The radical Islamist who came in from the cold

A former radical who is now working to combat religious extremism explains the Islamist mind-set.

Published February 17, 2009 4:50PM (EST)

Ghaffar Hussain was once a radical Islamist with the group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Now he is part of the Quilliam Foundation, a British think tank seeking to combat extremism. He spoke with Der Spiegel about the Islamist worldview and the pleasant feeling of omniscience.

Some of those who have become radicalized have not been very successful in their former lives. It's like they are losers who seek to transform themselves into winners...

Yes, and the elite factor definitely plays a role as well. I have met many radical people who wouldn't want to discuss their ideas with someone knowledgeable, because they knew they would not win that debate. But for them their mind-set is very comfortable. They are the vanguard, everything makes sense for them. They have a network, a group of friends. It can be very attractive to suddenly be convinced that you alone now know what's really going on. You are a real Muslim, the others have been infiltrated by the West and are corrupted. Certainly you are better than your parents so you don't have to listen to them anymore.

But to leave your country, join a terrorist organization and live in Waziristan with no prospect of ever returning to a normal life in the West is also a risk?

Those types of people think that there is nothing worthwhile left for them to come back to. There are others, of course, who have families and prefer to live in the West and be armchair radicals...

Like you, when you were a member of the Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir?

In a way, yes. I was a political activist, and Hizb ut-Tahrir didn't advocate that we join the battlefield.

From your experience, once you really enter that Islamist ideology, how does it change you?

It gives you moral and political certainty. Understanding geopolitics for a 15-year-old is very difficult -- but all of a sudden everything is very easy: Ah, this is why they are all fighting against us!

Radicalization is a process. It's not like you are a moderate on Monday, but wake up on Tuesday as a would-be-terrorist. Can this process be stopped once it has started?

Yes, the process can be stopped, if these people are exposed to alternative points of view before it's too late. Before they will only socialize with people who supply them with radical answers to the questions that drive them. Basically these people are looking for answers and they often find radical answers most convincing because they seem to explain everything. This is the point where they need to be confronted with information that contradicts the Islamist narrative. There's also a scriptural aspect to this: You have to show to them that Islam as such does not support many of the Islamists' arguments.

Generally, what role does religious knowledge play in the process of radicalization? A lot of jihadist leaders, for example, talk a lot about faith without having much in the way of a theological education. Even Osama bin Laden and Aiman al-Zawahiri fall into that category.

Religion is not what motivates people. They don't pick up the Quran and say: Ah, this is what I've got to do! They are motivated by politics. But when Islamists show their worldview they always provide some scriptural justification. As a rule, 90 percent of their speeches are political, but they will also say: And the Quran supports this, and the Prophet supports this, so as to make the argument look Islamic.

What were the main factors that made you turn away from radical Islamism?

I managed to keep an open mind even when I was an activist for Hizb ut-Tahrir. That allowed me to analyze different perspectives. I also read a lot about history independently, I analyzed politics independently and I kept speaking to Muslims who followed different ideas. So I had access to quite a wide variety of information, which eventually made me realize that I was following a very narrow interpretation at best. But a lot of people won't expose themselves to all that; they feel too comfortable with their new truths and new friends.

Was this narrowness of interpretation decisive for you? Or was it also a matter of truth and historical accuracy?

Some of what I used to believe was definitely false. Islamism is a modern idea, and it was influenced by European movements like Marxism and Socialism. Islamists reinterpret Muslim history according to their ideology. And that leads to a complete misreading of, for example, the Ottoman Empire's history.

At the Quilliam Foundation you are looking at ways to counter radicalization. You also make use of religious authorities. How does that work?

We will take up a specific issue and then we'll try to get respected scholars to take a clear position in opposition. We have done this, for example, with suicide bombings or the concept that all Muslims must be united under one leadership. We want to show that what radicals believe is in fact a very narrow politically motivated religious standpoint that needs to be exposed for what it is. We don't want to unite everyone under one alternative idea, though.

When the Quilliam Foundation was set up, as a think tank staffed with former radical Islamists, did you find it difficult to enter the public debate? Or was yours a voice that all sides were eager to listen to?

It was actually quite easy to enter the public debate. People were definitely looking for new and original voices on this topic.

Since you started the project, have you actually managed to convince radical Islamists to break away from their groups and their ideology?

Yes. We have individually spoken to people we knew and managed to take away between 30 and 40 from these organizations, some even from senior positions. We have also tried numerous times to engage these organizations in public debates with us, but they haven't accepted the offer. But I think we are on the right track. They are definitely not as confident anymore as they used to be.

The Quilliam Foundation is unique in the sense that there are no comparable institutions outside the U.K. Do you have plans to expand?

On the long term, yes. First we want a solid base in Britain that will be a working model that we can then export to Europe and the U.S.

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read news magazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

By Yassin Musharbash

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