Dozens of young redheaded men and women are replacing the ritual bullying of the playground with the ritual strictures of radical Islam, perhaps – at least according to some experts – as a result of the bullying and persecution they endure early in life.
You’ve likely already made the connection between ginger hair and home-grown Islamic radicals yourself. Subconsciously, perhaps, from newspaper reports showing carrot-topped wannabe jihadis from Bradford, and TV clips of auburn brothers in east London. What you probably don’t know is just how vastly over-represented redheads are in the ranks of Islamist converts.
There are no surveys of jihadis, of course. The Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism organisation, told us that no one keeps reliable data on white converts to Islamism. So news reports probably represent the best data set available to researchers.
We sampled national newspaper coverage of white converts to radical Islam published between 5 August 2013 and 4 August 2014, excluding cases where there was no evidence of extremism or radicalisation. For example, Lucy Vallender, the ginger-haired Territorial Army private who had a sex change and became Britain’s first transgender Muslim woman, was excluded from our results.
We discovered that 76 per cent of white British converts to radical Islam had red hair. In the Daily Mail archives, 69 per cent of white Brits lured into jihadism or the orbit of an extremist preacher were ginger. The number was similar for the Mirror and the Telegraph. The Guardian yielded a full 100 per cent redhead rate for the stories we sampled.
These are extraordinary numbers when you consider that in northern and western Europe, the average incidence of red hair in the general population is 5 per cent. In other words, Islamic extremists reported on by the media are fifteen times more likely than the general population to have red hair.
Unless you think there’s a Fleet Street conspiracy to single out and report on ginger jihadis – and that the Guardian is leading the charge – the data clearly demonstrate that white people who convert to radical Islam are overwhelmingly likely to be ginger.
Of course, leading Muslims in public life and senior police officers have known about this for years, though they’re understandably reluctant to discuss it in public – until now. Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell MAMA, an advocacy organisation that tracks islamophobia, says: “For whatever reason, there does seem to be a number of people with ginger hair that are present in extremist activities. In no way do I suggest that the gene for ginger hair is a factor, but bizarre it is.”
“I’m glad someone is finally tackling this thorny topic,” says the director of a leading Muslim think-tank, who preferred to remain anonymous. “I can remember having a conversation with a counter-terrorism police officer in 2008 about this and he claimed most of the converts he dealt with are ginger.”
Another prominent Muslim in public life who appears regularly in the media adds: “Though there are no reliable statistics on this, ginger people do tend to be over-represented in extremist circles.”
Hate preacher Anjem Choudary, founder of banned group al-Muhajiroun, has assembled nothing short of a ginger cabal of supporters and protégés, including Richard Dart, who goes by the name Salahuddin, Paul Mellor, who now calls himself Abu Jibreel, and Jordan Horner, now known as Jamaal Uddin.
News reports, documentaries and their own promotional YouTube videos reveal the tonsorial similarities between so many of Chaudary’s acolytes; our data suggests that they’re the rule and not the exception among white converts.
Elsewhere in the world, marginalised redheads take a consumerist, pick-and-mix approach to their cries for help, mingling conspiracy theory, fake science, cross-dressing and religion. Sister Boom Boom, the ginger-haired mother superior of drag queen activist syndicate The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, started as an astrologer and satirist of Catholic culture before converting to Islam in 2003.
Such prolific solution-hopping is rarer in Britain, where Islamism tends to win out among the competing extreme ideologies available to dorky ginger twenty-somethings. There are exceptions, of course: red-haired Brit David Myatt was a neo-Nazi autodidact who converted to Islam in 2003, but then rejected it in 2010 to develop his own “mystical philosophy” called The Way of Pathei-Mathos.
Female radicals, fewer in number, invariably convert to Islam after a romantic entanglement with a Muslim extremist. Women such as “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite, “Jihad Jane” Coleen LaRose and “Jihad Jamie” Jamie Paulin-Ramirez all converted to Islamism shortly after being seduced by militants. Each of those women, incidentally – one British, two American – were originally redheaded and subsequently dyed their hair another colour.
“Blood-nut,” “fire-truck,” “matchstick” and “tampon” are among the more printable insults levelled at ginger-headed children, according to comedian Tim Minchin. But it can be hard to sympathise with the narrative of victimhood propagated by ginger prejudice campaigners, until you recall what relentless and cruel abuse redheads are often subjected to.
Beauty magazine insiders will tell you that naturally red-headed celebrities are airbrushed even more brutally than their peers to ensure an even skin tone. And a nightclub experiment reported in Psychological Studies in 2012 showed that red-headed men were much more likely to be rebuffed, and red-headed women less likely to be approached, all else being equal. (The researchers used wigs to exclude other variables.)
Why are people so mean? Some scientists think it’s genetic: they say we’re wired to be attracted to rich genetic mixes – hence, perhaps, the near-universal attractiveness of Italians and Spaniards. The relative genetic purity of ginger-haired people – too much of anything else and the recessive gene won’t assert itself – isn’t what we’re programmed to appreciate.
They also draw attention to the frequent coexistence of freckles with red hair. Freckles are mini-cancer factories; people with lots of these naturally-occurring circles of brown skin are far more likely to get skin cancer. In other words, it could be an evolved, adapted response to avoid mates with a lack of genetic mixing.
But if those theories told the whole story, Britain wouldn’t be home to such uniquely virulent ginger prejudice. Bullying experts agree that we lead the world in vindictive cruelty toward redheads. “I was never aware of redheads being so vulnerable to name-calling and bullying until I came to the UK,” says Claude Knights, the strawberry blonde Belgian chief executive of anti-bullying charity Kidscape.
