What Makes a Young Person Embrace Death and Murder? Former Jihadists Speak Out
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I. The Imam
My journey began when, sitting in one of the grotty greasy spoon cafés that fill the East End, I heard a young woman in hijab mention that the imam of one of the local mosques was a jihadi who had fought in Afghanistan, but is now facing death threats from the very men he once fought alongside. His "crime"? To renounce his past and call for "a secular Islam."
After a series of phone calls, Usama Hassan cautiously agrees to talk. I meet him outside his little mosque in Leyton. It sits in the middle of a run-down sprawl of pound stores ("Everything only £1!!!"), halal kebab shops, and boarded-up windows at the edge of the East End.
Usama is a big, broad bear of a man in a black blazer and wire-rimmed glasses. He greets me with a hefty handshake; he has a rolled-up newspaper under his arm. He takes me upstairs to a pale-green prayer room. This building was once a factory, then a cinema; now, with Saudi money, it is a Wahabi mosque. Men are kneeling silently towards Mecca, rising and bending in reverential waves. "On Fridays, there are Islamists who stand outside and warn worshippers that their prayers won't count if they are led by me," he says as we squat in the corner, "because I'm supposedly an apostate. A fake imam." He looks away. "I get phone calls late at night. Threats. It's painful. You see, I was like them once."
And so Usama begins to tell me his story. He arrived in Tottenham in North London in the mid- 1970s, when he was five years old. His Pakistani father was sent here by the Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs, which aims to spread its puritan desert strain of Islam to every nation. His family led a locked-down life, trying to adhere to Saudi principles in a semi-detached house in the English suburbs. "We weren't allowed music or TV or any contact with the opposite sex," he says. "We were very sheltered. I didn't go out a great deal." By the age of 10, he had memorised every word of the Koran in its original Arabic.
He had a strong sense of the Britain beyond his walls – the Britain where I was growing up – as a hostile, violent place. "You have to understand – it was the time of the Tottenham riots. It felt violent in the streets," he says. "I got used to expecting white people to use the Paki word. We used to have a fear of skinheads the whole time."
But Usama was offered a scholarship to the heart of the English elite – the City of London Boys' School, where he could practice cricket at Lord's. He bonded with the Jews at the school as outsiders and supporters of Tottenham Hotspur football team. He still speaks like the public schoolboy he was – in long, confident sentences.
Some berobed men are staring at us, so he takes me down to the mosque's office. "At that time, being a Muslim meant being an Islamist. It was taken for granted," he says. So when he was 13, he joined an Islamic fundamentalist organisation called Jimas. At big sociable conferences every weekend, they were told: you don't feel at home in Britain, but you can't go "home" to a country you have never visited. So we have a third identity for you – a pan-national Islamism that knows no boundaries and can envelop you entirely.
It sounds familiar. This is the identity I hear shouted by young Islamists throughout the East End: I might sound like you, but I am nothing like you. I am Other. I belong elsewhere – in a place that does not yet exist, but that I will create, with my fists and my fury.