Khuram Shazad Butt.
Sohail Ahmed could have joined this list of homegrown jihadists. But just before he followed through with his plans to launch an attack on Britons, he had a change of heart. And since then, he has worked to raise awareness about extremism, granting interviews to American pundits such as Rachel Maddow and Megyn Kelly.
Sohail was kind enough to grant me a interview, which took place on the 12th and 13th of July, through Facebook messenger. We discussed his upbringing, his views on the current political climate and how his repressed sexuality played a part in luring him into Islamic extremism.
All views expressed are his own.
- ‘At what age did you realize you were gay? And how did you initially respond to that?’
That’s a bit of a complicated question. And I guess there’s two answers to it. I first realised I was attracted to the same gender when I was about 8 years old. I didn’t think of it much then. I thought it was normal. I thought everyone felt that way. I mean I didn’t have peers to compare to, as I was pretty much one of the first in my class to hit puberty. Later on, I’m not exactly sure when, I realised what these feelings were all about, and I realised that it wasn’t ‘normal’ at all. I guess this happened within 3 years of me figuring out my feelings for other guys. I was ashamed of my feelings and I thought there was something really wrong with me. I felt an immense sense of guilt that I carried with me everywhere.The second answer is that I realised I was properly gay when I accepted myself as gay. This was because before that I had been taught that being gay wasn’t even a thing, in that Allah didn’t make people gay. So before that, I thought it was just a phase or something, or from the devil, or that I was possessed. I was 22 when I fully accepted myself as gay and realised that what I was was natural and actually a real thing, and not just a figment of my imagination.
- ‘Do you think this feeling of shame was rooted more in cultural expectations or in your religious upbringing?’
I think both. Cultural and religious. Growing up in east london gay was not easy at all. When all you’re surrounded by is gang culture and violence. And of course religious too. I was extremely religious. And I would constantly hear that the punishment for homosexuality is to throw gays off the roof.I mean, once my mother even said to me, point blank: if you turn out gay I’ll kill you.Of course, by then, I knew I was attracted to guys. So you can imagine how I must have felt.
‘Which form of Islam did your parents adhere to?’ The form of Islam that is officially followed in Saudi Arabia: Salafism. It’s also known as Wahhabism.
- ‘How different would you say it is to Islam as it’s followed by Muslims outside of Saudi Arabia?’
Depends on which kind of Muslim you compare them to. But I guess, on average, to say that Salafis are far more extreme in their views would be a fair and accurate comment. They’re also generally far more adherent and religious generally speaking.
- ‘Do you believe that first and foremost, it was the isolation caused by being gay in a Muslim family, that pushed you towards extremism?’
No, I do not think that was the primary factor. It was one of the factors, but definitely not the primary factor. The main factor that led to my increasing radicalisation was the family environment, the form of Islam I was brought up with, the mosques I attended, the books I read… in other words my entire religious education.
- ‘And during this process of radicalisation, did you feel like it was happening to you solely? Or did you see a ripple effect of sorts?’
I wasn’t the only one. There were others around me getting radicalised too. Both by themselves, and as a result of myself teaching them what I had learned. For instance one of my friends, who ended up saying things like, “we need another 9/11”, he described that I had taught him everything he knew about Islam. Now I hadn’t taught him the whole 9/11 stuff, but I had taught him the basics of salafism… and one thing led to another.
- ‘Do you feel like socio-political factors of the time strengthened your hand in a sense? Did events such as the invasion of Iraq enable you to justify this view of Islam to yourself?’
Certainly. But it wasn’t just the Iraq war… it was the Afghanistan war too. And it wasn’t just the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it was the way the scholars and imaams would present those wars as being part of an all out war against Islam, which of course is ridiculous. But then, I believed it. Because that’s what my religion taught me. It taught me that there was this never ending war between Islam and the ‘kuffaar’.See, the thing is, even a justified war against a Muslim majority country would have been presented as part of a war against Islam
- ‘So under those circumstances, hating the west and Britain in particular would seem quite reasonable and certainly justified’ That would be a fair statement to make. However, I hated Britain and the west even before the two wars post 9/11.
- ‘What age were you at that point?’ I was around 16 to 17 years old at the time
- ‘And that was around the stage you contemplated a terrorist attack upon London?’ Yes it was
- ‘How do you even get to that point? How do you get to a stage where killing innocent people seems justified?’
