Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism
By Maajid Nawaz
Lyon Press, Guilford Connecticut, 2013
“Radical” is a coming of age memoir, a story of a young man’s journey from militant Islamist to anti-extremist advocate.
The young man, Maajid Nawaz, is a British-born Pakistani. As a teenager, he is rebellious and immersed in American Hip-hop culture and neighborhood warfare; he and his gang constantly defend themselves against attacks by white skinheads. Both sides carry weapons and there are countless violent incidents, countless friends stabbed. Nawaz learns from a young age that without a group around him he has no protection. That was 1992.
A confluence of world events convince Nawaz that there is an international movement discriminating against Muslims – the Gulf War, Bosnia, the Palestinians, Iraq, Afghanistan, the fall of the Babri Mosque in India – and he shifts from a national to a political identity. He takes on an “Islamist” approach to politics, becoming, at 16, a recruiter for an Islamist group, Hizb al-Tahrir (HT), whose “sole purpose was to use their global presence to reestablish ‘the Khalifah’ in a Muslim majority country.” Highly successful as a recruiter and speaker, Nawaz rises through HT’s ranks and continues his political activities in college. For years now, Nawaz travels everywhere with a knife strapped to his back.
Nawaz attempts to recruit for HT in Egypt, but is arrested and sent to prison, where he serves five years. At the beginning of his sentence he believes that “non-violence is only for those who have the luxury of an audience.” All he thinks about is revenge. He is inured to violence and the suffering of outsiders. However, there is a turn of events when Amnesty International adopts him and his coworkers as prisoners of conscience. His work with Amnesty “re-humanizes” him.
In prison he studies the Quran “properly,” ultimately “deconstructing” the violent ideology of Jihadist thought and extending the analysis to Islamism. He embraces certain European ideas including a unified and codified legal system, a judiciary subservient to the legal system, a constitution, and a state that protects constitutional rights. Ultimately, at 24 years old, his belief system is turned upside down.
After his release from prison, he asks himself, “Who better to challenge Islamism than him?” He founds the “world’s first counter-extremism” organization, Quilliam. He says it has “exactly the sort of mind, or more accurately the sort of heart, that America needs to hear from now.” He reports that he has been on Larry King, 60 Minutes, and Al Jazeera; he has met Robert DeNiro and George Bush; he has written columns and created YouTube videos. In addition to the foreword, prologue, postscript, and epilogue, Nawaz’s memoir contains a preface to the American edition in which he declares he was really “being American” during his Islamist period since his rebellion was informed by Western political ideas and methods.
Although“Radical” provides significant information about, “inter alia,” the inner workings of HT and the horrors of Egyptian prisons, these insights are undercut by Nawaz’ obvious self-regard and his zeal not only for his changing causes, but for his own advancement.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 66
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