Former radical Muslim now Christian calls for end to antisemitism in new film ‘Never Again?’

In a display of solidarity, holocaust survivor, Irving Roth, and Muslim turned pro-Israel activist, Kasim Hafeez, show their matching tattoos in NEVER AGAIN? (PHOTO:  130 Agency)

By Jeannie Law — Originally published in The Christian Post

Antisemitism is on the rise throughout the world and to combat increasing prejudice and persecution, Christians United for Israel is releasing a documentary titled Never Again? which features the powerful testimony of a former radical Muslim who now travels the world calling for an end to hatred against Jews. 

CUFI, the largest pro-Israel organisation in the US, is presenting Never Again? in theaters across the USA on October 13 and 15. The film features commentary from Holocaust survivor Irving Roth and former radical Islamist Kasim Hafeez. The two have formed an unlikely friendship after Hafeez denounced his former radicalized Muslim extremist ideologies. 

Although he once believed he was a “victim” at the hands of the Jewish people and the West, Hafeez has now dedicated his voice to educate younger generations about the history and horrors of modern-day anti-Semitism.

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“In Pakistan, I came across actual violent terrorist groups, and it’s interesting because that victim narrative makes you feel helpless and these terrorist groups, while they do abhorrent things, you look at them and go, ‘Well, at least they’re not victims,’” Hafeez told The Christian Post.

Now an American citizen and born-again Christian, Hafeez shows his display of solidarity in Never Again? as he and holocaust survivor Roth tell their stories. In the film, they even show their matching tattoos. The tattoo was given to Roth when he was a prisoner in a German concentration camp and Hafeez copied the tattoo as a way to never forget what hatred did to an entire race of people.

Before filming for Never Again? Hafeez admitted that he had never really confronted who he was back when he was radicalised and he believes others should take very careful inventory of their own thoughts and bigotries against others.

The Pew Research Center released a survey in January 2020 that found 45% of Americans surveyed were unaware that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. According to Never Again? and CUFI founder and Chairman Pastor John Hagee, it’s important people remain aware of what’s going on because “violent anti-Semitism is rising” across America. The organisation is encouraging people to not be “idly” standing by.

The following is an edited transcript of The Christian Post’s interview with Hafeez, who details his process from once being a radicalised anti-Semite to becoming an advocate who defends Israel on the world stage. 

Hafeez: I grew up in the U.K., my family had come to the U.K. from Pakistan as economic migrants. My family up to this day are fully observant Sunni-Muslims. I grew up in a predominantly Pakistani Muslim community in England. The community I grew up in was not radical or extreme by how we look at the growth of Muslim extremism in a lot of communities, but there was always this very strong vein of anti-Semitism and anti-Western sentiment. So I grew up around a lot of anti-Semitism, it was just casual. Anyone looking at it objectively can agree that bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, all of it is abhorrent and disgusting. But when you grow up around this casual anti-Semitism for most of your childhood, it no longer becomes something wrong; it’s the norm. 

One of the issues in Europe, which I feel that it isn’t really talked about or acknowledged, I live in the U.S. now, I lived in Canada for three years before, but in the U.K., I was born there, I spent the majority of my life there, and there is still this attitude which is very prevalent in Europe that to be European, race is important, you have to be white. I bring that up because [it was present] even the last time I was in the U.K. just a few years ago. I think that explains why so many young Europeans join ISIS, because there is a feeling of belonging and identity that many Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds in the U.K. simply don’t have.

It’s challenging when I’m born in Britain, my parents and grandparents are from Pakistan. I go to Pakistan, I’m the same colour as those people but I’m not Pakistani, I’m more British than Pakistani. So you have nowhere to belong. I believe that there is within every human being this sense of wanting to belong, you want somewhere to belong, and call your own. Many people in my generation, we’re kind of inclined to the things that we knew that we grew up in and was ingrained within us, which was faith. Islam was this kind of a unifying factor and you had to think into this real mix. These extremist groups came into the community, groups which were specifically reaching out to my generation. For me, growing up in the U.K., never having really experienced that kind of level of religious fanaticism, on top of that, seeking identity, it kind of gave a sense of belonging. It stills happens today. 

