Friday 6 February 2015

“Islamism is rooted in insecurity about relationship with God”

This is a full transcript of my interview with Maajid Nawaz, head of the Quilliam Foundation and author of “Radical”. Mr. Nawaz is a former leading member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organization with a presence all over the world. The news report, in Portuguese, can be found here.

Transcrição integral, no inglês original, da entrevista com Maajid Nawaz, autor do livro “Radical” (Texto Editores) e ex-membro do grupo Hizb ut-Tahrir, um movimento fundamentalista islâmico com presença em todo o mundo. A reportagem encontra-seaqui.

In the course of your life as a fundamentalist, and subsequently through the work you have been doing to track and fight extremism, have Portugal or Portuguese elements ever come up?
Of course they have come up. Almost every country in Europe has come up, over the last seven or eight years that we have been doing this work.

Frankly, the situation in Europe is that wherever there are Muslims, unfortunately a faction of them, today, will subscribe to the sort of ideologies that feed into recruitment into groups such as Al-Qaeda or ISIL or any other type of extremist group.

There will be a faction of these within most communities in Europe. I emphasize it is a minority faction, but our work is an attempt to galvanize the silent majority against them and that is where the real difficulty lies.

For a young Muslim to embrace fundamentalism is one thing, but are you surprised by the amount of Western converts to fundamentalist Islam who have been carrying out attacks or travelling to do Jihad?
That is not really a surprise to me, it has been consistent for a long time, even when I was a member of the Islamist organization. And the way that I explain this is that whereas in the past, 30 or 40 years ago, the Zeitgeist for angry young people who were anti-establishment could have been Stalinist communism, today its Islamism, its islamist extremism. Because it has come to symbolize the peak of anti-establishment ideology, it even attracts people who don't come from a Muslim background.

Diagnosing it this way, our challenge is to make this current Zeitgeist of islamist extremism as unattractive or as unappealing as Soviet Communism has become for many young people across Europe.

How is that done?
If we analyse the make-up of social movements, and what makes them popular, I've narrowed it down to five core factors, and those are what I call the ideas, or the basic ideology.

The Islamists want to enforce a version of Islam over society, that's their idea. Their narratives, or propaganda, that's the second thing they have. The third, after ideas and narratives, they have leaders, charismatic leaders who are able to recruit people through their powers of persuasion. They also have iconography, or symbolism. If we look at ISIL the black flags and other kind of iconography come to mind immediately. The fifth element is that they have a vision, or a dream. And in ISIL's case it is the creation of a Caliphate, with the analogy I drew previously with soviet communism it was the creation of the utopian communist state.

So what we need to be able to do is, through civil society activism, discredit the ideas, narratives, leaders, symbols and dream of Islamist extremism, and we need to be able to capture the imagination of young people with alternative ideas, narratives, symbols, leaders and dreams.

Now that is a very difficult task, and it is actually a task for a couple of generations, it’s not something that is going to happen over ten years.

Governments of Western countries such as Portugal are now discussing ways to try and fight this problem. What pointers would you give them?
I would suggest that they focus on prevention, rather than on de-radicalization, what I mean is that it is a lot easier to try and stop people joining extremist organizations than it is to try and pull them out once they've joined. So the first thing I say is to focus on the prevention element.

The second thing I'd say is that what we mustn't try and do, or States and governments mustn't try and do, is to predefine a correct version of Islam, versus an incorrect one, and then sponsor this predefined correct version.

By doing that the State gets locked into sectarian debates about what real theology is, and the State really has no business interfering in religion in that way, nor vice versa.

A better approach, I feel, and this is the advice I have been giving the British Government and others across the World, is that the State should work within communities to reinforce the core values of the social contract. These would be secularism, respect for human rights and democratic process, a respect for individual autonomy and liberty. And those values, regardless of one's religious affiliation, need to be reinforced and religious communities need to be aware that it is their responsibility to reconcile their respective sects and religious interpretations with the values of the social contract.

It's not the state's problem that they are unable to do that, it's the community's responsibility to do that, and that is where we are very far behind, currently, in this debate, in that the communities across the spectrum, Muslim and non-Muslim, all need to step up to the plate and start reinforcing these core values which make our societies stable and peaceful.

Are you in hiding?
No. I am not in hiding, I am actually running for an election to Parliament, so I am very public. But I take precautions, because as you can imagine some of the things I say are not very popular with extremists.

You abandoned Islamism, but you remain Muslim?
That is correct.

