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TEDGlobal 2011

Maajid Nawaz: A global culture to fight extremism

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Why do transnational extremist organizations succeed where democratic movements have a harder time taking hold? Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist extremist, asks for new grassroots stories and global social activism to spread democracy in the face of nationalism and xenophobia.

- Anti-extremism activist
Maajid Nawaz works to promote conversation, tolerance and democracy in Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Full bio

Have you ever wondered
00:15
why extremism seems to have been on the rise in Muslim-majority countries
00:17
over the course of the last decade?
00:20
Have you ever wondered
00:23
how such a situation can be turned around?
00:25
Have you ever looked at the Arab uprisings
00:27
and thought, "How could we have predicted that?"
00:29
or "How could we have better prepared for that?"
00:31
Well my personal story, my personal journey,
00:34
what brings me to the TED stage here today,
00:37
is a demonstration of exactly what's been happening
00:39
in Muslim-majority countries
00:41
over the course of the last decades, at least, and beyond.
00:43
I want to share some of that story with you,
00:46
but also some of my ideas around change
00:48
and the role of social movements in creating change
00:51
in Muslim-majority societies.
00:54
So let me begin
00:56
by first of all giving a very, very brief history of time,
00:58
if I may indulge.
01:01
In medieval societies there were defined allegiances.
01:03
An identity was defined
01:06
primarily by religion.
01:08
And then we moved on into an era in the 19th century
01:10
with the rise of a European nation-state
01:13
where identities and allegiances were defined
01:16
by ethnicity.
01:18
So identity was primarily defined by ethnicity,
01:20
and the nation-state reflected that.
01:22
In the age of globalization, we moved on.
01:24
I call it the era of citizenship --
01:27
where people could be from multi-racial, multi-ethnic backgrounds,
01:30
but all be equal as citizens
01:33
in a state.
01:35
You could be American-Italian; you could be American-Irish;
01:37
you could be British-Pakistani.
01:40
But I believe now
01:42
that we're moving into a new age,
01:44
and that age The New York Times dubbed recently
01:46
as "the age of behavior."
01:48
How I define the age of behavior
01:51
is a period of transnational allegiances,
01:53
where identity is defined more so
01:56
by ideas and narratives.
01:58
And these ideas and narratives that bump people across borders
02:00
are increasingly beginning to affect
02:03
the way in which people behave.
02:05
Now this is not all necessarily good news,
02:08
because it's also my belief
02:11
that hatred has gone global
02:13
just as much as love.
02:15
But actually it's my belief
02:19
that the people who've been truly capitalizing on this age of behavior,
02:21
up until now, up until recent times,
02:24
up until the last six months,
02:26
the people who have been capitalizing most
02:28
on the age of behavior
02:30
and the transnational allegiances,
02:32
using digital activism
02:34
and other sorts of borderless technologies,
02:36
those who've been benefiting from this
02:38
have been extremists.
02:40
And that's something which I'd like to elaborate on.
02:44
If we look at Islamists,
02:47
if we look at the phenomenon
02:49
of far-right fascists,
02:51
one thing they've been very good at,
02:54
one thing that they've actually been exceeding in,
02:56
is communicating across borders,
02:58
using technologies to organize themselves,
03:00
to propagate their message
03:02
and to create truly global phenomena.
03:05
Now I should know,
03:08
because for 13 years of my life,
03:10
I was involved in an extreme Islamist organization.
03:12
And I was actually a potent force
03:16
in spreading ideas across borders,
03:18
and I witnessed the rise of Islamist extremism
03:20
as distinct from Islam the faith,
03:23
and the way in which it influenced my co-religionists
03:26
across the world.
03:28
And my story, my personal story,
03:30
is truly evidence for the age of behavior
03:32
that I'm attempting to elaborate upon here.
03:34
I was, by the way -- I'm an Essex lad,
03:37
born and raised in Essex in the U.K.
03:39
Anyone who's from England
03:41
knows the reputation we have from Essex.
03:43
But having been born in Essex,
03:45
at the age of 16,
03:47
I joined an organization.
03:49
At the age of 17, I was recruiting people from Cambridge University
03:51
to this organization.
03:54
At the age of 19,
03:56
I was on the national leadership of this organization in the U.K.
03:58
At the age of 21, I was co-founding this organization in Pakistan.
04:01
At the age of 22,
04:04
I was co-founding this organization in Denmark.
04:06
By the age of 24,
04:08
I found myself convicted in prison in Egypt,
04:10
being blacklisted from three countries in the world
04:13
for attempting to overthrow their governments,
04:16
being subjected to torture
04:19
in Egyptian jails
04:21
and sentenced to five years as a prisoner of conscience.
04:23
Now that journey,
04:26
and what took me from Essex all the way across the world --
04:28
by the way, we were laughing at democratic activists.
04:31
We felt they were from the age of yesteryear.
04:34
We felt that they were out of date.
04:36
I learned how to use email
04:38
from the extremist organization that I used.
04:41
I learned how to effectively communicate across borders
04:44
without being detected.
04:46
Eventually I was detected, of course, in Egypt.
04:48
But the way in which I learned
