Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism by Maajid Nawaz

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“Unlike the student protests in the 1960s, by using religion and multiculturalism as a cover, we brought an entirely foreign lexicon to the table. We knowingly presented political demands disguised as religion and multiculturalism, and deliberately labelled any objection to our demands as racism and bigotry. Even worse, we did this to the very generation who had been socialist sympathisers in their youth, people sympathetic to charges of racism, who were now in middle-career management posts; people like Dave Gomer. It is no wonder then that the authorities were unprepared to deal with politicised religion as ideological agitation, and felt racist if they tried to stop us.”

“Islamism demanded no less of a root-and-branch overhaul of society. But because it was cloaked in religious garb, no one quite knew what to do with it, and people were desperate not to offend. There was confusion over whether to define our activism as a cultural identity, an ideology or a faith. To top it off, Islamism went through a decade of being embraced by both the left and right wings. The default left-leaning liberal position was to embrace the movement as part of multicultural sensitivity: to tell people to stop practising their faith was imperialism in nineties clothing, a colonial hangover bordering on racism. Instead, we were embraced as a new generation of anti-colonial politicised youth. Curiously, the default position on the right was to embrace us too, because it had been the Afghan Mujahideen, backed by the CIA, who fought the Soviet Union. Lest we forget, this was when Hollywood films such as Stallone’s Rambo 3 portrayed the Afghan Mujahideen as heroes.”

“Back then Tatchell was something of a lone voice on HT, no one was listening to him, but credit is due to the man. ‘The most dangerous of the Islamic fundamentalists is Hizb al-Tahrir’, he wrote at the time. ‘Hizb al-Tahrir is especially active on college campuses in London and Manchester … there is a hardcore of fundamentalists who are fanatics … Many […] believe that all Muslims will go to Heaven if they kill for Allah.’ His views and warnings were ignored, and we were left laughing at people’s ignorance.”

“The authorities should have taken a different approach. Imagine if it had been the far-right British National Party (BNP) growing on campus. Suppose that it was racism, instead of Islamism, spreading throughout the student population and the BNP had decided to stand in Student Union elections. If that had happened, and the BNP had taken over, the college would have acted immediately. They certainly would have seen the need for a solution, if only for their own reputation and the impact on admissions. They would have cited the college constitution about how hate speech was not allowed, how the BNP was an external political group attempting to hijack the college, and probably stopped them. But because of the religious element in our message, and the desire of the authorities not to offend our religious sensitivities, we were left alone.”

“It’s deeply ironic that Islamist and anti-Islam extremist groups have a symbiotic relationship with each other, feeding off each other’s paranoia and propaganda: far-right extremism, Islamism, more far-right extremism, more Islamism and so on.”

“Constructed ignorance, I now call the state of my HT thoughts back then, a sort of pseudo-intellectualism that is just enough to make a teenager feel highly intelligent.”

“After our conviction, Amnesty International adopted us as ‘Prisoners of Conscience’, and began campaigning openly and vigorously for our release. This came about through the tireless work of John Cornwall, a member of the organisation’s Buckingham branch. It was John who insisted at Amnesty that our case was worthy of the organisation’s support. Having been put away solely on the basis of our, albeit unsavoury, beliefs, we deserved to be adopted officially as Prisoners of Conscience. John, a frail Christian man in his eighties, who I did not know, campaigned for us with a passion not seen in most twenty-year-olds, and our story together eventually became the subject of an Amnesty video aired on television.

I learnt later that the subject of whether or not the group should support us became quite a hot topic internally. The counter-argument was that, although we had committed no crimes ourselves, the ideology that we preached advocated a gross invasion of human rights: once our version of ‘the Khilafah’ was formed, we advocated an aggressive policy of foreign invasion and expansion, the death penalty for apostates, ‘rebels’ and homosexuals, and a forced dress code for women. Thieves would be punished by having their hands cut off, and adulterous women would be stoned to death. Why should Amnesty campaign for our human rights, when, given the opportunity, we would deprive others of theirs?

