Age of extremes: Mehdi Hasan and Maajid Nawaz debate

What's to blame for persistent Muslim extremism - the violent appeal of political Islam, or botched western foreign policy? Mehdi Hasan goes head to head with Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam.

Islamist demonstrators protest outside the US embassy in London
Islamist demonstrators protest outside the US embassy in London on September 11, 2011. Photo: Getty Images

Dear Maajid,

Assalam alaikum.
Your new memoir, Radical, exploring your journey from Hizb ut-Tahrir activist to self-professed “liberal Muslim”, is bold, fascinating and, at times, insightful.

To be honest, I wasn’t always a fan of your work – and I am still bemused by the view in some circles that former extremists are the best (the only?) people qualified to identify and tackle extremism.

Nonetheless, you should be applauded for trying to answer one of the most uncomfortable questions of our time: what is it that turns a tiny minority of ordinary, young, Muslim men into fanatical, cold-blooded killers?

It is undoubtedly the case that what you refer to as a “stifling, totalitarian victimhood ideology” often plays a role in the transformation. But I worry that, in your understandable attempt to denounce and deconstruct the “Islamist narrative of a clash of civilisations”, you downplay the role of foreign policy issues (from the in­vasion of Iraq to the occupation of Palestine to the west’s support for Arab dictators) as drivers of radicalisation.

Would you accept that those neoconservatives who deny a link between, say, foreign occupations, on the one hand, and radicalisation and terrorism, on the other, are being dishonest? The empirical evidence is clear: the US political scientist Robert Pape, who studied every known case of suicide terrorism between 1980 and 2003, has concluded that the “specific secular and strategic goal” of suicide terrorists is to end foreign military occupations. “The tap root of suicide terrorism is nationalism,” he wrote; it is “an extreme strategy for national liberation”.

You denounce those on the “regressive left”, such as the Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, who dare to join the dots between the west’s wars and Islamist extremism. Forget Milne. Consider instead the verdict of Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden tracking unit and the author of three acclaimed books on al-Qaeda. “I don’t think there are a lot of people who want to blow themselves up because my daughters go to university,” Scheuer told me in an interview last year. “People are going to come and bomb us because they don’t like what we’ve done.”

Is he wrong?

Mehdi

 

Dear Mehdi,

As Amnesty’s UK director Kate Allen noted in her preface to Radical, it is a story about racist violence and a struggle for human rights, just as much as it is a story about the impact of a divisive ideology. Rather than explicitly prescribe factors that cause extremism, I chose to bring them out through the means of storytelling, so that readers could step into my world.

I have attempted to strike a balance between the two extremes of the neoconservative right, which tends to blame Islam itself for an increase in Islamist-led violence, and the regressive left, which tends to blame only foreign or domestic western government policy. The fact is that
human beings are complicated animals. Unlike water, we don’t all boil at 100° Celsius. No catch-all cause of extremism can be identified. It is best to approach this subject with some general principles in mind that inevitably contribute to the phenomenon – grievances, identity crises, charismatic recruiters and ideological narratives.

It matters not whether the grievances are real or perceived. The perception of a grievance is sufficient to act as an agitating force. Where policy is wrong, such as with the invasion of Iraq, it should be changed to protect our own values rather than to succumb to the demands of terrorists. Where policy is right but perceived as wrong, more needs to be done to engage the aggrieved parties, as citizens and not as segregated communal blocs.

One million Britons marched against the Iraq war. Of these, a tiny minority, from within the non-Iraqi British Muslim communities, reacted with violence on 7 July 2005. To interpret this simply as a “nationalist struggle” to remove occupation ignores the blatantly obvious fact that, first, the terrorists were not Iraqis, they were British-Pakistanis (though British Iraqis have lived here for a long time); second, the vast majority of the Stop the War protesters were non-Muslims, yet only a handful from among a minority of Muslims reacted to the war with terrorism. Even though occupation may have caused agitation among the 7 July bombers, these northern-born lads with thick Yorkshire accents confessed in their suicide tapes to considering themselves soldiers with a mission to kill our people (Britons) on behalf of their people (Iraqis). The prerequisite to such a disavowal of one’s country of birth is a recalibration of identity; this is the undeniable role of ideological narratives.

