What can we learn about extremism from the memoirs of former Islamist radicals? Stephen Howe investigates
Writing about Islamism, terrorism and suicide bombing has become a publishing industry in the past few years. There have been the various, more or less thinly fictionalised, attempts to get inside the heads of jihadist bombers – most famously John Updike’s novel Terrorist and Martin Amis’s long short story “The Last Days of Mohammed Atta”. These and others in the genre draw on a far older lineage of “mind of the terrorist” fiction which goes at least as far back as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.
Then there have been dozens of socio-political analyses of violent Islamist groups – most notably Jason Burke’s work for the Observer. There has also been a small flood of books on suicide bombing from every conceivable angle, sociological, historical and psychological. Even philosophers have been getting in on the act: Jean Baudrillard, Ted Honderich and, most recently, Slavoj Žižek.
What have been missing are the thoughts of leading Islamists themselves, except in anthologies of the generally brief public statements of Bin Laden or Sayyed Nasrallah. Now, though, a new genre is appearing, one which will surely keep growing, and fast. This is the ex-Islamist’s memoir. At the moment this new genre is not as extensive as the others: just one full-length autobiography in Ed Husain’s The Islamist, part of Russell Razzaque’s Human Being to Human Bomb (published this month), the more scattered opinions in multiple newspaper articles and TV appearances by Shiraz Maher, the unclassifiable oddity of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (an American of Jewish background who writes about his brief time as an Islamist convert), plus a handful of mainly interview-based personal glimpses by other disillusioned ex-jihadists. But many more, including the memoirs of a supposedly active member of al-Qaeda, Hassan Butt, are due in the coming months.
These writings are starkly different from the memoirs of disenchantment produced by people (like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji) who were brought up in devout if not obscurantist belief but without being drawn into the orbit of violence. Guessing from past precedents, it would seem likely that the really revealing stuff – if any – will come only years from now, and will be from Islamists who have spent the long intervening time in prison. Just maybe, behind the walls of Guantanamo or Belmarsh, there is, even now, a George Jackson or a Jean Genet in the making.
Yet even if this “inside-story” genre is so far only a small wave, it is surely an important one. From government ministers and secret services to more (apparently) detached observers, everyone seems to be trying to “understand Islamist terror” by way of the psychology, the motivation, the patterns of recruitment and radicalisation, of those involved in it. The search is part of the growing official emphasis, in Britain, the USA and elsewhere, on engaging with Muslim communities to find and encourage alternatives to radicalisation – plus the constantly lurking worry that naïve or clumsy efforts in that direction may instead provide a conduit for Islamist groups to influence government.
What does this new wave of ex-Islamists’ writings tell us? On one level, it fits all too neatly into some age-old generic moulds: the narrative of conversion (with ex-Communists’ “God That Failed” stories being the most obvious precedent) and the former killer’s confessional so long familiar from Ulster and elsewhere. There are some strong, stereotyped narrative conventions from which Islamist memoirs, so far, rarely depart very much. Indeed it’s an almost identikit picture. The pious, traditional but not militant family; the childhood and adolescence “torn between two worlds” of “Eastern” (most often Pakistani) family ties and “Western” hedonistic secularism; the first exposure to Islamist ideas in the later teens at further education college or university; immersion in a new lifestyle, belief system and, perhaps above all, a new, tight circle of like-minded friends. Then on to the breach with family this causes; the angrily uncomprehending father, the tearful mother; absorption in Islamist and jihadist propaganda: websites, violent videos, and maybe (though significantly less often) the books of past Islamist thinkers. This promotes increasing radicalisation – which, however, for all the memoirists who have so far gone public, stops somewhere well short of direct involvement in violence. Here’s the postscript: the growth of doubt, intellectual or moral, the disenchantment, revulsion and eventual default.
All this involves not just adherence to rigid narrative conventions, but repeated descent into cliché. Even Ed Husain, seemingly the most probing of these writers, apparently can’t do better than tell us solemnly that “My generation of young British Muslims was torn between two cultures.” Russell Razzaque, recalling his very similar childhood, reaches for the same almost self-evident notions: “Religion was a major part of our upbringing, and this was very different, I found as I grew up, to the outside world around us. My friends at school were mostly very different to me, with contrasting lifestyles and home environments to mine.” Razzaque goes on with an uneasy mixture of personal reminiscence (though he was only ever on the outermost fringes of jihadist politics), potted biographies of suicide bombers, broad-sweep historical argument and dodgy psychological profiling. It culminates in him unveiling his “Ideological Extremism Vulnerability Scale”, a pseudo-scientific formula which supposedly explains how young people are carried along the “conveyor belt” from teenage alienation to suicide bombing.
