In honour of Majid Nawaz’s recent interview in the Guardian. I thought I’d post this excerpt from my novel, The Janissary in which our hero, a special advisor in the old coalition government attends an entirely fictional seminar hosted by an entirely fictional anti-extremism think tank set up by two entirely fictional former Islamists.
Bashir reached into his pocket to check for the wad of business cards he’d stashed there before leaving the house. As people filed out of the auditorium and towards the refreshments laid out in the reception hall, he took a deep breath and launched himself at them. Networking his way across the room in a determined fashion, he introduced himself to each group in turn, handing out cards, gathering cards in return, occasionally pausing for two or three minutes of conversation and cracking the odd joke. As he moved from one group to the next, Bashir made little notes on the cards he had been given, the better to remember who each person was, what they’d spoken about and whether they might be useful to his boss.
The crowd was an odd one. There were about a hundred people in all, ranging from grad students to policy wonks on their day off to elderly Jewish ladies to men in their early forties with blue blazers and something of the army about them. There were a number of people from the oil industry and a scattering of journalists sent to the event for background research.It was quite an international bunch, with a large number of Americans and Canadians, a handful of South Africans and a few English people living as expats in Indonesia or Doha or wherever. The crowd was, however, almost exclusively white.
Bashir would not normally have remarked on something so crass, but the event was entitled ‘Radical Departures –Exorcising Extremism from British Islam’. There were one or two people of South Asian extraction, and a couple of forceful women in their forties that might have been Arab, but aside from that the only diversity seemed to be the five or so British-Pakistani men who ran the organisation hosting the event – the Abdullah FitzWilliam Foundation. Before coming down, Bashir had looked up their website. According to the blurb, the foundation was‘Britain’s only Muslim-led anti-extremism and social policy think tank’. The site was big on ‘fostering cultures’ and ‘asserting shared values’. It exhorted Muslims and non-Muslims alike ‘not to be afraid of terror’ and aimed at providing ‘globalised solutions for an international age’.
The foundation was named after one Sir Abdullah FitzWilliam, born John Stuart FitzWilliam in Ely in 1822. He was educated in Classics and Theology at Peterhouse before he took up a diplomatic post in Spain. It was here that he was introduced to Islam by Algerian traders. He moved on to Algeria itself where he lived for ten years and embraced Islam. FitzWilliam had written several books including The Berber Peoples of the Maghreb: A Solitary Traveller’s Reflection; a biography of the Prophet entitled An Impression of Mahomet, and a collection of poetry after Hafez which was, according to the article, ‘well received in Orientalist and mystical circles’.
FitzWilliam had returned to England in 1863 and had set up a mosque for Muslim sailors and other transients passing through the great port of Liverpool. He was married to Fatima, née Laura, for thirty-seven years and they had nine children, of whom five survived to adulthood. Knighted in 1880 in recognition of services towards fostering understanding among the peoples of the Empire, FitzWilliam dedicated his later years to a sympathetic, if overly romantic, translation of the Qur’an. He was a frequent dinner guest of Queen Victoria and Gladstone, among others, and Oscar Wilde composed an affectionate satirical on his death in 1898.
Despite laying claim to an illustrious heritage, the foundation looked like a pretty lightweight outfit to Bashir, a fact he had pointed out to Jeng when it became clear that the man himself would not be attending but that someone would be expected to go in his stead. ‘I don’t think they’re any cop. I can’t make head nor tail of what they say they do, and they don’t seem to have much in the way of actual policy or expertise.’
‘I don’t just need you to advise me on whether we should work with them, brother.’ Jeng had replied. ‘I need the Department to be seen to be doing something.’ Bashir had sensed something more going on and had pressed Jeng until he eventually revealed that he was receiving pressure from above to concentrate on the ‘cohesion’ aspect of his portfolio, and specifically on looking at hiving off several projects left over from the old government’s anti-terror strategy to non-state partners.
