men are speaking about Palestine but they are doing nothing about it, they are just using it to justify their own violence.
And I don’t accept that. I don’t accept they are doing it for the suffering of the Palestinians. They are doing it for the sake of their own policies.
Euronews – Western powers were supporting Israel during all those years…
Khan – And all that fits into what all these men think and get angry about. It is definitely part of the picture.
The thing is the double standards and the hypocrisy of our governments and the West when it comes to dealing with Israel and the entire regional context. And dynamics has been a destructive in all that, in Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Libya, everywhere.
We have to challenge two sides. We have to challenge jihadists and their movement and we have to challenge also our own leaders, because both are wrong, both are feeding each other, both are playing a game between themselves and us the people in between are losing our lives, our children are losing their lives. I don’t accept that, I’m unwilling to participate in their dance with each other. They need to dance together and leave us alone. The immediate reaction of our leaders is: ‘Let’s go drop some bombs.’
Euronews – …Or cutting our liberties.
Khan – Cutting our liberties, selling more arms. I know a female Syrian activist who does a lot of work in the front lines working with young people and one of the things she says is that ‘The West is helping us kill each other, instead of helping us build and talk together.“
Euronews – There are voices saying that politics has become meaningless and that the only way out is the intervention of the civil society, because our leaders will do nothing if not under pressure. Do you agree?
Khan – I believe the same thing, I believe it’s down to the people. I want to think that our leaders around the world can do the right thing, that they will be responsible with the power and the leadership that they have, but so far they are not showing that, so what option do we have?
I think the only option we have is we as the people have the power to decide how we want to live with each other and how we want to treat each other and make whatever small changes that we can, but every single small change that we make with each other actually is what matters.
Euronews – How much do you think the experience of rejection and camouflaged racism in Western societies, especially in northern societies, has pushed those men to jihadism?
Khan – I spent two years on this and I had my own experiences in my own life as well.
Specifically looking to this issue so close, what I found during those two years is that there’s not one reason someone becomes radicalised. It’s very complicated, there are many reasons, and there are many combinations of reasons, for different people.
My focus was Western Muslims. When somebody from Pakistan goes down that road, he has many different reasons, but what I found in the West is that it is everything from experiencing racism, lack of opportunities – a lot of people say ‘Many of these men are educated,’ but because they are educated it doesn’t mean they are feeling like human beings – feeling outside, feeling that they are not enough and they will never be enough – both in the Western society but actually also in their own homes, with their own parents, and their own families, and their own communities.
Euronews – Their own communities? Have you experienced it?
Khan – They set such high expectations for many of our young people. Our kids never meet them, our kids are never able to reach and be good enough. Then I think it’s that, I think it’s identity, confusion and crisis of identity – and I can relate, I’ve grown up between cultures myself, so I understand – and then I think it’s their basic human needs of looking for meaning in life, and looking for adventure, looking for friendship, looking for a purpose… and also looking for being the hero, because for very many, especially for young men, also for women, but for many of our young men, in England and everywhere, many of them don’t have dreams anymore.
Maybe they had when they were little, but their dreams are broken, their dreams don’t include a future that they wish for themselves. So they are very disappointed. Then imagine them – many like the guy I featured in the film, and many other men like him – they come along to these boys and say:‘You can be a hero, you can be a knight, you can be a fighter, come with us and you can do something.’
And for many, many of our young people it is very attractive. Many of them don´t go because they think they’re going to cut people’s heads off, but many are going because they think they are the hero of the story, not the villain.
In the West they are the villain, they’ve always been the villain – then it’s very difficult, even for a child: when I was growing up as a child in Norway, looking around in the society I was in, I could never see reflections of myself in the country that I lived in. Never. The only time I would see reflections of people or myself who looked like me, was – then it didn’t use to be terrorism, but it was gangs, rapists, murderers, violent men.
That was the only reflection I would ever see of this colour. As a child, it does something to you, it says something to you. It doesn’t matter if our politicians say ‘Integration’, ‘Multiculturalism’, ‘Why don’t you belong?’, ‘You should belong.’ – all the messages I’m given tell me I’m not part of this. You try to forget it and then you’re told to take the queue with the dark skinned.
Euronews – But life is hard for all of us, no?
Khan – Life is hard for you and for me, now imagine for a 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 year old, to cope with every single thing that is happening now. My brother, in Norway, and many of the young people I’ve spoken to, they say the same thing: any time something bad would happen in the media, they ask that dark child ‘Is that true, do your people do this, you know, Bin Laden, terrorism – you do this?’
And I remember my brother saying: ‘I don’t even know how to tie my shoes. I don’t know the answers to this questions.’