What is striking here is the utterly marginal place given to politics, to history and ideas. Nobody – well, nobody serious, anyway – would have dreamed of “explaining” the actions of, say, IRA or Ulster Volunteer Force militants purely in terms of their psychological instabilities, sexual frustrations or warped childhoods. No doubt many such people did have all those but it was always known that, nonetheless, their actions were motivated, and must be explicated, in political, ideological, historical terms. For jihadists, though, crude psychologistic or reductive culturalist “explanations” seem far more often than not to be thought adequate – and most disconcertingly, that seems to go for the published self-analyses of former Islamists themselves, not just for hostile or ignorant outsiders.
Perhaps still more astonishing is the ex-militants’ apparent total lack of intellectual inquisitiveness outside the narrowest of politico-religious tracks (though Husain’s book is a partial exception here). Reference to “the West” or indeed, among the British Islamists, to British society itself is limited to a few weary clichés, whether about sexual promiscuity or about racism and Islamophobia. Time after time, it is exposure to the horrors of Bosnia, Chechnya or Gaza which is claimed to explain conversion to jihadist Islamism, or at least to initiate sympathy for it. But this “exposure” seems almost always to have been limited to viewing gruesome videos of Bosnians, Chechens or Palestinians murdered or mutilated – and all in their turn are seen simply as Muslims victimised by others.
If there is any curiosity, any wish to understand the tangled histories and politics of those zones of conflict, to grasp anything about Bosnian, Chechen or Palestinian beliefs and aims – let alone about their enemies, Serbian or Russian or Israeli nationalisms – then it is well concealed. Even from within the confines of a violently polarised worldview, one might expect to find some sign of a desire to “know your enemy”: but here, among Islamists, that appears virtually nonexistent. But then this may just be a manifestation of the general, dreadful intellectual poverty of today’s political Islamism. The movement identifies itself as engaged in a global, world-historical struggle of the oppressed. The notion is that the world’s Muslim peoples share a common fate and destiny, insofar as they are victims of and must struggle against a common enemy. Yet serious thinking about that struggle’s roots, its character, what may be hoped for if it is won, or even who the oppressed and the oppressor really are, is amazingly rare. I have looked for it quite hard. I have gone to the writings of people usually described as the most important, substantial Islamist political thinkers – al-Afghani or Maududi, Shariati, Nabhani or Qutb – in, I hope, a genuinely enquiring spirit. Indeed I expected to find there far more than I did. I remain surprised, disappointed, puzzled at how thin the ideas are. Can that really be all there is?
More, the jihadists, from Bin Laden to the would-be British foot soldiers, simply have no social programme, no coherent vision of the new society they want to build. In that they are unlike not only almost all other revolutionary movements of modern history but even the earlier Islamist thinkers from whom they claim inspiration. The thoughts – and sometimes the seeming absence of real thought – relayed by our memoirists appear to uphold the view that jihadist violence is an indicator of the failure of political Islam, not its growth, strength or threat.
Even so, it is clear that central to British and other Islamists’ attraction is a vision of history. That is the heart of what security services and politicians rather airily call the Islamist “single narrative”, the big story which purports to explain everything. Husain says of his former mentor, the notorious Omar Bakri Mohammed: “Where others cited UN resolutions, Omar Bakri cited history.” And that is supposed largely to explain his intense appeal, even if it was bad history. Husain also tells how he was exposed, first, to “teachers” who told him that Muslims invented democracy, then later to ones who preached the inherent incompatibility of Islam and democracy.
Both are of course absurd, ahistorical views; but both hastened him on the path of increasing radicalisation. Razzaque, for his part, recalls how “Sitting in this Hizb-ut-Tahrir study circle, hearing of the concept of Khilafah for the first time, I, like everyone else in the room, had no idea about any of this history. To us it was painted colourfully as a ‘golden age’ in Islamic history, when Muslims were protected and maintained in peace, harmony, security and comfort at all times, and the Muslim Empire ruled the world. It was only through a return to this age that Muslims could stand proud once again.” Islamism is based on that image of power, unity and moral perfection in the early Ummah. Challenge that, and the entire worldview begins to unravel. Most Muslim scholars have written as faithful Muslims, holding to a “sacred history” of their faith’s origins and unwilling to subject it to any critical scrutiny whatever.
The more sceptical and probing historiography which has emerged since the 1970s, showing just how little evidence there is for that version of Islam’s emergence, noting that there isn’t a single contemporary Muslim source for the life of the Prophet and that the Koran may well have been compiled much later than the “sacred history” asserts, that the idea of an early Islamic golden age of purity and unity rests on even less – all this is rejected unheard. Engaging fully and openly with the real history, challenging the myths about early Islam, however disconcerting or even painful it might be to the pious, is a necessary complement to unpicking the “single narrative” about the more recent past. So would better history teaching help combat violent Islamism?
At the risk of grossly inflating my own profession’s importance, I believe it would. Perhaps the very facts that both Husain and Maher were history students (rather than, say, studying engineering or IT like so many Islamists) at university, and that even as a teenage militant Husain evidently read more widely and questioningly than most, provide the key to why they stopped short of violence and repudiated their youthful beliefs.