In 2012, a confessional memoir by an ex-Islamist no longer holds any novelty value. There has been a spate of such books in recent years; most notably The Islamist, the British writer Ed Husain's account of life as a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), an international movement that aims to create an
Islamic Caliphate, governed under sharia law. Maajid Nawaz was a senior HT member, and co-founded the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam Foundation with Husain. Radical does not go any further in satisfactorily explaining why young men in the West take up Islamism or jihad. Nawaz's political and sociological insights are rather simplistic and unconvincing. This gripping, devastatingly honest book ultimately succeeds as a self-portrait.
The book divides his life so far into three distinct parts: his Essex childhood as a hip-hop fan and 'B-boy', his early encounters with Islamism and his career in HT - culminating in the four years he spent in an Egyptian prison - and, finally, his embrace of liberal democracy and his career as a counter-extremist activist after 2007. The first two sections are much stronger. Aspects of Nawaz's story are reminiscent of older narratives of British Islamism, such as Hanif Kureishi's My Son the Fanatic: for example, the profound contrast between Nawaz and his liberal mother, who is increasingly appalled by his ideology and activities.
Racism and the search for identity are often cited as factors that motivate young British Muslims to join Islamist groups. What makes this memoir distinctive is its vivid descriptions of the atmosphere of 1990s Essex and London. Summarily expelled, for reasons of ethnicity, from his all-white friend group at age 11, and threatened daily by the knife-wielding white supremacists of Combat 18, Nawaz spends a decade with a knife strapped to his back. When he moves to London to recruit for the HT cause, he operates in a tense and violent atmosphere, where battles between Muslim and African students sometimes end in murder. It is a portrait of London entirely at odds with its popular reputation as a multicultural Utopia.
Nawaz emerges as a complex personality, tortured by the paradoxes in his character. As an HT member, he advocates a system that would revoke many civil and political rights but when arrested by the Egyptians, he demands that his own rights be respected. He shows physical courage, but is emotionally stunted and timid in personal relations. When, after his "democratic awakening", he decides to leave his wife, he does so in a letter. His commitment to his cause is in stark contrast to his insensitivity to his family. The inclusion of these details, nominally unconnected to the book's wider Islamist theme, greatly enrich it.
In the final section, Nawaz the counter-extremist ceases to introspect and begins to proselytise. This time, the target is the reader. Nawaz attempts to explain his new philosophy of liberal democracy and lists the activities of Quilliam and Khudi Pakistan, the NGO he founded to promote democracy in the land of his ancestors.
On this evidence, it is difficult to see Nawaz convincing young Islamists to embrace democracy. He makes no arguments, only assertions, and gives the impression of someone who has merely substituted one political faith for another. His characterisation of Islamism as a purely political movement is convenient but unconvincing, and he fails to show how Islam and Western-style democracy can be reconciled, except to propose a complete separation of faith and State. This might please Nawaz's financial backers, such as the British government, but sidesteps central questions such as the role of sharia law in a democracy. Nawaz's pointed criticisms of Western leftists who condone Islamism are accurate and forceful. But this self-critical and lively account of one man's youth is not a meaningful contribution to political debates about Islam or democracy.
Keshava D Guha is a Bangalore-based writer