You probably don’t remember me, but you took me under your wing in the late evening of the day I uttered my testimony of faith. You wanted me to embrace what you now rebuff as Islamism; I wasn’t interested (few of us were, but we were polite enough not to deeply trouble you). I had just embraced the oneness of God. Indeed, I had just acknowledged the existence of God. I had just set out on the road of faith; to you it was all about ideology and neo-imperialism. We were singing from different hymn books, so to speak.
It has been odd reading the various newspaper articles about you over the years. None of us is immune to artistic licence, of course, but few of us manage to make our lives the stuff of legend. While most of us live quite ordinary, mundane lives, you have become Saul of Tarsus. Your Damascene Conversion is celebrated worldwide and repeated ad nauseam by journalists without question (ironically, they have been struck blind by the revelation in place of you).
Few know that in his own account of his conversion in his Epistle to the Galations, Paul (as he then became known) does not mention the Road to Damascus, a blinding light, a vision of Jesus or a group of Apostles. In his own account, when God revealed to him the truth, that he might preach amongst the Gentiles, he conferred with no one and went away into Arabia; three years passed after his return to Damascus before he visited Peter in Jerusalem. You may have reflected on that paradox yourself.
I have read newspaper articles that described you as a jihadi in your former life. Those of us who knew you know this to be absurd. You were compulsively confrontational and aggressively argumentative, but you were insistent that the world would be changed through intellectual disputation alone. Your resolute contention was that the pen was mightier than the sword—or in your case, your never ceasing tongue. In many of those same articles I read that you were also hostile to non-Muslims. Are they having a laugh?
I was a geeky nerd (nothing changes); you were sociable and articulate. You used to play pool in the student common room whenever you visited; you did not discriminate against your opponents. You were the king of fashion, wearing the finest clothes, your hair always sporting the latest look; cleanly shaven, with a cigarette always close to your lips, you were the embodiment of cool.
Perhaps you don’t remember this, but as a non-Muslim I used to accompany you on nights outs to cafes in the more cosmopolitan areas of the city with a group of friends. We would drink black tea and indulge in cancerogenic delights, which would turn our eyeballs from white to pink. Politics were always the topic of conversation, but crucially the ideas came from John Pilger and Noam Chomsky. It mostly washed over me, because my discussions with my socialist friends were the same. Ironically, when I became Muslim I stopped attending those nights out with you because I considered them impious; hardly an endorsement of your supposed Islamic zealotry.
There have been other stories in those articles which sound vaguely true. But vaguely is the operative word. There’s the story about your attempted coup in Pakistan. Perhaps this tale is true, but to me it is just too reminiscent of an earlier event from those pretentious, self-absorbed days of university life. You probably don’t remember this either, but I was one of those easily-bullied chaps you tried to engage in a coup to wrest control of the student Islamic Society. At that time it must have seemed so important and urgent to you; nowadays I just think, how pathetic.
You visited me and my flatmate at our student dwellings one Friday evening, arriving in a bluster of insistence. Something had to be done about the Islamic Society, you said: it was corrupt and unrepresentative of the Muslim student body. Islamic Societies in those days never were and each year a different group of students with sectarian allegiances had to wrest control from the previous custodians. That year the attendants were inspired by Ikhwanul Muslimin, who had seized control from the disogranised Salafis only months earlier.
My flatmate and I were not really convinced that anything needed to be done. Even back then we knew that student politics really were not that big a deal. But you continued to argue with us, for hours on end, insisting that it was our religious duty to do something. And when I say hours, I mean hours. That was your one great talent back then: not to win debates on the merit of your argument, but by talking people into submission. In the end people would just say yes in order to keep you quiet, and we were no different. Finally we conceded: go ahead, do what you want.
I still remember the relief of my flatmate and I when you finally left and we shut the door behind you. We immediately expressed our reservations and shortly afterwards left a message on your voice-mail telling you that we had changed our minds. Did you ever get that message? Who knows. The next I knew about it was when early afternoon one day during the following week the ministry of truth came for me, demanding to know why my name was attached to a petition, pinned to the notice board in the prayer room.
I never got to see the letter in question, but it must have been terribly important because it necessitated that I be pinned to the wall by the insurgent lead of the Islamic Society and questioned for my part in the plot (I gather you two are best mates these days). Now I don’t know if this is how coups normally work, but fortunately for you, you had decided to clear off for the day so were spared the extraordinary emergency meeting of the Islamic Society that was convened, while I was forced to account for your actions, which naturally I was unable to do because you had not bothered to tell us what you had planned.
Looking back at those events now, I can laugh about it and call everyone involved knobs, but at the time I was less amused. My faith was called into question. I was written off as a hypocrite. People snubbed me, rumours were spread. It probably shook me a little. It is laughable now: such drama for something so insignificant. But students, then as now, think themselves so important. Surely you agree. And surely those other failed politicians and celebrity reformers concur too. Or are some still playing those tragically lamentable games?