The projects were regarded as important, but the reality they inhabited was out of sync with the new government’s agenda. It was routine, so Bashir had learned, for such programmes to be outsourced to a reliable third party. Number 10 had given Jeng a list of organisations they considered ‘reliable’ and expected his department to scope them out on the sly before anything so august as a ministerial presence should make itself felt. They had told him it was important and that he send someone with political nous.
There had not been much of a fight to put up after that, and Bashir had agreed in a surly mood to give up his Sunday afternoon to attend. There had been an outside chance, despite the organisation’s apparent lack of substance, that the event would be interesting. The subject matter, once you saw past the unnecessary pun in the title, held potential. The panel included a Professor Iain McLain who taught Insurgency and Ideology at the War Studies faculty at King’s College; Dr Ellen Laurie, an anthropologist and expert in narratives of grievance from Cambridge; and Leila Nawaz, the youngest scion of a Pakistani political dynasty who had recently lost her mother to a terrorist attack in Karachi. Alongside them were the two clean-cut, clean-shaven men in their early thirties who ran the foundation: Imran Kashef and Ned Hassan, both of whom confessed to having been extremists before rejecting the path of rejectionism and embracing the pluralistic society.
Unfortunately Professor McLain had turned out to be more of a specialist in the proxy wars of the Iron Curtain era than anything more recent, and his application of the Manichean dynamics of the Cold War to something much more complex sounded, even to Bashir’s inexpert ears, like so much outdated guff. Leila Nawaz was no better, being pulled up several times by Dr Laurie for failing to draw the distinction between ‘terrorists’ and ‘people’. Laurie contended that there might be a continuum whereby people in extreme circumstances might be attracted to similarly extreme ideologies, but she was laughed down by the rest of the panel.
‘You don’t know these people,’ Nawaz had said, in the plummy accent of the Indo-Pak aristocracy, ‘They do not see the world as you and I do. They are not reasonable – they cannot be reasoned with. They are a cancer and must be wiped out. My mother’ – she paused for a moment, seeming to hold back tears – ‘she knew this. It is a fight between right and wrong, dark and day. My mother lost her life to that fight and I can tell you that there is no middle ground, no negotiation, no surrender to terror!’
The room erupted into spontaneous applause. Nawaz’s dark eyes flashed with fire as she stared down Dr Laurie.The other woman lowered her pale-blue gaze and stared into her lap, a few wisps of blonde hair falling across her face.
There was something ugly in the applause, and Dr Laurie barely spoke for the rest of the session, even when the discussion turned to her specialist subject,narratives of grievance. It was while they were on this subject that Bashir considered walking out. If he had not been there in an official capacity he would already have been on the train home.
The discussion centred around the idea that Muslims in general had developed a powerful and persuasive mythology about their persecution at the hands of the Christian West. This mythology was rooted in memories of the greatness of the Muslim empires that had dominated much of the world from the seventh to the seventeenth centuries. That greatness had been snatched away by Western invaders who came by ship and inaugurated three hundred years of indignity and exploitation.
Even though the European maritime empires had been, for all their flaws, essentially programmes of enlightenment and civilisation, this myth of persecution portrayed them, remarkably, as destructive forces that ripped apart age-established cultures and replaced them with the worship of lucre.
The consensus, among the panel and the audience, was that this interpretation of events needed to be challenged, by educating Muslims in this country and abroad about the reality of how much good had come from the technical, economic and social advances the West had exported to the rest of the world.
Several people had mentioned the railways.
The first step, however, was to keep a close watch on the people pushing the ridiculous anti-Western propaganda and, where possible, to curtail their activities. This notion brought Professor McLain into his element as he described with relish the three tiers of a counter-insurgency strategy. He went from the top down, starting with a full-blown guerilla war. This is what had sunk Napoleon in Spain, it was how Mao and Ho Chi Minh had countered the awesome forces arrayed against them. It was the worst-case scenario and, McLain added gravely, the one that might engulf Afghanistan if they were not careful.
