How one extremist rejected violence

By Chris Vallance
BBC Radio 4, PM Programme

Image caption,
Ali Beheshti says he now believes peace lies at the heart of his faith

A former Muslim extremist, who spent time in jail for carrying out an arson attack related to his beliefs, describes how he came to reject violence.

"Islam means peace," says Ali Beheshti, as we speak at a restaurant in Seven Kings, near Ilford, Essex. "Violence is not the way. Islam is the peaceful method, the method that the Prophet, peace be upon him, used."

Beheshti is an unlikely advocate of peace.

On 7 July 2009 - the day a memorial to the 52 victims of the 2005 London bombings was unveiled in Hyde Park - Beheshti, then 41, was jailed for an act of violent extremism.

A year earlier he had attacked the home of the publisher of the Jewel of Medina, a novel about the Prophet Muhammad's child bride A'isha, which he believed was blasphemous.

He and two other men, Abbas Taj and Abrar Mirza, poured diesel through the letterbox of Martin Rynja's home just days before the book was due to be published in the UK.

The trio were each jailed for four-and a-half years for conspiracy to commit arson, being reckless as to whether life was endangered.

Understanding changed

But more than four years later, having left prison behind, Beheshti rejects violence. "Basically, the [only] jihad I've got going on is with myself," he says.

Now in his mid-40s, Beheshti is still an imposing figure. Powerfully muscled, he has a tattoo of a black panther and a union jack on one of his arms.

He is still a passionate believer in Islam - but he says his understanding of his faith has changed.

Having once regarded the victims of terrorist attacks as "collateral damage", he now says he believes all human life is sacred.

"Allah says in the Koran that the one who takes one life unjustly - it is like he has killed the whole of mankind. This is my understanding now," he says.

This new understanding began, Ali says, when Usman Raja of charity the Unity Initiative came to see him.

"Usman came with a message of love. Bit by bit he delivered to me the true message of the Prophet," he says.

'Taking away hate'

Beheshti is one of a number of former extremists helped by Mr Raja and the Unity Initiative to turn away from violence by reaching a better understanding of their faith.

Following the attack in Woolwich in May in which Drummer Lee Rigby was killed, the intensity of Mr Raja's work has increased.

Image caption,
Beheshti was jailed in July 2009

Time for conversation is scarce as he races between prison visits. On a train journey across London to see an offender, he explains his approach.

"When the correctional system works properly they have a lot of time for introspection," he says.

"You are supporting them by taking away their hate. Hate is a heavy thing to carry."

Government officials would not comment publicly on the charity's work but its access to extremist offenders speaks to the regard in which it is held.

In press reports much is made of Mr Raja's work as a mixed martial arts (MMA) trainer - the sport that would rather not be known as "cage fighting".

Growing up in a single-parent home in a part of Hampshire with strong military traditions, Mr Raja relates quickly and easily to MMA's tough characters.

But it is theology not martial arts that underpins his work, he says. Mr Raja calls the approach "re-radicalisation" - not trying to lessen offenders' commitment to their faith, but instead developing an understanding of the importance of peace in Islam.

Common concern

The Unity Initiative was founded four years ago under the instruction of Islamic scholar Shaykh Ali Abdul Qadir al-Tahiri.

Image caption,
Martin Rynja's home was targeted in September 2008

The half a dozen or so Unity staff and volunteers help extremists embrace what they regard as the original message of their faith, which expresses a common concern for humanity.

"So if I give you an example - if an extremist turns round and says, 'They killed our children so we should kill their children,' my answer is: 'All children are our children,'" Mr Raja says.

Wael Zubi, Unity's ideological expert, argues extremists follow a version of Islam that is at odds with its history and tradition.

"Islam is an oral tradition, and it was a tradition that could co-exist with Hindus, with Buddhists, with Jews and with Christians," he says.

However, political anger at some of the actions of the West is still evident in some of the former extremists with whom Unity works.

Forthright views

Accompanying Mr Raja on a journey to meet other Unity volunteers, one former offender who declined to be interviewed said he felt he had been used as a puppet by extremists. But he also raised critical questions about government policy towards Muslims.

Beheshti also remains forthright in his views.

Image caption,
Usman Raja coaches cage-fighter Alex Reid in mixed martial arts

He still believes the Jewel of Medina to be offensive, though he now says he was wrong to resort to violence.

On foreign policy, he objects that "no-one ever asks me" about what he sees as the Muslim victims of Western military action in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

But his political observations are tempered with moments of reflection, when the pace and volume of his speech dips and the relief that Mr Raja describes in letting go of hate becomes evident.

Beheshti's task, he now believes, is to spread the message of non-violence to others.

"If you believe the peaceful method is the only way, you want to make sure everyone else has got what you've got because what you've got is priceless," he says.

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