Growing-up with Maajid Nawaz in “Radical”

Islamism – non-secular political aspirations of Islam – are a problem of Islam and a problem for all of us, but that problem is Islamism, not Islam per se. And, like any religion, interpretation and fragmentation mean Islam has plenty of other problems with tolerance and respect for individual rights and freedoms, but there can be no doubt Sharia represents some very particular problems of Islam also exploited by Islamism. Extreme Islamism, Jihadism and political terrorism & violence in-the-name-of Islamism are further problematic levels of complication, and an important part of my agenda is to avoid conflation in addressing these many – related, but distinct – things.

In fact my thesis is that life really is this complicated and that’s as true of science & rationality, politics & culture as it is of religion & faith, but I digress.

I’ve been a follower of Quilliam and a supporter of Maajid Nawaz’s position on Islam and Islamism for some years, but have only recently got round to reading his early autobiographical “Radical“. It’s the story of his journey from youthful irreligious ethnic-Pakistani Essex “B-Boy” gangsta to extreme Islamist radicalisation and torture, and back again to being the grown-up Muslim campaigner against Islamism, radicalisation and bigoted extremism in general. I found particularly scary, shared experiences of common locations and times in London, Pakistan and Egypt.

It is a very good read.

Sure, there is probably a little over-inflated sense of attributing his own actions and qualities to taking credit for the events described, it is after all only one person’s narrative of events as he saw it, but there can be no denying the story is a must-read lesson we all should understand. There may even be a little dramatic invention in the DNA of the number 42 and in his apologising to the door out of the torture cell? But he does also give generous credit to many others along the way; Peter Tatchell and Amnesty International for example, as well as a list of mainstream party politicians and civil servants that might surprise the more cynical.

Significant, I think, that Mid-East historian Tom Holland is one of those providing a cover blurb recommendation. An important book as well as being an un-put-downable read.

Chapter 16 “Polemic” provides probably the most comprehensive statement and rationalisation of the reactionary Islamist agenda – radically political before it is remotely religious, essentially “our” self-identity politics with a vengeance. I was reminded of my own readings of Anders Breivik in the objective logic behind misguided determination behind the appalling actions.

Initially, I made many notes, quotes and connections from that polemic chapter, but thought better of presenting them all here. Just go read it.

The final redemptive section of the book starts with Chapter 24 and I was moved to share these:

[On “No Platforming”] [Hall’s summary of Voltaire]
‘I disapprove of what you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ […]

Any other stance makes a mockery of the universality of human rights. Even now as I spend and expend my life campaigning against extremism, I would still want Amnesty to protect prisoners in a similar position to the one I was in. [Guilty in actions, but nevertheless actually imprisoned for belief.] […]

But the devil is in the detail. Where I disagree with not just Amnesty but with many other human-rights groups is in their failure to highlight a clear and obvious distinction between a victim of human rights abuses, and a champion of human rights causes. […]

I will campaign against anyone who would want to torture Mubarak, for he remains a human being, but I would never want to extend to any one of the Mubarak regime’s men a human rights platform from which to address a young, impressionable crowd of student volunteers …

[Many groups sadly blur the distinction in who they platform.]
Life is more complicated than that.


The rehumanisation Amnesty had helped kick-start [in me] was furthered by others in prison too. […]

‘So, why did you leave the cause?’ I asked, genuinely interested.

And as we walked across the desert sand of Mazrah Tora’s prison yard, [he] looked at me a simply said, ‘I grew up.’

The way he said it caught me completely off guard. I grew up. The phrase made me pause. I had been expecting a long pseudo-theological justification [… but … H]e was too smart to get into that. Instead, he just left that phrase hanging there, and left me to think about it. Which I did.


Reading classic English literature did for me what [only recently] studying Islamic theology couldn’t; It forced my mind to grapple with moral dilemmas. Upon our request, the British Consul would regularly send us books from the embassy library.

I devoured the classics ….

Those of us with over-zealous adherence to our logic of life – even those of us who would claim entirely undogmatic rational logic – have a lot of growing-up to do. Nawaz eventually comes to reflecting on Breivik in his epilogue.

“Much remains to be done.”


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