Usama Hasan (Class of 1989)

Usama Hasan joined CLS Sixth Form on a scholarship in 1987 and went on to hold a PhD, MSc and MA in Physics and Artificial Intelligence from the Universities of Cambridge and London. Having built a successful career in science and academia, alongside service as an Imam, Usama switched careers and joined the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation in 2012. He is now an independent consultant on anti-extremism and counter-terrorism, and often appears in the written and broadcast media.

 How did you come to be at City of London School?

I was top of my class at primary school in north London. I followed the family tradition of memorising the Koran from the age of five. I never had any problems with exams.

My primary headteacher suggested my parents consider sending me to private school. They were from India and Pakistan and didn’t know the system, but they sacrificed things to send me to a prep school in Muswell Hill.

I went to Friern Barnet GS for my O Levels - they put me ahead by a year – and then to CLS for Sixth Form. The Carpenter Scholarship paid two-thirds of the fees.

Can you talk about memorising the Koran? It seems incredible…

There’s 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, and maybe one in 1000 have memorised the Koran. It’s easiest to do it when you are a child. Every Imam has had to do that. The human memory is incredible. People in a western setting are astounded. The closest I can think of is actors who learn a complete Shakespeare play.

When I was 11, in 1982, I went to Mecca for the International Holy Koran competition. There were 600 people taking part. You had to recite verses in front of a crowd of 3000 people. Terrifying!

My memory of the Koran has become much better from 30 years of reciting in the Mosque: you start by leading prayers, which you can do when you’re a child.

Which teachers do you remember from CLS?

Terry Herd was my form tutor and a brilliant maths teacher. He’d written two of the textbooks we used at CLS. He taught us the basics of calculus so well. I did A-Levels in Maths. Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Typical boffin subjects!

Rob Hubbard was also a great maths teacher – and a great character, joking all the time.

My two years at CLS were the only time the school experimented with admitting girls into the Sixth Form. Three girls amongst 200 boys. They had crowds of boys around them wherever they went. That was the first time I learned to talk to girls, I suppose. I’d had a strict Muslim upbringing, with strict gender segregation.

Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy?

I was in the cricket first XI at CLS. I had learned my cricket on the streets of Karachi in our family summer holidays when we went to stay with my grandparents. I was a spin bowler.

At CLS, Bob Hubbard, the maths teacher was also the second XI coach in my first year. Batting in the nets, I moved my feet to the first ball I faced and Bob Hubbard said: ‘Right, he’s in!”

They made me an opening batsman. My highest score was 13 including three fours!

What other memories do you have of CLS?

I was the first Muslim to ask for a prayer room at CLS and I’d take five minutes at lunch to go and pray. Only once did a Muslim kid join me, from the lower years.

I was chuffed when my younger brother went to CLS too and became deputy head boy.

All the boys were very hard-working. We pushed each other hard. We all did our homework on time. There was real competition. I enjoyed that. I thrived on it.

How would you describe your current work?

My job title is ‘consultant on counter-extremism’. More broadly, I would describe myself a teacher. Activist, speaker, writer, broadcaster. I’ve written a couple of books. My passions are religion and science.

What did you do after leaving CLS?

My masters was in Artificial intelligence (AI) at Kings College, Cambridge. My PhD was at Imperial College, sponsored by the National Grid company. After Imperial, I worked in AI, data mining and then automatic numberplate recognition. When I felt burnt out by industry, I moved into education. I taught for a year in Pakistan then nine years at Middlesex University.

I enjoyed my career in industry and academia. But when I reached 40, I needed to change. With my background and the way the world had gone after 9/11 and 7/7, I started to feel drawn towards full-time Islamic studies.  

I come from a family of scholars… to see London, my home town, hit on 7/7, attacked by people claiming to act in the name of  the Koran and Islam… My first love is the Koran, the word of God. To see terrorists completely besmirching the reality of our faith which is based on mercy... was deeply traumatic.

You study medieval Islamic scholarship to show how extremists are misinterpreting The Koran…

The Islamist groups have a very naïve view of the world. They dismiss democracy…. They say you must follow God’s law, that you cannot have manmade laws. It’s all nonsense. The Koran is a scripture; you need human interpretation. God doesn’t give you details.

So a lot of my work is to bring out how the extremists are misinterpreting The Koran. I show how, from very early on, there was an incredible richness and diversity to Islamic culture, in theology and law and jurisprudence; in the arts and science.

Sadly, we have lost that richness now. The discourse around Islam is often really narrow and shallow. Fundamentalists and terrorist groups crack down on the arts and literature and freedom of expression… different interpretations of Islam are seen as heretical.

But a lot of these groups are not very well read. They might have read one or two interpretations of the Koran. But over the last 14 centuries, there have been thousands.

I’m trying to encourage the rediscovery of that original diversity.

How does that scholarly approach impact upon, say, a youngster in their bedroom in danger of being radicalised?

I do write academic papers but I also write in newspapers and get shared a lot on social media. I appear on radio and television. A lot of people disagree with me, but they engage with what I’m saying.

I’ve been asked to speak personally to several young men, who had been convicted of terrorism. I’ve had success. Sometimes they say, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me all this before?”

I tell them about my own past. I fought in Afghanistan. My friends fought in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Burma, you name it. I tell them how my perspective has changed.

One of the guys I worked with in prison was deradicalised the first night he was in there. The shock of being arrested and torn away from his family. He’d just got into it all online. And now his mum is in tears and he’s brought shame on the family…

But you had common ground with those people at some point?

Yeah, when I was 19, I was a firm Islamist. I went to Afghanistan in my second year at University. I went during the Christmas holidays. I was only on the frontline for one day and one night.

 

We were joining the Islamic insurrection against the Soviet regime in Kabul. We flew into Pakistan then crossed to a training camp over the border in Afghanistan, driving round hairpin bends in the snow, along narrow mountain roads, with 1000-foot drops.

I was head of the Islamic Society at Cambridge University at the time. I loved mathematics, but being a Muslim activist was part of my life as well.

Eventually, we ended up on the frontline. We were on a mountain ridge. Bitterly cold. Lots of snow. You can’t see the enemy. They are five miles away behind the next mountain. At night, we would sit in the dark with our binoculars, watching, trying to see by moonlight. The communists would fire random shots every ten minutes. It was like lightning. You’d see the flashes before the sound.

For every shell we fired, the other side fired five or ten back. Maybe they were just as amateur as we were. Suddenly, there’d be a loud explosion and it felt like the world had turned on its side. But they told me: the chances of being hit right on top of our heads from five miles away were slim…

Does it seem crazy to you now, that you were there?

No. I’m tremendously grateful for that opportunity and experience. I feel I can learn a lot from a small experience.

I only talked about it publicly after 9/11 ten years later. Then, I had to say that, “Yes, the terrorists are crazy but not everybody who goes abroad to fight for the faith, or to defend their fellow believers is a terrorist”.

We’d never have attacked our own country. To me, it didn’t make any sense. London is my home. There’s not a war here. Britain wasn’t at war with the Muslims. It’s a multicultural country. But the next generation of jihadi, after 9/11, had clearly decided that the West was a target.

I do believe that what I do now is part of the War relating to the whole 9/11 business. But it’s not Muslims versus the West. It’s good versus evil. Whoever is doing good – Muslims or Westerners, British – must be supported. And anyone who does evil – terrorists or governments or Muslims – must be opposed.