Reformed jihadi says debate is key to building cultural cohesion in town
- Credit: Su Anderson
As part of our series on multiculturalism in Ipswich, we spoke to a reformed jihadi who has worked to support harmonious intercultural relations in Ipswich.
A reformed jihadi who renounced holy war to preach peace and tolerance said the “explosion” of cultural change in Ipswich had placed a responsibility on newcomers to adjust.
Muhammad Manwar Ali, chief executive of Ipswich charity JIMAS, said the pace of change in the town had become “too quick”, making it difficult for diverse populations to adapt to one another.
Mr Ali, who has dedicated much of his life to supporting cultural integration, said it was important for newer arrivals to listen to the concerns about immigration held by some of the town’s ‘native’ populations.
“What needs to happen is a lot of mixing and mingling,” he said.
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“Debate can be heated, if need be, but the important thing is to talk about it.
“If someone doesn’t like too many immigrants, well OK, we can look at that, if they don’t want another mosque, let’s talk about it.
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“There’s got to be adjustments and some give and take on both sides.
“But I do think people that have come from the outside, like myself, have more of a responsibility to fit in than those from the host country having to adjust to everyone else’s idiosyncrasies.
“And that’s where I think we’re failing in Ipswich. Because people need time to adjust, but by the time they’ve adjusted to one group of people, there’s been another arriving.
“The pace has become too quick - it’s an explosion.”
Mr Ali’s message of tolerance and debate is a far cry from his views as a younger man, when he says he was politicised by the Muslim Brotherhood at Kingston Polytechnic and became involved in jihad.
“The Muslim Brotherhood gave me the direction about how we, as Muslims, can regain, strength, supremacy and glory,” Mr Ali said.
“At the time, in the 80s, it was the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and it just snowballed from there.”
While his combat role was brief, Mr Ali said he spent several years recruiting, motivating and teaching jihadists.
“The most poignant moments were when I saw people die in front of me, some of whom I knew very well,” he said.
“Some of my students went abroad to fight and died in places like Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines, Kashmir and Burma.
“Some have renounced violence and become normalised, whatever normal is, and some have fled to other countries, such as Pakistan.”
After several years in the movement, Mr Ali said he began to question what was happening.
“I suppose I became more sensible,” he said.
“I noticed corruption in the leadership, needless deaths, as well as becoming more aware of my own nature.
“People tend to look for that catalyst, one specific incident, which is the clinching thing in making someone change their ways, but it’s nothing like that.
“When you’re caught up in it, you tend to invent excuses to justify what is happening, until the problems keep on piling up and it’s too much to pass off any longer.
“Then you feel that you’re directly responsible, because you’re part of the same outfit.
“From beheading to terrorist atrocities, whether it’s my group that does it or it’s another group, we were all part of the same enterprise and I began to question ‘why should I be part of that?’”
Mr Ali said it took 10-15 years for him to leave the Muslim Brotherhood and admits his journey from extremism will continue all his life.
While he had already begun to question the movement, Mr Ali said the terrorist atrocities of 9/11 became a major wake up call.
“For me, 9/11 was totally shocking because we never thought the people we were following would ever do that,” he said.
Mr Ali decided to renounce the violence and focus on preaching, or Dawah.
Having lived in Ipswich for around 30 years, he focussed much of his early efforts in the local community.
He founded events such as One Community in Conversation, which invited people from all faiths and backgrounds to gather for talks, food and “basically just to converse”. “The first one had 27 people, but they grew to have 500 attending,” he said.
As part of his work to break down barriers, Mr Ali became friendly with members of the English Defence League (EDL), the controversial far-right organisation.
He met with EDL’s regional organiser Ivan Humble, who lived in Lowestoft, to find out about the group’s concerns.
“I wanted out why the EDL hate us so much,” he said.
“I had no intention of trying to refute them, I just wanted to hear their complaints about Islam.”
Several EDL members, including Mr Humble, attended one of Mr Ali’s OCC events.
“We found them to be quite human and so we began to gel like that,” he added.
“They had objections, but they also found we were reasonable.
“We said ‘OK, we acknowledge these problems, what are your fears about Islam?’
“It all boiled down to simple things – too much immigration, too many brown people taking over our culture.
“But mainly it was to do with Halal food, which seemed petty to me. Is that all it is, I thought, because in the end that means you’re not really racist, it’s racist language, but you’re not in your heart, are you?”
Following the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, at the hands of radicalised Islamists, in Woolwich in May 2013, Mr Humble organised a march to condemn the killing and invited Mr Ali to attend.
“I turned up with my wife, daughter and about 15 other Muslims,” he said.
“Some of the EDL guys were resentful and would not talk to us and some of the Muslim people were also uncomfortable, but generally it was good.
“We all marched together, laid flowers, talked and shook hands.”
Mr Humble has since credited Mr Ali with helping him to develop a better understanding of Islam and overcome misconceptions.
“He became like a father figure to me,” he said in a recent interview. “When my own father died, it was Manwar I turned to for support.”
Mr Humble left the EDL and had the words of murdered MP Jo Cox, saying “we have far more in common than that which divides” inscribed on his arm next to his old EDL tattoo.
Today, most of Mr Ali’s work takes place out of Ipswich, travelling the country as part of the Government’s Prevent strategy, tackling the radicalisation of young Muslim men.
Mr Ali said that while factors, such as problems with poverty, prejudice and Islamophobia “pushed” people towards in radicalisation, they did not excuse what went on.
“That’s a sinister turn,” he said,
“No matter how deprived I am, how badly I’m treated, why should I find solace and then a purpose in taking up arms, almost like a revolutionary, and say it’s good to kill, fight or hate your own country?
“Political consensus like foreign policy, Israel/Palestine, Guantanamo Bay all those things are factors.
“But it’s the ideology that tries to address those grievances, which says ‘we have an answer, you don’t need to suffer’, which creates a victim mentality and then offers a way out, that’s where the problem lies.”