People on a pro-Palestine demonstration in Bradford
Since the assault on Gaza began, Bradford has been decked out in Palestine’s red, white, green and black flags. But among them, another flag can occasionally be seen flying: the black flag of Islamism. Generally speaking, the city – and in particular, its large Asian population – has been vocal in its support for the people of Gaza. When thousands gathered last month to hear speeches by local figures such as George Galloway, it was the biggest demo in Bradford since the 1990s. Galloway has even called for a motion to twin Bradford with Gaza, and its residents have been generous in their financial aid donations. But for all the goodwill and humanitarian concern, there are worries that the situation in the Middle East is lending credibility to Islamic extremism in Bradford.
I have spoken to a number of prominent Muslim and non-Muslim figures in the city, and while it's impossible to prove in what numbers people are flocking to Islamic fundamentalism, they all seem to agree on one thing: For the young Muslim boys protesting in Centenary Square – born and raised in areas of high unemployment and crime – what’s happening in Palestine is further evidence that the world doesn’t care about people like them. Meanwhile, many of the government’s attempts to curb extremism – such as the controversial Prevent programme – are further alienating young Muslims who peacefully practice their faith.
Alyas Karmani is an Imam and leader of the Bradford Independent group on the city's council. He's also a psychologist working with individuals who are deemed to be at risk of exploitation by extremists. Karmani has advised the Home Office in their dealings with radicalisation, and warned me that, “Palestine is the primary recruitment sergeant”, for political Islam.
“Everyone’s using what is going on in Gaza at the moment. Gaza, Gaza, Gaza,” he said. “The jihadi groups do the same. It’s called the 'humiliation process'… They take you through all these images and these narratives that make them feel angry, powerless and humiliated and then they say, ‘Guess what? We have the solution.' It’s basically grooming.”
A man with an Islamist flag at a pro-Palestine demo in Bradford
Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) is the world's single largest Islamist party, active in 45 countries. HT have a group in Bradford, and while its leadership disavows violence, it has been described as a feeder organisation for violent extremists. The idea of banning it in the UK has been mooted more than once – most notably by Tony Blair's administration – and Taji Mustafa, a UK spokesperson for HT, has been described as a "preacher of hate" by members of the Australian government, which wanted to ban him from the country.
When I spoke to Mustafa, he rejected the "extremist" label, but did tell me that democracy, nationalism and other “destructive” ideas are constantly debated by HT supporters, and that the goings on in Gaza have only widened the audience for those ideas. “Events like Palestine – people get to discuss the way forward," he said. "Is it the mujahedeen state, the Saudi state, the Syrian state, or is it going back to Islamic roots with just rule under an Islamic system?"
He gave me the rundown on HT’s non-violent brand of political Islam. “Hizb ut-Tahrir is trying to establish what has been done in Islamic history. The Prophet – peace be upon him – established the first Islamic state in Medina. So we asked, 'How did he do that? Did he cause chaos, did he go and fight the people, mayhem?' No, he didn’t. He discussed with the masses, he used all sorts of means to say, 'Here is a man with a new system, it’s called Islam.'"
Mustafa said Prevent exploits Islamophobia, “demonising Islamic ideas and claiming to the wider public that it’s a way of making us all safe”. Worst of all, says Mustafa, the only thing it really "prevents" is conversations among Muslims about the true meaning of jihad. It doesn't distinguish between fundamentalist Muslims who want to create a caliphate through a non-violent form of personal jihad – something Mustafa adheres to – and terrorists who want to blow people up. “People are afraid to speak out because under Prevent they can be reported – we need to speak about jihad so that we can explain where is the battlefield, where is not the battlefield. If you don’t allow that discussion to take place people make things up, they go onto the internet and get all sorts of stuff.”
George Galloway MP
The city’s MPs have found themselves in trouble over their support for Palestine. Bradford East’s David Ward, a Lib Dem, has backed a boycott of Israeli goods and had to issue a partial apology for a tweet in which he said, "The big question is – if I lived in #Gaza would I fire a rocket? – probably yes." Meanwhile, George Galloway – MP for Bradford West – is under investigation by the police for declaring Bradford “an Israel-free zone”.
In Bradford's inner city, more than 25 percent of the population is under 16 and predominantly Muslim. Galloway is worried about the lasting impact the conflict will have on these people: “They see what they consider their Muslim brothers and sisters murdered day in and day out and no one – or at least only a few of us – speaking out in condemnation. Palestine is in their hearts, in their eyes as images of corpses and rubble flash across Facebook.
