What’s to blame for persistent Muslim extremism – the violent appeal of political Islam, or botched western foreign policy? Mehdi Hasan goes head to head with Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam.

Dear Maajid,

Assalam alaikum.

Your new memoir, Radical, exploring your journey from Hizb ut-Tahrir activist to self-professed “liberal Muslim”, is bold, fascinating and, at times, insightful.

To be honest, I wasn’t always a fan of your work – and I am still bemused by the view in some circles that former extremists are the best (the only?) people qualified to identify and tackle extremism.

Nonetheless, you should be applauded for trying to answer one of the most uncomfortable questions of our time: what is it that turns a tiny minority of ordinary, young, Muslim men into fanatical, cold-blooded killers?

It is undoubtedly the case that what you refer to as a “stifling, totalitarian victimhood ideology” often plays a role in the transformation. But I worry that, in your understandable attempt to denounce and deconstruct the “Islamist narrative of a clash of civilisations”, you downplay the role of foreign policy issues (from the in­vasion of Iraq to the occupation of Palestine to the west’s support for Arab dictators) as drivers of radicalisation.

Would you accept that those neoconservatives who deny a link between, say, foreign occupations, on the one hand, and radicalisation and terrorism, on the other, are being dishonest? The empirical evidence is clear: the US political scientist Robert Pape, who studied every known case of suicide terrorism between 1980 and 2003, has concluded that the “specific secular and strategic goal” of suicide terrorists is to end foreign military occupations. “The tap root of suicide terrorism is nationalism,” he wrote; it is “an extreme strategy for national liberation”.

You denounce those on the “regressive left”, such as the Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, who dare to join the dots between the west’s wars and Islamist extremism. Forget Milne. Consider instead the verdict of Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden tracking unit and the author of three acclaimed books on al-Qaeda. “I don’t think there are a lot of people who want to blow themselves up because my daughters go to university,” Scheuer told me in an interview last year. “People are going to come and bomb us because they don’t like what we’ve done.”

Is he wrong?

Mehdi

Dear Mehdi,

As Amnesty’s UK director Kate Allen noted in her preface to Radical, it is a story about racist violence and a struggle for human rights, just as much as it is a story about the impact of a divisive ideology. Rather than explicitly prescribe factors that cause extremism, I chose to bring them out through the means of storytelling, so that readers could step into my world.

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