Maajid Nawaz, a British Pakistani, is the co-founder and executive director of Quilliam, a counterterrorism think tank based in London. As member of Hizb ut-Tahrir , the controversial group that believes Islam is a political ideology that must dominate the world, he was one of its key leaders and recruiters, travelling to promote the organisation’s cause. During a trip to Egypt, he was jailed and tortured for four years because Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned in that country. He left the organisation in 2007 on the grounds that it was exploiting Islam. In a freewheeling interview, he spoke to TOI-Crest about why democratic forces urgently need to forge bonds both in the real and virtual worlds
How should democracy aspirants across the world bond and counter the threat posed by those promoting extreme ideas?
I would encourage all genuine activists of democratic culture to start organising themselves in every city. What bonds you is your conviction that open, accountable societies that respect individual liberty are the best and most humane places to live in. Build volunteers from the bottom-up. Do not confine yourselves to the national borders of the ‘old’ world. Make connections and allies wherever you find yourselves. Organise in groups, both real and virtual. Crucially, do not shy away from preaching your commitment not just to elections, but to democratic culture itself.
To what extent do extreme decisions taken by democratic societies help those pursuing extreme ideologies? For instance, by banning the veil in public places, has France given both the Islamist and right-wing ideologues such as the Norwegian terrorist Andres Breivik a stick to beat the system with?
Sadly, in Europe today, many democracies have started to adopt illiberal policies. Such policies are born out of the total absence of anyone at the grassroots genuinely proselytising for the democratic culture. The rise of far-right politics in Europe, like the rise of Islamism before it, is the result of committed ideologues spreading their values at a grassroots level across Europe. Elections will naturally reflect these trends. It is in the nature of ideologues to score political points from unfortunate policy decisions such as the French veil ban. The real danger, however, is that there is no equivalent ideological campaign to defend and spread the democratic culture on the grassroots, scoring its own points against extremist thought.
Elections are not the same as democratic culture. Elections may occur in theocracies, or even in totalitarian states. Hitler was elected. Democratic culture, on the other hand, is a set of values, such as a respect for individual liberty and the fundamental freedoms. It is the democratic culture, rather than populism, that will safeguard against the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Such a “culture” is a belief, and like any other belief must be preached for.
Does the person living in a liberal milieu take his or her freedoms for granted?
And the global erosion of liberal values will go unaddressed until we awake from our slumber. It is essential to know that merely aspiring to a democratic culture is insufficient. We must believe in the ideas, but we must also be prepared to promote and sacrifice for such ideas through social activism. No meaningful social change comes without sacrifice, often in life and livelihood. To stand a real chance of beating back extreme ideas requires full-time activism, conviction and limitless energy. By its very nature you will be challenging some very intolerant people, who will likely attack you. Only the test of sacrifice can separate the ‘career activist’ from a genuine change-maker.
How can people be taught to value the freedom they enjoy in democratic societies and how can extreme propaganda driven globally by technology be countered?
People will not be ‘taught’ the value of the freedoms they enjoy. Such freedoms were once a hard-earned and hard-fought-for prize. Only as societies decay and begin to polarise will the value of such freedoms be appreciated once more. This is now happening globally as extremism and communalism grows. Technology is only ever complementary to real-life activism, never a substitute for it. Hence, a global alliance of activists and movements fighting to promote the democratic culture is the only antidote to the global alliances of extremist thought that have emerged.
Norway has a youth-led grassroots social movement that champions liberal democratic thinking. Yet, Breivik happened.
A hitherto little noticed side-effect of globalisation is that parochial identities and local concerns are becoming more, not less, entrenched. As people’s ability to interconnect – what used to be isolated pockets of local concerns – increases, what would have been fringe now appears mainstream. This magnifies the fringe into a large contingent. As it becomes easier to stay connected with people’s cultures of origin or local prejudices, digital ghettos are emerging that merely reinforce extremes rather than challenge them. Mere access to information is never enough. Information is always used for a cause. What is needed is a democratic cause that uses information to its advantage.
The grassroots movement I speak of must work for generations, as extremist groups have been doing, and must remain ab
ove left/right political divides. Democratic culture must not be reduced to a political choice. If it is, then the mistakes made by political parties in policy decisions will be blamed on the civilisational choice of democracy. People must vote ‘in’ an existing democratic culture, and not ‘for’ a democratic culture. Therefore, democratic culture must remain the fabric that binds society, within which people vote for left or right policies. Hence, this movement must never be affiliated to any one ruling party;rather it must feed and sustain all of them. This will only be achieved by encouraging the emergence of social movements that work to spread the ideas of individual liberty and the fundamental freedoms.
When and how does a person lean towards extreme political thinking?
