Monday, September 10, 2012

What a former Islamist's memoir tells us about Syria today

It would be a grave injustice to suggest that Radical, the extraordinary new memoir of former Islamist Maajid Nawaz, yields nothing worthy of comment beyond so narrow a subject as military intervention in Syria, but then these days I’m in no position to give the book the full-length review it deserves for free (enterprising editors can mail the usual address). Suffice to say whatever flesh I succeed in carving off below is but a sliver of the overall fruit available.

In brief, Radical tells the story of Nawaz’ journey from secular Essex hip-hop ‘B-boy’ to zealous Hizb ut-Tahrir revolutionary – a path which took him to Pakistan, Palestine and, fatefully, Egypt, where he was incarcerated for five years in Mubarak’s dungeons – and then eventually to democratic counter-extremist think-tanker. The relevant question here is how? How did a partygoing, breakdancing, girl-chasing British teenager, bereft of neither money nor education, go on to become a stone-faced servant of the Caliphate? Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) is not just any Islamist outfit – its alumni include the Sadat assassins and a certain Ayman al-Zawahiri (the name, by the way, means ‘Party of Liberation’. Rightly has it been said that satire is dead). Here is Nawaz’ sketch of their manifesto:

[O]nce our version of ‘the Khilafah’ was formed, we advocated an aggressive policy of foreign invasion and expansion, the death penalty for apostates, ‘rebels’ and homosexuals, and a forced dress code for women. Thieves would be punished by having their hands cut off, and adulterous women would be stoned to death.

Which of the arguments in favour of this vision did Nawaz and his young comrades find most persuasive? It remains exceedingly rare to have first-hand testimony on this; a fact which obliges us to study his account with especial assiduity.

The basic recruitment pitch, as he describes it, was that the British government was party to a global conspiracy to keep the Muslims down. Accordingly, the only way to avert permanent subjugation was for the umma to rise under the aegis of a pan-Islamic super-state.

Evidence of this nefarious conspiracy was ubiquitous, once one learned how to look for it. From the West European architects of Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration to the American invaders of Operation Desert Storm to the Soviet butchers of Afghanistan to the Indian annihilators of the Babri Mosque, Muslims were under assault from every conceivable angle, targeted simply for their deen.

What readers may be surprised to learn, however, and what is especially pertinent to Syria today, is that the conflict that produced the most outrage; the trump card that won more converts than even the Palestinian intifada; was the genocide then unfolding in Bosnia. “Bosnia was particularly crucial in bringing about a shift in identity among Britain’s Muslims”, Nawaz writes. “In some ways, you could argue that just as Pakistan’s troubles with violent Islamism – Jihadism – were born through Afghanistan, European Jihadism was born through Bosnia.”

Why does this matter for Syria? Because it was precisely the West’s non-intervention in Bosnia that scored the slam dunk for the HT narrative:

[T]he fact that Britain and other Western governments were doing nothing about it reinforced their ‘blind eye’ approach to world politics. When it was Muslims who were under attack, and there was no oil to defend, the West wasn’t interested in getting involved. And why should they? These were our people not theirs, which is why we needed ‘the Khilafah’. 
How much whiter could you get than the Muslims of Bosnia, and just look at what was going on there while the rest of Europe stood by and watched. [My italics]

The point could not be plainer. While it has become liberal dogma that it is Western intervention that swells the jihadists’ corps and coffers, it was in fact Western isolationism on Bosnia that most infuriated them. The argument that Islamists would have no quarrel with the West if only it would leave Muslim peoples to their fate hits a brick wall here. Indeed, Nawaz candidly puts the case the other way around:

If the West had been more proactive, if they had intervened earlier and harder as when Tony Blair and NATO did so over Kosovo, the situation would have been different, not just for Bosnia, but perhaps also for the spread of Islamism and for [HT]. [My italics]

The West may be punished, in other words, for what it doesn’t do no less severely than for what it does. The lessons here for Syria are as obvious as the parallels are ominous. Here is Nawaz, for instance, describing some of the more dedicated “brothers” he encountered in the ‘90s:

British Muslims went as civilians, trained in camps funded by the Saudis, fought in Bosnia and had come back again to recruit more soldiers.

Now take the following, published in an AFP report last month, quoting a British photojournalist captured and later freed by Islamists in Syria:

I ended up running for my life, barefoot and handcuffed, while British jihadists – young men with South London accents – shot to kill […] They were aiming their Kalashnikovs at a British journalist, Londoner against Londoner.

Perhaps even less encouraging is the common denominator of Omar Bakri Muhammad, the Syrian-born cleric who was HT’s leader in the UK when Nawaz joined. Bakri is sometimes dismissed today as a bit of a jester, a media bogeyman with no real following, but his stature in the British Islamist circles of the ‘90s was titanic. “Under Omar Bakri’s leadership HT swept across the UK”, Nawaz writes. He was eventually fired by HT’s global leadership for being too extreme (if you’re able to imagine such a thing) and moved on to the now-banned jihadist groups al-Muhajiroun and Islam4UK. By sheer chance, I ran into Bakri in June while covering a Salafist demonstration in Lebanon, where he has wound up after being banned from the UK. Though the ostensible purpose of the rally was to call for the disarmament of Hizbullah (because Shia jihadists obviously won’t do), Bakri was soon denouncing “the atrocities in Syria”. In a subsequent interview, Bakri described the Assad regime as “genocidal”, thus echoing the Srebrenica comparison that even Ban Ki-moon was able to make.

Of course, in one sense this is all irrelevant. The case for intervention in Syria does not stand or fall on the approval of sectarian bigots, and the moral obligation to defeat the regime’s death squads would certainly be no weaker if we knew it would upset al-Qaeda. Nawaz’ testimony doesn’t change any of that. But it’s very useful all the same to learn, in hard-nosed “realist” terms alone, that if averting jihad in Syria is the priority, the “earlier and harder” the intervention the better.

Postscript: After writing the above, I had the opportunity to put the hypothesis to Nawaz himself, while interviewing him for NOW Lebanon. Though he didn’t exactly endorse it, nor did he convincingly rebut it either, in my opinion.

He spoke for some time about the need for intervention to be “legal”, by which he means authorized by the UN Security Council, which seems to me more of a procedural (not to mention impossible) demand  than a strictly moral one. He correctly pointed out that an “illegal” intervention would give Iran and Russia the cover to back the Syrian regime, but then added that “Iran and Russia are already intervening”.

He said “I’m sure a lot more can be done and a lot more must be done to help the rebels, but it’s simply not analogous to Libya or Bosnia”, for reasons he never quite made clear. “It’s one of these ones that’s genuinely stumped me, because I’m very keen to see the back of the Assads, but at the same time I’m not very keen to further entrench Iran, Hizbullah and Russia in the region […] I don’t think anyone really has a solution to this”.

I then asked if he believes Syria today is turning young Muslims to Islamism in the way that Bosnia did for him. “Of course, absolutely, that’s a worry. [But] I think that those groups to be honest in Syria would capitalize on it whether there was intervention or not. If there was intervention, they would capitalize on it from one angle, and in the absence of intervention they’re capitalizing on it from another”. If this is true, which it may well be, then it’s as much as saying the West is damned either way, and so incurs no additional loss by intervening.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d prefer to be hated for fighting a fascist mass-murderer than for not fighting one. 

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