I left university at the end of that year and we have had the good fortune not to have encountered each other in person since, though of course you were never forgotten. The following year you went abroad to study Arabic as part of your degree, where I gather you very nearly put my close friend’s brother in jeopardy by your insistence on continuing to play your idiotic games in a land where your political party was banned. You were warned by your lecturers to reign in your tongue, but you did not listen (you never did) and were ultimately arrested for belonging to a banned political party. I am glad that my friend’s brother was not as easily-bullied as I was, for the consequences could have been profound.
I am happy that you have now seen the light—and awoken to the danger of the ideas you rudely insisted on forcing on everyone you encountered—but a part of me wishes that you would just grow up. Yes, I said it. I wish you would realise that there is nuance in the world. I wish you would start to act like the middle-aged man you are now, rather than as a still over-excited teenager, over-impressed by his own thoughts.
There has always been an exchange of ideas in our communities. Many have been challenging what is now called Islamism for years. Indeed I remember my friends challenging your Islamism at university, arguing that it had no religious basis. Sometimes your movement was derided as the Socialist Worker Party for Muslims; sometimes you were viewed as a dangerous force. Some three months after I became Muslim, I attended an Islamic conference in west London and witnessed a group of young men thrown out for disseminating those ideas you used to promulgate.
If you truly now believe in the importance of countering those ideas you once thought so convincing and real, something has to change. Your manner appeals to no-one but rabble-rousers. Those at risk of succumbing to today’s equivalent of your younger self—unlistening, argumentative, coercive antagonists—will not be reached by unrepentantly arrogant confrontation.
When we are young, simplistic binary narratives often make perfect sense; there is little our parents or older mentors can say or do to promote a sense of moderation or balance. I am sure you can see where I am going here. Many of us have mellowed as we have grown older. We have read more, and more widely. Ideas we clung to when we were younger often make little sense when we reach middle-age. Our experience of the world has changed us. The Islam that the dawah-man painted for us no longer satisfies us. Pamphlets and newsletters thrust into our hands in years gone by seem weak and risible today.
These days we encounter devastating theses, the implications of which are difficult to grasp. We expose ourselves to notions we would not have been able to accommodate when we were young. Questions occur to us that are difficult to articulate, but we do not announce them to the world as we once did, confident of our brave new paradigm: instead we ponder some more, convincing ourselves to read and learn and reflect further. Part of growing up and moving forward is allowing ourselves to listen to and read from people we have always been warned against, or who we may have shunned in the past.
But growing up is not just about ideas. It is about the way we conduct ourselves: about our manners, about behaving with respect, about listening, being patient, calming down. No doubt the need for work or the desire to sell books demands that we sell ourselves; the desire to be known and be taken seriously naturally create narcissistic mindsets, against our better judgement. If we want influence, we have to make ourselves known. But a boastful nature appeals to no one except the boastful.
Divisive confrontationalism will not win any supporters in the battle of ideas. What if some of your ideas are sound and true? Do you promote them by burning bridges? Do you foster them by causing alienation? Do you convince the vulnerable by antagonising them? Is this the way to win friends and influence them?
Who is your audience now? The easily-bullied, groomed online, who will run away from home in pursuit of delusional utopias? Teenage girls harangued into accepting those not-quite-convincing arguments you used to excel in disseminating? Undergraduate students, newly religious, swayed by arguments about neo-imperialism and the war on Islam? The compassionate but misguided? Or is it the Neo-Conservative think-tank, the book-buying public or the philanthropist foundation? Who are you trying to reach? Who are you trying to convince?
Toxic brands don’t sell ideas. Or, at least, they don’t sell ideas to those who need to hear them. Boards of governance are less interested in ideas than in the bottom line. The tragedy of your apparent mission is that you are actually killing a message that must be heard in our times. Because of you, important ideas are not taken seriously. The medium, if you will, is killing the message.
For years and years, youth workers have been working tirelessly in their communities to counter the message of extremism. Quietly, intellectuals have been working away to delineate pathways to a better future. But your childish game of us and them threatens everything.
Has the time not come to ponder and reflect? To ask where you are going and what you are doing? Perhaps excuses could be made two decades ago when we were young and naive. Perhaps the refusal to listen could be dismissed as late-teenage angst. Perhaps that insistence on shouting others down and silencing them could have been written off as late-onset adolescence. Perhaps our egotistical existence could be attributed to a difficult childhood. Perhaps demanding of others could have been written off as some sort of attention deficit disorder. But we are not children any more.
The world we live in today needs voices of reason, not counter-extremes. Isn’t it time we recognised this fact? Isn’t it time we all just grew up?