Quilliam International’s Head of Islamic Studies, Dr Usama Hasan, gave an insightful talk entitled ‘A Journey: In and Out of Extremism’ in London, Monday 15th January. 

The talk was kick-started in an interactive way, as Usama engaged with the audience, asking them what in particular they aimed to get out of his talk. What was it about extremism that particularly interested them, and what are the important pressing questions. 

Most of the audience’s questions were answered as Usama told his own story of going into, and coming out of, extremism. A presentation of the multi-faceted and complex issue of extremism was broken down in an incredibly accessible way. The causes of his personal radicalisation and the suggested ways out were broken down into internal and external factors. 

The internal factors that can often contribute to extremist ideology were presented when Usama described growing up in North London from the age of 5, within an incredibly devout Muslim family, whose values and ideals differed in many ways to the average family in 20th century Britain. Aspects he highlighted included the demonization of music and television, interactions with the opposite sex, and consumption of alcohol. These were attributes that were considered immoral, decedent, corrupted, and an embodiment of the West. The cultural contributors to otherisation, and the idea of ‘us vs them’, are concepts that Usama suggested extremists utilise.  

These ideas have traction with those who may fall between identities, and are vulnerable to questioning – who should you identify with? Usama referenced a professor of physiology on BBC, who suggests people identify most with those who look and sound similar to them. Humans are inherently tribal, and will always, therefore, pick sides. Usama explained how he grew up looking at a map in his house, which was coloured according to Muslim populations of each country, and it became natural to look at the world according to one criterion – Muslim and non-Muslim.   

The audience then learnt of the external factors that can influence radicalisation and this tribalism, and Usama referenced three particular and personal incidents of racism that affected him in his early years, altering his sense of identity and belonging. This fear of racial hatred and violence can amplify the situation, and fuel the believing of anti-west sentiments.  

The understanding of the multi-level issue of extremism was developed with examples of further external influencers on Usama’s journey. From colonialism and ‘enslavement’ resulting in national determination, inferiority complexes or reactive anti-Western sentiments, to 1979 – the Iran revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by extremists, and the Iran-Iraq war the next year, saw fractures both within the Umma, and between the Muslim world and the West. The geopolitics developing over the 70s and 80s began the shaping of current ideas of the West in relation to the Muslim world. Here, the inherent tribalism of humankind caused people to pick sides, again heightened in 1982 with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This tribalism has positive impacts as it can cause unification and solidarity, but the negative impacts can be dangerous, resulting in hatred of the other.   

Usama alluded to the importance of the war in Afghanistan, where he participated in what he still considers as legitimate jihad. This is where, he said, the jihad business began – where British men started to get involved in jihad abroad. After this war was won, there was a culture of heightened determination in the Muslim world, so fighters went on to Bosnia to defend Muslim ethnic cleansing, and then came Al Qaeda.  

So, the pressing question in the room is how do you undo a history of conflict, binary values, victimhood, tribal identity, and fear? Usama proscribed ways of solving this internal extremism, through ideology. Firstly, to break the otherisation, which can be done through deconstructing the idea of the caliphate and binary identities of Muslim and non-Muslim. It is then helpful to develop a pluralist interpretation of Sharia law, and finally, the idea of jihad. An audience member asked of the meaning of jihad in Islamic doctrine – how can we discourage military jihad, if it is part of Muslim ideology? Usama explained the importance of understanding jihad in Islamic theology – translated to mean ‘struggle’, which can be spiritual jihad to be a better person, or the struggle in pursuit of goodness and fight against badness. The interpretations, which have been hijacked by extremists, must be redefined. 

An audience member then questioned whether solving problems of extremism, therefore, have to come from within the Islamic community. Usama suggested that, of course, everyone in society has a role to play. However, the theological and ideological issues have to be confronted by Muslims – it seems strange for outsiders to comment on Islamic philosophy, and it was, for him, the seeds of doubt sowed by his own community that helped him come out. When, after 9/11, a Muslim website satirised the terrorists by stating ‘you’re supposed to talk to people, not kill them’, he was reminded of the basic teachings of the Prophet, becoming filled with the realisation of his disillusionment, and sadness at the sight of such an unjust event. It is these seeds of doubt that Usama sows in the minds of young people falling into extremism, which has by all accounts been successful in disengaging them – as a believer and Imam himself, he harnesses a certain degree of respect, providing compassion and understanding.  

Countering the external contributors to radicalisation could be achieved by the suggestions of a professor at Bristol, who references four modes of integration, in order of preference: assimilation (newcomers relinquish parts of their identity), individual assimilation (original identity is kept within your own home), cosmopolitanism (dominant culture and minority cultures navigate public spheres), and multiculturalism (no dominant culture). Usama was positive and hopeful for the future of integration, referencing how, as an Imam, 95% of the weddings he presides over are interfaith. He also referenced his own feelings after the 7/7 attacks. His identity as a Londoner and British citizen encouraged an anger and sense of injustice at the attacks, and solidarity with his home city. 

Dr Usama Hasan’s talk successfully addressed the audiences key concerns and queries into the world of extremism and radicalisation. The dialogue between audience and speaker was dynamic and helped to raise and answer common questions about a deeply complex phenomenon, through a unique opportunity to analyse a very personal journey. It was an important reminder that extremism does not always equate to terrorism, and can be intensely complex, with roots in history, politics and surrounding societies – not merely the pure fault of a religion, or characteristics of hateful people. The responsibility of tackling this problem must come from all sides. He is positive about the future, alluding to the current situation to be in the midst of a ‘revolution’ in Islamic ideology, advancing pluralism, and disintegrating binaries.


By Ella Kiley, Volunteer, Quilliam International