Stag nights that end up in strip clubs have led to more than a few awkward wedding night conversations. They don’t usually lead to death threats from ISIS and panic buttons installed by the anti-terrorist squad. Radical is the story of how Maajid Nawaz upset so many people that it happened to him, as well as being a big part of how he upset them.
Nawaz’s memoir traces his journey from Essex b-boy to the upper echelons of the radical organisation Hizb-al Tahrir, and his subsequent imprisonment in Egypt and disenchantment with what he calls ‘Islamism’.
I picked up the book because I wanted an answer to a question that’s been vexing me for a long time: I have met many Muslims across three continents and I cannot think of a single one who did not reject violence and totalitarianism. So how is it that every time I turn on the television or open a newspaper, there is yet another story about the black flag being waved over an act of horrendous violence?
Media bias goes part of the way toward an explanation. When a soldier was cut down on the streets of London by self-proclaimed Islamists, it led the headlines with the label of ‘terrorism’. When policemen are murdered by dissident republicans in Northern Ireland, the word ‘terrorism’ is carefully danced around.
Yet blaming the media can only go so far. Islamism is a driving force behind violence across the world, and it attracts people from across the world. Who are these people who commit massacres and suicides in the name of the same religion that so many of my friends follow?
Radical demystified the question for me with an insider view. Before he showed me Hizb al-Tahrir, Nawaz showed me the mind of an angry teenager with too much melanin for the time and place where he was growing up. Although he lived his teenage years at much the same time as mine and only about 60km away, his story is a rueful reminder of how little insight a petit-bourgeois like me has into the lives of people only a couple of rungs lower on the class ladder. I had many friends as dark as Nawaz, but I never heard ‘Paki!’ yelled from a passing police car. We probably looked like the types to take down their number and make a complaint rather than the type to give them the finger, get angry, hear our feelings reflected in hip-hop lyrics and ultimately allow ourselves to be persuaded that the solution lay in an Islamic Caliphate.
Nawaz draws a distinction between the religion of Islam and the political movement of Islamism, which I wouldn’t have understood without the story of how he fell into Islamism himself.
Almost incidentally, Nawaz’s description of Islamism in 1990s Britain challenges some of the media myths prevalent today, particularly the idea that Muslim immigrants are dangerous because they bring Islamism with them. The radical organisations Nawaz describes were run by British-born youths who wanted to strike back against racism from skinheads and police alike. The Islamists were made by racism and marginalisation, not by being brought up as Muslims. One of his friends was Southern European, which made him dark enough to be another ‘Paki!’ and angry enough to convert to Islam and join Hizb al-Tahrir.
Nawaz describes radicalism being exported from Britain rather than imported into it. Hizb al-Tahrir recruited Pakistani military officers being trained at Sandhurst, and Nawaz recounts his own recruitment trips to Pakistan and Egypt.
That said, Radical is a memoir rather than a scholarly analysis of history or politics. It’s occasionally rough around the edges, but not so far as to allow the writing get in the way of the narrative. It’s the story of an extraordinary life and an insider’s view into one of the most pressing issue of our times. I only hope that it will contribute to Nawaz’s efforts to defuse the appeal of Islamism, which attracts youths from British streets today as much as it attracted him twenty years ago.
Postscript: I wrote this before last week’s attacks in Paris. If I’d written it since, I’d probably have mentioned them because the subject of the book would inevitably bring them to mind. I decided not to rewrite to incorporate them because they don’t change my views of Radical. They just add another atrocity to the very long list carried out by the people Nawaz is challenging.