Ghaffar Hussain is the head of research at the Quilliam Foundation. As a teenager, he became involved with non-violent Islamist groups in the U.K. He now travels the West challenging the entire Islamist ideology. He is the author of A Brief History of Islamism and Modern Muslim Political Thought.
The following is Hussain’s interview with Ryan Mauro of the Clarion Project:
Ryan Mauro: What got you involved in the non-violent Islamist cause? What was appealing to you?
Ghaffar Hussain: The non-violent Islamist cause appeared to offer easy-to-digest answers to difficult and complex geopolitical conflicts. Such simplistic answers, and a simplistic worldview in general, appealed to my 15-year old mind and, in the absence of alternative points of view, I bought into it.
The narrative also offered a new identity that was inherently anti-establishment and, hence, appealing to one whose life experiences had shaped him to think that way.
Mauro: At what point did you begin to turn against the non-violent Islamists?
Hussain: After four to five years of being immersed in that world with various organizations, the narrowness and binary nature of the narrative began to stand out.
As I increased my knowledge of the world, I increasingly found the Islamist narrative to be too simple, binary and lacking in sophistication. In particular, I found it relied on a complete misreading of history, a de-contextualized understanding of scripture and an almost intellectually lazy approach to contemporary geopolitics.
Mauro: If the Islamists’ activity is non-violent and legal, why should we be concerned?
Hussain: There are many things that are non-violent that we should be concerned about. Racist language, sexism, homophobia, creating divisions and tensions in communities, preaching hatred of non-Muslims—these are all technically “non-violent,” and I hope I don’t have to spell out why they are deeply problematic.
However, even the term “non-violent” must be contextualized when used to describe Islamist groups. Many of them believe in violence but only in certain situations and at certain times. The term “non-terrorist” may be more appropriate here.
Mauro: I often hear skeptics say that we shouldn’t be concerned about non-violent Islamists because they are not numerous enough to take over Europe or the U.S. How do you respond?
Hussain: A takeover of Europe and North America is not my concern because I don’t think that is likely or even possible. The real danger is posed to Muslims in Muslim societies around the world and attacks on Western targets.
Either way, every individual that believes in liberalism, democracy, secularism and human rights should be concerned when an active force is seeking to undermine those things anywhere in the world. However, some are too caught up in parochial and relatively petty political squabbles to see the big picture and the issues that really matter.
Mauro: What’s the most effective argument that you use to draw Muslims away from the Islamist cause?
Hussain: There isn’t a single killer argument. A deconstruction of the Islamist narrative must involve political, historical and theological elements. However, the idea that a group of humans have the right to adopt a single interpretation of Islam and then use the coercive power of the state to impose that interpretation on other people is absurd and should be exposed as such.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.