“If people aren’t listened to, they take direct action," he continued. "If it's peaceful and persuasive, fine. But the danger is that it just feeds extremism – that those already angry and marginalised, take it further. We are already seeing that.”
Hundreds of young British jihadists have already returned to the UK having fought in Syria. On Oxford Street in London, in Bradford and in Luton, extremist groups supporting the IS (formerly ISIS) caliphate are actively recruiting. In Tower Hamlets, Islamist groups vie with Stop the War for the attention of young people. After London's Palestine demonstration on Saturday, about 150 people from around the country stormed down Oxford Street, shouting, "God is great!" and "Allah is the final messenger!"
Obviously, radical Islam is a minority pursuit in both Bradford and the country generally. But there are signs that this minority is growing.
Ralph Berry is Portfolio Holder for Children and Young People’s Services for Bradford Metropolitan Council. He admits that groups like HT “are a problem", adding: "They are small but gnawing away. They get the oxygen of publicity over Gaza and other issues.” Berry has reviewed literature and videos produced by the group for discussion and said, “I have come across people who have been infected by those views. They do particularly extreme debating videos.”
Mohammed Adam Abdul Rehman – or Adam, to his friends – used to go by the name MC Chippy. He had a minor internet hit in 2011 with the song, “In the Back of My Car”, which got half a million hits on YouTube and includes the lyrics, “What goes on in the back of my car / Got your girl in the back of my car / And I took off her knickers and took off her bra”.
When he was 15, he was arrested and tagged for attacking a madrasa. “I beat the teachers up, I beat the students up, I smashed every window on the madrasa and we got dragged in by the police,” he told me. “I used to think you only live once… so I did it all. Burgle houses, sell drugs, I’ve done it all.”
Mohammed Adam Abdul Rehman – formerly known as "MC Chippy"
But now, aged 24, he’s more likely to be found reciting Quranic verses than spitting bars. “My mother is happy because the police don’t come to my house no more,” he said. Except, that is, when armed police knock on his door under the direction of Prevent, the government’s anti-extremism directive. “Have you ever seen a film called Four Lions?” he asked me. “My mates used to laugh and joke and call me 'Brother Barry' [a volatile white Muslim convert from the film]. I used to laugh. ‘I’ll show you Brother Barry – I’ll go and get an AK47 and shoot you.’ Someone overheard and it was misinterpreted. They didn’t realise it was banter and a joke.” In truth, he said, "I could never imagine harming someone, never." Nevertheless, the banter caused an armed response unit to come to his house and take him to the station for questioning. “They can put [surveillance] in my house, they can put it in my mosque, they can watch me all they want. I don’t do nothing wrong.”
I suggested that his treatment was like if I said "I'll kill you" to someone and got lifted under suspicion of murder. "Similar sort of thing, really," he said, although he blames himself for the police's attention, adding, "I hope they catch these people who are leading people astray and blowing things up."
Bradford Council initially refused to engage with Prevent, Berry told me, because, “All of its funding was with Islamic extremism when the main problem [with extremism in Bradford] was with neo-fascist activity in many areas of the city. It wasn’t balanced.
“The problem with Prevent," Berry continued, "is that we don’t have a properly formed consensus with communities. We are not yet in a position where they are trusting us to have a mature dialogue across faiths and communities in cities like Bradford, Birmingham and London, about what it is that we want to achieve. It’s too cloak and dagger, isn’t it? If there are problems with people with intolerant views – Islamophobic, homophobic, extreme religious views – they exist in all societies and faiths and ideologies. The sensible approach would be to engage and work with local communities on drawing up their own approaches.”
A man holds an Islamist flag in Bradford
Berry was keen to emphasise that groups like HT are the exception. “In Bradford, most people consider [HT] to be fringe and extreme. Most Muslims consider them to be extreme. They are capable, like the BNP and the National Front. They are at the extreme end of the political spectrum. But I'm in no doubt that they are discordant and unrepresentative.”
As the death toll in Gaza continues to rise, even if a ceasefire prevails, the bombed-out schools and hospitals and dead children won’t be forgotten in Bradford. As long as politicians in the UK are unable or unwilling to make a stand against Israeli aggression, it seems that some will see our democratic process as bankrupt, and the fringes will find increasingly fertile ground to expand their influence.
Keep up with what's happening in Gaza with the VICE News series, Rockets and Revenge.