But it is as if you have to carry with you all the garbage the people who look like you do, somehow you have to carry some responsibility. They are just kids. And we’re asking for them to be able to cope with a lot, and to still hold on to themselves.
The other thing also that is a fundamentally underlying issue in this entire radicalising thing is access to power. Most men or women of immigrant backgrounds do not have access to power, and cannot participate in power. But look at what they are doing right now: today they´re powerful because they are the most wild.
And what are we doing, what is the media and everybody doing? We are giving them endless attention, we are proving to them that violence works, non-violent resistance does not work, participating in activism or traditional political engagement doesn’t work: ‘Do violence, vicious violence, the worst and the more attention we will give you.’
In fact, the most powerful men in the planet will suddenly look at you. You used to be invisible, nobody cared, you were nobody, you were nothing, and today Obama has to worry about you and Cameron is speaking about you. That must feel very powerful. For some men who will never be respected, they can at least find fear. We don’t respect them, but we fear them, and that’s a similar feeling. At least we see them.
Euronews – You speak about experiences of frustration that are common to Western youth of non-Muslim backgrounds.
Khan – Absolutely. They don’t recognise it as their movement, but it is like a counter-cultural underground bizarre youth movement, in its own way, and it does tick a lot of the same boxes. When I was looking into cults, I ticked a lot of the same boxes, also same as those of criminal gangs.
Euronews – It’s about belonging.
Khan – It is – belonging, protection, and also a question of masculinity – for many of our young men, it’s about how you assert yourself, how you become powerful.
It’s very hard for people to understand how deeply painful, how deeply the experience of injustice, of being rejected and humiliated affects men and women when you are a young person.
When I was 12 years old, in Norway, a grown man spit in my face and called me a black bitch and told me “go back”. I was 12 and when I was growing up in Norway I used to go to this kind of anarchist protests against neo-Nazis, because they were and they are still prominent there. These tensions are there and they’ve been there since we’ve all been growing up, and now, since 9/11 you are the enemy number one. You come from a Muslim background, you are the enemy number one, you have to give things at the airport, you are constantly reminded that you are ‘Not like us.‘
Euronews – Did you want to say something to the youth with this documentary?
Khan – It is my resistance, in a way. I don’t know what to do in Syria; I don’t know what to do about Saudi Arabia, about Pakistan, about Afghanistan. What I do know is that when it comes to our young people in the West, I don’t think we can stop all of them from going, but I think we can reduce substantially the number of young people who find themselves drawn to it.
And I think that job comes down to all of us, which is to start thinking about what kind of society we are, what kind of community we are. How do I treat my neighbour, the kid on the street, and the kid on the bus? How do I look at someone else? This we can do something about. And we can damage this beast of a movement through just that, through just personal and human shifts in our behaviour.
Euronews - Does it mean you don’t believe politicians will make the good decisions without being forced by civil society?
Khan – We also have to take this story out of jihadis’ mouth when they are speaking about these issues. We have to become much more loud and say we are against Saudi, and this oppressor and that oppressor, but the way we choose to engage with it is non-violence. Anything but violence. Do it through art, do it through politics, do it through activism, do it through resistance in the streets, sit down and block wherever door we have to, but that’s the way, not killing yourself and killing other people. This is the thing.
We are now stuck between two violent sides, two forms of violence – the militaries of our countries and the countries that they support and then this twisted group, this movement. So we have to crush through and say that there is another way, so young people know that because they don’t know that.
Euronews – What do you think about the way Western media is handling this situation?
Khan – I think it’s playing the damage in a row. Our media has become so shock-driven, so good at selling fear, excitement and violence and brutality that it often forgets the human beings at the center of it. I think what our media and our politicians have done unfortunately, is casting our society for these brown and black kids, ‘You are either the victim or you are the villain, the perpetrator.’
You are never the hero of the story, never in any of the journalism that we see, never in any of the films that we see. In all the Hollywood movies that we see, it is always about US soldiers – and maybe they meet a couple of nice Iraqis but we never get to see it from the eyes of the other side, from the humanity of the other side. You never get to see it. And I’m not saying: ‘Let’s look for the humanity of violent men on the other side,’ that’s not necessarily what I’m saying, but our media is constantly validating bad behaviour and violence.
We all know Bin Laden’s name, we all know ISIS, we all know al-Baghdadi, we know all these garbage men, we know all their names. But the truth is that there is somebody on the other side, there are many people on the other side of Bin Laden and we cannot mention one of their names. That’s our failure. They exist but we don’t know them. I get so angry when I go to the US and they say to me ‘Oh, where is the resistance, there’s no resistance. Where are the Muslims?’
