One leader's quest to tackle violent extremism, gang and street crime in the East End of London

Of the 2.5 million people who visited the Olympics in London this year, few would have been aware that within a javelin throw of the main gates was one of the most culturally-diverse, economically-deprived, and violent neighborhoods in Great Britain.          
Hanif Qafir

Of the 2.5 million people who visited the Olympics in London this year, few would have been aware that within a javelin throw of the main gates was one of the most culturally-diverse, economically-deprived, and violent neighborhoods in Great Britain. It was here, in 2006, the majority of arrests were made of people suspected of terrorism after the 7/7 bombings in London. And at its epicenter is Waltham Forrest, now home to the Active Change Foundation and Hanif Qadir.

Born in 1965 in the predominantly Christian community of Cleveland, UK, Hanif was still a child when his family moved to East London and the more culturally-diverse area of Walthamstow. Here he spent his most impressionable years as a teen and young adult, and later went into the motor trade with his two brothers, Imtiaz and Abad.

 

But in 2002, Hanif took a detour from what appeared to be his chosen path toward a fairly traditional life. He sold what was by then a very lucrative family business and bought a one-way ticket to Pakistan. Like so many young British Muslims at the time, Hanif was angry. Incensed by what he saw happening to the innocent victims of the ‘War on Terror’ in the Middle East, his mission in leaving home was to relieve the suffering.

The experience of being in Pakistan, however, forced Hanif to examine his own conscience and while still determined to make a difference, Hanif saw a new and more authentic path for himself. He returned to Waltham Forrest on a more personal Jihad: to support the vulnerable people of East London.

 

Hanif had found a way to refocus his anger—from a destructive force into one of constructive purposefulness. He had chosen to leave behind the world of hate-fuelled fighting and, instead, take on a different challenge: to replace despair and alienation with hope and personal growth for the young people in urban East London. He had found his leadership voice.

 

Within a year of Hanif’s return, the Active Change Foundation (ACF) was born. Supported by his two brothers and Mike Jervis, an authority on London gang violence, they created nothing short of a magnet for kids ‘on the street’. The tangible fruit of their hard work is a youth club, complete with gym, boxing club, prayer room, canteen, quiet areas, TV room, Internet access, a domestic violence refuge, and car workshop. 

In addition to the support that the physical structure provides, the impact of Hanif’s leadership goes much deeper.  All the members of the Active Change Foundation leadership team know first-hand the social, cultural, and faith- based challenges faced by young people in the East End. They understand how the isolation, alienation, and lack of opportunities that are endemic in that part of London lead to religious extremism, gang violence, and street crime. Hanif and his colleagues have been there, and they make no bones about their previous involvement on what they describe as “the dark side”. They are credible. The young people they want to reach out to and support listen to their counter-narratives for religious extremism and gang/street violence.  They are well-networked in the local neighborhood, the media and the corridors of power. They have an uncanny feel for where unrest is brewing and know what needs to be done to prevent it.

 

Perhaps most important to the success of ACF is that the strong convictions Hanif and his team hold give them the courage to take action, and to enable others to take action as well.  For example, through regular ‘scenario’ rehearsals, and debrief and personal mentoring, outreach workers are prepared to confront those intent on fueling and recruiting these vulnerable and susceptible young minds to violent extremism. These outreach teams can often be found on the streets of East London, engaging groups on street corners and in parks to challenge prejudices, to talk through what appeared on the evening news,  or to debate the harassment or arrest of a friend.

 

Hanif also has an extraordinary ability to foster collaboration between groups of people who would otherwise struggle to work together. That’s what really defines Hanif’s leadership: his ability to act as a bridge between those in power and those outside the system, and bring both sides together to address serious social concerns. In fact, the successful work of Hanif and ACF recently caught the attention of the Forward Thinking charity and, in particular, one of its Trustees, Chris Donnelly, former advisor to NATO’s Secretary General for 16 years and well-known and well-respected in UK government circles.  As a result of Hanif’s leadership, the ACF has received much-needed financial support and has raised awareness and concern among mainstream authorities of what people were starting to recognise as a significant domestic issue in the UK.

 

One very successful initiative at the ACF has been its Young Leader Programme, an ongoing series of workshops and activities based on Kouzes & Posner’s The Five Practices of Exemplary LeadershipÒ framework. Started in 2008, this initiative is designed to challenge personal and collectively-held beliefs, with a goal to increase understanding and tolerance, by bringing together young people with violent and religious extremists, firemen, rape victims, police commissioners and community liaison officers, knife crime victims and perpetrators, Army Generals and Muslim Clerics & Christian Bishops. All of which has led to many extraordinary educational moments for all involved. Physical group challenges, (e.g., caving, climbing, first aid training, firefighting, canoeing) are mixed with serious debate on subjects that tend to polarise opinion: The London Riots, British foreign policy, and the education of women in Pakistan.  Specific topics are also introduced to defuse current street-level tensions (e.g., the treatment of Muslims in Gaza by Israeli forces). People are encouraged to take part as human beings—not as a representative of a particular agency or role. Meals are cooked and dishes are washed together. Human cultures, concerns and hopes are shared.

We’ve watched the Young Leader Programme grow year-after-year under Hanif’s continuing guidance, reaching out with hope and purpose to those without either.  And what we have discovered is that disaffection, alienation, and hopelessness in deprived urban environments is not restricted to only young Muslims. In fact, since 2009, we’ve come to see non-Muslim youngsters increasingly drawn to the uplifting work of ACF because the fact is that violent extremism, in all its ugly forms, is a consequence of lost hope and a lost sense of community rather than driven by any religious doctrine. There will always be extremists who prey on vulnerable youngsters to further their cause—whether  it be religious fundamentalism, criminality, or gang warfare—by appearing to offer what many young people seek: a sense of belonging, purpose, excitement, adventure, and discipline.

 

Hanif’s mission, and that of the Active Change Foundation, is to ensure that youngsters living in London’s East End are not open and vulnerable to those extremist influences in the first place. ACF offers all that young people are seeking—belonging, purpose, discipline—but with a very different purpose! Hanif and his colleagues are replacing fear with hope and actively engaging people from all walks of life in building the kind of community they want to grow up in and live in. In so doing, they are converting these potentially divisive and destructive forces into constructive common purpose. Which is, after all, what all leaders do…

 

Who knows how many lives Hanif and his team have changed for the better? Like most extraordinary leaders, he is not busy quantifying his impact, merely paranoid that it is inadequate. I can, however, guarantee you that he has changed at least one … Mine!

 

Chris Nel is a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge. When not helping his commercial clients with their leadership development, he happily volunteers his time as a leadership mentor for the Active Change Foundation where he uses the Kouzes & Posner’s The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® model and the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI®) framework to coach outreach workers and community leaders.  He can be reached at chris.nel@questld.eu. For more information about ACF, visit www.activechangefoundation.org.

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