Humza Arshad on fighting Islamist extremism with humour

Online star Humza Arshad is having the last laugh thanks to a collaboration with the capital's schools

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The Independent Culture

The police officer had just finished an earnest presentation on counter-extremism before an audience of 200 restless teenagers at an East London secondary school when a young man of Pakistani origin in a black hoodie took the stage. "How many of you people are Muslim?" the man barked. He grinned as nearly every hand went up. "Guys, we can take over! Sharia law coming soon!" the man cried gleefully. "Allahu Akbar!"

The teens erupted in laughter even before the man had a chance to clarify: "I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I think I scared the white people."

It's the kind of humour that has made 29 year-old Humza Arshad an internet sensation – and a potent new weapon in Britain's arsenal as it wages an increasingly desperate campaign to counter violent Islamist extremism.

At a time when the flow of British Muslims to the war in Syria shows no sign of ebbing, Arshad has positioned himself as the anti-Jihadi John. Like Mohammed Emwazi, the scowling Isis (Islamic State) executioner, Arshad is a London-raised Muslim from an immigrant family whose face has become instantly recognisable to millions through videos uploaded online. But where Emwazi seeks to terrify the world and seduce fresh recruits, Arshad's message is precisely the opposite: laugh at extremism; don't fall prey to it.

It's a message communicated for several years through his homemade YouTube videos, which have been viewed more than 60 million times. In his "Diary of a Bad Man" series, Arshad plays a wannabe gangster who gets beaten up by girls and endlessly ridiculed by his mother. But he also manages to save his cousin from a descent into radicalism, and uses lessons from the Koran to urge others to steer away from violence.

This spring, Arshad has taken his message directly to students through a programme with Scotland Yard in which the police sponsor him to tell jokes at schools in the capital. The programme has been a hit, with schools across the city vying for his time and officials planning to take the programme nationwide.

"I'm a comedian. That's my talent. But I don't want to do pointless comedy," Arshad explained before going on stage. "I'm the hot thing right now. So they've used me for that – but in a good way." The joint effort between Arshad and the police to spread an anti-extremist message represents what experts say has been missing from British counterterrorism strategy: an ability to connect with Muslim communities and engage them as partners, rather than treating them as suspect.

At least 600 Britons have joined the war in Syria, including those three highly publicised London schoolgirls who travelled together to Isis-controlled areas last month. The ages of the girls – 15 and 16 – plus the apparent lack of warning signs, shocked many, not least Arshad. One of the girls is the sister of a close friend.

"They're just this normal family," he tells his east London student audience, which suddenly becomes quiet at the mention of the girls. But now, he says, they've been left devastated. "Imagine that's your family. Imagine that's your sister." It's one of the few sombre moments in a performance marked by comedy that would strike a chord with teens the world over.

Asked by a student whether his mother really treats him as badly as she does in his videos, Arshad deadpans: "No. She's much worse."

In reality, Arshad's upbringing was hardly traumatic. A middle-class kid from South London, he attended Richmond Drama School and trained under the award-winning actor Tom Hardy. But once out of school, he struggled to find parts other than "terrorist number two on the plane".

So he saved money working at his father's school uniform store, bought a camera and started posting clips of himself as the hapless Bad Man. The videos went viral.

Unlike Bad Man, who can be at turns boastful or brooding, Arshad is relentlessly self-deprecating and cheerful, mocking himself as a "fat Paki" who would still be working for his dad if not for his only real skill – comedy.

Arshad said he struggles to understand the extreme alienation and negativity that would drive a young person to join Isis. But he also knows how to speak to the concerns of his school audiences, which are typically majority Muslim. The media, he tells them, often gives Islamic communities a bad rap. "Muslim this and terrorist that," he says. "You know: 'Evil Muslim dog attacks grass.'"

Whether Arshad is skewering newspaper headline writers or terrorists, the kids laugh uproariously.

At a recent performance at a school in northwest London, a female student in a black, head-to-toe abaya asked Arshad for a hug – "You stole my wallet!" he exclaimed afterwards – and the entire room shouted with delight when Arshad took an auditorium-wide selfie.

Students said it was the first time they had really talked about extremism in school. "A lot of students look at police and think they don't know what they're talking about, or they don't see things from our perspective," said Barni Ali, 18. "But Humza – we've grown up watching him. He raises awareness in a way that we can understand."

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