This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
There’s been a fair bit of debate recently about the best ways to combat extremism. David Cameron and his Tory friends seem to think the answer lies in introducing a new bill that limits the employment options of convicted extremists, gags certain individuals, and shuts down venues used to “promote hatred.” Others have criticized this proposal, pointing out that the term “extremism” is notoriously hard to define, and expressing concerns that it might drive radical Islamists further underground.
Problem is, solutions are often subjective: some might respond positively to the same tactics that will only further aggravate others. But radicals of all kinds can and do alter their perspectives, moving past their extreme beliefs to become productive members of society.
I wanted to find out how and why a few former extremists left the world of fanaticism behind, so I got in touch with a few of them: ex-Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) members Billy McCurrie and Martin Snoddon, reformed racist Matthew Collins, former Irish Republican Army (IRA) member Shane O’Doherty, and Manwar Ali, who was once involved in violent jihad. Here are their stories in their own words.
The main factor in my decision to join the UVF was the death of my father at the hands of the IRA when I was 12, which left me with a lot of hatred and bitterness. At 16 I sought out the UVF, wanting to become a member so that I could get revenge. As you can imagine, it was easy to get involved with paramilitaries in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. No one put pressure on me to join, though; I made a conscious decision to do it.
In 1976, age just 17, I found myself locked up in The Maze prison after killing a fellow UVF member who had become an informer. While I was awaiting trial I was kept in a part of the jail that was divided into compounds, with different paramilitary groups allocated to each one. I was told by a senior UVF member that I would have to pass through mixed republican and loyalist areas to go on prison visits, and instructed that I wasn’t to say anything to the republicans that could potentially agitate them. A truce had been brokered that meant that neither side provoked the other. The fact that such an agreement had been established was a shock to me. I thought, ‘If we can do something like this in prison then it has to be possible to do the same outside.’
I also began to notice that there was a lot of hypocrisy within the UVF. After I was convicted, I was moved to a non-segregated part of the prison, where loyalists, republicans, and regular criminals coexisted. There was a strict hierarchy, with pedophiles and rapists at the bottom. The UVF’s rules dictated that anybody in for crimes of that nature could expect to receive punishment beatings, yet when a UVF commander’s nephew ended up in The Maze for rape, nobody laid a finger on him. The way I saw it, you couldn’t have one rule for one person and a different rule for another.
Things like that caused me to distance myself from the organization. I started to get more of a political awareness and became interested in Communism, which conflicted with the UVF’s political views. I became good friends with people from a republican paramilitary group called the INLA, whose members had a lot of Marxist beliefs. When a Marxist outlook was applied to the Troubles it seemed as if the conflict was a product of the class system. No bankers’ sons or doctors’ sons were involved in the paramilitary groups; the members were all working class.
At that point, I still had a lot of hatred in me. My radicalization was beginning to take a new far-left direction rather than going away. Then, on Christmas Eve, 1980, I became a Christian and no longer felt any anger. It was suddenly replaced by peace and love.
When I got out of prison I changed my circle of friends to churchgoers rather than UVF members. The UVF kept a strict eye on people who claimed to have converted to Christianity and left the world of paramilitaries behind. They wanted to make sure the so-called converts truly had found God and weren’t just using religion as a get-out clause. I was genuine in my beliefs, so they didn’t bother me. I’m grateful to have changed my ways and wouldn’t want to go back to the old me for anything in the world.
I was born in Bangladesh, but spent most of my younger life in England. In 1971, the Bangladesh War of Independence broke out, which led to destitution within my family and deaths of 22 of my relatives, including my older brother. I was in the country at the time and witnessed killings, starvation, and animals feeding on corpses in the streets. This gave me a strong awareness of injustice and a desire to right the world’s wrongs.
While studying at college I met others who taught me that I could channel those desires into political Islam. I became attracted to ideologies involving seeking to regain the supremacy that Muslims had once possessed, and began to desire martyrdom in the battlefield. This led to my involvement in the jihad against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. I believed it was my sacred duty to protect the Muslim population against invaders and became a pioneer of violent jihad in the UK. I recruited and trained others, thinking I was doing something positive. However, all the while, the Islamist fascists that I was working for were using religion to justify their lust for power, authority, and worldly control.
