Alom Shaha admires the honesty of a former Islamist
Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening by Maajid Nawaz (Virgin Books)
I’m a teacher and I’m on my summer holidays as I write this. One of the first things I’m going to do when I get back to work is to ensure the school library stocks a copy of Maajid Nawaz’s Radical.
Nawaz’s book is very much a companion piece to Ed Husain’s The Islamist (which was published in 2007), in that it is a much-needed insider’s account of Islamic extremism and, as such, it merits the description of “essential reading” for anyone seeking to understand what motivates bright, educated young men to embrace the fascist ideology of Islamism. Both books tell the stories of former Islamists who grew up at the same time and, indeed, there is an overlap between the two stories because Nawaz and Husain were friends who moved in the same circles. However, the books are different in both style and tone because Nawaz and Hussain are two very distinct characters.
As Husain describes him in The Islamist, Nawaz “oozed street cred … his clothes, attitude, good looks, and street speak made him very popular, very quickly”. Nawaz is clearly a charismatic character and this comes across in his own book and helps explain why he has led the remarkable life he has – from being a “B-boy” in predominantly white Southend to an Islamist agitator in an East London college to being a leading figure in the UK arm of Hizb ut-Tahrir via a four-year stretch in an Egyptian prison. Today, he is the executive director of the Quilliam Foundation, an organisation with the aims of “challenging extremism and promoting pluralism”. The story of redemption through the kindness of others, particularly that of John Cornwall of Amnesty International, is the stuff of Hollywood movies and I’d be surprised if a movie director or two wasn’t already considering buying the film rights.
It is worth reading both Radical and The Islamist to see how and why Islamism appealed to, and affected, two very different men, to see that there is no stereotypical “young British Muslim male” that falls prey to Islamists, that the appeal of Islamism is wide enough to encompass very different personalities. Both books are ultimately tales of grown men trying to make sense of who they used to be and how they came to be who they are. They are classic narratives of the search for identity and of redemption; they deserve to be read for that alone. In both cases, Islamism provided an off-the-shelf identity for these young men to adopt – as Nawaz writes, “there was a real vacuum as to who I was, which was the ideal place for someone to be before recruitment to an Islamist organisation. So they were able to offer me an identity that had previously been absent.” Nawaz is compellingly honest in describing both his descent into an all-consuming Islamism and his journey out of it to become one of the world’s leading anti-Islamist campaigners. The book is almost shockingly personal at times – Nawaz is brutally honest about his failings but also does not shy away from the occasional bouts of self-aggrandisement.
Parts of the story resonated strongly with me – Nawaz is about the same age as me and grew up in the same racist Britain of my childhood. His stories of the racist abuse he suffered as a child were all too familiar and I recognised the anger and sense of injustice that he felt growing up. But that’s where the similarities end – where he feels the dehumanisation he experienced led him to dehumanise others, I was luckier; my anger at these things was assuaged by more positive experiences at a secondary school where I felt, for the first time, that I was not destined to be a second-class citizen because of the colour of my skin.
In the epilogue to Radical, Nawaz writes that he tells his son that he can “be whatever you want to be … don’t let anyone tell you otherwise”. This idea that we can be whatever we want to be is one that I want to believe in, but Nawaz’s experiences as described in Radical suggest that, at least when we are young, we can become things that other people want us to be, and that it takes a great deal of self-reflection and strength of character to truly begin the journey to being someone we might want to be rather than someone shaped by our experiences.
I’m glad I read Nawaz’s book – it makes me optimistic that alternatives to Islamism may flourish, that, as he says, “In the long term, the younger generation who began [the Egyptian uprising] will move on to create other movements and inspire new trends, beyond Islamism … Islamism is not the future.” I hope he’s right.