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How To Inoculate Angry Teens Against Islamic Extremism


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Western governments worry that members of radical groups bent on violence may already be at work in their countries. That in fact, some of their own citizens are involved. A group of people in Australia were detained. Reportedly they're members of the so-called Islamic State - sometimes known as ISIS or ISIL - and were allegedly planning to carry out gruesome attacks, including public beheadings in Sydney. Other groups associated with such brutality gain recruits.

Maajid Nawaz was a former recruiter for a group called Hib ut-Tahrir. He is now head of Quilliam, a group that's trying to combat terrorist messages. He joins us from London. Thanks for being with us.

MAAJID NAWAZ: A pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: You're British. You grew up in Essex.

NAWAZ: Yes, born and raised.

SIMON: So how do you wind up in this group?

NAWAZ: Well, I joined at 16 years old. And I'm now 36. These were - when I was recruited - these were what I refer to as the battle days of racism in the United Kingdom. I was, from the age of about 13 'til about 16, regularly hounded on the streets of my own hometown by neo-Nazi skinheads, chased by machetes and attacked with screwdrivers and also harassed by the Essex police authorities.

Things have changed significantly since those bad old days of racism in this country. But at that time, it coincided with the genocide in Bosnia against Bosnia Muslims. And all of this led me to feel very much disenfranchised from society. Now it could've stopped there because I'm not the only one in the world that's experienced grievances. So what is it that's the extra factor that takes young, angry Muslims who have such grievances, and turns them towards extremism rather than towards, say for example, punk rock or whatever? And that's where the ideology kicks in.

I happen to come across a charismatic recruiter. Then the recruiter provides what is seemingly a solution to the problems one faces. It seems to answer all of the world's problems with one sweeping answer; that there's a global war going on against Islam and Muslims. So I subscribe to that ideology at the age of 16 and, very quickly, rose through the ranks of this Islamist organization to the leadership.

SIMON: Well, explain, you were in prison in Egypt for five years.

NAWAZ: My arrest in Egypt happened in 2002, and I was convicted to five years as a political prisoner. Adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience because they said - and I think correctly so - they said this man has extremist ideas but he shouldn't have been imprisoned for them and certainly shouldn't have faced torture for them. And so we will campaign for his release, despite disagreeing with everything he says. And that was, for me, a turning point. It was the first time in my, up until then, very young life. I was only 24 after all of this had happened. It was the first time in my very young life that anyone who I hadn't considered as being from my people - meaning Muslims at that time, I had a very restrictive definition of who my people were - had campaigned for my rights. And so Amnesty campaigned for my rights, and it touched my heart in a way that really did make me think. And that was the beginning of my journey towards a more liberal, democratic, human rights approach to engaging with society.

SIMON: I think we might all benefit by hearing one of your old recruiting talks. Is that possible? We don't have to do the whole thing but what...

NAWAZ: Well, my autobiography, "Radical," has passages that actually are in the voice of me, as if I was still of that mind-set. I just want to remind you readers that this was me as I was then. In no way do I think like this anymore. And in fact, I've dedicated my life to combating a lot of this, what I call a half truth. And here we go. (Reading) you drop bombs on my people, while knowing full well that the level of collateral damage - we call them innocent Muslims - will far exceed the damage to any legitimate target. How many deaths of untargeted civilians, by your hands, entitle us to respond? Five? Ten? A hundred? Half a million? Are 3,000 deaths enough to make you feel the pain of each and every mother you untargeted with depleted uranium? If not, then know that our intentions in bringing you death can also be noble. We too shroud destruction and humane concerns. You do not have a monopoly on reaping devastation off the back of good intentions, and don't you dare claim such a thing.

SIMON: That's quite a compelling talk.

NAWAZ: Just to emphasize, of course, that's half the truth.

SIMON: Yeah.

NAWAZ: Because despite what we think of the invasion of Iraq, at the end of the day, what ISIL is doing has got nothing to do with that foreign policy decision. They are - or they were - attempting at genocide against the Yazidi community in Iraq, who had nothing to do with the invasion of that country. Or killing and expelling the Iraqi Christians, or the Iraqi Shia, and beheading them. You know, these people are entirely innocent. And so the other half of the story is that the jihadist extremist groups have become the very monster they claim they're attempting to fight.

SIMON: Do you have any one or two solid pieces of advice that you might give countries now that are worried about this threat?

NAWAZ: Well, I think I would encourage leaders to start working with communities in order to inoculate angry, young teenagers. And there are many non-Muslims who are joining them as converts, as well. So that's why I say angry young teenagers rather than just Muslims. And it means that everyone is responsible. Media is responsible for not perpetuating the myth of a clash of civilizations. This is not a clash between the West and Islam. My very presence indicates this is indeed a struggle within the Muslim communities to reclaim a hijacked faith as well. But communities themselves are responsible - Muslim and non - because everyone is tasked with the charge of facing down any extremist propaganda. Whether it comes from the far right anti-Muslim crowd - and we've got the rise and the upsurge of that in Europe at the moment - and also from the Islamist extremist crowd. Muslim communities themselves, as they expect mainstream society to stand down racists, must do more to also stand down the Islamist extremists. You know, 500 British Muslims don't just get up and leave in a vacuum.

SIMON: Maajid Nawaz. He is the author of the book "Radical" and cofounder of Quilliam, a counterterrorism organization in the U.K. Thanks so much for being with us.

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