That’s quite a complex question. There are a number of things that contribute to it:
A lifetime of indoctrination to hate
Being indoctrinated regarding war, jihad, and martyrdom
Living in an extremely insular community
Feeling connected to and identifying with people who live in another part of the world as opposed to the people you live with, ie identifying with ummah politically and militarily and not with Britain
A major world event or events to push you over the edge
- ‘Had you gone ahead with the attack, what would have happened?’ I think people would have died. Honestly, I can’t bare to think about it. I’ve had nightmares about this stuff.
- ‘And was that what prevented you from going through with it? That emotional barrier, that feeling of human empathy and compassion?’ Yes. It was that. On a deep level, despite the years of indoctrination, I guess my true human self came out. It felt wrong. It felt bad. So I backed out. I started looking for interpretations within salafi Islam that said that terrorism was impermissible. They weren’t hard to find, as most salafis, despite them being very extreme, still believe terrorism is impermissible within Islam. So yeah, I backed out.
- ‘And was it after this point that you came out to your parents as gay?’A while after that actually. About 6 years later. At this stage, I wasn’t even out to myself.
- ‘Just to give some sense of a timeline, how old were you when you contemplated the attack and how old were you when you came out?’ I was about 16 when I contemplating carrying out an attack. And I was about 22 when I came out to myself and a to a select few of my friends, all of whom were Muslim.
- ‘How did they respond to your revelation?’ Surprisingly not as bad as I would have thought. All of them were, relatively speaking, okay with it. As in none of them stopped talking to me. I only came out to my closest friends of course.
- ‘But your parents weren’t as open to what you had to say’
No, they weren’t. At all. In fact, I didn’t even come out to them, they found out, which I guess was worse.
- ‘How did they find out?’ Well, by this stage, I had left Islam altogether, and I was having an argument with my parents about something related to women’s rights or something, and in my anger, I just blurted out, “you know what, I’m not even sure if Allah exists anymore”.They kicked me out of the house right there and then. So I packed my bag and found the cheapest hotel I could find to stay over. And went there. It was somewhere near Soho of all places. So what happened is that my dad, who is good with computers, used the wifi router to check my internet history. And… well… the words ‘gay’ and ‘porn’ should complete the rest of the story.
- ‘What has been the most rewarding part of your life since turning away from extremism?‘
I think I’d say, appearing on international media and getting my voice heard from extremism, to LGBT rights, to even the then US presidential election.
But even more than that I’d say I’m proud of the fact that I have helped young gay Muslims come to terms with themselves, from across the world, who happened to come across my work and then decided to get in touch with me.
- ‘Do you feel like your integration into the gay community, coming from a place of sexual repression, has been a easy one?‘ No. I wouldn’t say it’s been easy. I wouldn’t even say I’m ‘integrated’ as such even now. I’m not very active on the scene. I have never been to a gay club. I guess I just kind of live my own life.
- ‘You identified as being culturally muslim for a time. What was the significance of this label as a gay man who’d grown up in a religious household?‘
The cultural Muslim label was about making the statement that I do not believe in Islam yet remaining attached to it for culturally speaking. It was basically me saying, I don’t believe, but Islam still forms a big part of my identity. And it did.
- ‘So that label still stands in a sense? Or have you distanced yourself from it?’ It stands, but in a far weaker. Now, my opposition to Islam and particularly to the practices and beliefs of Muslims around the world, far outweighs my cultural connection to Islam. So yes, while the cultural Muslim label does still stand in a sense, it would be far more accurate to describe myself as an Ex Muslim.
- ‘Since denouncing extremism, have you received messages from people with similar stories?’
Yes I have. I actually even know and am friends with a gay salafi.
- ‘Who do you think is better suited to tackle the problem – Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May?’
I personally think Theresa May is better suited to the job
- ‘Why do you think that? A strength of hers or a weakness of Corbyn’s that sways your opinion?’
A weakness of Corbyn. Before becoming leader of the labour party Jeremy Corbyn had gone out of his way to support extremists of all colours, albeit mostly indirectly.
- ‘And you feel that’d limit his abilities, if he were to become prime minister, to tackle the problems we face due to international terrorism?’ I wouldn’t say it limits his abilities… but it does put his loyalties and values in question
- ‘And in trying to end this interview on a precise note, what’s one thing the English government must do if they want things to improve with regards to our terrorism situation?’ Become less liberal in their approach to extremism and Islamism. It is obvious by now that liberalism, as understood and practiced today, does not have the necessary tools at its disposal to fight Islamism. Up till now, we have used illiberal foreign policies to maintain the peace and the post world war 2 order. Now, the world’s problems are coming to our doorstep. We can no longer rely on foreign policy to deal with the world’s – our – problems.