KATRIN BENNHOLD
Humza Arshad pokes fun at Pakistani accents and emotional soccer fans. He jokes about his weight, his voice and his own mother. But mostly, he laughs at jihadists .
“Have you noticed how in those terrorist videos they’re always sitting on the floor?” Mr. Arshad asked a group of high school students the other day. “What’s up with that? I swear they can afford a chair.”
Mr. Arshad , 29, is no ordinary comedian . A practicing Muslim in hip-hop gear whose YouTube videos have drawn millions of views, he is the centerpiece of the British government’s latest and perhaps cleverest effort to prevent students from running off to Syria and joining the Islamic State. Since March, Mr. Arshad has been on tour with the counterterrorism unit of the Metropolitan Police. They have already taken their double act (“Ten percent message, 90 percent comedy”) to more than 20,000 students in 60 high schools across London.
Now Mr. Arshad , who says he first discovered stand-up as a 10-year-old watching American shows like “Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam,” hopes to take his act across the Atlantic: At the end of the month he is headed to New York and Los Angeles to meet with Hollywood studios and television networks - and hold exploratory talks with American schools on his counterextremism work.
About 700 British Muslims have traveled to Syria, including dozens of minors. Schools here have been on high alert especially since February, when three teenage girls left their family homes in east London. The footage of them calmly passing airport security has become emblematic of the youthful following faraway militants have established in the West - often using the same social media that has given Mr. Arshad his fan base. He knows the brother of one of the girls well.
“I wish I could have prevented my friend’s sister from going,” he told the packed auditorium at a west London high school that recent afternoon. It was one of the rare serious moments in a 45-minute stand-up show that mostly saw him mocking converts with “beards to their belly buttons,” terrorists with dry ankles (“from all that sitting on the floor”) and - affectionately - his own mother, a Muslim who came to Britain from rural Pakistan and wears a head scarf. (“Is she really as bad as you say on YouTube?” one student asked. “No,” Mr. Arshad replied. “Much worse.”)
“Listen, I’m here for two reasons,” he said. “No. 1, I’m a British citizen, and I’m proud of where I’m from. No. 2, I don’t want people losing their lives. That’s not what Islam is about.”
“But there are some misguided individuals who are giving us a bad name,” he said. “We all have to do our part.”
It is a message that police officers find harder to communicate, said Rick Warrington of the Counter Terrorism Command, or SO15, who held the session with Mr. Arshad .
“There is always that barrier,” he said. “I remove all badging from the presentation; I come in plainclothes but I’m still a 45-year-old white police officer.”
Sometimes the police bring in Muslim charity workers to talk to students one-on-one. That does not always go down well.
“They bring in all these ‘moderate Muslims’ to talk to us,” sighed one 15-year-old girl of Bengali descent, who preferred not to be identified. “What does that make us?”
Like many students in the schools he visits, Mr. Arshad takes his religion seriously. Back in his purple-colored south London bedroom, the backdrop to many of his YouTube videos, the first item on a to-do list on his white board is “pray.”
But that does not stop him from ridiculing jihadists .
“Their ankles are very dry,” he said. “I’m just, like, looking at the ankles, and I’m thinking, bro, I don’t even think they have E45 cream in Syria. Maybe we should make a donation.”
Why do you always wear a beanie? a student heckled, pointing at Mr. Arshad’s hallmark woolly hat. “It’s like the male version of the hijab,” he shouts back. “This is the man-jab, know what I mean?”
At one point, the fire alarm went off. Mr. Arshad did not miss a beat: “What the heck? Terror attack! ISIS!”
At times lacking in subtlety, his humor still provides comic relief to an audience that has found itself under the microscope in the news media, in school and sometimes at home. These days, jokes about terrorism are not just frowned upon, “they can get you into trouble,” explained one girl of Somalian descent after seeing Mr. Arshad’s show.
Born and raised in south London, Mr. Arshad experienced first hand how perceptions of Muslims changed in Britain. He was 15 and on the school bus home when terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center in 2001. Four years later, a series of suicide bombs blew up on London’s public transport system. Each time, he found his mother glued to the television, his mother “who never watches television,” and each time she told him: “It will be even harder to be a Muslim now.”
After finishing drama school and seeing one friend after another land jobs in television or on stage, Mr. Arshad found himself being offered minor roles as, well, the terrorist.
“I didn’t want to be typecast as the Muslim, you know, Terrorist No. 2 on the plane with just one line: ‘Allahu Akbar!’” he said in a recent interview at his home (he still lives with his parents).
The idea of creating his own show on YouTube came in September 2010, after a video he uploaded went viral. It was a nine-minute clip about a young Muslim in high-top sneakers and a hoodie complaining about his Pakistani mother, who beat him up and cooked too many lentils. The video hit 5,000 views on the first day. “I thought to myself, ‘Either I’m onto something, or some freak has watched this 5,000 times,’?” he said.
But within 10 days, the clip had more than a million views. “Diary of a Bad Man” was born, a YouTube satire of life as a young British Asian that rapidly attracted a mass teenage following. Today, Mr. Arshad’s YouTube channel has over 245,000 subscribers.
One of the teenagers who got hooked on Bad Man was the 11-year-old son of Rizwaan Chothia, a police constable. Constable Chothia, an officer in an East Midlands special operations unit, watched over his son’s shoulder one night and later scrolled through Mr. Arshad’s other videos, noticing his follower numbers and calling around his extended family across Britain.
“Every teenager in my family knew him,” recalled Constable Chothia.
Soon after, he met Mr. Arshad and they agreed to produce a video together to show in schools as part of a police counterextremism presentation.
In the video, titled “I’m a Muslim not a terrorist,” Mr. Arshad , in character as Bad Man, notices his cousin changing as he falls into the orbit of an extremist group. “Bro, why are you looking at people getting their heads cut off and stuff?” he asks his cousin, later speculating to a friend: “Maybe he’s going through puberty.” “He’s 23,” the friend replies. “He’s Asian, you know,” Bad Man answers. “Maybe he’s late.”
In the end, thanks to a series of frank conversations with Bad Man, the cousin abandons extremism.
It was a big decision to work with the police, Mr. Arshad said: “Of course I was worried that it would hurt my street cred.” But he wanted to do his part. The hate mail still gets to him. “I’m not a politician, I’m a comedian ,” he said.–NY Times