Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Path to Violence: Is Political Islam the Motor of a "Conveyor Belt" to Terrorism, or Is Western Foreign Policy to Blame? Mehdi Hasan Corresponds with Maajid Nawaz, a Former Extremist

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Path to Violence: Is Political Islam the Motor of a "Conveyor Belt" to Terrorism, or Is Western Foreign Policy to Blame? Mehdi Hasan Corresponds with Maajid Nawaz, a Former Extremist

Article excerpt

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.

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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[degrees] 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 zoos. …

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