Some people say that these terrorist acts have nothing to do with real Islam. Do you agree?
No I don't. I think it is unhelpful. I was doing an interview with the US media last night and I drew an analogy with the Harry Potter books.

The bad guy in Harry Potter is called Voldemort and the author uses the phrase: "He who must not be named", because people are so scared of this figure, that they are scared of even naming it. That leads to a climate of even more paranoia and more fear. So I think it is unhelpful if we don't name the Islamist ideology. Because what it will do is lead to a climate of even more fear and, invariably, people will start blaming all and every Muslim.

So to avoid all Muslims being blamed, let’s pinpoint exactly what we are talking about, so that we know what it is we need to refute and critique. We are talking about Islamism. Islamism is the desire to impose any version of the religion of Islam over society. That distinction is what makes the difference between a Religious Muslim [and an islamist].

And by the way I am not a religious leader nor do I claim to speak in representation of Muslims, I speak based on my principles and my thoughts.

But however one wants to follow one's own religion: Conservative, liberal, reform, moderate, strict, traditional, however these denominations or differences exist in Catholicism, or any form of religion, that is very different from wanting to impose your view on other people through law, or by infiltrating governments and then enforcing that over society. That is what we refer to as Islamism.

Jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism. I have a problem with both Islamism in principle and, of course, Jihadism as a method to spread it.

When we talk about jihadism and Islamism, are we talking about mainly a political or a religious problem?
It’s a combination of both, which is why I said earlier that the statement that this has nothing to do with Islam is incorrect, it has something to do with Islam, it may not be what the vast majority of Muslims subscribe to, but it certainly has something to do with Islam, that is undeniable.

And what it has to do with Islam is that you have a bunch of people out there who are so fundamentally insecure in their own relationship with God, that they want to force everyone else to follow the way they think God wants them to follow their religion. That fundamental insecurity is the birth of Islamism.

You suffered terribly at the hands of the military regime in Egypt. How did you feel when Mubarak fell?
It was a cathartic moment for me. Mubarak was eventually held in the same row of prison cells, in the very same prison in which he held me. So in that sense it was very cathartic. I was optimistic at the time about the prospect of a democratic, albeit imperfect future for Egypt. I am slightly less optimistic now, because things moved one step forward but then they moved ten steps backwards, since.

Meanwhile there were elections and the Islamists took charge, only to be ousted by the military one year later. What went wrong? Is this proof that countries like Egypt and Syria are better off without democracy?
I would dispute that, because Tunisia, for example, demonstrated where it can work. Tunisia had a peaceful uprising and a peaceful changeover of government. They went from their post-Islamist "Ennahda" party led by Rashid Ghannouchi to a largely secular government, so Tunisia can demonstrate, or does demonstrate, that Arab countries can handle democracy.

What went wrong in Egypt was that the young democratic activists who rose up against Mubarak weren't organized, they fell into infighting and bickering, it left the way open for the most organized faction in society which happened to be the Islamist faction, the Muslim brotherhood. They came to power, made an absolute dogs mess of the situation and that led to Egypt's largest ever protests in the country's history, against the Muslim Brotherhood's government.

It was a popular uprising against Islamism, which again demonstrates that Muslims are not intrinsically or somehow inherently attracted to Islamism. More people protested the Muslim Brotherhood government than they first did against Mubarak's regime. That, unfortunately, precipitated another military coup and Sisi came to power.

What should have happened at that point was a new election, but unfortunately it led to another coup and since then the situation has gone downhill.

Your journey into fundamentalism was through the Hizb ut-Tahrir party. The goal of this party is to create a new Caliphate. When you were active in the movement, would you have embraced a group like ISIS?
No. I think Hizb Ut-Tahrir is still an organization which works across the World, and their stance on groups like Al-Qaeda, which did exist when I was a member, and ISIS, which didn't, has been that they don't condemn them, but they don't agree with their methodology. It is worth pointing out that my former organization was the first group to popularize this idea of creating this Islamic utopia, or the dystopia we now see in the so-called Caliphate that ISIS declared. Hiz ut-Tahrir was founded in 1953 with that sole mission statement, to resurrect the so called caliphate.

I think ISIL's failed experiment should be sufficient, ideally, to demonstrate to every Islamist, exactly what happens when you try to create Heaven on Earth. These theocratic utopian states are inevitably going to fail. 

Did you ever take up arms?
No. Hizb ut-Tahrir's method of power was twofold. One was to prepare public opinion, which was my role, to work with societies in Pakistan, in Egypt, and here in Britain, to prepare public opinion for the return of the Caliphate. The second thing would be to work diligently to recruit army officers with a view to inciting military coups in Muslim majority countries so that they could take power.

