AN EMMY-AWARD winning filmmaker who has made a new documentary on Islamist extremism, said the “divisive” rhetoric of the British government was damaging to Muslims.
Deeyah Khan made news when she won the 2012 Emmy Award for Banaz: A Love Story, a documentary based on honour-based violence.
In her new, self-funded ITV documentary, Jihad: A British Story, Khan explores why young people are signing up to violent extremism.
“It makes you wonder, what are they leaving?” she told Eastern Eye.
“What is it that makes that reality better to those men and women than the reality that they are in right now? “Nothing is black and white here, so we have to keep our minds and hearts open for all of them so we can be more effective in dealing with this.”
It wasn’t easy for Khan, 37, who is not only a producer but also a women’s rights activist, to talk to some of the founding fathers of jihadi movement in the UK who harbour sexist views against women.
In a major speech last month, prime minister David Cameron said moderate British Muslims should speak out against Islamist militants, and added it was wrong to deny any connection between their religion and acts of violence. Khan, however, believes that the reasons behind extremism are not “black and white”.
Politicians, she said, needed to be more careful about how they speak about Muslims.
“They need to stop ‘us’ and ‘them’. They need to change the way they speak because their rhetoric is divisive. “Their way of speaking about the population of their own country, their own people, is ‘us’ and ‘them’ and that’s the most damaging thing you can do. We need to create a language that stays as ‘us’,” she says.
Khan’s second film Jihad looks at the issues experienced by young men and women influenced by extremism.
“We try to understand this topic that is spoken about in very different ways and often misrepresented. I just wanted to understand it myself because, on a personal level, I wasn’t feeling particularly satisfied by the conversations being had around the issue.
“I made a conscious decision at the beginning of this film that I was going to be objective. I work for women’s rights a lot, that’s my passion. Some people within this movement… how they treat women sits very opposite to me.
“But this film has made me grow and made me challenge my own prejudices. Some of these men and what they represent make them my natural enemies. But I believe in compassion, in treating each individual as a human being and in not judging them.”
The film was part of the ITV series Exposure and saw Khan spend two years travelling across the UK and interviewing British citizens whose lives were affected by extremism.
One of these men was Abu Muntasir. He is now a reformed and moderate imam, who is still tormented by his violent past. Muntasir, who is seen crying in the film, fought in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Burma, and organised arms shipments for militants. He worked to radicalise thousands of young Muslims and encouraged many young men to fight abroad.
He told Khan: “I inspired and recruited. I trained, I raised funds, I sent people for training. I went and fought myself, and it wasn’t just for a one-off – [it was] 15 to 20 years.”
Khan learned that Muntasir created a movement of other young extremists, holding meetings and study circles across the UK. He preached an extreme form of anti-Western Islam, promoting jihad and the idea of martyrdom.
The trigger for Muntasir to turn away from extremism happened while he fighting in Burma. He broke down in tears as he told Khan the story. Muntasir met two brothers aged just 13 in the jungle, and said he “suddenly” visualised his son and daughter in the same position.
“It’s not the suffering of being in the jungle and living in the dirt and eating poor food,” he told her. “It’s the idea and the picture of them, my son and daughter carrying guns to be maimed or blown up at the behest of leaders and commanders who fight for a false ideal and an unwinnable war.”
One of the young men whom Muntasir inspired, Munir Zamir, said he was drawn to extremism by a sense of alienation from British society. But he also admitted that physical disabilities to his hand, arm and leg may have played a part in it.
Zamir said: “For me, coming to terms with my physical state has been the greatest realisation that I have known. To be able to accept that I don’t need to be ashamed of how I look and don’t need society to tell me that I don’t need to be ashamed.
“My greatest jihad back then was coming to terms with me.”
Khan says she was particularly interested to understand the appeal of extremism to women. In the film she met Yasmin Mulbocus, who joined an extremist group in the UK when she was younger, after suffering sexual abuse. When she reported it to the police, the case was dropped for a lack of evidence. She wanted sharia law to be implemented so the perpetrator would be executed.
“One woman said she was drawn into an extremist group in the UK as an abuse survivor looking for a sense of justice,” says Khan.
“She described the isolationist mindset that develops within these groups. It was just like ‘everyone was disgusting, everything was dirty’.”
Mulbocus explained to Khan that she only realised she needed to leave a life of extremism behind her when a teacher called her into her daughter’s school and said: “Well, your child came up and said that it’s okay for us to kill non-Muslims.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, what is happening here?’”
Towards the end of the programme, Khans asked Muntasir if he should be forgiven.
He told her: “If I’ve done those things which have terribly upset people or hurt people, I should be forgiven. I should forgive others as well.
“I cannot hate, hate is not what Muhammad taught. I have been forgiven, I will forgive, that’s the least I can do. You have the right to punish me if you think that’s fair. I will take all that.”
Muntasir’s former follower Alyas Karmani, who had also turned his back on extremism, told Khan that he does forgive him.
“Of course I forgive him… You’ve got to realise we were all, even Abu Muntasir, we were all young. And we were foolish. And we didn’t have the whole picture. That was it,” he said.
- How Deeyah Khan found her voice as an activist -
DEEYAH KHAN, who was born in Norway, divides her time between Oslo and London.
She was a singer and performer of traditional south Asian classical and folk music in her early years, before becoming a pop star and eventually turning her talents to composing and producing world music.
Khan was lauded as an example of multicultural Norway, but her success led to confrontations with more orthodox Muslims, whose threats eventually made it too dangerous for her to continue living in her native country.
Khan fled to London at the age of 18, but after she achieved some success in the UK with Warner Brothers, the death threats resumed. She then moved to the United States and said it was her “darkest time”.
“In Atlanta, mentally and emotionally exhausted, I took two years to recover,” she said.
“These were years spent blankly pointing my eyes at the TV, welded to a shabby sofa, or lifelessly watching the wind lift the leaves of the trees through my window.” It was then Khan said she found her “voice”.
“What eventually shook my torpor were the emails I received from fans – voices not raised in anger and rage that sought my silence, but softer voices who sought my help.
Fans, mostly young south Asians who were having personal difficulties within their families, reached out to me for support,” she said.
“Like my mother I helped as much as I could. Emerging from a tunnel of anger and self-doubt, I found inside an activist as well as an artist.”
Khan decided, through her production company Fuuse, to make Banaz: A Love Story. The documentary chronicles the life and death of Banaz Mahmod, a young British-Kurdish woman killed in 2006 in London on the orders of her family in a so-called honour killing.
“As I was making Jihad (see main story), Banaz starting getting all these awards. I was so immersed in that project, it was disorienting having to talk about Banaz. It was amazing and completely unexpected. It was an obsessive love project. I really wanted to get that story across to everyone and raise awareness around that issue.”