What makes a carefree Essex boy, immersed in hip-hop culture and other typical teenage behaviour, suddenly turn his back on his family and friends in order to become an aspiring extreme Islamist?
What makes a young and carefree Essex boy, immersed in hip-hop culture and other typical teenage behaviour, suddenly turn his back on his family, friends and lifestyle in order to become an aspiring extreme Islamist?
A new autobiographical book entitled ‘Radical’ attempts to answer this and many more questions. ‘Radical’ is an account of the life of Maajid Nawaz, a former senior member of extremist group Hizb ut Tahrir and current Chairman of the counter-extremism think tank, Quilliam.
Maajid, despite illustrating a propensity for the bombastic, offers a compelling personal narrative of his search of an identity, a scene and a release for his boundless enthusiasm for life. A search that took him to Pakistan, Denmark and Palestine before landing him in the dreaded torture chambers of Mubarak’s Egypt. This is a search that continues to this day as he seeks to replace the stimulation of Islamist agitation with pro-democracy activism.
With its subtle blend of prose and poetry, it is a book that can warm the heart yet leave one feeling sad and disheartened. It is about the triumph of the human spirit but it is also an indictment of a fractured society in which almost any outcome is possible and understandable.
Maajid’s personal account, though stoic and impassive at times, captures the various phases that many British Asians and Muslims have been going through over the past 30 years. He is a product of a modern Britain that can charm and repel in equal measure. The anger, angst and identity issues that he experienced as a young teenager were shaped by contemporary British social, cultural and political trends.
He, like me and many others, is part of the generation that felt dual-marginalisation most acutely as he struggled to relate to his parents whilst simultaneously struggling to find his feet in the local community. He is part of the generation that was caught up in Britain’s painful transition towards a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society in which identity, for the first time, began to be defined along civic lines.
He, like many others, was on the receiving end of the pain that results when major social changes occur, pain that many don’t recover from.
Feeling on the fringes of the mainstream white society and deeply anti-establishment was not only ‘cool’ but the only place for a young second generation ‘paki’ growing up in the eighties. The nineties ushered in a new phase of state sponsored multi-culturalism in which communities were to be patronisingly treated as individual and separate blocs rather than an integrated part of a bigger whole.
This allowed the more reactionary forces within ethnic communities to rise to the fore and dominate the debate. After all, the more different you were the more authentic you seemed to purveyors of this peculiar form of multi-culturalism.
It wasn’t long before harsh ultra-conservative and extreme expressions of religious identity amongst the second generation began replacing the much softer Sufi-mysticism of the first generation.
Despite the above insights, ‘Radical’ is not just a book about contemporary socio-political developments. It offers many lessons about relationships, and the transformative effect they can have, as well as ideas, and the unanticipated consequences that can follow when they adopted with zeal and blind commitment.
It also offers a very informative critique of the political classes who seem solely concerned with petty parochial matters whilst Rome burns around them. The liberal left with its single minded obsession with western capitalism that blinds it to other ideological dangers and the conservative right that doesn’t want to acknowledge the role grievances play in the radicalisation process.
It is a story that claims to be about change but feels more like it’s about choices. After all, individuals rarely change that much, what changes are the choices they have available to them and their fate is decided by the ones they take.
Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator
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