They are busy dying! They’re busy being killed and they’re busy being arrested and lashed in prison. They are fighting, and dying, and still getting up – every day, pushing back against this beast. Because again, this beast didn’t appear yesterday, they’ve been fighting it for the last three or four decades. You just refuse to tell their story.
In Oslo last year I put together a large gathering of women, from the Muslim world, from all different countries. And they are all basically resistant, fighters, in their own different ways.
And I contacted every single media outlet, pushed everyone. And almost nobody came, almost nobody wrote about it. I walked past every newspaper, during those two days, and there was just beard guys on the front cover – terrorist, ISIS… How can we ever win when you only tell their story and you never tell the story of the heroes? I brought them all here. They exist. And you refuse to put one light on them. And then you complain. The truth is they are there.
Euronews – Some of these Muslim societies are under the rule of oppressive regimes Western powers are supporting.
Khan – Regimes that we are putting there, that we are giving arms to, so that they can kill you if you say something wrong. Atheists are being butchered now all across the Islamic world.
Atheism is rising in Islamic world (and that´s the next film I’m doing). There are so many different groups in Muslim societies who are pushing back the dictator and the Islamist. And we are not on their side. Shame on us! That’s the side we need to stand on, those are the people who are not standing for British values, but they are fighting for human values. They are fighting for their life and we think about which armed group we should support. And then tomorrow this will be the next enemy, and we’ll support another militant group and next week that will be the next enemy.
Euronews – How should the civil society act?
Khan – Be aware and at least consciously make the decisions that we are making. We might make the same decisions, but at least we should know the cost of those decisions. And we don’t mention it, but there’s the colonial past, so much baggage.
Euronews – Does Islam have a problem with women?
Khan – Oh, yes. Most religions do. All the religions are very unfriendly to women; obviously I’m more affected by Islam. I think it’s also why we are seeing this groups using women in the way that they are, as well. Most of these battles on all sides are often fought on the bodies of women. You have Daesh or the Taliban or Al-Qaeda or Mickey Mouse, tomorrow, protecting women, and using women as fighters, whatever the disgusting games they play are. But it’s interesting to me how women are actually at the centre of a lot of the behaviours and the symbolism and the propaganda of many of these conflicts.
Euronews – Why?
Khan – I think religion is inherently misogynistic.
Euronews – Perhaps men are afraid of women?
Khan – That too, and I think the jihadi movement is very afraid of women. The first things that they shut down immediately were artists, intellectuals and women. I think they want to destroy anything that makes it possible for all of us to be fully human and I think part of that is not to lose control. Nobody wants to lose control. And the only way to control is to control women, control the reproduction and the continuation of your clan, your tribe, your army. ISIS are asking women to participate in jihad by making babies. It’s disgusting. Which is why I believe that one of most significant parts of the resistance against a movement like this are actually women.
Euronews – When you meet people in the Islamic world, how do women look at this?
Khan – I work with a lot of activist women in the whole region and in the diaspora communities and what the women in the region are saying is that they are among the only people who are keeping some sense of normal life – so they are continuing, as much as they can, to keep the schools open, make sure that kids lives remain normal, even where the bombs are dropping. I think part of the role women are playing is actually keeping the society together and keeping life going.
The other thing is I think a lot of them are actually working on real resistance work where they are helping and supporting people, dissidents, boys who are leaving some of these groups, rescuing the girls captured by ISIS, the Taliban and all these mad men. They all say to me that they want to sit at the tables of decision-making and that they are never consulted – not just by the Muslim men, even here.
When you see leaders meetings in Geneva, they can speak about women but you don’t see a woman there. Many of the women I was talking to are highly qualified, highly brilliant and capable of sitting at those tables. But they’re never consulted. First of all, they are the first people to get crushed when movements like these come, so listening to them as a warning signal is very important. Also they are able to find ways through, they are able to de-radicalise and shift young people’s attention from violence – we know women who have disarmed various groups and various men.
So the fact that they are not deploying women – not as extensions of Western armies and Western interests, but as real civil society resistance, it is a big mistake for the West. I think it’s a big mistake to remove women from the equation and only leave them as victims, because they are not behaving as victims, they are pushing back. So the view of the women is: we have to get a seat at the table in the West. Secondly, we have to be a part of telling the full story. Thirdly, we have to be supported, because if somebody is going to build something, it’s going to be us – the others are busy destroying, and we run and say ‘No, no, don’t bomb this, don’t bomb that.’
Euronews – Do women commit themselves in different ways than men?
