Caught between extremes
How does a regular kid from North London become radicalised? It was a question I asked Cosh Omar; he knows, he’s that regular kid. Now 40, Cosh was affiliated to the infamous radical Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, for three years while in his twenties. Cosh’s reasons on why he fell in with HB tell us a lot about the problem with politics in this country.
A Turkish Cypriot, Cosh Omar grew up in London as part of the immigrant class in the 70s and 80s. From the beginning he didn’t belong. He watched the TV programmes of the time -Brideshead Revisited, The Good Life- in wide-eyed wonder.
‘I wanted to be those kids, I wanted to live in a home like that, all that grandeur, the style, the elegance. But I knew couldn’t be part of it.’
Cosh says that British identity is exclusionary. If you’re not the same, there’s no way in. He contrasts the UK with the US. The Italo-Americans, the Jewish-Americans, are a central part of American identity. Can you imagine America without The Godfather, without Woody Allen, without Seinfeld? The ethnic immigrant story is the story of America.
There’s a word that describes it. Yearning. And that can turn into something else: ‘There is that ethnic mindset that your home is a foreign country. That’s why we can’t be middle class white. Come out of your house and you’re immediately on the defensive.’
Cosh isn’t a chap to be easily cowed; as a young man he was determined to be cool. First a mod, then a rocker, he finally found his groove with American retro and rockabilly. But then 1988 arrived and acid house took hold of the nation. ‘It went bananas, everyone was taking pills, wearing their pyjamas.’
Cosh had spent a lifetime carving out an identity and overnight it was gone. And then politics got interesting. This was the moment when Afghanistan kicked the Russians out. ‘Suddenly my Islamic identity had a meaning. I’d met people from HB before, they used to do stalls and exhibitions and conferences at Wood Green Library, and at Turnpike Lane Mosque. They weren’t a bad thing, they were just there.’
He heard a preacher called Omar Bakri Mohammed who spoke of the Muslim ummah (nation) being one body and that when any part of that body is attacked the whole body aches. That’s when he signed up. HB offered belonging, as well as a moral code. People who cared about each other and cared what society should be. So that’s how Cosh Omar came to be affiliated with HB.
What shall we blame in this story of radicalisation? Shall we blame the library? Acid house? Or charismatic religions? Cosh blames the way the Brits do identity – he calls in exclusionist.
I’ll go further. I’ll blame politics. Here’s a question: Why didn’t Cosh join any of the mainstream political parties? The answer is straightforward: They weren’t at Wood Green Library, they weren’t anywhere in his neighbourhood. They were only in places where there were other people like them.
And today, not much has changed. A representative democracy requires its political structures to represent. But our political parties don’t represent; they are as culturally exclusive as Brideshead or the Queen. And that is a disgrace.
Today, Cosh Omar is a playwright and actor.