I first heard of Maajid Nawaz on January 15th of this year, as he discussed his book Radical with NPR’s radio show, Fresh Air. I must admit, I was immediately intrigued by his eloquence and clarity, but soon those prima facie aesthetic impressions gave way to the depth of his story. Radical, an autobiographical narrative detailing Nawaz’s life in England, his recruitment and activism for the Islamist political group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and his imprisonment in Mazra Tora prison in Egypt, sounded instantly as though it would be a must-read.
Life, as it usually does, gets in the way–and while I followed Maajid’s work in his public appearances and YouTube videos, reading the book became later and later postponed. Finally, last week, the time to procure and read a copy was possible.
The easy review to write would regurgitate the synopsis of Maajid’s story–which is compelling and, I feel, necessary reading. But my sincere admiration for Maajid comes not only from his perseverance through “Paki” racism as a youth or his detention in a torture facility, but through his constant struggle both in his life and in his narrative to rediscover and reaffirm his own kind of truth.
Our deepest values can often be bulwark against dialectic sense, and these defenses against reason can be compounded and strengthened by trauma, community, and politics. Maajid stood at the bottom of a seemingly inescapable hole of Islamist fervor that was made further daunting by his marriage, his entire social circle, and the dedication of half his life in study and activity. For so many of us, paradigmatic shifts require a kind of sacrifice from the easy to the immeasurable–the cost of Maajid changing his mind champions the latter. To decide to leave the Islamist group was to give up an entire existence to which he had knit his soul.
Radical demanded my own self-reflection with every page, particularly in terms of a recent discussion which is paramount as well as in vogue: what methodologies are most effective when discussing the role religion plays in the world and the attitude we should have towards it? I am sincerely torn on this issue, and while I know that, in the words of Maajid, creating 1.6 billion apostates is an unrealistic idea, I am simultaneously unable to examine major tenets of monotheistic faiths without feeling a sense of moral outrage that must be expressed. For the first time since I became an active writer on religion, I am searching desperately within myself to resolve this contradiction. This subject and others is the fulcrum of Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris’s new book Islam and the Future of Tolerance; as well as the center of many of my private discussions with activists like Anthony Magnabosco of Street Epistemology. In bearing witness to Maajid so thoroughly examining and scrutinizing his most firmly held convictions, I realized that there must be a similar process with all of us if we are to hold ourselves as honest seekers of truth. The truly dangerous “echo-chambers” (as several critics of New Atheism are accusing us of residing in) are the ones we set up for ourselves in our own heads.
For Maajid, solidarity with liberal values and those who fight for them is key: the freedom of speech and faith should not be mutually exclusive, and all serious secular activists would hold themselves in firm agreement. I am proud to count myself among them. Radical shows us that, while such objectives may not always be entirely self-evident, the only way to discover them is to question those pieces of yourself which seem unimpeachable, and to follow your reason through your fear. In such times where the worst kind of conservatism is considered a virtue, and the unquestioning loyalty to authority and tradition is touted as morality, to know thyself is indeed a radical act.