Khan – Women are working with some sense of compassion – even for the violent guy, because we want him to turn the other way. This may sound weird: I find more hope, more resistance and more strength in all the women that I’ve met and all the women that I’ve spoken to than the men that I’ve spoken to. They are ready to fight back. And they will not give up.
Euronews – Would women get better results?
Khan – Part of the reason why this is going so wrong is also the inequality between men and women. In the leadership of our countries, of our communities and societies, all the women are actually an active part of it but hey are not recognized, and they’re never legitimized in real positions of power – by both sides, and that’s a mistake, because that balance is what’s going to help.
People say women are very emotional, but what I’ve seen is actually the men are behaving very emotionally, that’s why we are seeing so much violence. Women are able to contain their humiliation and their feelings to an extent and still go on: we are going to rebuild this, it’s OK. That’s the other side of the leadership we need.
They have resistance and resilience. That’s what we need right now in our regions, in our communities. In the UK David Cameron has recently been saying: ‘We need to include women in the resistance against terrorism,’ I thought ‘Oh, he’s gonna say something good,’ and then he says ‘…because they are the mothers of terrorists or possible terrorists.’
So he just wants them to be informants, he wants them to spy on their own children. That’s not the right use of women. You see it everywhere and everybody is asking: ‘Why isn’t this working?’
It’s not working because we are not putting all the talent, all the abilities we have on our side. Our solution is ‘Let’s throw some bombs.’
Euronews – You don’t see a fundamental difference in the way the West is responding?
Khan – The difference is how they speak. The Western governments are speaking in a nice way, but their actions are not nice. Jihadists are speaking bad and doing bad – in a way, they’re more honest. It’s disgusting, but they’re not pretending.
Our leaders are pretending. One of main sources of this cancer is Saudi Arabia, it has spread this poison in all of our countries and all of our communities and Western leaders are ready to give it a medal for countering extremism.
Euronews – Was it difficult to win the confidence of the jihadits?
Khan – When I started approaching these guys, some of them answered: ‘We’ve been looking for information about you and you are feminist, you are against us, so we don’t want to talk to you.’
And I said: ‘Because I am all those things, it’s one of the reasons I actually want to come and listen to you. And I am putting my own baggage and opinions to one side and I’m sincerely here to listen.’
The reason for that is that I feel desperate about trying to find some of the reasons so that we can prevent more of our young people fall into this. That’s why I want to understand. It took a long time to actually convince some of them to agree to speak. I thought it would be a bad thing that I am a woman. I thought this is just going to continue, it is going to be reserved, but what ended being a good thing is the fact that I’m a woman – I think they spoke to me differently.
In one way I think they felt more comfortable because I’m not a man and they don’t have to keep up the same ego in front of me. Secondly, I think for some of them the truth was because I’m a woman they completely underestimated me and they were more comfortable as well.
Euronews – Your film doesn’t let us to forget that there’s a woman there. The way those men behave, the moment when the jihadist preacher cried, it’s obvious he was speaking with a woman, he would not have opened himself in front of a man, he would not have been able recognise so openly his failure.
Khan – Nobody said that before, but I felt that. I didn’t expect they would open as up as they did. At the end of the film, I’m sitting with all this material and I remember just thinking: ‘It’s very important how I hold this now. They just told me all this, so now I have to tell it correctly and be very respectful of all the feelings that are in my hands.’ I have to say I didn’t expect them to give so much.
Euronews – What did they say to you after, when they saw the film?
Khan – They liked it. They were a little uncomfortable but I think they liked it. I asked them: ‘Are you sure? It’s going to go to different places.’
And they said ‘It’s OK.’
In a strange way, for the main guy, I think it’s true – that was definitely a moment of catharsis. As if he needed to do this. I think he was waiting for a long time and later he felt better he had done it, something had been released. I don’t think he has forgiven himself, but somehow it has come off.
Euronews – How did you feel when he opened like that?
Khan – I’ve been afraid of men like that all my life and I disliked men like that all my life. And I said this to them too. The last film that I made – “Banaz: A Love Story” – was about a young woman from a Kurdish background that was killed by her own family in London, what is called ‘honour killing’.That film was very hard, because it was very violent. But in another way it was very easy, because I know exactly what I feel about her, I know exactly what I feel about the topic and everything. So, in one way I didn’t change, by making that film.
Before this film – “Jihad: A Story of the Others” – I had many prejudices. By making it something has changed in me, which I really appreciate. It forced me also to have to stretch and be more human. I’m thankful for having had the opportunity to grow also myself. I changed because it and the biggest change is that I feel more hopeful now, because change is possible. I didn’t know men like these could change life drastically, they are not aliens, this is a possibility.