In an email interview with CS Bhagya, author Maajid Nawaz discusses themes from his book, including fluid identities and Islam in opposition to Islamism.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
Tell us what you think is the dichotomy between Islam/Islamism.
Islamism is not Islam. Islam is a faith. Islamism is a modern political ideology that aspires to enforce any given interpretation of Islam over society by law. Islam started roughly 1,400 years ago. The first Islamist group was founded in 1928 in Egypt. Muslim history is full of power struggles seeking to officially establish one sect over another. However, away from sectarian struggles for dominance, the specific theo-political ambition to codify and enshrine the Muslim moral code — Shari’ah — as law using the power of the State was inspired by post-World War I European fascism. In this sense, Islamism is entirely modern, while Islam is ancient. Islam seeks moral guidance and social justice. Islamism seeks moral totalitarianism and social engineering. Islam seeks to enter the heart and govern the soul. Islamism seeks to enter the State and govern the limbs. Islam is one of the greatest religions of this planet. Islamism is the bastard child of colonialism.
Are you challenging Islamist narratives about Islam, Western narratives about Islam, or both?
The opposite of West is not Islam, but East. Western narratives about Islam include Islamist narratives, and non-Islamist narratives; they include Muslim and non-Muslim voices; they include positive and negative stereotypes, all in the ‘West’. Juxtaposing ‘West’ against Islam sounds as strange to my ears as juxtaposing the ‘East’ with Islam would sound to most. In modern times, and due to the rise of the citizenship model, the ‘West’ is merely a geographic location housing all of these opinions and more. In this debate, it’s better to compare competing phenomena of trans-national ideas than it is to compare geographical locations. A Muslim democrat should stand with a non-Muslim democratic to argue against a Muslim and non-Muslim fascist, and so on.
You have been participating in an anti-extremist conversation through your organisations Quilliam and Khudi. How is your book going to extend the conversation?
My autobiography Radical aims to turn ‘understanding extremism’ — hitherto an academic and policy fetish — into a popular story. Through the art of storytelling, in this case a true story, I’m hoping to be able to capture the imagination of the masses and popularise an understanding of what can go so horribly wrong, why it may do so, and how it can also be fixed. I’ve tried to write it in a way that pulls no punches: a mirror against society and against my own mistakes. I’ve tried to end it on a note of optimism and hope that people can see that there is also a positive way forward for us all. Now all that’s left is for us to achieve the positive together.
What sort of responses to Islam do you hope to evoke through your book?
I hope that people realise through reading Radical that the real conversations we need, as globalised citizens in a new age, are not conversations about Islam versus Christianity, or indeed around any religious theme, but around multiple identities, democratic culture, and transnational values. I hope people see that the real struggle is not between Islam and “the rest” but between democratic culture and undemocratic culture. This struggle is often shrouded in pseudo-religious garb, but underneath all the pious rhetoric and righteous indignation is a lust for power, a search for identity and a flawed response to modernity. My key aim is to discredit the modern ideology of Islamism, and to distinguish it from Islam. Once this is done, I hope to be able to help spark a theological reform conversation within Muslim religious circles about interpretation in a modern age.
What motivated you to transform your experiences into a book?
Putting my life story into a book format had been suggested to me as soon as I went public about my criticism of Islamism back in 2007. But something never felt right, and I hesitated for a long time. In a way I was waiting for closure with Egypt. Mubarak is now held in the same prison I was detained in, except of course he wasn’t tortured, thank God. I feel that the ideas I write about— that it is possible to create a democratic alternative to the old Middle-East conundrum of ‘security versus Islamism’ —have been demonstrated with a vengeance. Though the Arab uprisings eventually came to be hijacked by the same old forces, their initial spark came from liberal, young democratic youth, and it is these youth who are firmly the future.
When did you know you were ready to write a book? How difficult was it to find a voice for the book?
I wasn’t ready, but the timing of the Arab uprisings forced me to take the plunge. Initially I was perfectly happy for my co-writer Tom Bromley to interview me, write up the transcripts and order my story into a coherent piece. However, as we moved forward, both Tom and I realised that to truly engage with the culture of a 15-year-old B-Boy, a 20-year-old Islamist revolutionary and a 34-year-old counter-extremism activist isn’t that easy, for obvious reasons. I needed to genuinely revisit each stage of my life. This was a draining and exhaustive process, not to mention dangerous. Returning to traumatic experiences buried deep inside could have ended very differently, but I’m happy that with Radical at least, it seems to have borne fruit.
Upon completion, was the underlying emotion largely one of relief?
I oddly felt sadder than I had before. I had excavated certain memories, wrestled with them and then forced a voice onto them. Since doing so, these memories have started to argue back with me, and they refuse to go back to sleep. I also felt more of a sense of urgency. Writing Radical reminded me of just how much there is to do, and how little time there is to do it in.
Essex, Egypt, London, Pakistan. How have these diverse geographies affected your identity?
After everything that’s happened in my life, I find myself peculiarly comfortable among Essex wide-boys, hip-hop B-Boys, religious Muslims, Islamist agitators, Western policy experts and statesmen, disillusioned Pakistani youth and Arab revolutionaries. My language switches from colloquial Essex slang, grammar school English, the Egyptian vernacular, modern standard Arabic and anglicised Urdu. I feel enriched by my multiple identities: my very British political liberalism, my Pakistani passion, my African-American music influences, my South Asian heritage, my Arab experience and my Muslim culture and religious journey. Now all I need is a personality!
This interview appeared in the July 14th issue (no.28) of Tehelka magazine