A year ago, ex-radical Muslim Maajid Nawaz found himself in the crosshairs of some of his brethren over what is possibly the most innocuous Mohammed cartoon panel ever drawn — seen in this Tweet:
One reason why I bring Nawaz up again is that the anger and death threats over the cartoon and the tweet tell us something about the discussion that ensued after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. What happened to Nawaz should cause us to question the idea that the French cartoons were so unpardonably “racist” and “hateful” that they drove people like the Kouachi brothers to the breaking point. Clearly, for Muslim extremists to react to a cartoon with fatwas and death threats, all it takes is something as perfectly bland and unobjectionable as the picture above.
Nawaz has a book out that he was uniquely qualified to write: Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism. From the publisher’s description, we learn that
Maajid Nawaz spent his teenage years listening to American hip-hop and learning about the radical Islamist movement spreading throughout Europe and Asia in the 1980s and 90s. At 16, he was already a ranking member in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a London-based Islamist group. He quickly rose through the ranks to become a top recruiter, a charismatic spokesman for the cause of uniting Islam’s political power across the world.
While serving four years in an Egyptian prison, he became
… convinced that his entire belief system had been wrong, and determined to do something about it.
Nawaz is now the chair and co-founder of Quilliam, a British organization that aims to tame extremists.
On Thursday, he was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. I highly recommend listening to the whole conversation; Nawaz, thanks in part to his radical background, offers fascinating and disturbing insights into the radicals’ way of thinking.
Nawaz says that in a way, while he was imprisoned in Egypt, George Orwell saved him.
I took the opportunity to read, to study and to discuss with everyone. And I began reading a lot of George Orwell. … Orwell [in Animal Farm] parodies the Soviet communist state — the USSR — and takes the example of a farm to kind of parody what happens when somebody tries to create a utopia. Now, when reading that, I began to join the dots and think, my God, if these guys that I’m here with in prison ever came to power, they would be the Islamist equivalent of “Animal Farm.” You know, if they declared their caliphate, they would do all the things that Orwell warns of in Animal Farm, but in the name of God instead. … If this theocratic caliphate was ever established, it would be a nightmare on earth. And now, when we see what ISIL is doing in the name of this theocratic caliphate, I believe I’ve been vindicated that these guys [his former fellow prisoners], if they ever got to power, they would be committing mass atrocities.
Gross asks Nawaz what it was like to be a hormonal 16-year-old whose religious ideas made him swear off girls, and he replies:
Prior to 16, I was sexually active. So I knew what I was missing. I can say this with a level of certainty, that those who don’t immediately get married in the way that I did, early, which has its own challenges — those that don’t, do often end up developing very, very severe sexual perversions. It’s no surprise to me that they find pornography on the hard drives of — and I’m not arguing here that pornography is perverted, because that’s a different discussion — but the very perverted type of pornography that you referred to that involves children and what have you. And also because those who take scripture vacuously go back to medieval interpretations of religion, and they find that, in Muslim medieval times, we didn’t have this understanding that women were too young at 16 or too young at 15 or too young at 13 to consent to sex. And so they take that and literally apply it today.
[ISIL fighters] can rape a 21-year-old slave, a 50-year-old slave, and they could rape, God forbid, a 12-year-old slave. And that’s the issue here, that when you can go back to medieval interpretations of religion where the standards we’ve become accustomed to for good, moral reasons didn’t apply. And then, on top of that, you’re highly sexually frustrated. You will rail against the West for their sexual promiscuity, for the way in which women are treated like meat because they’re wearing miniskirts and the pornographic industry and what not have you. At yet, at the same time, you’re enslaving women or you’re justifying the enslavement of women, or you’re justifying, likewise, treating women like meat by insisting they must cover up. And you don’t see the irony there.
We would use any given number of approaches. We would say that there’s a scriptural approach. If you’re a particularly religious Muslim, we would argue from scripture. Let’s take an example of Charlie Hebdo. Scripturally, we would bring all of the passages that prohibit blasphemy and mockery of religion to rile you up and to then link it to the next point. Once you’re riled up and sufficiently emotional about it, to say, how are you going to stop this? You know, the religion obliges you to do something to stop the insult to your prophet. Well, you can’t stop it unless you have the strength and the power of a caliphate to intimidate people from taking such action. So there would be a religious approach using scripture.
To stick with the Charlie Hebdo example, there’s also what we call a political approach. And that would be to argue that democracy is effectively hypocrisy, that freedom of speech is used selectively, only to bash Muslims. In fact, you know, they don’t adhere to their own principles of freedom of speech when they want to. We would say — we would put out tropes, and they are tropes, such as how, you know, Holocaust denial is illegal in France. And therefore, you know, why are the Jews protected and Muslims aren’t protected? And that point there in particular fails to distinguish between criticizing a philosophy and picking on a people. That would be the political approach.
And there’s a third approach, the intellectual approach. If we’re speaking to somebody who’s slightly more thoughtful, contemplative about things, we would have a philosophical discussion about freedom and its limits and why there’s no such thing as real democracy. There’s no such thing as real freedom. And philosophically, who has the right to set these parameters — and try and approach religion from a philosophical perspective.
Gross asks Nawaz to address the notion that Islam is a violent religion.
The conclusion that I have come to is that actually, no religion, whether it’s Islam, Christianity or any idea based on scripture or texts, is a religion of anything, really. Islam will be what Muslims make of it. And it is the sum total of the interpretation that Muslims give to it. So it’s not a religion of war. It’s not a religion of peace. It happens to be that the majority of Muslims today interpret Islam to disagree with al Qaeda. The vast majority do not belong to jihadist groups. I can say with a level of confidence that Islam is not a religion of war, only because the majority of Muslims don’t subscribe to that perspective, not because there’s something inherent in the text that tells me it’s a religion of peace.
Likewise, on the flipside, I do acknowledge — and we must, I think, as Muslims acknowledge — that there are serious scriptural challenges for us. The Qur’an does not prohibit slavery. It regulates it, and there’s a huge distinction there. … In its regulation of slavery or in its endorsement of lashing people as punishment or in amputating the hand for theft, the Qur’an is explicit in all of these issues. And so our challenge, really, as Muslims, is, yes, fine, the majority of us disagree with al Qaeda, but as I said to you earlier, I shouldn’t be thanked for saying I don’t want to kill anyone. You know, that should be the baseline, the default. The real challenge for us as Muslims is to go beyond that and have those very difficult conversations about reinterpreting scripture, given the social and political norms that have developed today, and reinterpreting it within a human-rights framework.
(Thanks to Tony for the link)