Maajid

Dear Maajid,

I’m glad we seem to be in agreement on this: yes, radicalisation is as much a product of foreign policy “grievances” as it is one of a hate-filled “divisive ideology”. I am delighted to see the head of the Quilliam Foundation, “the world’s first counter-extremism think tank”, taking a much more nuanced approach to Islamist-inspired violence than some of its well-known outriders (step forward, Michael “Islamism Is Nazism” Gove). For far too long, the debate over the “root causes” of terrorism has been dominated by simplistic assumptions, sweeping generalisations and lazy stereotypes.

So here’s my confusion. In your memoir, you write that David Cameron’s speech on extremism in Munich in February 2011 was the result of a meeting you had with him in Downing Street and that it “included almost all of my suggestions”. Yet this was a speech as inflammatory as it was superficial, peppered with stereotypes and straw men. On the day that the English Defence League marched against Muslims living in Luton, Cameron bizarrely decided to blame the rise of Islamist-inspired violence in the UK on “segregated communities”, “the doctrine of state multiculturalism” and “the passive tolerance of recent years”. Conveniently, he had little to say about the well-documented links between “our” foreign policy and “their” violent extremism.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the Prime Minister’s now-notorious address was his enthusiastic endorsement of the so-called “conveyor belt” theory of radicalisation, which states that young Muslims start off alienated and angry, slowly become more religious and politicised, and then almost automatically turn to violence and terror. Or, as Cameron put it, “As evidence emerges about . . . those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called ‘non-violent extremists’, and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence.”

But this claim has been contradicted by the PM’s own officials. In July 2010, a leaked memo prepared for coalition ministers on the cabinet’s home affairs subcommittee concluded that it was incorrect “to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence . . . This thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors.”

Isn’t it time we ditched the unhelpful and discredited analogy of the conveyor belt? Shouldn’t we be more rigorous in our analysis of the radicalisation process and less obsessed with “non-violent extremists” – who, by definition, pose no physical threat to us?

Mehdi

Dear Mehdi,

This extremism agenda must remain non- partisan, my friend. To be fair to the coalition, its policy has been to try to turn the Bush-era doctrine on its head. Instead of developing a state-heavy response to terrorism, while tolerating non-violent extremism in civil society, this government has tried to curtail state-led excess, while doing more to focus on civil society responses to non-violent extremism. Consequently, legality and civil liberties are better protected now than they were during the Bush era. Obviously there is still much more that can be done.

I’m glad that the Prime Minister’s Munich speech addressed non-violent extremism and I’m proud to have influenced this. I agree that raising multiculturalism in the speech was an unnecessary distraction. But the desire was to highlight non-violent extremism, because in recent years it had been such a taboo, unlike complaining about grievances, which Britons have a long tradition of doing.

Non-violent extremism may not pose a physical threat but that doesn’t mean it is not a challenge requiring a robust policy response. Casual racism in society poses no direct physical threat, but we can all recognise that where it spreads unchecked, without a civic challenge,
it is an unhealthy phenomenon. Islamism – which can advocate anti-democratic views, divisive sectarianism and ideas that discriminate on grounds of gender and sexuality – is analogous in this respect to racism. This does not mean we ban such ideas, but it does mean that, as with racism, we require a popular civil society approach in challenging them.

I agree there is no conclusive evidence that extremism is a “conveyor belt” to terrorism, just as there is inconclusive evidence to the contrary. In such cases, common sense surely should prevail. To become a jihadist terrorist, one first becomes an Islamist, though not all Islamists will go on to violence. Joining militant racist groups like Combat 18 seems unlikely if one is not first exposed to a level of racist rhetoric.

However, ultimately, this entire issue is a red herring. Whether or not there is a “conveyor belt”, we must surely agree that the spread of extremism in societies is unhealthy for integration in its own right. Just as many on the left challenge anti-Muslim hatred while they object to challenging Islamist ideology, many on the right challenge Islamist ideology but neglect anti-Muslim hatred. I value consistency. Why not challenge both?

Maajid

Dear Maajid,

“An unnecessary distraction”? The Prime Minister’s decision to bolt a supposedly nuanced analysis of counter-extremism and radical­isation on to a conservative critique of “state multiculturalism” was reckless, irresponsible and inflammatory.

Above all, it lacked a factual basis. Multiculturalism has little, if anything, to do with the rise of Islamist-inspired terrorism. Otherwise, how would you explain the presence of extremist groups inside monocultural societies such as Saudi Arabia or the Gaza Strip?