“We regularly see children with red hair and it’s always the same story. I’m not for criminalising things that don’t need to be criminalised, but we have no laws or structures in place to protect ginger people. Ginger prejudice in the UK is especially bad, but I’ve spoken to the bullies and they can’t themselves analyse it.”
Historians take a different view: our hostility toward gingers is the product of a long and complex history of conflict with the flame-haired Celts on our borders, not least a gigantic wave of hungry Irish migrants in the 1800s, say researchers such as the late Dr Ruth Mellinkoff.
That would explain why ginger prejudice is still socially acceptable, when other forms of appearance-based bigotry aren’t: its roots are historic, not genetic. When asked whose responsibility it was to monitor discrimination against red-headed people, the Commission for Racial Equality told the BBC: “It is certainly not us.”
Regardless of hair colour, the reasons people turn to religious extremes are well documented. For lonely young men in particular, the siren call of brotherhood can be irresistible. The moral certainty of Islam combined with ambitions of jihad and the glamour of sun-drenched warfare can represent an intoxicating brew for those struggling to find a place in society.
Morten Storm is a Danish former biker gang member who was later a double agent inside al Qaeda. His memoir, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda, was published in July. Red-haired Storm told us: “It’s been my experience that many converts to radical Islam have troubled childhoods, including people who have been bullied. Being part of a tight-knit community of like-minded zealous believers makes them feel appreciated, important and wanted.
“Converts are often more vulnerable to radicalization than those brought up culturally in Islam, because they are more prone to literal, fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic texts.”
“If you’re on the receiving end [of bullying], you might well seek out someone who offers you a sense of belonging,” Knights agrees. “Some bullied children become adults who don’t have a sense of their own identity. They have to go out and create one.”
Alienation, victimhood and a desire to visit revenge upon their communities make bullied gingers the perfect recruits for extremist activists. As Knights puts it: “Predators are looking for … vulnerabilities, and a person who has been bullied in childhood can remain in a ‘victim script’ and will be targeted.”
Knights and Storm both stop short of making the connection between ginger hair and Islamism explicit, for some obvious reasons, but we know that a unique concatenation of events in British history has conspired to make redheads an ostracised group, with a cluster of anxieties that maps perfectly onto the Islamist checklist.
Red facial hair of the kind sported by Bradford Islamist convert and former rapper MC Chippy, who now goes by the name of Brother Adam (look him up on YouTube), has at various times in history been considered a symbol of divinity. One of the Roman emperor Nero’s family names was Ahenobarbus, or “bronze-bearded,” and Mohammed is, in some Muslim traditions, said to have had reddish facial hair.
Do jihadis see in the recessive ginger gene, so much more commonly expressed in northern Europe than the Middle East, a hint of the divine? Anjem Choudary hadn’t returned a request for comment as we went to press. But it’s certainly plausible that redheads, through a combination of physical appearance and the concomitant emotional problems it can bring, are singled out by extremists as ripe for the picking.
Good luck getting today’s politically correct Police to admit there’s a correlation between red hair and radicalisation, though – even though they surely must have noticed what’s happening on British streets. “There is no evidence to suggest an individual’s physical appearance has any bearing on their vulnerability to radicalisation,” the Met told us in a curt email statement. Their spokesman declined to elaborate – and wasn’t interested when we offered to share our findings.
Several recent studies have demonstrated that redheads react to pain differently to the rest of us. Scientists say ginger-haired people are less responsive to subcutaneously administered anaesthetics, but suffer more from toothaches. They’re also more susceptible to the cold.
We’re a long way from establishing that there might be psychological differences, rooted in genetics, that explain why redheads are more vulnerable to dangerous ideologies. But, if there’s one uncomfortable truth that the relatively new science of genomics is repeatedly surfacing, it’s that observable characteristics do indeed correlate with different kinds of behaviours. So who knows? After all, redheads do have a reputation for being feisty…
A member of the notorious “Muslim Patrol,” which threatened to “kill the non-believers.” Renounced his previous lifestyle of boozing and “seeing girls.” Jailed for assault and for using threatening words and behaviour.
A middle-class white boy who became a Christian while working at a kids’ camp in the US, Dart was converted to radical Islam by hate preacher Anjem Choudary and later jailed for planning terrorist activities.
A troubled child who sought solace with Muslim neighbours, Lewthwaite has a string of terrorist ex-boyfriends (some imprisoned, some dead), including 7/7 suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay – hence her nickname, the “White Widow.” Currently on the run and a member of terrorist group Al-Shabaab.
Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad
Cambridge director of studies who once recorded a video describing homosexuality as a sinful and “inherent aberration,” and gays as “ignorant people who don’t know what their bodies are for.”
Brother Adam (centre)
Chippy is not known to be an extremist, but his videos are used as a recruitment tool in Bradford and elsewhere.
Matthew Hamza (centre)
Described by his family as a quiet lad, Newton started recruiting for the Taliban from a stall in Longsight market in Manchester. Jailed for trying to radicalise undercover police officers.
Formally a Lance Corporal in the Irish Guards, Mellor turned his back on the Queen to become a self-declared “soldier of Allah.”
Abdul-Aziz ibn Myat
Once a leading lights of the British neo-Nazi movement, Myatt converted to Islam, becoming a notable apologist for suicide bombing civilians. Has now moved on.
Former drum and bass MC, Millwall fan, cocaine dealer and self-employed perfume salesman before his conversion to radical Islam.