There’s no easy answer to this question. What if, prior to coming to power, Adolf Hitler had been detained for his not yet violent beliefs in National Socialism? Or what if, closer to my own story, Mubarak came to be tortured as Gaddafi was? The logical extension of supporting our case was that Amnesty should also, hypothetically, be prepared to campaign for Hitler if he were incarcerated just for writing Mein Kampf. Amnesty resolved this controversy in the manner of Voltaire, best summarised using the words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Biases aside, for me that’s the only possible answer to arrive at. Any other stance makes a mockery of the universality of human rights. Even now, as I spend and expend my life campaigning against extremism, I would still want Amnesty to protect prisoners in a similar position to the one I was in. And I will defend people’s right to read Mein Kampf, or Qutb’s Milestones, even as I fight both far-right fascists and Islamists equally. But the devil is in the detail. Where I disagree with not just Amnesty but many human-rights groups is in their failure to highlight a clear and obvious distinction between a victim of human-rights abuses, and a champion of human-rights causes. Any prisoner held solely for the non-violent expression of their beliefs, no matter how illiberal, has an automatic and unconditional right to our support as a fellow human being. However, not every former prisoner, once released, should be automatically hailed as a champion of human-rights, and placed on prestigious human-rights platforms as a spokesperson for human-rights causes.

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Many human-rights groups have and do sadly blur this distinction when it comes to propping up Islamist and jihadist speakers on their platforms. Life is more complicated than that. Islam, Islamism and jihadists are more complicated than that.

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I gently agree with Gita Sahgal’s principled critique from inside Amnesty’s International Secretariat, making the above argument, for which she was suspended from Amnesty.

As a former Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience, and as someone for ever indebted to the organisation, my delicate advice comes from someone who discovered Amnesty’s principles the hard way. Amnesty’s support was a fundamental part of my political journey. I am, in part, the person I am today because of their decision to campaign for me as a Prisoner of Conscience. It’s because of how much their intervention means to me that I do not want to see anything that might dilute that message; their work on human rights is too important for that. Support for my plight from Amnesty was something that took me aback. It was its unconditional nature that humbled me: you’re a human being, and so you deserve our support. There was something very powerful, and very pure about that premise. Like many ideologies, Islamism derived part of its power from its dehumanisation of ‘the other’. It is easier to dismiss and do things to ‘the other’ if you consider them as unworthy: the Nazis and the Jews; the jihadists and the infidels. Throughout my teenage and young adult life I had been dehumanised and desensitised to violence. As I got sucked into the Islamist ideology, I in turn began to dehumanise others. Amnesty’s support challenged all that: instead of dehumanising people, it rehumanised them. I thought now of Sav and Marc, of Matt and Dan – stabbed for their association with me, of Dave Gomer and Mr Moth, of my mother’s partner, these were bonds that were forged with non-Muslims who actually cared about my well-being. And instead of being fascinated with the afterlife and death, for the first time in many years I began to reconnect with life, and with humanity. This is not something you can teach, it is something you must live and feel. Where the heart leads, the mind can follow.”

“One of the difficulties that Arabs have in speaking English is that Arabic doesn’t contain the letter ‘p’, and for some reason they manage to shorten the double-vowel sound ‘ee’ to a single ‘i’. A word like ‘please’ therefore, typically comes out as ‘bliss’. One day I was trying to teach Mahmood the difference in pronunciation between ‘peach’, ‘beach’ and ‘pitch’. I said the words slowly and pronounced them heavily: ‘Peach … beach … pitch.’ Mahmood listened carefully, and then with all the sincerity a thickly bearded former jihadist could muster, proudly spoke my words back at the top of his voice, ‘Bitch, bitch, bitch!’ He looked at me in bewilderment as I burst into fits of laughter.”

“Animal Farm made me ponder on life under ‘the Khilafah’ ruled by the likes of Imtiaz, Irfan, Abdul Wajid, Jalaluddin and their ilk. Golding’s Lord of the Flies served as a stark warning about the tyranny that could arise from the most innocent of souls, with the best of intentions. Even the innocence of children was insufficient to guarantee against injustice, yet here we were working to set up a system that would install a ruler for life, run by people like Abdul Wajid, or Jalaluddin, and claiming to rule in God’s name.”

