Monday, September 3, 2012
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
Radical is subtitled My Journey From Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening, and is very much what the subtitle says. This memoir, or autobiography, is the story of a man who once followed a destructive radical philosophy, has left it, and now wishes to recant publicly. It has a preface by Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, saying “what is most fascinating is the evidence that radical extremists can change”.
Born in the late 1970s, Maajid Nawaz came from a Pakistani family who had immigrated to England from the Punjab. His Muslim parents were socially liberal although his father believed in arranged marriages. Living in Southend, the boy Maajid was part of a small minority in what was then an overwhelmingly white area. He says there was some mild racism at the English primary school he attended, but it didn’t become really aggressive until he was at intermediate and secondary schools. This was at a time when working-class English skinheads and neo-Nazis were becoming more visible in the streets, so Asian or Caribbean kids were often targeted for attacks by thugs.
The teenaged Maajid reacted against his parents by becoming a hip-hop “B-boy” and playing gangsta rap which appealed to harassed Muslim kids with its anti-police message, though at first the “B-boys” were a mixture of Pakistani Muslims and Afro-Caribbean Christians. As an adult he now says that gangsta rap provided a “critique” of what was wrong – police indifference to white thuggery - but didn’t offer any solution. As a teenager he thought he had found the solution in radical Islamism.
First there was the way-cool image of the (extremely racist) black American “Nation of Islam”, so that “the faith I had inherited was no longer some backward village religion to be ashamed of, or apologetic about. It had been re-branded as a form of resistance, as a self-affirming defiant identity.” [Pg.44] Then there was the fact that the reputation of Islam could make white racist yobbos back off. Young Maajid was impressed when his brother Osman told a larger gang of skinheads that the backpack he was wearing had a bomb in it. So awed were the skinheads by the mystique of Islamic suicide bombers that they hastily skulked away. This was enough to convince young Maajid and his mates of the raw power of Islamism, and to turn him in the direction of becoming its propagandist.
There follows an account of his years as a recruiter for Hizb al-Tahrir, a pre-Jihadist Islamist group. When he left school, he and his Islamist mates were able to take over the Student Union of an English community college, largely because white and non-Muslim students hadn’t the faintest idea of what their movement intended and what its real objectives were. As he explains it:
“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 sympathizers in their youth, people sympathetic to charges of racism, who were now in middle-management posts…… It is no wonder that the authorities were unprepared to deal with politicised religion as ideological agitation, and felt racist if they tried to stop us.”[Pgs.114-115]
Maajid Nawaz witnessed the murder of a non-Muslim student by an armed Islamist student on the college’s London campus, but he himself was not prosecuted by police as he had been a witness only.
By his early twenties, Hizb al-Tahrir sent him off, always in the guise of a student, to recruit in his parents’ home country of Pakistan. By now the movement was radically Jihadist and no longer presented itself as a sort of Muslim “defence league”. Maajid recruited members of the family of the young woman he had married.
The organization then sent him to recruit in Egypt, but here he got caught out.
Ever since the assassination of Sadat in 1981, the dictatorial secular Muslim regime of Mubarak had no sympathy for Islamist extremists. After the 9/11 attacks on New York, Britain held back from complaining when British citizens abroad were mistreated, should those citizens happen to be known Islamic extremists.
At the age of 24, Maajid was arrested in front of his wife and infant son, in their apartment in Alexandria. The Aman al-Dawlah (Mubarak’s secret police) carted him off, threatened him with torture, interrogated him, put him in solitary for three months and only then charged him with belonging to a banned organization. He ended up spending four years in a Cairo jail and was often tortured and interrogated. From the Aman al-Dawlah’s lines of questioning, he now suspects they were sharing information with British and other security services. Maajid presents Gordon Brown, the British consul who was supposed to represent his interests, as an amiable but ineffectual man who had to play along with power politics at a time when Britain supported Mubarak’s “War on Terror”.
Altogether, Maajid Nawaz tells us of thirteen years as a member of an Islamist organization, and he offers many valuable insights en route.
He says Islamism flourished among Muslims in Britain on the back of refugees from war-torn Bosnia. He therefore sees the post-Yugoslavia wars as the defining moment for British Muslims.
He notes that “we witnessed a shift from ethnic communalism, where only a brown person is assumed able to represent brown people and so on, to religious communalism, where only a Muslim is assumed to be able to represent other Muslims. Such entrenched communalism and its advocates, who have abused the original intentions of multiculturalism, have brought nothing but division and the balkanisation of Western and other societies.” [Pg.73]
He explains that the ultimate aim of Islamism is to revive the Caliphate [Khilafah] – that is, a unified empire of all Muslims under imposed Shar’ia law, which is how Islamists fantasise that the old Turkish Empire must once have been. Maajid Nawaz makes it clear that this geo-political goal is not what the religion of Islam is itself about. [The book does not add – but could have – that the difference between Islam and Islamism is very much the same as the difference between Christianity and defunct Christendom.]
