BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Taunted by racists as a “Paki” and “terrorist,” Haroon bin Khaled spent his teenaged years feeling rejected by mainstream Britain and increasingly drawn to al Qaeda extremism.
But the young Muslim of Pakistani descent found an unexpected answer to his alienation the day he heard the story of how Muslim soldiers, many from what is now Pakistan, fought and died alongside Britons against the Nazis in World War Two.
Almost at a stroke, the jobless young man with an unpromising future felt a sense of belonging. As he examined the facts, he began to shed his belief Britain despised him or that fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan was a worthwhile idea.
“Truthfully, it touched me,” said the former gang member, now 21 and with a prison stretch for fraud behind him.
“If that could be shown to other youths it could make a big difference.”
That “difference” could be better community relations, hurt in the years after the September11, 2001 attacks on the United States and especially after four young British Islamists carried out suicide bombings in London in July 2005, killing 52 people.
It could also help security by dissuading Muslim men from joining the Taliban war against Western forces in Afghanistan, or from taking part in attacks at home such as the London bombings or attacks in Madrid in 2004 that killed 191 people.
Bin Khaled is one of dozens of youths of Pakistani descent in the industrial second city of Birmingham to have attended a workshop by academic Jahan Mahmood that uses the Muslim role in the war to wean young men away from extremism and alienation.
Jahan says his presentation is intended to counter the notion of perennial confrontation between Christians and Muslims that al Qaeda seeks to present as an immutable fact of history.
Another attendee was Sabeel Saddique, 19, who used to watch videos of al Qaeda beheadings on his mobile phone for kicks and still feels Britain does not fully accept him.
“I’ve always thought that we were on our own,” the burly former gang member said in an interview in the largely immigrant Sparkbrook district, a drab district renowned for drug dealing.
“We used to think, ‘Taliban - yeah!’ We admired them, we just wanted to be like them because everyone was always on about ‘Muslims are terrorists’ and it just used to make us angry.”
Saddique said when New York’s World Trade Center was attacked “we all thought it was cool ... But now I see it in a different way. That’s all just wrong. It’s killing innocents.”
He still opposes Western armed action in Muslim countries. But he says his sense of belonging to Britain and his distaste for al Qaeda is real and stems from Jahan’s lecture, which showed “what our grandparents have done for the country.”
He just wishes white Britons knew that history as well.
“We are part of this country no matter what, because we did fight. You just don’t feel like it, because the people don’t know about it, and they don’t treat us like we’re part of it,” he added.
Bash Arat Najib, a youth counselor in the nearby town of West Bromwich, said Jahan’s workshop got a “very, very positive” reaction among the alienated young men he works with, many of whom are of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. Many often ask why they weren’t taught this information about the war at school.
“The vision they had from school was Germany on one side, Britain on the other, and the Americans coming in at the end,” he said.
“They have no affinity with Britain though they may be born here. But the soldiers’ story gives them a sense of belonging. It gives the missing ingredient of affection for the country.”
The workshop tells how soldiers volunteered in the army of Britain’s then Indian colony and fought in north Africa and Italy.
India’s army grew from 200,000 in 1939 to 2.5 million in 1945, with Muslims making up about a third of the numbers at any one time. Most Muslim recruits came from what is now Pakistan.
In all, 87,000 Indian army soldiers were killed in the war, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Jahan’s study, which focuses on 5,500 Indian army deaths in Italy, fascinates its audiences because it breaks down Muslim casualties according to recruitment areas within British India, and then traces links between today’s British Pakistani communities and the areas where recruitment took place.
Young Muslims specially identify with Jahan’s finding that of the 122 deaths of soldiers under 18 in Italy, 90 were Muslim. Among them were three 15-year-olds — Amir Khan, from Attock, Gulab Khan, from Rawalpindi, and Mian Khan, from Kohat.
In a lecture at Oxford University in April, Jahan spoke of a “a pressing need to restore a sense of identity and self esteem for young British Muslims today.”
“If more was known about the contribution of so many Muslim soldiers of the British Indian Army, it would help to restore a sense of pride, cement the social bonds of different communities in British society, and turn the idea of a shared heritage into a meaningful weapon against prejudice,” he said.
The workshop was funded by a state program called “Positive Futures” which supports local initiatives to help disengaged and vulnerable young people.
Editing by Sophie Hares