Book Review: Radical by Maajid Nawaz

I see you, London. Heathrow, immune from change during long spells of absence, oblivious to the distance of lovers, you seem to welcome me back with no less warmth than when I left. I see you, London.

The question one asks when reading autobiographical work is, I wonder if this guy’s really telling me the truth? I asked it when I began Radical by Maajid Nawaz.

But when you note how much of Nawaz’s life is documented, when you consider how often he has been ridiculed for talking about that life, indeed when you read in his own words that Radical is an act of diplomacy dressed in the disguise of storytelling, you can let that thought go, and enjoy when Hosni Mubarak and George W. Bush become the characters of a novel, his life’s journey becomes a plot, and his conclusions become literary.

“Literary” is the crux, isn’t it? If you’re aiming to learn more—or the very first thing—about political Islam, and how a person could go from a committed extremist (not to be confused with ‘terrorist’) to perhaps its most outspoken opponent, then read this book. Don’t wait. However, there is a lesser-discussed element to it. Not your typical educational value, and more than the aforementioned act of diplomacy.

One of the things I like about Maajid is that he helped to bring himself out of Islamist extremism by reading books. While held in Egypt’s brutal Mazrah Tora, he made the best use of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and all the horror and moral complexity we find in them. I like that Maajid has a fondness for Roald Dahl, and read C.S. Lewis as a boy.

You may consider his continuing references to Harry Potter (see “The Voldemort Effect” ). Maajid teaches us the power of “the narrative.”

The narrative of Radical takes us from racially-charged neighborhoods in the U.K., to London, Pakistan, Copenhagen, and Egypt—where, incidentally, they do as they please.

Maajid’s life as a rising member of Hizb al-Tahrir, one of the world’s most effective Islamist groups, is both frightening and human. His fall even more so, and I found this best captured in The Polemic, which is an unstoppable read of a chapter, and takes place soon after 9/11. The narrator is at the height of his belief in HT, if not the people who run it, and a heartbeat away (in storytelling terms) from his capture by Egyptian secret police. It is a favorite just from a standpoint of “the narrative.”

In an effort to further educate myself, I must have watched dozens of Maajid’s interviews and debates online, and a lot of unsavory related material. One of the most insidious narratives against the author is that, “He has always had an extreme personality. Why should you trust him now?”

The answer is that you don’t have to. Yet, if you got to know him first, maybe you’d see why many, many people do. The answer is a quote from George Eliot:

“The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect [people].”

Forgive me for once I went to weaken you even more, but through all your resilience I can now help with the cure. And so I went. I went to do what I could; fighting the very virus I had helped to sow deep within your veins.