The middle tier was a generalised insurgency, which was where Afghanistan was right now. This meant plenty of attacks, much instability, but with the central authority still in control.
That was where Britain might be in thirty years’ time, McLain added, a comment that left a confused frown on Bashir’s face.
The lowest tier was instigation, which was where things were right now. Instigation was the point at which insurgencies needed to be stopped, before they led to general violence.Through a concerted campaign to win hearts and minds, as well as the willingness to take decisive action against agitators and revolutionaries, the crisis could be averted before it had begun.
‘To do that, we must go to the root of the problem. Attack it its source – the pernicious mythology of Muslim victimhood whose pervasive influence can be seen in everything; from the cries of Islamophobia whenever barbaric practices like female genital mutilation or forced marriage are condemned; to the doctrine of psychopathic nihilism that drives suicide bombers. Break the narrative, and you achieve the aim of any counter- insurgency – break the bond between your revolutionaries and the local population. Do that and the war is won in a second.’
Again rapturous applause. Dr Laurie looked as if she might throw up; even Kashef looked a little queasy, and as the clapping died down he felt compelled to add a disclaimer: ‘I think we should stress, though, that forced marriage and female genital mutilation are not exclusively or even predominantly Muslim issues.’
‘And also that the vast majority of Muslims are loyal, law-abiding citizens,’ added his second-in-command, Ned.
‘Yes, yes, of course,’ said McLain. There was a general murmur of acknowledgement and assent from the audience: not all Muslims, by any means. ‘In fact,’ said McLain, face puffing as he blew some more wind into his own sails, ‘that is our core assumption. It is precisely because the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful that we need to counter the hold of this mythology. By doing so we can allow Muslim populations to engage properly with society, freed from the notion that they are excluded or victimised. Freed from the allure of the extremist mindset.’
More applause.‘It is like inoculating against a disease,’ McLain continued. ‘You target the populations most at risk, latent carriers who might burst out with the full symptoms at any time.’
The floor was opened for a round of questions. Someone asked about Tunisia, which had just seen its president overthrown in what appeared to have all the hallmarks of a popular uprising. People were calling it the Jasmine Spring. And although Bashir had been too busy to follow what was going on, he had an impression that the movement of protest was growing, swelling and spreading to other nations in the Middle East.
The question, from a dark-haired woman well advanced into middle age, seemed to be an interjection of reality; of wider context and ongoing events into a discussion that up to that point, seemed entirely folded in on itself and disengaged with reality, at least as far as Bashir could discern.
The consensus among the panel was that democracy was an excellent thing, but once this kind of popular unrest was out of the bag it was hard to see where it might lead.
‘The president of Tunisia has been a bulwark against extremism. Whatever the gripes of his people against
‘Which may well be legitimate,’ Kashef interjected.
‘Which may indeed. But whatever the gripes, he was a friend to enlightened values and Western interests, who made a courageous stand against the Islamisation of his country.’
‘I’m not too comfortable with the word Islamisation,’ said Kashef. ‘I think we can agree that it isn’t Islam but Islamists that are the problem.’
‘Perhaps Islamisticisation would be a better word,’ said Ned Hassan helpfully. Absolutely, the panel and the audience agreed. That was a much clearer description of the issue at hand.
‘As I was saying,’ McLain continued, ‘we need to welcome democracy, of course, but there is a fine line between democracy and demagoguery. We need to work hard –even be prepared to intervene to ensure that Tunisia’s new-found freedom doesn’t lead to a worse form of enslavement.’
‘What do you say to those who claim intervention hasn’t worked?’ someone called from the audience. ‘Well, that’s just preposterous,’ McLain responded. There was a silence as people waited for something more, but nothing was forthcoming.
At last, Leila Nawaz marshalled herself and waded in. ‘You may think that from your cosy chair in London, but I know Afghanistan would be much worse off if NATO hadn’t gone in.’ She paused for a moment before adding, ‘My family owns land near the border, so I have first-hand experience of the damage these people can do. My tenants live in fear of their lives.