“Though we had placed establishing an ‘Islamic State’ and ‘implementing’ shari’ah as law, above even the most religious of rituals, I couldn’t help noticing that not once were the words ‘law’, ‘state’ or ‘constitution’ mentioned in the Qur’an. When I thought about this further, it made historic sense. The Qur’an was an ancient text, while political ideas such as a ‘unitary legal system’, ‘codified law’, ‘statehood’ and ‘constitution’ were modern political concepts: they did not exist at the time the Qur’an was written. I went back to look at what Islamists held as the last true example of legitimate government: the Turkish Caliphate or Ottoman Empire. Again, history was telling me a rather different story to that of HT. This Caliphate never had the sort of unitary codified legal system that HT was proposing to ‘implement’, with the shari’ah as law. Instead, justice was run under what was called the ‘Millet’ system – a pluralistic legal structure where the interpretation of shari’ah was left to local community tribunals. These would hear evidence and intepret shari’ah as they saw fit. There was not even any law obliging people to go to these tribunals – it was a voluntary decision. The Ottomans offered general edicts on administrative matters, but these were different from any sort of legal system. The idea of a unified, codified legal system, and of having a judiciary subservient to that legal system, and of having a constitution that frames this legal system, and a state that protects that constitution by monopolising the use of force, all of these concepts emerged with the birth of the European nation state. These were modern, Western constructs. The Ottoman Caliphate, struggling to adjust, even initiated a reform process, known as the Tanzimat reforms, in an attempt to study how best to incorporate these new European ideas into their empire. Throughout almost all of Islam’s history a single interpretation of shari’ah was never adopted and enforced over society as a codified system of law. In fact, unlike in its English rendition ‘Sharia Law’, where we use shari’ah as an adjective describing the noun ‘law’, in original Arabic shari’ah is simply a noun. The specific ‘adoption’ of an interpretation of shari’ah as law by a ruler was not religiously mandatory, and it didn’t happen in history. Unitary legal systems were a European idea, and worse, the desire to merge law with religious canons was specifically a Catholic pre-Reformation idea. This realisation had profound implications for my beliefs. Rather than justice – in the sense of legal consistency – being derived from Islamism, Islamism relied on Western concepts of justice to get off the ground. I buried my head in my hands as I slowly realised … we Islamists were the bastard children of colonialism.”

“…as I started to decouple justice from Islamism in my mind, it was the beginning of the end of my belief in Islamism. If justice and Islamism were decoupled, then not only was it possible to have one without the other, it also meant that there were situations where the two might come into conflict.”

“Fatima Mullick was the opposite of everything I stood for. Or was she everything that Abi stood for? Proudly Pakistani, proudly female, her answer to the face veil was to wear her beauty brazenly, her answer to stoning the adulterers was to cite Rumi’s ‘Let the Lovers Be’, her reply to Qutb was Khayyam, the mystical Persian sage. She embraced life in all its splendour where I had come to embrace the afterlife in all its austerity, and she despised the madness of men who cared more about whether their position in prayer was correct, than they did about spilling innocent blood.”

“Is not winning the war more important than truth? This maxim, I knew, was also subscribed to by some on the left, the regressive left. For them, winning against capitalism was far more important than those they chose as allies. So I watched as our ideology gained acceptance and we were granted airtime as Muslim political commentators. I watched as we were ignorantly pandered to by well-meaning liberals and ideologically driven leftists; how we Islamists laughed at their naivety. The critically acclaimed film Persepolis acutely highlighted this failure of the left in pre-revolutionary Iran. There, the left had joined Khomeini’s supporters, believing his promises of a brighter future, only to be systematically purged after the revolution. Islamists are intent on replicating such a tactical alliance for the Sunni world. Why renounce Islamism if doing so would mean being denounced as a neocon by ‘neutral’ non-Muslim critics who lend legitimacy to the Islamist-inspired clash of civilisations rhetoric?”

