Video courtesy of Humza Productions via YouTube
Humza Arshad is a popular guy. With a YouTube channel that has attracted more than 60 million views, the British Muslim comedian and actor shot to Internet fame when his Diary of a Badman comedy series debuted on the video-sharing website five years ago.
So when British police were looking for alternative ways of reaching young people to highlight the dangers of radicalization, they knew who to call.
Arshad, 29, was initially recruited by East Midlands Police in central England to help prevent the radicalization of young people by holding workshops at schools in the area.
Scotland Yard was so impressed by the initiative, it invited Arshad to hold anti-extremism discussions for 11- to 18-year-olds at more than 30 schools and colleges across the city this spring.
The workshops center around a 15-minute video, which features Arshad in the role of a hapless character whose cousin falls under the influence of Islamic extremists, before seeing sense and returning to the right path. Arshad, the students and the police then have a talk.
The British initiative comes as France mark three months since the attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office in Paris on Jan. 7, the starting point of a three-day terror spree by Islamic extremist gunmen that killed 17 people.
When he walked into the room at Ayesha School — a Muslim girls’ school in north London — students were incredulous at his unexpected appearance. Many of them said they have heard of Arshad and watched his exploits on YouTube.
“I think the media portrays Muslims and Islam in a very negative way,” Arshad told his audience. “At the same time, there are a few misguided individuals who make us look bad.”
He adds that such people can be found in every religion, as well as in other groups.
Arshad said he gets “a lot of great feedback” on Twitter and Instagram. “I give them advice like a bigger brother,” he said. “We make it fun, we don’t make it too preachy. If they have any concerns they can talk to us.”
He said the response was “better than we even expected.”
Students from the nearby Unity Girls High School also attended the workshop at Ayesha School. Sara Taitt, 15, said Arshad’s message could help confused young people who look to him as a role model.
“Even if he does joke around a lot, he can be serious,” added Yusra Omar, 16.
The two girls spoke of their shock upon hearing that three Muslim girls from Bethnal Green Academy, in east London on the other side of town, had left their homes and traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State in February.
Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, are believed to have crossed into the war-torn country after flying to Istanbul from London’s Gatwick Airport. Officials say contact with jihadis on social media could have played a role in their decision to go.
“We were all shocked and confused,” Sara said. “We were very sad about it. The school had assemblies to discuss why it’s wrong. It’s not in our name.”
“They were vulnerable, they were groomed,” added Yusra. “They had a lack of knowledge.”
Arshad says he knows the brother of one of the girls who ran away to Syria. “None of us saw it coming,” he told the students. “That family is destroyed now. If we can prevent that ever happening again, (we’ll) try our best.”
A Home Affairs Committee report released in late March says “vast improvement” is needed in communication between the police, schools and parents to stop international terrorists from preying on young British citizens. The report says police must engage in “a regular and open dialogue” with schools and community groups to exchange information to prevent radicalization.
Arshad’s involvement with schools was the brainchild of Rizwaan Chothia, of the East Midlands police’s Special Operations Unit, who saw his son watching Diary of a Badman. He noticed the comedian’s “incredible online following” and had a “light bulb moment.”
He submitted a proposal to the force to get Arshad on board to help warn young people of the dangers of radicalization.
Chothia says it’s difficult to assess the effectiveness of the initiative, but the video that is shown in the schools has had more than 180,000 views on YouTube, received more than 7,000 thumbs ups and inspired many positive comments.
“It’s not aimed at de-radicalizing people,” he said. “All it’s doing is planting a seed.”
(Jane Onyanga-Omara writes for USA Today.)
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