‘Besides, we’re winning,’ McLain added. ‘Or else why would we be preparing to pull out.’
‘Exactly,’ said Nawaz. ‘And, of course, creating a free and stable Iraq was a catalyst for this democratic uprising.’
There was another silence as the audience struggled to keep up with the leap of logic.
Imran Kashef was the first to make a connection. ‘Because freeing the Iraqi people gave the Tunisians hope that they could also escape their dictator?’
The audience sighed in relief: yes, that was absolutely it, as clear as day. It made perfect sense that once Iraq had, with a little help, thrown off the shackles of despotism, the idea of freedom would gestate and, just six years later, burst forth to claim another authoritarian regime.
Bashir’s eyes were on the exit at this point, but he did not have the luxury of choice. There was no pinning down exactly what it was that was making him feel so uneasy, but something – something in the Islamist paradigm, to use one of the phrases Kashef bandied about – was badly off.
And it wasn’t just the general stupidity, the Cold War vision of ideological and military clash. That kind of wrongheadedness was old news – post-colonialism 101, as it were.
No, what was worse was a kind of pernicious, invasive buzzing – not what was said, though that was objectionable enough, but what was not said. There were any number of assumed and unquestioned truths that informed this discussion, things too obvious to state out loud.
Bashir had no idea what they were, but as he looked around the room at the disparate members of the crowd, all sharing those unsaid, perhaps unsayable premises, he felt suddenly exposed. The space between his shoulder blades was cold and tense, as if expecting a blow.
His sense of being excluded only increased towards the end of the programme, when Ned Hassan took to the podium. After a short preamble relaying his qualifications to speak as a Muslim on Muslim issues, Hassan began to read from a copy of his bestselling account of urban radicalisation among a disaffected Muslim working class, Jeehad and Chips.
The section Hassan had chosen described, he said, one of the turning points in his association with radical Islam. It had already been much quoted in the press and on his Newsnight appearance, but without wishing to bore people, he felt its central message was certainly worth repeating here today.
The passage dealt with a stabbing at the technical college in Hackney where he’d done his A levels. The victim was black, the attacker a Bengali Muslim who had yelled ‘Kafir’ while slashing his fellow pupil across the arm and thigh. This had been Hassan’s first exposure to Muslim bigotry and he recounted his shock and disgust that his own people could act like that.
He told of how, as word of the incident spread, the blacks and the Asians had faced off, with the Brothers of the Party of Islamic Revolution at the forefront, instigating, organising, showing their power to agitate and radicalise young people.
Luckily, on that occasion, nothing more happened. But Hassan’s reading ended with a warning from his past self to his present one, a reminder of how dangerous political Islam could be, and how it needed to be challenged robustly and vigorously.
‘In the light of 7/7,’ Hassan finished, solemn as a preacher about to impart the moral of some New Testament parable, ‘I knew I needed to listen to what that schoolboy had to say. That schoolboy who used to be me.’
Bashir had to breath deep and found himself looking at Dr Laurie, but the woman had the glazed look of someone who has entered their happy place to wait things out.
He was wishing he had the same luxury as he finished up the last of his mechanical meet-and-greets with the attendees. He had worked through his whole stack of business cards and even managed a quick exchange of banalities with Kashef as he went to grab an orange juice to wet his throat.
He bumped into Hassan too, and complimented him – he was sure without any traceable irony – on how interesting and well-written his book was. The man seemed a little too delighted by the praise and shook Bashir’s hand vigorously, thanking him for the Department’s continued support.
That should have given Bashir pause; after all, the only reason he was there was to see if they deserved the Department’s support, but Hassan was whisked away by two Arab women before he could probe further.
With his networking done and his quarry escaped, Bashir had nothing to do. Given a moment to himself he felt something like an itch being among these people – it left him twitchy, distracted, nervous.
Of course, their way of thinking, or something like it, must have been around for some time. Two wars had been justified on the basis of the argument that the threat was existential; that those who presented it could not be reasoned with because they were fanatics bent on destroying and then rebuilding the world; that there was no history, no politics to their rage, just a wild, incoherent railing against all that was civilised and modern and good.