These extremist groups create a narrative where they turn you into a victim. In my community, there were issues which, I believe, every single immigrant community in a new country has faced. These extremist groups shape them into this narrative that this is happening because you’re Muslim. You become more inward and almost like you see an us versus them mentality, which is incredibly dangerous [especially] when the country is a country that you live in — this is your house. 

I kind of got wrapped up in them (extremist groups) when I went to Pakistan. In the U.K., you have these ideological groups but they weren’t advocating violence, they just push you towards it. In Pakistan, I came across actual violent terrorist groups, and it’s interesting because that victim narrative makes you feel helpless and these terrorist groups, while they do abhorrent things, you look at them and go, “Well, at least they’re not victims.” And because you think you’re the bigger victim, you will justify things like, “Well, yes, they kill innocent civilians, but look at what’s happening to us.” Your moral compass starts to kind of get a little tilted where you start justifying things you wouldn’t have justified. So I came back and kind of started embracing even more radical ways of thinking.

At that point, which was in 2000, just before 9/11 and directly post-9/11, it was still easy to buy a lot of extremist material in the U.K. Everything always pointed back to the same blame game, that it was the Jews and America and Israel and they were responsible for all the evil, primarily the Jews because in this narrative, they control America. So I even went to college very radicalised [with] even more extreme ideas at college. I got to a point where I was at my most radical where I believed that the only way to make real change was violence and in the process of trying to pursue that and go to a terrorist training camp, because I believed that that was the only real way, I came across this book by Alan Dershowitz. I picked it up, purely out of this arrogance of “I know I’m right, this will only reaffirm how right I am.” 

When you start to embrace extreme ideas, you surround yourself in an echo chamber. I’m in my early 20s and I’ve never read anything that challenged these things that I believe and I’ve made a decision that I’m willing to die for this cause, yet I’ve never read a conflicting opinion. That led to these strange two years of trying to just prove that I’m right because here’s a book which is written and very well-sourced, but I can accept that I’m wrong. So I keep researching and I start going more to the middle of things rather than sticking to my opinion. That was difficult to reconcile. So I decided that what I’m going to do is go to Israel, not on this quest to learn the truth but more on the hope of I will see all of the awful things that I’ve ever believed — apartheid, racism, and a violent police state. 

In 2007, knowing nobody in Israel, not speaking any Hebrew, I go to Israel and that was the turning point. To actually be there, to experience it firsthand, to see the reality of it, it changed everything. There was a point where I could no longer hide from the truth and when I came back to the U.K., I believed I had a responsibility. I didn’t think I was doing anything controversial. For me, it was just, this is what I used to believe and said, this is what I’ve seen. I’m just telling friends and family, “Hey, guys, this is reality.”

CP: How was the response?

Hafeez: The response was a lot more hostile than I thought, which was part of the reason I ended up first moving to Canada and then I got married to a woman who grew up in Florida so she refused to live somewhere where it snowed eight months of the year.

CP: How did your conversion happen, going from radical Muslim to a Christian?

Hafeez: I became a Christian a few years ago.

When I came back from Israel in 2007, for the first time I just threw everything out the window. I started reading a lot atheist books and I was like, “This just doesn’t make sense to me.” I tried to reconcile my personal beliefs with Islam and I just couldn’t. That’s no criticism of Muslims; I just couldn’t. For me, the two just couldn’t fit together. So I took this kind of approach of we’ll see what happens. 

Then I started working for Christians United for Israel. When I wasn’t a Christian and living in Canada, they hired me. I literally said to myself, “OK, this isn’t going to be like you’re going to become Christian. Not happening!” There was zero interest. I looked into a plethora of other religions and Christianity was not on the radar; [it was] never going to happen.  

About six or seven months and after doing an event in Arizona, I start reading the Bible in my hotel room because for some reason I didn’t pack any books. There’s a number of things that happen following that, even my flight back to Canada from that event, I ended up stuck at the airport in Minnesota and the coffee place was packed out. This guy goes, “You mind if I sit here [next to you]?” He happened to be a missionary and then we end up speaking for two hours. A number of things happened. I thought, “No you’re working with Christians, you speak at churches, this is just external influences.” But I got to a point where I was like, “This is actually real and I have to accept this.” And became Christian and now I’m at Bible school.

CP: What made you want to be a part of the film, Never Again?

