Despite numerous public relations successes, mixed martial arts is still perceived by many people as an overtly brutal practice, and its participants as barbaric Neanderthals. In one particularly memorable instance, Gus Johnson made a most unfortunate observation during the Strikeforce: Nashville brawl when he claimed that “sometimes these things happen in MMA,” which certainly didn’t help the image of the sport. (Neither did the brawl itself, of course, but at least Johnson could have acknowledged it was an anomaly akin to a baseball brawl.)
But what ex-MMA fighter Usman Raja is doing in London right now not only subverts the stereotypes people hold towards the sport; it is literally changing people’s lives. Raja is currently being profiled by CNN in a series of videos and articles (all of which you should read) focusing on his work to reform former Islamic terrorists through training them in MMA. Suck on that, Bob “I think it’s going to be harmful to people. I think it’s going to be harmful to our society” Reilly.
See, in the UK they actually don’t detain their prisoners indefinitely. As a result, a number of Al Qaeda operatives have been released over the past few months and currently reside in London, the site of the 2012 Olympic Games. Whether you agree with that policy or not, this has created a legitimate safety concern for the host city. You have a bunch of paroled terrorists living in the same neighborhood without jobs or money, surrounded by people they’ve been brought up their entire lives to despise. And some of those people happen to despise their religion as well.
All of which is to say that this is an exceptionally inconvenient scenario in attempting to “cure” them of their terrorism. Of course, terrorism isn’t a disease. You don’t become a terrorist because some dude with disheveled clothes, an untrimmed beard, anger issues, and a massive superiority complex sneezes on you — it happens because of a number of complicated social, political, and economic circumstances, which serve to dissociate individuals from greater society and foster a degree of desperation that leads them to turn to destructive organizations that extinguish their capability for empathy.
It’s easy to dismiss these men as being beyond help. And certainly, it would take something exceptional to rehabilitate them and re-acclimate them into society. Raja, a former British MMA fighter who is also a Muslim, has apparently found that exceptional something. Raja himself is a fairly exceptional person to begin with; he “wears a ring with a curving metal spike, a legal form of self-protection,” and trains “men convicted of carrying out terrorism on behalf of al Qaeda in murder, assassinations, bombing, and arson plots.” Basically, he’s not a guy to be fucked with.
Raja has taken these men into his gym and, through training them in MMA, has managed to deconstruct their extremist ideologies and provide a path for assimilation into British society. This deconstruction of identity is a central component of mixed martial arts, particularly in the introductory stage. People learn what they are capable of — and perhaps more importantly, what they are not capable of — in stark, immediate fashion. If you are a boxer, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed by a grappler. If you think you’re invincible, you’ll soon find out that you’re anything but. As Raja says:
“Any idea you’ve got of yourself will be challenged as soon as you come in here. Once that idea of yourself is challenged and that opening happens we are able to go in and start dismantling that perception.”
Of course, it’s not that simple. MMA training might help initiate this deconstruction process, but it takes intellect, empathy, knowledge of Islam and a strong character to finish the job. But training does help facilitate the process. The MMA gym, he says, has been a big draw for the previously jailed terrorists, for whom physical training was both an outlet and a form of protection in prison. And he says his coaching naturally allows him to develop a mentoring relationship.
And it’s worked. According to Raja, he has a 100% success rate. Will that last? Who can say. There will invariably be some people who will look at this and say that these men don’t deserve a chance at redemption, or that this is a poorly-contrived ruse to train fundamentalist Muslims under the nose of the British government, as a quick perusal of CNN’s comment section confirms. (It also confirms that xenophobia is alive and well, while grammar is dying a slow, painful death.)
But this doesn’t change the fact that Raja has managed to do something special here. He’s used a sport that has been so maligned for its perceived brutality and its inhumanity to reeducate people who are — or were — legitimately brutal and inhumane, and in doing so offers them a chance at a new life and an end to the violent cycle that those men were both victims and perpetuators of. Whether you think they deserve that chance or not, this is saving lives – theirs and anyone who might have suffered if they returned to their past way of life. And if that surprises you, maybe it shouldn’t. Sometimes these things happen in MMA.