LONDON — The police officer had just finished an earnest presentation on counter-extremism before an audience of 200 restless teenagers at an East London high school when a young man of Pakistani origin in a black hoodie took the stage.
“How many of you people are Muslim?” the man barked.
He grinned as nearly every hand went up.
“Guys, we can take over! Sharia law coming soon!” the man cried gleefully. “Allahu Akbar!”
The teens erupted in laughter even before the man had a chance to clarify: “I’m kidding. I’m kidding. I think I scared the white people.”
It’s the kind of knowing humor that has made 29-year-old Humza Arshad an Internet sensation, a hero to Muslim teenagers and perhaps the most potent new weapon in Britain’s arsenal as it wages an increasingly desperate campaign to counter violent Islamist extremism.
At a time when the flow of British Muslims to the war in Syria shows no sign of ebbing, Arshad has positioned himself as the anti-Jihadi John. Like Mohammed Emwazi, the scowling Islamic State executioner, Arshad is a London-raised Muslim from an immigrant family whose face has become instantly recognizable to millions of young Brits through videos uploaded online.
But where Emwazi seeks to terrify the world and seduce fresh recruits to join his bloodthirsty crusade, Arshad’s message is precisely the opposite: Laugh at extremism; don’t fall prey to it.
It’s a message communicated for several years through his homemade YouTube videos, which have been viewed more than 60 million times and have made him one of the most popular online comedians in Britain.
In his “Diary of a Bad Man” series, Arshad plays a wannabe gangster who gets beaten up by girls, peed on by a fox and endlessly ridiculed by his mother. But he also manages to save his cousin from a descent into radicalism, and uses lessons from the Koran to urge others to steer away from violence.
This spring, Arshad has taken his message directly to students through an unusual partnership with Scotland Yard in which the police sponsor him to tell jokes at London-area high schools. The program has been a hit, with schools across the city vying for his time and officials planning to take the program nationwide.
“I’m a comedian. That’s my talent. But I don’t want to do pointless comedy,” Arshad explained recently before going on stage in east London, a community rocked in recent weeks by high-profile cases of teens leaving for Syria. “I’m the hot thing right now. So they’ve used me for that — but in a good way.”
The joint effort between Arshad and the police to spread an anti-extremist message represents what experts say has been missing from British counterterrorism strategy: an ability to connect with Muslim communities and engage them as partners, rather than treating them as a suspect class.
That deficiency and others have allowed the Islamic State to prey on vulnerable young people across the West and turn them into foot soldiers. Jihadi John is just the best known among at least 600 Britons who have joined the war in Syria, part of an illicit migration of thousands of Europeans that has deeply unnerved security officials across the continent.
Keith Vaz, chairman of a parliamentary committee with oversight of the issue, told reporters last week that without “a relentless battle for hearts and minds,” the numbers would soon jump far higher.
“We are at the edge of a cliff,” Vaz said.
Those fears have grown especially acute since last month, when three schoolgirls traveled together from East London to Islamic State-controlled areas of Syria. Despite emotional pleas from their families, they have not returned home.
The ages of the girls — two are 15 and the other is 16 — plus the apparent lack of warning signs shocked many across Britain, not least Arshad. One of the girls is the sister of a close friend.
“They’re just this normal family,” Arshad tells his east London student audience, which suddenly becomes quiet at the mention of the girls.
But now, he says, they’ve been left devastated. “Imagine that’s your family. Imagine that’s your sister.”
It’s one of the few somber moments in a performance otherwise marked by comedy that would strike a chord with teens the world over. There’s talk of cars and football, and jokes about head lice and mean mamas.
Asked by a student whether his mother really treats him as badly as she does in the videos, Arshad doesn’t hesitate.
“No,” he deadpans. “She’s much worse.”
In reality, Arshad’s upbringing was hardly traumatic. A middle-class kid from South London, he attended the prestigious Richmond Drama School and trained under the award-winning actor Tom Hardy. But once out of school, he struggled to find parts other than “terrorist number two on the plane.”
So he saved money working at his father’s school uniform store, bought a camera and started posting clips of himself as the hapless Bad Man. The videos went viral.
Unlike Bad Man, who can be at turns boastful or brooding, Arshad is relentlessly self-deprecating and cheerful, zinging himself as a “fat Paki” who would still be working for his dad if not for his only real skill — comedy.
Arshad said he struggles to understand the extreme alienation and negativity that would drive a young person to join the Islamic State. But he also knows how to speak to the concerns of his school audiences, which are typically majority Muslim.
The media, he tells them, often gives Islamic communities a bad rap.
“Muslim this and terrorist that,” he says. “You know: ‘Evil Muslim dog attacks grass.’ ”
By empathizing with the students’ sense of disconnection, Arshad becomes more credible when he goes on to mock Islamic State extremists with “beards down to their belly buttons.”
Whether Arshad is filleting newspaper headline writers or terrorists, the kids laugh uproariously.
“British youth culture is really quite rebellious at heart. Think about punk rockers,” said Haras Rafiq, managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank. “Humza’s someone who uses and epitomizes that rebelliousness, but is also sending out the right messages.”
Rick Warrington, a police officer who has been doing counter-extremism outreach in schools for six years and now serves as straight man to Arshad’s slapstick, said before Arshad joined, “the message was virtually the same, just a bit blander.”
But with Arshad taking part, “it’s just raucous. It really energizes the room.”
At a recent performance at a school in northwest London, a female student in a black, head-to-toe abaya asked Arshad for a hug (“You stole my wallet!” he exclaimed afterward), and the entire room shouted with delight when Arshad took an auditorium-wide selfie.
Students said it was the first time they had really talked about extremism in school, even as they anxiously watch reports of people their age disappearing into the clutches of the Islamic State.
“It was inspirational,” said Barni Ali, an 18-year-old who said she had long been a Bad Man fan. “A lot of students look at police and think they don’t know what they’re talking about, or they don’t see things from our perspective. But Humza — we’ve grown up watching him. He raises awareness in a way that we can understand.”
Karla Adam contributed to this report.