Why The Unity Initiative is Effective a scholars opinion
To Whom it may Concern:
It is my pleasure to introduce Usman Raja. I first met Mr Raja in 2013 while working at the University of St Andrews. At the time, I was working on a large EU funded multi-country two year study of mentors working with terrorism offenders. As the primary researcher for England and Wales, I interviewed 23 mentors along with six individuals that the UK government would classify as extremists, including three that had been through the mentoring process. The primary goal was to determine how and why the mentors got into mentoring. However, the initial goal was immediately eclipsed by issues of efficacy, methodology, credibility, and legitimacy in the eyes of those they mentor, the community, and within government.
All of the interviews were recorded and then thematically coded. Whenever possible, information was cross checked by posing similar questions to other mentors, those that had been through the mentoring process or would otherwise be able to verify or refute the information, and a few trusted contacts in government who spoke off the record. Although I was not able to interview all of the approximate 50 Home Office 'approved' mentors, my sense is that I was able to interview those that are most active, who the others know, and those that are known to be legitimate. That assessment comes from the fact that snowballing techniques were used to conduct this research; begin with a small number of contacts and asking who else should be interviewed. One thing that was clear from the start is that capabilities, credibility, and legitimacy vary considerably. More directly, within the relatively small cadre of those with the necessary credibility and legitimacy to engage in effective mentoring, not all possess the same capability. Some work well with youth but do not have the requisite skill to mentor those that are more committed and/or are coming out of prison. Similarly, those that specialise in those coming out of prison are not always well suited for youth work. Thus, there is a limited and specialised spectrum of capability. Particularly within the group of the most hardened and committed offenders, my assessment is that Usman Raja and Unity Initiative is at the forefront of mentoring those individuals.
I was introduced to Mr Raja through another mentor. In fact, several of the mentors that I was interviewing at the time recommended that I speak to Mr Raja. Given the respect that Mr Raja had earned within a small and relatively close knit group of individuals, it was clear from early on that Mr Raja possessed skills that others doing intervention work did not have.
Over the last two years I have interacted with Mr Raja on numerous occasions and have found his approach insightful and effective. I make that claim because of a variety of reasons. First, I specialise in radicalisation and have an extensive background interacting with the radical Islamic fringe in the UK and elsewhere, I know the environment, the methods used for recruitment, and how the radical fringe operates from years of first-hand experience. As passionate and committed as those individuals are, Mr Raja matches that passion and commitment in his desire for successful intervention. More directly, from my research, I can confidently say that the commitment and passion Mr Raja displays is not universal. Nor I am not alone in my observations. Other mentors and even those he mentors have made similar statements.1
Although passion and commitment is arguably a must in this environment, there are several things that must come together to achieve a successful outcome. Other key attributes include: street credibility, community credibility, religious credibility, and a holistic approach. During my research many of the mentors were found to be missing one or in some cases several of these attributes. This is not the case with Mr Raja.
As an example, although Mr Raja did not grow up in London, he moved there in his teenage years and has maintained a presence there ever since. His 'local' status, mixed martial arts, and coaching has extended well beyond his gym. Combined they have given him the needed street credibility to interact with those involved in militant, radicalised, extremist Islam.
The current radical Islamist movement is fundamentally a deviant sub-culture that has a defined gangster like thread to it. It's life blood is sustained by the promotion of a jihadist mono-culture whereby one is either part of that elitist group of the righteous few or they de-valued for being in the camp of the kuffar (non-believer). In the UK, extremist Islam is rooted as a street-level phenomenon where one's identity is exploited, and recruitment and rhetoric is fueled by domestic policy and international events. Although Mr Raja is clearly not a gangster, he is a product of the same environment, can talk the talk, and demonstrates a degree of toughness that those within the radical extremist movement respect from a street level perspective.
In the mentoring environment, the community as well those engaged in extremist groups know exactly who the legitimate and ill-legitimate actors are. The best examples of Mr Raja's community level credibility is his work through The Unity Initiative (TUI). TUI was established in 2009 as a specialist interventions consultancy group. The mission of TUI was to take on some of the most challenging extremist cases and mentor them with the goal of reducing the threat of
I should clarify that Mr Raja has never compromised the privacy of those he mentors. In those instances where I have had the opportunity to interview those that he has mentored, it was because my research as an ethnographer has afforded me the opportunity to interact with numerous radicalised individuals and extremist groups over the last five years and I leveraged those associations to interview individuals who had been through the mentoring process previously. Some of them had contact with Mr Raja. violence. Early on two critical elements emerged. The first was that Mr Raja was successful in providing interventions to some of the UK's most challenging terrorism act (Tact) offenders. In the interest of those individuals, their names will not be mentioned but taking on cases that others would not, sometimes pro bono, and having success is one of the ways that makes Mr Raja unique.
The second critical element that Mr Raja quickly learned was that successful interventions, although important, only deal with the end result of the problem, not where the problem was allowed to germinate. He quickly understood that the solution to the current wave of extremism infiltrating Islamic communities was to build a stronger, more cohesive, and resilient community which could organically reject the call of radicalisation. As such, he significantly diversified TUI to include education, community programs, social mentoring, family counseling, youth programmes, and training to front line staff where pluralism is embraced and British values are reinforced. All of which runs concurrently alongside his one to one intervention work. In doing so, his legitimacy at the community level became decidedly stronger.