“But what was the problem with Islamism so long as it remained non-violent? Was it not the right of Muslims to adopt whatever ideology they chose? Of course, it was the right of Muslims to believe that one version of Islam must be imposed as law over their societies, just as it was the right of racists to believe that all non-white people should be deported from Europe. But the spread of either of these ideas would achieve nothing but the division and Balkanisation of societies. If the dangers of racism are apparent, even in a non-violent form, then it was the same for Islamism. Communalist identity politics, self-segregation and group-think are far more damaging to societies in the long run than the odd bomb going off here or there, because it is such a milieu that keeps breeding bomb-makers. It’s odd that Hizb al-Tahrir in Arabic means the Liberation Party. We had hijacked the minds of the Muslim masses, and those minds needed to be liberated.”

“By now, Western governments, Muslim-majority governments, media, and hundreds of thousands of Muslim youth globally had all come to assume that Islamism was Islam. Leaving Islamism was one thing, but outrightly challenging it was another. But who better to do it than someone who knew the ideology inside out.”

“‘We need to reform the way we Muslims see politics, and revive knowledge of our traditional jurisprudence through the Sufi path,’ Ed suggested. ‘No, habib, trust me, everything, absolutely everything needs to be reformed, and that includes traditional … what I call medieval, jurisprudence. It simply doesn’t address our contemporary problems.’ ‘But, that’s … that’s nothing short of a complete overhaul of the deen,’ Ed exclaimed. ‘Exactly. I’m talking about enshrining absolute freedoms, human rights, a respect for individual liberty, women’s rights and reconciling modern scientific facts with Islamic interpretation. And I don’t just mean in the lofty circles of academia or theology, that’s all been done before, but actually out there, in the real world, just as we did for Islamism back in the day.’ ‘Yes, we can start doing da’wah for these values, just as we did back at Newham for HT.’ The glitter in Ed’s eye began to betray his excitement. ‘Indeed! Da’wah for a religion-neutral space in the public sphere, dhormo niropekhota, I think it’s called in Bangla. You know, it’s so bad that in Pakistan’s Urdu there is no appropriate word for secularism? They use laa-deeniyat, which implies no-religion. With such a translation, obviously Islamism will have a head start.’ ‘You do realise, there is a mammoth task ahead, Maajid, we will be roundly attacked,’ Ed said rather too eagerly. ‘But I have just the idea for how to begin. Let’s start it all with a think tank, to lay the seeds for this idea globally, and let’s call it after the Englishman who opened England’s first mosque, to make the point that Islam doesn’t always have to clash with society. His name was William Quilliam!’ And so it was, that in an old Renault Clio, parked somewhere on Russell Square in London, the idea for Quilliam to be the seed of this radical new thought direction was born.”

“What exacerbated the situation was a lack of understanding about what Islamism was. Governments were allowing the Islamist narrative to drive the debate, and accepted their claims that they represented the majority Muslim voice. This simply wasn’t true: Islamism was a modern political phenomenon with opinions that could be every bit as offensive as those held by far-right organisations – its anti-Semitism and homophobia, for example. But government and society instinctively resisted challenging this for fear of coming across as racist.

Official policy was a form of Orientalism. This paternalistically lumped all Muslims together as ‘one community’, the so-called ‘Muslim vote’, which required a ‘native-chief’ to speak on its behalf. Instead of being represented by their Member of Parliament, like everyone else, Muslims were encouraged to seek separate representation via an exclusively Muslim political umbrella. In a ‘poor natives’ sort of way there was the arrogant assumption that Islamism was a true expression of our authenticity, even if the so-called moderates tried to distance themselves from it. In a form of reverse-racism, liberal values were expected of the civilised white person, but the brown Muslim could not be held to those same standards, and should be judged by his or her own ‘authentic’ culture. This was a colonial ‘poverty of expectation’, which inevitably leads to segregation, low aspirations, patronising expectations, and cultural glass-ceilings, practically stalling Muslim social mobility and progress across Europe.”