He had never before seen it up close before, expressed by fine, upstanding citizens as a truth so basic it bore no examination. Nor had he ever seen it allied to such a sophisticated, deviously corkscrewed narrative; one in which the enemy might think they had grievances but were in fact being gulled by techniques of propaganda and religion-based mind control; one where the battle was not for control of towns or cities, nor even for countries, regions, resources or wealth, but for hearts and minds and the story that could sway them.
That was the part that truly unnerved him: that in this battle of ideas people could be and should be wiped clean of whatever conclusions they had come to, and re-educated to better know the reality of the world.
Not just any people, either; not just some beardy rag- head with an AK, but his people, British citizens, born fee but for their unfortunate commitment to a mythology and a religion that could not help but preach death.
Freedom isn’t free, he thought to himself, and mulled on every possible meaning of the phrase. Laughing out loud got him a few odd looks, and he decided it was time to leave. His work was done, and the sooner he was out of here, the sooner he would be able to forget these people, the sooner the hairs on his neck would stand down and the cold tightness between his shoulders grow warm.
He prepared to leave, was stalled for a minute or so while a retired marine colonel tried to set up a meeting with Jeng, then left by the back stairs. The building had the eerie quality that all institutions of learning take on over the weekend, and Bashir had a powerful sense that he was intruding as he walking along the long, glass-lined corridors. On either side were empty seminar rooms and lecture theatres. The rows of fixed seats cast shadows in the half-dark, as if occupied by an academy of shadows learning from a syllabus of silence and undertone.
He suppressed a little shiver and was glad to reach the door at the far end of the corridor, a fire exit which led him out into an alleyway lined with bikes, a biting January chill, and something so wan as could barely be called daylight. He took a deep gulp of the cold air and turned towards the sound of traffic to exit the alleyway.
As he did so, he spotted a figure towards the end of the alley; on walking closer he realised it was Dr Laurie. He had assumed the woman was long gone, but it seemed she had simply beaten a tactical retreat to suck down a Marlboro Red and glare with a sour face at the brickwork.
‘Hi,’ said Bashir, and introduced himself. She did not seem too pleased to have company. ‘Got a light?’ he asked. Laurie grunted an affirmative and pulled a lighter out of her jeans pocket.
They said nothing to each other for a while, standing in an awkward silence and pulling hard on their cigarettes.
‘So,’ said Bashir, after some time. ‘Interesting event.’
‘Some interesting perspectives.’
He was not one to spill himself to strangers, but he had an inkling the woman thought he might be one of them. He was, after all, no less clean-shaven or smartly dressed or articulate than the other young Pakistani men there. ‘You can see why the War on Terror was such a success, with an intellectual backbone like that.’
The woman turned to look at him. She was in her forties, thin in an athletic, wiry sort of way, and had the look of someone who’s spent a lot of time in the beating sun. She had blonde hair and a pair of small, hard blue eyes that were currently narrowed in appraisal of him.
‘A success?’ was all she said, her tone guarded, no less cold than the biting winter wind.
‘Well,’ he said, adopting a sardonic expression and a tone as close as possible to Professor McLain’s strident self-regard, ‘why else would we be preparing to pull out?’
It took some moments for her to realise he wasn’t serious. In that time he saw anger, disdain and disgust flicker across her face. How many times must she have heard such things said in earnest, he wondered, for it to take so long to realise that I was joking.
‘You weren’t impressed? Everyone in there seemed to be of one mind.’
‘Not me,’ he said cheerfully, ‘I’m not part of the collective consciousness.’
‘Well, thank heaven for that. I thought I might have been the only one today.’
‘No. Although I can’t really work out what was wrong with what was going on in there.’
‘Hmm, yes. It’s a tricky one.’ She humoured Bashir over another cigarette and did her best to explain to him why she thought the whole thing had been so oddly unpleasant. He struggled to follow as she outlined arguments from hermeneutics, discourse analysis and linguistic theory to outline her case.
