British police continue to combat ISIS' successful recruitment of teens. Humza Arshad, a British-Pakistani and Muslim comedian, has joined their efforts, creating YouTube videos and making school appearances in which he pokes fun at jihadists. Brooke talks with Arshad about using humor to resist extremism.
BROOKE: Comedian Humza Arshad is a Muslim Brit of Pakistani descent. He’s also the latest tool in the arsenal of London’s Metropolitan police, now battling ISIS recruitment of British teens. Humza’s platform is YouTube, where he ranges from slapstick…
ARSHAD: Hey guys, Rupert Salami here, reporting live on Foxy news.
Violent terrorist Muslim wind attacks a vulnerable and innocent garden chair.
Also the Queen has now been forced by the Muslims to wear the hijab.
BROOKE: to serious...
ARSHAD: They’re brainwashing you to make you think the way they think and to make you do things that have nothing to do with Islam.
VOICE: The world is against us and we gotta fight back.
ARSHAD: What with violence? Yeah? Violence? Let me tell you something, Islam is about peace.
Alongside the police, Humza has performed his counter-radicalization standup routine in front of more than 20,000 students in 60 high schools across London. Back when he was starting out as an actor, Humza said he was shoved into reductive roles like “terrorist number one.” Until he posted his first video and skyrocketed to internet stardom.
ARSHAD: In twenty-four hours I had five thousand views. Now that wasn’t much. But for me because it was my first time, I was so happy, I was just like, ‘oh my god, either I’ve got five thousand new fans or just one person who's seen my stuff five thousand times.' Either way I was happy! And then it just started spreading and it just went to 20, 30, 40,000. Now on my YouTube channel, Humza productions, I think it's 63 million and counting.
BROOKE: Wow. Now, what is this 'bad man' that you have created?
ARSHAD: I'm just basically playing a young Asian British muslim, living in London, he tries to be bad, he tries to be like a gangster, but he's the complete opposite. He keeps getting beat up by his mom, girls - basically my life. But I just over-exaggerated it a bit.
BROOKE: Well you said he has the mind of a seven year old, and a face like a gerbil -- I think that that's a really wild exaggeration.
ARSHAD: Okay, yeah, sometimes I have the intelligence of, you know, an 8 year old. No, thank you for that. And yeah, I talked about culture, I talked about things that people can relate to, and I think that's what resonated with the fans, because it had meaning, it had heart.
BROOKE: But, you weren't touching on the subject of terrorism in those early diaries at all, were you?
ARSHAD: No. That wasn't the plan - I would never have predicted that I would be doing radicalization and terrorism and stuff like that. Something completely out of the box for me. And probably out of my comfort zone at first as well.
BROOKE: You were 15 on September 11, 2001.
ARSHAD: I think I was, yeah.
BROOKE: I read somewhere that your mother watched the Twin Towers and said, "now it's going to be even harder to be a Muslim." Was it hard to be a Muslim before, and did you notice it getting harder after?
ARSHAD: I don't want to kind of play that card and say "oh it was so hard for me growing up as a Muslim." It wasn't a struggle. But it did become harder for a Muslim, because it felt that people have a certain perception of us now.
BROOKE: Now, how you got into this counter-terrorism messaging business which was outside as you say of your comfort zone, was because one of the many hooked on bad man was the 11 year old son of a police constable, an officer, in the East Midlands Special Operations Unit, who called up his extended family, found out they all knew about you, and then called you.
ARSHAD: Yeah, and the first thing was "why is the police calling me? what have I done wrong? Have they caught me? I don't know what was going on." But then I realized, okay, hang on, you know, they come in peace. So we had a meeting. Basically what they were trying to do was prevent young kids from being radicalized. And the audience that they were trying to, you know, reach happened to all watch my videos. They thought that instead of them going to schools and trying to talk to the kids, if they collaborated with me, with my comedy, I can use that to entertain them and engage with them, but still have that same message at the end.
BROOKE: I just wonder whether the association with the police creates a problem. I mean, here in the US it probably would. There's a distrust in many cities between the police and the Muslim community. I'm assuming there must be some of that in Britain.
ARSHAD: At first I did kind of think, well, you know, will this hurt my street cred? Working with the police? But then I realized I don't have much street cred in the first place. When I spoke to them I understood what their intentions were, and I felt I had a sort of responsibility as a British citizen, and also as a Muslim. I thought that that would be a great chance to kind of step up to the plate, and kind of do my part by doing something positive. I don't want to be used as a propaganda tool in any way. All I want to do is just teach these young kids how to stay safe, and teach them what Islam is really about. And that these few misguided individuals, what they are doing, they are preying on these young kids, they're making them feel that what they're doing is for god and they make them feel that something that is wrong is right. And what I'm trying to do is say to these kids, look, this is not the way, Islam is about peace, and to keep these young kids safe. And I don't think that many people will have too much of a problem when I break it down like that.
BROOKE: Now, a lot of your jokes involve basically making fun of jihadist extremists in small, tame ways, like you know, their dry ankles, or why do they sit on the floor.
ARSHAD: Yeah, they are quite dry, to be fair. You've seen the videos on YouTube, you know. A lot of people, they say, 'is this the best way to tackle radicalization?" and I turn around and I say, 'maybe not, but everyone loves to laugh.' When you make someone laugh it breaks the ice. They feel relaxed, and then you can touch on certain topics that they might not feel comfortable in talking about at first.
BROOKE: Do you know whether or not this approach actually works?
ARSHAD: I genuinely believe, hand on heart, that it has worked. Because when i went on tour and i saw so many kids, I experienced it firsthand, you know, seeing their faces when I would talk about serious things, but some of the best and most kind of productive moments in that tour was when I went to the smaller schools and smaller classes where I actually had the one to ones with a few, you know, young kids who have issues. The way these misguided individuals, as I call them, when they prey on these young kids they do two things. They prey on their passion for god. And they will turn it. So they will say you're doing it in the name of god. And then they would misquote things and they would lie and say 'oh it says this it says that' -- it doesn't, you know. You can look it up yourself, it doesn't. And also what they do is they enrage these young kids, they say look, look what's going on here and look at what's going on with the Muslim people, we've got to fight back, we're at war with the West, and they build up that anger. When I've spoken to a few young kids that I can see it in their eyes, they have some issues, and spending time with them, and talking to them, and them seeing me as a older brother from all their questions, they end up with, "you've got a fair point, you're right." Just by them saying that, from how they were maybe at the beginning, it does feel that, you know, I've made a difference.
BROOKE: Humza, thank you very much.
ARSHAD: Thank you so much for having me!
BROOKE: Humza Arshad is a comedian, actor, and YouTube star.