Generally, the factors that give rise to extremism can be summarised as four. First, an individual must experience a sense of grievance, real or perceived. Secondly, that grievance gives rise to an acute identity crisis. Third, these first two are usually exploited by a charismatic recruiter who offers a sense of belonging in his group;and finally the recruiter introduces a narrative that binds together the grievance, identity and group to present a utopian solution.
You talk of the need for a powerful advocacy of democratic values. Norway has suffered the worst terror strike in its history. Prime Minister Stoltenberg says he will soldier on with his liberal, democratic line despite the attack. What more should he do to champion the cause?
There is not much more he can do I’m afraid. The need for a genuine and global grassroots movement that I have advocated will take time, and must not be the domain of politicians, but of social activists. Sound politics is merely a product of democratic culture, not its cause. This task must now be taken up by the youth.
Where do you see the leadership for this democracy advocacy emerging from?
I see these leaderships (in the plural) generically emerging from the societies that suffer the most at the hands of extremist thought. Only severe and sustained lack of liberty breeds people who are willing to brave danger and sacrifice all to regain it.
Democracies that take a hit tend to crack down and often innocents have to take the brunt. These people often get pushed towards extreme ideologies in the process. How can this be prevented?
Extremism, just like crime, will always exist. However, what I advocate is that currently there is no effective alternative being presented at the grassroots to angry young men. No counter-narrative exists. There are only the extremist groups by and large. The effective presence of a counter-narrative can go a long way in insulating young people from making extreme choices.
Why is it that aberrations, such as corruption and deprivation in democracies, seem to get a lot more play than the benefits that accrue from liberal set ups?
These societies are open and they encourage scrutiny and accountability. Usually, it is their own media that exposes the corruption. It was the BBC that exposed the untruth over the existence of WMD in Iraq. It was the American media that exposed the abuse in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The fact that this happens is a good thing, and healthy for society. However, due to the presence of extremist groups that have long existed at the grassroots, they are able to exploit these selfexposed mistakes to rubbish the entire civilisational choice of democratic culture, and instead promote their own totalitarian alternative as the solution to such errors. This reinforces the idea that a grassroots counter-narrative is needed to rebut those who seek to turn political errors into ideological score-points. An example of how this is done is by, for example, popularising the idea that the above policy errors were exposed by the media of these very countries. What, on the other hand, would happen in the sorts of closed societies that these extremists advocate?
Why do we hesitate to espouse the universality of democratic culture? Why is going around saying ‘I believe in a democratic culture as a form of political organising’ associated with extremism?
We remain hesitant to espouse the universality of democratic culture today because it is rooted in many of the world’s most powerful countries, leading to complacency by democracy aspirants. Furthermore, ideasdriven change is associated with extremists and recently with the neo-conservatism experiment and colonialism;hence politically correct democracy aspirants are shying away from expressing the universality of human rights, while extremists express the universality of their views. Also, democratic culture is being reduced to a political, rather than a civilisational, choice by democracy aspirants themselves. Hence, democratic culture is unfairly taking the blame for the political and economic failure in developing countries. Finally, if the world’s imperial superpower today was communist, it would be easier to detach democratic culture from foreign-policy grievances, and to reposition it as the ideology of resistance.
Your argument that democracy takes the blame for political mistakes prompting people to lose faith in the system doesn’t seem to hold good for India. Political parties here make umpteen errors, yet the roots of democracy in India remain strong as ever.
India, to the best of my knowledge, has a long history of religious pluralism and a rooted secular national identity. This was partly due to liberal democratic values forming the basis for a social movement that resisted the British Empire. However, India also has its fair share of rising extremist and separatist trends, both those who use religion, and those who use revolutionary political ideology. It is exactly the sort of complacency that appears in this question that India must remain vigilant against. As globalisation takes root, Indian identities will come under increasing strain. The Muslims of India may find it easier to communicate with and affiliate to Muslims in other nations, and the same will be reflected in the Hindus of India. Some of these trends are already showing. To avoid the sort of polarisation that Europe is now witnessing, action must be taken now at a grassroots level to spark a social movement that begins insulating Indian society from the simultaneously dividing-yetuniting force of globalisation.
Does having extremist groups – like the Jamaat in Pakistan – in the mainstream political process serve any purpose?
These extremist groups are the by-product of alternative and extremist civilisational choices being advocated on the grassroots for years. Their every strength and success is indicative of our complacency and neglect. A popular social phenomenon, even if banned, will not stop rising. The only way to stop the rise of such extremist phenomena is by creating an alternative phenomenon. Legal or military solutions will simply not change ideas. Rather than focus on the success of these groups, we should be looking to our failures as democracy activists. Where they sacrifice, we sleep. Where they organise, we pontificate. Where they preach, we
retreat. And where they are willing to die for their cause, we are not even willing to bleed for ours.