As mentioned above, word travels quickly in the mentoring environment and individuals know who the legitimate and ill-legitimate actors are. Perhaps one of the best endorsements that Mr Raja enjoys is that he is routinely solicited by those in prison and others wanting to return to the UK from Syria for engagement. Although a few of the other mentors were found to receive referrals as well, my research suggests that Mr Raja receives a greater number of them and from more hard core cases.
Although Mr Raja receives requests from individuals in prison, in most cases he is not allowed to interact with them and this is in my opinion a policy area where there is lost opportunity. The current system sends radicalised individuals to prison, in most cases at least initially to Belmarsh, where they interact with other radicalised offenders. It is not until they are released that they are paired with a mentor as a requirement of their license agreement which in no small part is driven by their Multi-Agency Public Protection Agreement (MAPPA). As such, there is lost opportunity to begin the mentoring process with individuals while they are still in prison and especially so when they reach out for help. Arguably, from a public safety perspective it would be better to reduce whatever grievances an individual has before they are released from prison rather than wait until after. However, as mentioned above in most cases the current system does not allow that to happen.
In order to successfully mentor Tact offenders, religious credibility is a must. Mr Raja is able to do that through a few critical methods. First, his approach is unique. He approaches Islam through the perspective that there is an intrinsic spiritual pathway. This approach finds credence with those that he interacts with because it reduces things down to their constituent parts; it deals with the subjective and inter-subjective nature of the religion so that things can be reconstructed within a new understanding and framework that embraces pluralism, reinforces personal and social harmony, and is consistent with British values.
Mr Raja's approach is a departure from the approaches used by other mentors. Most mentors attempt to provide 'evidence' to individuals in order to convince them that they have interpreted religious texts that discuss jihad and related topics inappropriately. Their approach and potential success hinges on whether they can convince the offender that they are right in their interpretation. In the case of Mr Raja, his intrinsic spiritual pathway re-conceptualises nearly everything, not just those elements that might have a role in promoting an us versus them worldview that could then lead to violence. In Mr Raja's words this approach is to re-radicalise individuals with emphasis on humanity, global harmony, and the peaceful co-existence between the individual, society, and his/her creator. In approaching the religion in this manner, rather than trying to convince people that they have interpreted the religious texts incorrectly, there is a fundamental sea change in the individuals identity, worldview, and the way they conceptualise the religion. In doing so they willingly adopt a whole new conceptual framework. Thus, instead of trying to convince the individual that he/she went astray because they misinterpreted religious text, those that Mr Raja mentors willingly adopt a whole new conceptual framework. This also provides greater resiliency against slipping back into an extremist mindset because it fundamentally changes the individuals entire concept of religion and their role in society.
My assessment is that one of the reasons this approach is successful is because many of the individuals who have entered into extremism have adopted a salafi interpretation which emphasises the core beliefs and practices of The Prophet and his companions. By conceptualising the religion as an intrinsic spiritual pathway, the core beliefs of The Prophet and his companions are reinforced but through a different prism of understanding. This teaching is rooted in the Habib of Yemen and Mr Raja and his wife are recognised by this group as possessing sufficient knowledge for accreditation (ijaza). The importance of this is that the teachings of the Habib of Yemen has substantial respect across a spectrum of Islamic schools of thought. This is critically important because it circumvents much of the sectarianism that is inherent within Islamic communities, allowing Mr Raja and his team to work across a broader spectrum of individuals.
Another plus is that there is depth to what Mr Raja does. Unlike many of the other mentors who function alone, he does not. As mentioned above, his wife shares the same credentials and is active in mentoring as well. Together with another colleague who has expertise in translating and contextualising ancient Islamic texts, they collectively bring depth to any intervention they take on. This is again unique in this environment and my research suggests that mentors who only focus on one thing (typically religious doctrine) are generally not successful. It takes a wide range of social and religious counseling, education, mentoring, outreach, job assistance, and housing assistance to be successful and Mr Raja through TUI and BMP is engaged in all of those areas.
As mentioned at the beginning, within the mentoring environment there is no one size fits all. Capabilities vary substantially, as does legitimacy, credibility, and commitment. As an ethnographic researcher who has interacted with radicalised extremists for 15 years now I would argue that the one thing that is common to all of the individuals who have left those movements is the desire to leave the conflict and stress that lifestyle brings and live life in a more harmonious way. Sometimes that desire is inherent in the individual and other times it takes an individual like Mr Raja to demonstrate there is an alternative. To that end I think Mr Raja is well equipped to help facilitate that process.
Should the opportunity become available to begin mentoring individuals in prison, my assessment is that the best chance of success is with Mr Raja. He has the needed street credibility, community legitimacy, religious knowledge, and has demonstrated his capability time again by engaging with some of the UK's most committed, violent, and dangerous offenders and achieving successful intervention outcomes. His methods also provide greater resilience to radicalised belief that the others simply do not have.
I unreservedly support the work the Mr Raja does, his commitment to the community and offenders alike, and his vision for the future.
Dr. Douglas Weeks