The Jihadists Who Have Recanted I


As so often, Johann Hari goes where others don't:

A wave of young British Islamists who trained to fight – who cheered as their friends bombed this country – have recanted. Now they are using everything they learned on the inside, to stop the jihad.

Seventeen former radical Islamists have "come out" in the past 12 months and have begun to fight back. Would they be able to tell me the reasons that pulled them into jihadism, and out again? Could they be the key to understanding – and defusing – Western jihadism? I have spent three months exploring their world and befriending their leading figures. Their story sprawls from forgotten English seaside towns to the jails of Egypt's dictatorship and the icy mountains of Afghanistan – and back again.

Read the whole, gripping, brilliant, beautifully written piece.
The first story Johann recounts is that of the well-educated English Jihadist Usama Hassan, who was indoctrinated in Wahabbist Islam and spent the 1990s guiding other Muslims toward Jihad in Afghanistan and Bosnia. He claims to have converted Omar Sheikh, the beheader of Daniel Pearl. But Hassan's fanaticism began to waver as he witnessed his fellow Jihadists killing one another. The 7/7 bombings in London shook him. The discrepancy between the world he had constructed in his head and the world his eyes and ears saw around him began to lead to the classic moment that many revolutionaries face as they contemplate the horror they have unleashed:

As he watched the news of the Luxor massacre in Egypt or Hamas suicide-bombings of pizzerias in Tel Aviv, "It just became more and more difficult to justify that." He found himself thinking about the Jewish friends he had made at school. "They were just like me – human beings. And we had a lot in common. The dietary laws, and the identity issues, and the fear of racism." As he heard the growing Islamist chants at demonstrations – "The Jews are the enemy of God," they yelled – something, he says, began to sag inside him.

It would be foolish to take too much solace from this development. Plenty of Jihadists still live fully in the fundamentalist, neurotic psyche and use to to commit murder, as Nidal Hasan in the US just proved. But that thinking Jihadists, Western-educated, can find a way to see the ashes of the fire they lit is encouraging.

It is also a very old story - the chastened revolutionary. The totalist identities that fundamentalists attach to are always fragile, because they are based on lies. And lies collapse suddenly. If we truly believe what we say we believe in the West - that these fundamentalist claims are lies and will be dispelled on day - then we need to remain confident that the West is right, and will prevail.

The more I witness this global struggle for freedom and meaning in the face of fundamentalism and denial, the more it seems to me that containment is the best strategy. Alongside this, we need a robust commitment to our own values, and a refusal to give in to the cant that treats evil as culture and fundamentalism as faith.

Of course this is hard. But there is no other way. And in this struggle the fate of our civilization lies.

(Photo: British muslims Maajid Nawaz (L) and Ian Nisbet, embrace after addressing a news conference in London, 03 March 2006. The two men and a third man Reza Pankhurst, arrived back in London on Wednesday after being released nearly four years after being arrested in Egypt. The three men, all in their late 20s, had been arrested in Egypt on charges of alleged membership of the Islamic fundamentalist group 'Hizb ut-Tahrir,' (Liberation Party) which was banned by the Egyptian government in 1974. By John D McHugh/AFP/Getty.)