Alienation And Charismatic Recruiters Among Keys To Radicalization

Feb 27, 2015
Originally published on February 27, 2015 8:13 pm

Since a young, college-educated Briton was identified as "Jihadi John," the voice of the Islamic State's beheading videos, allegations have been made about the UK government's role in radicalizing British Muslim youths through surveillance and harassment. NPR's Kelly McEvers speaks with Maajid Nawaz, a self-described former Islamic radical who grew up in Essex, England. He now runs the counter-extremist organization Quilliam.

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Now that the man who appears as a masked executioner for the Islamic State has been identified as a British citizen, the question is, how was he radicalized? We thought one person who could help answer that question is Maajid Nawaz. He's a British citizen of Pakistani descent who himself joined an Islamist group when he was a teenager. He recruited for the group, spent four years in prison in Egypt, and then later renounced the group. Nawaz wrote a book about the experience and is the co-founder of Quilliam. That's a British think tank that focuses on countering extremist beliefs. I spoke to him earlier today.

First, I want to ask you about this idea of radicalization. You know, we hear this word a lot these days, and this is something that happened to you, right? What does it mean and how did it happen?

MAAJID NAWAZ: Well, I think usually what happens is a combination of four main factors come to play. One is a sense of perceived grievance. In my case, it was domestic racism and the Bosnian genocide, which was playing out across the continent in Europe at the time. And the second is that that sense of grievance leads to an acute identity crisis. I began questioning whether indeed I was British, whether I was Pakistani or whether my Muslim identity superseded both. And then the third is that into that mix come charismatic recruiters who provide a sense of belonging to their own group. And then finally, there's the ideology. Now, the role that the ideology plays is it freezes that sense of grievance and then becomes the lens through which the rest of the world is seen. And that's really the process of radicalization there for you in a nutshell.

MCEVERS: Explain what you mean by freezing it.

NAWAZ: So the grievances - you know, you'd expect somebody who's a teenager to be quite angry at the various injustices of the world, but you wouldn't expect someone in their 20s to continue using those grievances as an excuse for the most unjustifiable acts. And that's the bridge. The bridge there is that what the ideology provides. It fossilizes an anger that someone once felt, and then, you know, it becomes the justification for all sorts of atrocities that are then committed by the ideologue.

MCEVERS: Yeah, it's that final step from the ideas to the acts.

NAWAZ: Indeed, it is, yeah. And actually, the ideology, what I call the Islamist ideology - the desire to impose any version of Islam over society anywhere - that's Islamism as opposed to Islam, which is a religion.

MCEVERS: Well, and now, if you look at the details of, you know, so-called Jihadi John, Mohammed Emwazi, what do you think happened to him? I mean, do you think he followed this pattern?

NAWAZ: Yeah, I mean, look, the guy was born in Kuwait but raised in Britain. So again, at some stage in his life, he would've questioned whether he's British, whether he's Kuwaiti or whether his Muslim identities, it trumps both. On top of that, he clearly was very angry at the state of the British government's foreign policy. He paid particular attention to what was going on in Somalia and also with the Middle East where his family hailed from. And then of course he went to a university - the University of Westminster - that has been known for a while by those who follow this field to be a hotbed of extremism. And of course as a student at the University of Westminster, he would've come across some charismatic recruiters that would have sold to him the Islamist ideology that he evidently eventually adopted.

MCEVERS: I mean, you run a think tank about how to stop this. When you think about his case in particular, how do we stop the next Mohammed Emwazi from happening?

NAWAZ: That's a very good question because, look, the lesson until we recognize that the new Zeitgeist, the new communism, is this Islamist ideology, then no matter how many bin Ladens we kill, no matter how many ISILs we do away with, another Mohammed Emwazi will emerge because what we're not doing is facing the facts that this ideology is spreading unchecked on the grassroots. And what we're not doing, unfortunately, is having the courage to - as we did with racism, as we did in civil society with homophobia and anti-Semitism - we're not facing down through civic engagement, through activism, we're not facing down these Islamist ideologies. Our job should be - and this is what I do - to try and make Islamism as unattractive and as unappealing as Soviet communism has become today. But that's a long-term effort.

MCEVERS: Maajid Nawaz is the author of "Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamic Extremism" and chairman of Quilliam, a think tank in England that counters extremist beliefs. Thank you so much for joining us.

NAWAZ: An absolute pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.