Remember: the 7 July bombers were, by any conventional definition, integrated into wider British society. None of the four spoke English as a second language; one of them was a convert to Islam. The ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, once nicknamed “Sid”, was a teaching assistant who had refused to have an arranged marriage. Shazad Tanweer, the Aldgate bomber, was an avid cricketer who worked part-time in his father’s fish-and-chip shop. Their actions were horrific and unforgivable but their grievances were political, not cultural.

You asked why some on the left “challenge anti-Muslim hatred while they object to challenging Islamist ideology” and you issue a call for consistency. But are you really comparing like with like? Mainstream Muslim groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) may have their flaws and limitations, but is it fair or accurate to compare them to the hate-mongers and bigots of the British National Party or the EDL? How does such a divisive, such a black-and-white, approach to engaging young, politically active British Muslims help to build the bonds and civic relations that you say you cherish? Isn’t it a dangerous mirror image of the terrorists’ own “with-us-or-against-us” mentality?

To be honest, the analogy between racism and Islamism that you constantly invoke in your writings and public appearances worries me. We’re all clear about what racism is and why it is so offensive and abhorrent. But what is “Islamism”? How do you define it? Here is a term so elastic that it stretches from the elected, pro-western AKP government in Turkey to the anti-western barbarians of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan; it is a deeply contested idea. And what defines this new and equally nebulous phrase: “non-violent extremism”? Are the Haredi Jews of north London “non-violent extremists”? How about Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, who compared the introduction of gay marriage to the legalisation of slavery?

Or is the expression, as I suspect, just the latest code for referring to politicised Muslims with whom we might disagree?

Mehdi

Dear Mehdi,

If monocultural Saudi and Gaza harbour “extremist” groups, this is an argument against you. It is obvious that divided, monocultural areas
in Britain are bad for integration, regardless of one’s view on multiculturalism. I did not compare the MCB with the BNP. A more accurate comparison would be between my former group Hizb ut-Tahrir and the BNP. My critique of the MCB is far more nuanced and involves my views on the unhealthy nature of communalist identity politics, and my preference for the citizenship model over the “umbrella” model, except in dealing with narrow religious matters.

Arguing that challenging Islamist extremism through civic activism is divisive and isolates angry young British Muslims is as absurd and insulting as saying that challenging racism is divisive and isolates the angry young white working class. Either challenging (without banning) racism and Islamism is correct, or appeasing both racists and Islamists is correct. It is an offence to Islam and to Muslims to pander patronisingly to anti-Semitic, or anti-woman, or homophobic, or bigoted sectarian views when they emanate from brown Muslims – as if that’s just our culture anyway – but simultaneously be forthright in challenging white racism.

I am also very surprised to read that you claim there’s a consensus around racism as you try to prove that there’s no such thing as non-violent extremism. I have been raised on a diet of racist hammer and knife attacks. I can tell you, as someone who’s lived it, unlike some champagne socialists: “we” are not “all clear” on what racism is and “why it is abhorrent”. And, speaking in the context of rising right-wing extremism across Europe, we have certainly not overcome it.

Likewise, just because we are not all clear what Islamism is, that does not mean it doesn’t exist. Islamism is the desire to impose an interpretation of Islam over society as law. By definition, this raises urgent questions about human rights, and usually it is we Muslims who are the first victims of Islamism. Absurdly, this is excused by the regressive left as if brown culture were discriminatory anyway – a poverty of expec­tations. Yes, Islamism is diverse, but so was communism. Stalin killed Trotsky. Is this proof there’s no such thing as communism?

Tunisia’s post-Islamist Ennahda party recently went through its own “Clause Four” moment when it ditched a condition that its interpretation of sharia must be the source of law. Tunisian civil society (all Muslims) pressured Ennahda for reform – which is exactly what I endorse. Were Tunisians being divisive and anti-Islam?

Naturally the term “non-violent extremism” should not be used to dismiss politicised Muslims with whom we disagree. After all, you’re
a politicised Muslim and I’m quite evidently disagreeing with you. When the abhorrent views I’ve listed are subscribed to by Christians or Jews, I have indeed labelled them as extremist, too. While the regressive left is inconsistent, I believe the best way to address this issue is to reverse the neoconservative model; that means we must jealously guard the civil liberties of extremists, yet at the same time challenge non-violent extremism in society through grass-roots civic action, rather than exploding bombs and grossly violating human rights.

Wassalamu alaikum.

Maajid

Maajid Nawaz is chairman of the think tank Quilliam and the author of “Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening”, newly published by W H Allen (£12.99)
 

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