“On many occasions after my talks, people – usually white liberals – would stand up and declare that I had no idea what it was like to suffer as a victim of society. They would assert that there was no way someone like me, educated, speaking articulate English and wearing a suit and tie, could ever understand people who felt so desperate that suicide bombing was their ‘only’ option. Terrorists’ reactions cannot be separated from their social causes I was told; blame lies squarely on society. It was as if their brains were malfunctioning. I had invariably just spent half an hour telling my entire story, of violent racism and police harassment in Essex, and of torture and solitary confinement in Egypt, but because my conclusions didn’t align with the angry ‘monkey’ they were expecting to see, it was as if they hadn’t heard any of it. ‘I am a pure product of these grievances you keep harping on about’ I would declare, ‘now deal with my conclusions’.”

“Our aim would be to criticise Islamophobia and Islamist extremism as openly as possible. We would defend the right of Muslims to practise their faith, even those who were conservative, while vehemently challenging the idea that any one version of Islam – even a ‘moderate’ one – should ever be imposed in any society as law. This position placed me on interesting sides of various motions. In The Doha Debates, hosted by Tim Sebastian, I argued on a panel that ‘Political Islam’ – the desire to impose a version of Islam as law – was a threat, while for an Intelligence Squared debate in New York I defended the religion of Islam itself as essentially one of peace, against Islamic-critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali.”

“We were particularly critical of the view that government partnerships with non-violent yet otherwise extreme Islamists were the best way to fend off Jihadism.”

“Matters came to a head over the Zakir Naik affair. Farr had been corresponding with Naik about bringing him to the UK to speak. Naik, not a terrorist, had been on the record and on YouTube videos both praising bin Laden and claiming 9/11 was an inside job. Farr took the view that these opinions, though extreme, were still non-violent and could therefore act as insulation from real Jihadism. Hence, anyone flirting with extremism would probably take Naik more seriously than a ‘moderate’ preacher. There was an internal logic to this view, but we disagreed with it and advised against it. Though we stood against the banning of non-violent extremist groups like HT, we certainly didn’t think that their legal status equated to an automatic right to endorsement. Naik was free to come to this country and speak, but not with government support or endorsement. In our view, Muslims must not be treated as ‘good monkeys’ and ‘bad monkeys’. The same standards of civilisation should apply to all, equally. If nominally non-violent racism, in the form of equally legal groups like the British National Party – the BNP, was not promoted as a solution to violent racism, then why were these same standards not applied to Muslims? Were we Muslims deemed too primitive for liberalism?”

“Banning was not only illiberal, it wasn’t the solution: far better to create a scenario where joining the group becomes a societal taboo, as with the BNP. An actual ban would only give the organisation publicity they didn’t deserve.

Cameron was also interested in an idea that I had been espousing about the comparison between extremism and racism. I had argued that the two should be analogous in terms of public response. Why should extremist views, which went against basic liberties, be any more acceptable than racist or homophobic ones? I told Cameron that he shouldn’t be afraid to criticise Muslims who were putting forward extremist views in the name of faith. There was a difference between holding those views and religious piety that was important for him to understand. Finally, we spoke about the Arab world. I stressed that the old dichotomy pitting dictatorships against Islamism had to be abandoned, or else extremism would be the inevitable outcome.”

“Is my culture British, Pakistani, Arab, Muslim? It’s all of those, and none of the above. I am what the hell I want to be, I will reclaim as mine whatever I feel like, and if you don’t like it, ‘fuck all y’all!’”

“Democracy is more than just an electoral process: it’s about the culture associated with it. Without freedom of belief one cannot set up whichever party they so choose. Without freedom of association one cannot join that party. Without freedom of speech, one cannot campaign for their party. Without human rights one cannot run opposition parties without fear of imprisonment. Democracy must, by necessity, be more than just elections. These ideas need to be embedded within any democracy for it to function properly: the democratic culture.”

 

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