Ali, who is in charge of the Imams who serve Muslim prisoners in all British jails, spoke about the elements that lead to extremism: where the ideology comes from, why it resonates well with some people, the attitudes and opinions it generates and challenges in preventing it.
He said Islamic extremism was sometimes born in the hearts of Muslims who had been tortured by other Muslims for political reasons. Their tormentors would stop torturing them at prayer times and then return to their task. Victims felt that their tormentors, and their chiefs, could not be good Muslims while behaving like that. Victims came to see the whole political and social system as impure.
Most extremists had been exposed to extremist ideology through books, DVDs and the internet, Ali said. Some had been attracted by a charismatic leader giving them a sense of belonging, ‘like a surrogate Dad’. He dismissed the link sometimes made with Salafism and Wahhabism ‘because these movements are not violent at their core’.
According to Ali, most of the 70 or so Muslim terrorists in British jails are men and only two are women. Hardly any were scholars and most of them had a low self-esteem and a sense of victimization. There were ‘conspiracy theories galore,’ he said. Extremists were trapped in a medieval Islamic view about the land of Islam and the land of war: ‘What was conquered once can never be lost; it will always be the land of Islam.’
Ali listed the numerous challenges faced by extremists: internal challenges such as the rights of non-Muslims in Islamic states, and where Muslim loyalty lies first: in British citizenship and laws or in Islam? There was also the intolerance of impossible friendships with non-Muslims, and the vision of a world divided into two: Muslim countries and countries where ‘we’ are at war.
Ali went on to discuss the history of extremism. He pointed out that extremists views and groups could be found in many faiths and political movements. Among the examples he cited were: the Spanish Inquisition, dating back to 1480 onwards; Guy Fawkes; the Lord’s Resistance Army, a sectarian and military group based in northern Uganda; the massacres, involving Reverend Jim Jones and David Koresh in the US; the American Christian Doomsday cult; the Irish Republican Army (IRA); and the late Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, who was part of an underground Zionist group.
Ali concluded: ‘Injustice is galore and people get away with it which generates a lot of frustration. We need to channel the frustration into proper legal mechanisms, and tell them, “Do what you can but don’t break the boundaries”. But the problem is that young people want to see change straight away.’
Full edited highlights are available on YouTube:
Ali took questions from the audience, including how to stop a young person on the path to extremism.
The meeting was chaired by Don de Silva, Head of Programmes, Initiative of Change UK. De Silva pointed out that Initiatives of Change had over 60 years of experience in dealing with extremism from various religious and political hues. He said that IofC offered a dynamic alternative to change society, challenging people to be the change they want to see in others. He pointed out that IofC was not a political movement, but was focussed in putting positive movement into people to change injustices in society.
Ali commented: ‘The work you do in IofC is a hidden gem.’
Further Ahtsham Ali clips can be seen at:
Don de Silva's introduction is at: