For many young British Muslims tug of peace is stronger than pull of war

For many young British Muslims tug of peace is stronger than pull of war
Waseem Iqbal poses for a photograph in Birmingham, central England November 20, 2014.

BIRMINGHAM, England - For some British Muslims, the path to jihad and the path to peaceful aid work can traverse much of the same terrain.

From an office in Britain's second largest city, Waseem Iqbal and a friend are planning a trip to the Middle East. In Jordan, they will bring food packages for Syrian refugees.

Iqbal, 27, chose charity work not violence. "How do you save innocents in Syria? By going into a war zone and getting yourself killed? Or by... bringing people water pumps, schools and food packages? This is what saves innocents," he said.

Iqbal knows others who have taken a different path. Two acquaintances, young British men, were arrested and charged under Britain's terrorism laws. They were a world apart, Iqbal says, but they had one thing in common: anger.

For authorities struggling to prevent young Muslims from joining the wars in Syria and Iraq, understanding what drives these men is key. Over 500 British citizens have travelled to Syria, officials estimate. Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that militants could return to attack the West.

Iqbal grows his beard long and wears a thawb - a traditional ankle-length robe-like garment. He has been on the staff of charity Human Relief Foundation for a month. In the preceding three years his charity work included opening a youth centre in the basement of a local mosque.

Before that, however, Iqbal says he led a different life. He worked as a night club bouncer, ran a music studio and did freelance security work. One night all of that stopped.

In the space of a few weeks in 2010, Iqbal's older cousin, someone he looked up to, died of a drug overdose and his best friend was stabbed.

"I was sitting there one night, smoking weed in my flat overlooking the city and started asking myself what the limit was and where does it stop. I spent the whole night crying and realised that what I am missing is Islam," he said.

"I made a promise to be a better Muslim and quit all the things I had been doing cold turkey."

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