The difference between that form of revolutionary Islamism and Jihadism, i.e. the use of force to spread Islamism, is the difference that socialists have between the whole notion of direct action versus what they call dialectical materialism, allowing society to evolve, itself, as means of production change over time, or the evolution of society versus direct action. Socialists had that split, which led to militant socialists taking direct action, likewise Islamists have had that split.

Hizb ut-Tahrir was of the view that terrorist actions would actually hinder progress in the creation of the Caliphate, so I did have a role in attempting to convince army officers, in Pakistan for instance, to join the organization and to plan a coup, and I had a role in preparing public opinion. But up until this day, though the group has certainly contributed to the atmosphere that lends itself to Jihadism, it isn't in itself a Jihadist organization.

In your book you talk about the institutional racism of the police force, when you were growing up. Has that changed?
Racism and the climate of racism in institutions has changed incredibly in the United Kingdom. If you had told me, when I was fifteen years old, that one day the USA would have an African American president, I would have laughed you out of the room.

It’s an indication of a lot of the progress which has been made. That doesn't mean everything is perfect, there are still societies and countries in Europe [with problems]. Like Greece, for example, which doesn't grant citizenship to people who are not ethnically Greek, even though they might have been born and raised for their entire lives, in that country. So there are challenges when it comes to Europe in itself coming to terms with what being European means, in this day and age. So things, though they have improved, still have a lot further to go.

You also talk about the role of the Palestinian problem. How important is this in the radicalization of young Muslims?
I'd say it’s important, but it’s not the be all and end all.

ISIL demonstrate, as do the Taliban, that extremism can have very local contributing factors. In the case of ISIL the failure of the Iraqi government in dealing with the Sunni situation there, post Saddam Hussein, in the case of the Taliban, of course, it is Afghanistan, in the case of Lashkar e-Taiba, in Pakistan, its Kashmir.

So solving the Palestinian problem is important in and of itself, as an issue, though some people present it as the main cause of extremism, which if solved, would end extremism across the world. I would dispute that assumption.

What exactly happened that you should have a change of heart?
Well I'd suggest they read the book, that's what this interview is about.

But in short, I'll give you a sentence, because it was a long five year process, but when I was imprisoned in Egypt, Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience and I say in the book: “Where the heart leads, the mind can follow”. And that touched my heart and it allowed me, for the next four years, to spend my time studying in prison.

I re-read George Orwell's Animal Farm and I came to the conclusion, among many other things that I read, including traditional Islamic literature, that if my comrades in prison ever came to power, they would create the Islamist version of Orwell's parody of Communist Utopia.

And I realised that actually these people would be far worse than what we were trying to overthrow. I think ISIL coming to power in Iraq and Syria has demonstrated that. I am happy that I came to that view, and managed to pull out, before I had anything to do with any project related to recreating a theocratic clerical fascist state in the world.

What is the nature of the work you do nowadays?
We primarily work with challenging public perceptions around the subject of Islamism and extremism, in building civil society resilience, in challenging the ideology of Islamism head on, discrediting the five things I mentioned earlier, attempting to promote an alternative to those five.

We advise governments on policy, we work with media, we publish reports that expose, just today wepublished a report on the ISIS issued guidance on how women should behave in their organization, we translated it from Arabic and published it.

So generally our work through civil society is to build resilience and awareness around the Islamist ideology and the understanding of their operational methodologies.

Member of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Pakistan
The conflict in the Middle East is presented at times as being a conflict between Islamism and the West. Is it more useful to see it as a conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam?
I'd say that even more important than both those, is the conflict, generally, for civilization, within the Islamic faith and within the rest of the world.

I think the world currently is divided between those who stand for liberty, democratic values, pluralism, tolerance, respect, and the rule of law; and those who stand for any form of fascism, whether clerical fascism, in the form of a theocratic state, or totalitarian states, such as North Korea.

Iran and North Korea are allies, and as is the case with fascists, they have infighting, so the Iranian clerical fascists are fighting Sunni clerical fascists in Iraq and Syria, but the rest of the world is united against all forms of clerical fascism. And in both these general camps, in the camps that stand for liberty and democratic values, are Muslims and non-Muslims; and in the camp which stands for Clerical Fascism are also Muslims and non-Muslims.

So I think that is a more accurate way of looking at the world. As I say, this is a clash within Islamic civilization, not between Islam and the West.

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