I was involved in conflicts in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Burma throughout the course of the next 15 years, and also recruited for armed struggles in the Philippines, Bosnia, and Chechnya. After a while I came to realize that petty warlords were manipulating the young and vulnerable into killing one another. Sometimes it would be Muslims slaughtering other Muslims, which contradicted the idea that I was protecting those who shared my religious beliefs. It caused me to reflect on whether or not it was right for me to recruit people in the UK to take part in these conflicts, given that they clearly couldn’t be classed as holy wars.
In the year 2000 I left the world of violent jihad behind. After a lot of soul searching, I realized that the Islamists’ perception of the world as comprising of “us” and “them” was false and unjust. This led to rejection, hostility, and disparagement from many of my fellow Muslims. Their words and actions sometimes made me feel uncomfortable or hurt, but I was thankful for the better path I had chosen. I tried to reason with whoever I could, but most shunned me. Some harbored doubts as to whether I had truly changed, or whether I had merely pretended to do so in order to deflect police attention.
My decision placed both my own life and the lives of my family in danger, and we are even more at-risk now that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have risen to prominence. I also receive stigma because of who I was in the past. I ignore such things, though, as I believe I will benefit on the Day of Judgment from the credits of my detractors, who have been unfair towards me in this life.
I’ve since come to recognize that jihad doesn’t need to involve force. The concept means to strive to the utmost of one’s ability, and involves exertion, spirituality, self-purification, and devotion. It embodies positive transformation via learning, wisdom, and the remembrance of God. It can involve fighting in certain strict circumstances, but the benefits of doing so need to outweigh the harm it causes and the hardship it entails. I now believe that there are no circumstances in which these criteria are met, and hold the view that violent jihad is never permissible.
I first sought out the National Front because I felt I wanted to belong to something, and they reflected my racist views at the time. I deliberately sought them out—they were difficult to find at first, but I eventually bumped into some members outside Upton Park. They seemed to have answers to all my questions, and provided me with a new sense of understanding about the world. Before long, I ended up as a full-time member and enjoyed being part of what I perceived to be an elite group.
The NF wasn’t like these right-wing groups nowadays, whose members communicate online, but don’t even actually know each other in real life. It was a tight-knit organization, and the people involved were genuinely close to one another. Being aligned with them gave me the sense of belonging that I had been looking for.
I first began to question my beliefs when the NF and British National Party (BNP) launched an attack on a group of people who were holding a community meeting at Welling Library. The attendees’ only crime was their involvement in anti-BNP protests. The fact that NF members I’d grown to love and trust had been willing to seriously hurt completely innocent people terrified me. It made me realize that there was a nasty side to them that I hadn’t previously been aware of.
I also started questioning the other members’ dedication to the cause. A lot of them didn’t seem to be as committed as they made themselves out to be, which suggested that the underlying beliefs were perhaps not built upon a strong foundation. As time went by, I began to realize that the organization was based on a foolish, hateful ideology that I no longer wanted to be associated with.
In an effort to show the world the truth about the so-called white nationalist movement, I took part in an expose of Combat 18, which was broadcast on World in Action in 1993. Shortly after it was shown, people in C18 came under suspicion of gun running, and a number of them were arrested. I didn’t want to stay around for the aftermath of that, so I flew over to Australia, which enabled me to start afresh. I’m now in the UK again, but will be moving back down under again shortly.
I still get the odd bit of stigma about the fact I used to be in the NF, even though it was over 20 years ago and I’m now working with anti-racist organization Hope Not Hate. Today, most people know me as an antifascist, though. When I look back at my previous set of beliefs, it’s almost as if they belonged to a different person.
Nowadays, I think the views of organizations like the BNP and National Front are not only dangerous and offensive, but also extremely childish and stupid. That said, I understand why certain individuals are drawn to them, because sometimes people think the mainstream doesn’t speak for them and are misguided enough to look to extreme political groups for solutions to their problems. Thankfully, I was able to realize the error of my ways and turn my life around.