Hafeez: I did not want to be involved in this. I was told about it and I was like, “This is really cool. I don’t want to do it.” It wasn’t because I didn’t think it was a good idea but I do like to stay out the spotlight. Before I became a Christian, there were moments where I took six, seven months away from speaking publicly because I felt like it had gone to my head and I didn’t like that at all because you start to forget why you started doing this. 

So I thought it over and I spoke to my wife and ultimately came to the conclusion that the main point of this [film] is to talk about this difficult subject and to share Irving’s story. If I can act as a vehicle to apply that into today and if the intention genuinely is to do the right thing and to glorify God, then it’s the right thing to do. That’s the kind of conclusion we came down to. 

When we started filming, while I was like “let’s get this done,” I didn’t expect it to have the impact on me that it did from a personal perspective. It’s been 13 years … since I moved here for the first time. I’ve grown in many ways, I’ve learned new things, but I’ve never really confronted who I was in the level of detail and even revisiting places like I did in the film. It was really challenging but at the same time, it was a real blessing to actually go back and really confront who I was and I was difficult.

CP: What can your friendship with Irving Roth teach people in a climate like today where racism and hatred saturate the news and social media?

Hafeez: It’s terrifying sometimes, like, “what is happening?” I think part of the issue is we’ve started dehumanising people without even realising. It’s so easy to dehumanise people and we stop treating them as people. You’ve taken a human being who has all this complexity and based on one thing [like politics] you’re deciding that you cannot talk to them. That’s sad, in 2020 where we have meant to come a lot further along than we believe that civilization really is, and you’re reducing them to this one aspect. That’s the problem, we are looking at tiny aspects and robbing people of their humanity. And that’s the sad thing. If we take a step back and go “OK, this is another person, this is another human being” and treat them like that. 

Yes, you’re going to disagree on things and that’s OK. We don’t all have to believe the same thing, we don’t all have to agree on everything but we can start at the starting point of you’re a human being and I’m going to respect you for that alone. 

From a Christian perspective, if we viewed people how God views them, we’d be a lot nicer. I think we’d see things from a different perspective. We’ve lost the ability in many ways because we see everything through a certain lens of what we believe or what we think is right and when we make that decision, we assume that everyone else is wrong. Part of the problem is, for a long time, all over the Western world, we have had this approach of “don’t talk about religion and politics”. Now we’re unable to talk about religion and politics in a healthy way. It really is sad because we are reducing incredible people to be typecast villains and we see people as groupings rather than unique individuals.

CP: Pastor John Hagee has said “anti-Semitism affects all people”. How so?

Hafeez:  Anti-Semitism, I believe, has been called the world’s oldest hatred. It’s an evil, like any sort of racism or bigotry, it’s an evil. I believe when there is evil, it’s everybody’s responsibility to deal with it. 

Also, just historically, if you look at anti-Semitism, if you look at the hatred towards the Jews, it’s never ended with the Jews. What starts with the Jews doesn’t end with the Jews. The Middle East is a great example of that. In Iraq and Syria, the Jews have left. 

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Ultimately, it’s just morally wrong and abhorrent. To me personally, I’ve been in the U.S. and I’m incredibly patriotic. I think in this country there are values which are common to all of us. I think one of those important values is that everyone belongs in this country. And when somebody feels that their freedom and liberty are genuinely being threatened, we have a responsibility as Americans to rally around them and go “Jewish people are as part of this country as any other American.” When they are feeling pleasant or feeling like outsiders, that isn’t an issue just for the Jewish people, that’s an issue for every single person.

CP: Lastly, what do you want people to learn from Never Again? and take away from it?

Hafeez: I think it’s two-fold. If you are new to this area or skeptical, I hope this makes you look deeper into the issue and realise that this isn’t just a minor issue or this is not just a few people making noise for no reason.

If you are aware, I hope watching Never Again? is just a starting point to take more action. Games aren’t won by people sitting in the stands; things will change by people actually getting on the field. Far too many times in my experience, I find that there is almost this Christian get-out clause. When there’s something that we need to be taking action over, we say, “I’m going to pray about it.” That’s cool. I believe that God hasn’t given us a no more powerful weapon than prayer but you also have to take action. If you had to find work to feed your kids, you wouldn’t go, “I’m going to pray about it” and then stay at home and watch Netflix. You pray about it and then start doing things. That’s the important thing we have to have — prayer and action. 

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