Eventually she twigged that he wasn’t following.
‘You’re not with me, are you?’
‘I’m trying,’ Bashir shrugged apologetically. ‘I did Law.’
Laurie laughed. ‘Well, we all make mistakes. But what I’m saying, in essence, is that what you experienced in there was an echo chamber.’
‘It works like this: everything needs a frame of reference so you can tell what it means.’ Bashir could sense she was struggling to dumb it down for him.
‘Like in maths, you need three points to confirm a pattern is in fact a straight line.’
‘More or less,’ she said, and continued. ‘Well, one of the problems with the way people think is that they tend to spot patterns without realising how much information they’re ignoring.’
‘You mean confirmation bias?’
‘Exactly. So with a weakness for confirmation bias and enough resources, you can end up in a situation where
everything you are using to interpret the world is already pre-vetted.’
‘So nothing that doesn’t fit the existing view makes it, as far as becoming evidence?’
‘Yes, and when you’ve got time and resources and a foundation to your name, you can create quite anextensive little alternate reality. One based on assumptions and sources and evidence that can’t help but reinforce your preconceptions, because they’ve already been used to form your preconceptions.’
‘The echo chamber.’
‘But don’t we all do that to an extent?’
‘Perhaps,’ said Laurie, putting out her cigarette on the heel of one boot. ‘But most of the rest of us aren’t batshit crazy.’
He didn’t know why, but the phrase hooked onto him and made him shudder. He had a fleeting mental image of a bat squeaking and scratching in a tight, confined space.
‘I have to get back inside,’ said Dr Laurie. ‘Can you believe I’ve got to have dinner with these people?’
‘Well, you’ve got to take your free meals when they come.’
Then she said a quick goodbye and was gone through the fire door. As it swung slowly closed, Bashir could hear her heels clicking smartly on the stairs.
The streets were close to empty as Bashir made his way home, weaving between the gaunt art-deco facades of the university district. The day was cold, windswept, with dense little rainclouds scudding across the sky. As he reached Russell Square the clouds broke and a weak but hopeful sun cast its watery light over trees still bare and lawns churned up by a winter’s worth of bad weather.
The journey home was convoluted; travelling in London on the weekend always was, as repairs knocked out large sections of the Tube, and roadworks slowed the buses to slower than walking pace. There were few people around, and the sound of his footsteps was thrown back at him in thetoo-loud way small sounds do in empty spaces that are meant to be filled.
As the train pulled into his station he made a decision to stay on board for one more stop. He would visit his parents instead of returning to the house he shared with Aleem. He was visiting Samira for the weekend and Bashir had no wish to return to a cold empty house.
It was beginning to get dark as he walked across the road, cut through the alley on Price Road and across the park behind his parents’ house. They had called it Poo Park when they were kids and he thought twice about crossing it in the twilight, but the alternative was an extra five minutes over the railway bridge and around.
In the event he did not find any surprises underfoot, and after crossing the park he ducked through the break in the fence where a large oak had overgrown it, and onto his parents’ street.
Lights were coming on in the windows of the narrow, neat little houses; a kettle whistled somewhere; a woman
yelled. The skylight was open at number 30, Aleem’s place. Bashir and Aleem had hung out of that window so many times, late at night, trying to keep the smoke out of the room. Aleem’s mum had lodgers in there now, a young Tamil couple – Hindus, but very nice, as she liked to say.
Reaching number 44, he turned in. It had been a couple of months since he’d last been, and his father had repainted the front door – a vibrant if increasingly flaky red throughout Bashir’s childhood –a stately shade of dark green.
He had a key, but pushed hard on the bell anyway,hearing the buzz inside and a clatter as someone left the kitchen and headed for the door. The door was unlatched and opened a fraction to reveal half of a pleasantly rounded female face, one eye visible with the eyebrow cocked as if to ask as who might be calling at this time on a Sunday evening.