I grew up in Suffolk in southwest Belfast, which was a small Protestant enclave surrounded by Catholic areas. Our community was subjected to sectarian attacks on a daily basis, which took the form of rioting, gunfire, and even bombings. At 16, I had a gun placed in my hand and was asked to help protect the community. I didn’t feel as if the state was doing enough for us, and was afraid that something could happen to my family, so I said yes. I joined the group out of a desire to help the people around me, not out of hatred for the other side. As with many participants in the conflict, fighting wasn’t something that I wanted to do; it was something I thought was necessary.
At 18, I was involved in an incident in which a bomb intended for an IRA unit went off prematurely, which landed me with a life sentence. I was placed in Long Kesh prison, which was segregated, with each paramilitary organization occupying its own areas. During my time inside, I had the opportunity to do an Open University degree. The study area was provided for both Protestants and Catholics, which meant we got to mix and have serious conversations for the very first time.
While studying, I got to know an IRA member, and we realized how much we had in common. We were both from working class communities and had both grown up with patches covering the rips in our clothes and cardboard stuck in our shoes to block the holes. It was soon apparent that our adversaries were actually very similar to us.
As time went by, I came to realize that violence wasn’t going to solve anything. UVF commander Gusty Spence was always saying that there had to be a better way, and I think a lot of other people had become disillusioned with the idea that we could achieve our goals by using force. It was slowly dawning upon me that we’d be better off finding ways to respect our differences and relate to each other by means other than bombs and bullets.
When I was released, Northern Ireland was possibly even more divided than before. A prison guard had said to me, “It’s time for you to reintegrate back into society now.” I thought back on this and came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to fit in with a society like that; I wanted to change it. Quite a few other members of the UVF felt the same way and committed themselves to finding non-violent solutions.
I’m no longer a combatant with the UVF, and try my best to support them to channel their energies into community building and working towards a just, inclusive society. I have learned from my past actions and the actions of others, and am totally committed to addressing difference in a non-violent manner. I deeply regret that I was ever led by circumstances to carry out acts that harmed others, and will continue to bring my life experience as a resource for positive change, whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself.
Shane, age 17, when he was on the run from the police and British army
In the community I grew up in, the IRA were regarded as heroes and patriots. I ended up joining their ranks, wanting to carry on the work of the organization that had fought Ireland’s War of Independence against the might of the British Empire in the early 1900s, and won the freedom of 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. However, after a while, I began to doubt whether violence was the answer. It seemed to create new injustices rather than solving the current ones.
I was serving 30 life sentences plus an additional 20 years for sending out letter bombs when the real turning point came. After spending 15 months naked in solitary confinement in Wormwood Scrubs, I read St. Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 5, Verse 23, where reconciliation is demanded before any religious practice is enjoyed. This made me realize that what I had been doing wasn’t heroic at all; it was adding to the suffering in the world. I left the IRA and wrote letters of apology to my victims, as I felt that attempting to right the wrongs I had caused as much as possible was a necessary part of the repentance process.
My decision to quit the IRA caused many of my former comrades to totally ignore me. However, I had a huge thirst to be free of all organizations and to be myself, which gave me great strength. There were prominent prisoners who thought I should be killed in case I became an informer, but fortunately that never happened.
At first, only a few churchmen would believe that I had genuinely changed my ways. Everybody else was convinced that I was trying to get out of prison early to return to bombing. The transition I had undergone was too revolutionary for most people’s narrow minds to accept. Those in uniforms displayed an overwhelming cynicism towards the idea that I could have left the paramilitary life behind.
I make no secret of my former life, but that was who I was then, not who I am now. Political violence is marketed to young people as the Daz that washes injustice away. I’ve come to realize that, in reality, this is far from the case. My advice to young people who are considering becoming involved in extremism is that they’re about to make the biggest mistakes of their lives, and bring horror to innocent people. Before you attempt to become the movie star hero and martyr of your own imagination, consider this: the biggest human rights violator you will meet in your lifetime is looking at you in the mirror.