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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Abdul Ahad: The Geordie Imam battling extremism

One of Newcastle's only intervention providers for the government’s deradicalisation programme

Abdul Ahad pictured in Newcastle city centre. Gareth Browne for The National
Abdul Ahad pictured in Newcastle city centre. Gareth Browne for The National

South Shields in northern England is an unlikely flash-point in the struggle against extremism.

Nestled just east of Newcastle, this is an area better known for its football than leading the charge against interpretations of Islam used to condone violence.

But the Al Azhar mosque in Laygate of South Shields was the UK's first purpose built place of worship for the "The Toon's'" vibrant Muslim community, one of the most established in the country.

In the late 1890s, thousands of Yemenis came to this industrial corner of the UK’s north-east to power a shipbuilding community that would become essential to the British effort in both World Wars.

“Can you believe Ali renewed his vows here?” chuckles 40-year-old Abdul Ahad, a speaker and imam at the Al Azhar mosque.

The Ali he refers to is legendary boxer Muhammed Ali who in 1977, having converted to Islam some 13 years earlier, renewed his marriage vows during a surprise visit to the town.

On a warm Ramadan afternoon, the only sign of ‘The Greatest’ are the anecdotes. Instead the mosque is partly empty, just twenty men or so kneel in prayer, the Adhan bounding wistfully through the building’s corridors.

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Sporting a trim beard, Abdul Ahad effortlessly switches between flawless classical Arabic, quoting the Quran from memory, and a dulcet Geordie accent.

Born and bred in South Shields, he is the only intervention provider for Channel, the government’s deradicalisation programme in the area. But his work fighting extremism for the flagship programme takes him across the country.

When the government fear someone has, or is in the process, of radicalisation, it’s often him they call.

And who better to deal with extremists, than a former extremist.

Abdul Ahad was once a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir – a group now banned in a number of European and Middle Eastern countries for, among other things, advocating the return of a caliphate.

“I specialise in ideological interventions, I love the theological interventions, I know whatever they come out with, I can counter it from the authority that they claim to follow.”

He is often given some of the most dogmatic, ideological cases. People many would rather see thrown in jail and forgotten about.

“At the very least I’ve been able to make them think," he explains. "Even the most hardcore ISIS supporters, I’ve been in a room with them, you can always find a chink in their ideological armour.”

He walks through his own argument for refuting ISIS’ zealous use of Takfir – the act of declaring others "non-believers".

“Nowhere in the Quran does Mohammed single out anyone and call them a Kafir, it doesn’t happen,” he said, referring to the Arabic word for an unbeliever. “He can’t refute that, because it’s not there.”

As Mr Ahad delves into his encyclopaedic memory for the relevant Sura or Hadith, he sits forward, his breath quickens. He is relaxed, but very much alert. He is a man that thrives on the ideological debates his role forces him into.

But deradicalisation is seen by some as a controversial method, especially the UK’s Prevent and Channel programmes. It is difficult to reconcile Mr Ahad’s expertise with those criticisms.

Inside the Al Azhar mosque in South Shields, the UK’s first purpose-built mosque. Gareth Browne for The National
Inside the Al Azhar mosque in South Shields, the UK’s first purpose-built mosque. Gareth Browne for The National

Some have branded the programmes “Islamophobic" while others have accused them of singling out Muslims – though the government’s own figures show that far-right cases are increasingly being dealt with by the programme.

Mr Ahad suggests these criticisms are unfounded.

“Often there’s an agenda behind the criticism,” he said. “They say Prevent is spying, it’s this, it’s that... Allah says don’t spy on one another, but it’s not about spying, it’s an extension of safeguarding… if somebody wants to strap a bomb to themselves and take innocent lives, you’d call the police, straight away. That’s a religious responsibility too."

“If a person is veering towards a life of criminality, you safeguard them, you try to bring them in, what I do is no different to that.”

Just days before this meeting UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid relaunched the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, asserting “the biggest threat is from Islamist terrorism”.

The relaunch bought a renewed emphasis on working with community leaders like Abdul Ahad to prevent individuals from falling into the grasp of extremist groups.

Yet the criticism is not going to stop anytime soon, and just days after our interview an internal Home Office report claimed that more than 95% of de-radicalisation programmes are “ineffective”.

But years of experience in the ideological battle tell Abdul Ahad differently. “If they are sincere in their beliefs, you can always bring them back.”