Thus far we get in his story before he begins to re-consider his whole political belief system.
The process of how he ceased to be a radical extremist is not described in as much detail as the process by which he became one in the first place, but we are given hints throughout that he sometimes had misgivings about radical Islamism. Even in his English years, when he was new to the movement, he was given pause for thought when a well-meaning white guy intervened, and got stabbed in his place, when skinheads were threatening him. For just a fleeting moment he understood that an exclusivist, communalist morality was not a satisfactory morality.
Then there was the simple fact that in the Egyptian jail, he found himself mixing with Muslim prisoners who did not think the way he did:
“For me, with its rich mix of prisoners from the assassins of Sadat all the way through to the liberals and even homosexuals, Mazrah Tora [the jail] became a political and social education par excellence. The studies, conversations and experiences I gained in Mazrah Tora, over months and years, were crucial in overcoming my dogmatic allegiance to Islamist ideology. Having entered prison as an extremely idealistic 24-year-old, full of rage against society, over the course of four years, and for the first time in my life having nothing to do but study, I came to re-evaluate everything I stood for.” [Pg.275]
One key to his change was his awareness that Amnesty International, a totally disinterested group who shared neither his religion or his politics, took him up as a Prisoner of Conscience. The A.I. member who chiefly put him on the agenda and argued his case was an elderly English Christian, John Cornwall. Again, something overrode a communalist mentality. Amnesty International were fully aware that Maajid’s politics were extreme and potentially threatening to others; but he had not himself committed, or participated in, acts of violence and was therefore a legitimate object of their concern.
As he now considers this, Nawaz preaches earnestly that Westerners should understand what Prisoner of Conscience status means. Too often, he says, the status is misunderstood as suggesting that the prisoner’s views are being endorsed or are themselves worthy of respect. As a result, naïve admirers sometimes give released prisoners platform time to expound very dodgy ideas. It should be understood that “Prisoner of Conscience” means somebody who is persecuted for peacefully promoting ideas, regardless of how worthy or how obnoxious those ideas may be.
When Maajid was at last released and returned to England, he at first went back to being a spokesman for Hizb al-Tahrir. But his heart was no longer in it. He decided to leave the organization and work towards integrating Muslims into a pluralist society. He is now a spokesman and publicist for the Quilliam Org., an outfit that affirms Islam while preaching against Islamism. The two things are, after all, not the same.
As he expounds his new creed, the former radical Islamist notes two things. First, there is the understandable hostility of his former Islamist comrades, who feel he has betrayed them. His marriage broke up partly because his young wife stayed true to the creed that he now forswears. Second, there is his incredulity that there are still non-Muslim liberals who do not understand that Islamism is not Islam, and who still insist on seeing suicide bombers and the like as “victims” of Western colonialism. He reports:
“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.” [pp.340-341]
As my whole report should convey, Radical is a timely and informative book, and certainly one which tells us much more about Islamism than the superficial snippets of our news services.
I do note, however, that across its 380 pages of text, it does sometimes show signs of being in part ghost-written and lapsing into journalese. As the title page says, it was written “with Tom Bromley”, presumably being put together from Maajid Nawaz’s notes and interviews with him. This is suggested by the style, which sometimes makes references that are improbable from the mouth of an English Muslim of Pakistani background, and gives lengthy explanations of concepts that are clearly meant for a non-Muslim readership. There are also such techniques as a “Prologue” which is basically a “preview of coming attractions”, whetting our appetites by contrasting scenes of Maajid in 1992 [street rumble with “Paki-bashing” skinheads in Southend] with Maajid in 2002 [being threatened with torture in an Egyptian prison] and Maajid in 2011 [at a conference in the US discussing fate of post-Mubarak Egypt, and emphasizing need for constitutionality].
To put it simply, then, this is no great shakes as a piece of confessional literature, but it is a very good and worthwhile journalistic read.
Important footnote – As the book’s bibliography indicates, many interviews and debates involving Maajid Nawaz are available on Youtube, including one horrendous one (which I have accessed) in which he is confronted with the shouting Islamist fanatic Anjem Choudary. Maajid Nawaz is now a dapper and highly articulate person, as fully in command of the English language as any other English university graduate. I am sure most of Radical is his own work, but there are still passages where his co-writer seems to have taken over.