In their youth, brothers Shaun and Lee did what they describe as the usual things: “getting wrecked” – drink, drugs, clubbing, gambling. “The party was always at our house, put it that way. And I was the host,” said Shaun.
But Shaun has since become Abdul, a convert to Islam whose life is governed by his devotion to Allah and the strict demands of his faith. Meanwhile, Lee travelled around the country to anti-Muslim rallies organised by the English Defence League. The brothers have taken starkly different directions. But Abdul told the Observer: “I know Lee loves me and I love him.”
The brothers’ story is told in a three-part Channel 4 series, Extremely British Muslims. Based on a year of filming in and around Birmingham Central Mosque, one of the biggest in the UK, it aims “to show what ordinary Muslims’ lives are like beyond the negative headlines”, said series producer Fozia Khan.
Bella and Nayera are seen navigating Muslim marriage protocols in their search for love; Waz and Nav struggle against the stereotypes of young Muslim men in the media; Zaidan feels caught between his passion for the Birmingham grime scene and his desire to have “true purpose”; and Sidrah wants people to understand there is a person behind her niqab.
Abdul converted to Islam seven years ago. “I never felt I was a bad boy. I was exposed to drugs and different elements, but I was never violent,” he said. He “stumbled across” Islam and was instantly attracted to the sense of structure and rules governing every aspect of his life.
“I thought, ‘wow, this is amazing’. But I also enjoyed all those things in my life, and I didn’t want to let them go. It was a slow process – it took about three or four years to realise I was living a lie,” he said. In the film, he talks of “drifting and wandering” until he became a Muslim. “It changed my life entirely. I was turning my back on my previous life.”
Lee was shocked at his brother’s decision. “I knew he had some sort of secret, but I thought he was gay or something. I wasn’t expecting this. If he was going to be religious, I’d have expected him to go into Christianity, not become a Muslim. It’s not something you’d expect a white man to do.”
Lee had taken part in several EDL rallies “against Muslims in general – the way they treat women, paedophilia, things like that. I didn’t really have a bad view of Muslims – it was something for me to do when I was bored”.
The brothers grew up in Dudley. For nine months after he converted on Christmas Day 2009, Abdul commuted from his home town to Birmingham before moving to the city. “I remember putting on my jubba [ankle-length robe] and literally shaking before I opened my front door, wondering what people would think. White people used to stare at me, sometimes with a look of betrayal. But I don’t take any notice.”
Soon Abdul met Hina, a Pakistani Muslim, on Facebook. A week or so later they met in person; seven days after that they were married. “It was a leap of faith, trusting in God,” he said. It was also instant fatherhood for Abdul, then still in his 20s; Hina had two teenage sons and a daughter from a previous marriage. Abdul’s relationship with the boys, and his insistence on them being strictly observant Muslims, has not been easy. The couple now have another two children, two-year-old Zahra and baby Mohammed.
In the film, after Mohammed’s birth Abdul hosts a celebratory barbecue, inviting members of the local Muslim community – and Lee. In an awkward scene in the back garden, Lee observes that all the other men, including Abdul, are eating with their hands. “It’s like you’re going backwards,” he says.
Afterwards, he says: “I wouldn’t say I was comfortable, to be honest, I just did it for Shaun. He’s chose this path, I’ve chose [another], but he’s still my brother. I miss the Shaun I grew up with.”
Speaking to the Observer, Abdul said: “We disagree but we have mutual respect. I still feel close to him – blood is thicker than water. But I don’t know if I’m deluded.”
Khan spend six months persuading and reassuring the mosque elders before filming began. “We had to establish a relationship. They were saying ‘we trust you but how do we know it won’t be changed down the line?’ It was a difficult project. But I think there’s a sense of relief at the outcome,” she said.
Lee said his decision to take part in the film was “purely for my brother”, but added that the process had made him more tolerant of Muslims.
Abdul’s motive was “wanting our own voice to be heard rather than other people creating news about us”. He added: “I want people to start a conversation, just break the ice, just talk to us. Even the skinhead white guy. But British people won’t ask, they prefer to let things build up under the skin. We just need to communicate with each other and break down the barriers.”