04:51
to use technology to my advantage
04:53
was because I was within an extremist organization
04:55
that was forced to think beyond
04:58
the confines of the nation-state.
05:00
The age of behavior: where ideas and narratives
05:02
were increasingly defining behavior
05:04
and identity and allegiances.
05:07
So as I said, we looked to the status quo
05:09
and ridiculed it.
05:12
And it's not just Islamist extremists that did this.
05:14
But even if you look across
05:16
the mood music in Europe of late,
05:18
far-right fascism is also on the rise.
05:20
A form of anti-Islam rhetoric
05:22
is also on the rise
05:24
and it's transnational.
05:26
And the consequences that this is having
05:28
is that it's affecting the political climate
05:31
across Europe.
05:34
What's actually happening
05:36
is that what were previously localized parochialisms,
05:38
individual or groupings of extremists
05:41
who were isolated from one another,
05:44
have become interconnected in a globalized way
05:46
and have thus become, or are becoming, mainstream.
05:49
Because the Internet and connection technologies
05:52
are connecting them across the world.
05:55
If you look at the rise of far-right fascism across Europe of late,
05:58
you will see some things that are happening
06:01
that are influencing domestic politics,
06:03
yet the phenomenon is transnational.
06:05
In certain countries, mosque minarets are being banned.
06:08
In others, headscarves are being banned.
06:10
In others, kosher and halal meat are being banned,
06:12
as we speak.
06:14
And on the flip side,
06:16
we have transnational Islamist extremists
06:18
doing the same thing across their own societies.
06:21
And so they are pockets of parochialism that are being connected
06:24
in a way that makes them feel like they are mainstream.
06:27
Now that never would have been possible before.
06:30
They would have felt isolated,
06:32
until these sorts of technologies came around
06:34
and connected them in a way
06:36
that made them feel part of a larger phenomenon.
06:38
Where does that leave democracy aspirants?
06:40
Well I believe they're getting left far behind.
06:43
And I'll give you an example here at this stage.
06:46
If any of you remembers the Christmas Day bomb plot:
06:49
there's a man called Anwar al-Awlaki.
06:52
As an American citizen, ethnically a Yemeni,
06:55
in hiding currently in Yemen,
06:57
who inspired a Nigerian,
06:59
son of the head of Nigeria's national bank.
07:01
This Nigerian student studied in London, trained in Yemen,
07:03
boarded a flight in Amsterdam to attack America.
07:06
In the meanwhile,
07:09
the Old mentality with a capital O,
07:11
was represented by his father, the head of the Nigerian bank,
07:13
warning the CIA that his own son was about to attack,
07:16
and this warning fell on deaf ears.
07:19
The Old mentality with a capital O,
07:21
as represented by the nation-state,
07:24
not yet fully into the age of behavior,
07:26
not recognizing the power of transnational social movements,
07:28
got left behind.
07:31
And the Christmas Day bomber almost succeeded
07:33
in attacking the United States of America.
07:35
Again with the example of the far right:
07:39
that we find, ironically,
07:42
xenophobic nationalists
07:44
are utilizing the benefits of globalization.
07:49
So why are they succeeding?
07:52
And why are democracy aspirants falling behind?
07:54
Well we need to understand the power of the social movements who understand this.
07:57
And a social movement is comprised, in my view,
08:00
it's comprised of four main characteristics.
08:03
It's comprised of ideas and narratives
08:05
and symbols and leaders.
08:07
I'll talk you through one example,
08:09
and that's the example that everyone here will be aware of,
08:11
and that's the example of Al-Qaeda.
08:14
If I asked you to think of the ideas of Al-Qaeda,
08:17
that's something that comes to your mind immediately.
08:19
If I ask you to think of their narratives --
08:21
the West being at war with Islam, the need to defend Islam against the West --
08:23
these narratives, they come to your mind immediately.
08:26
Incidentally, the difference between ideas and narratives:
08:29
the idea is the cause that one believes in;
08:32
and the narrative is the way to sell that cause --
08:35
the propaganda, if you like, of the cause.
08:38
So the ideas and the narratives of Al-Qaeda come to your mind immediately.
08:41
If I ask you to think of their symbols and their leaders,
08:44
they come to your mind immediately.
08:46
One of their leaders was killed in Pakistan recently.
08:48
So these symbols and these leaders
08:50
come to your mind immediately.
08:52
And that's the power of social movements.
08:54
They're transnational, and they bond around these ideas and narratives
08:56
and these symbols and these leaders.
08:59
However,
09:02
if I ask your minds to focus currently on Pakistan,
09:04
and I ask you to think
09:07
of the symbols and the leaders for democracy
09:10
in Pakistan today,
09:12
you'll be hard pressed
09:14
to think beyond perhaps
09:16
the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
09:18
Which means, by definition,
09:20
that particular leader no longer exists.
09:22
One of the problems we're facing is, in my view,
09:25
that there are no globalized,
09:28
youth-led, grassroots social movements
09:30
advocating for democratic culture
09:33
across Muslim-majority societies.
09:35
There is no equivalent of the Al-Qaeda, without the terrorism,
09:37
for democracy across Muslim-majority societies.
09:40
There are no ideas and narratives and leaders and symbols
09:43
advocating the democratic culture on the ground.
09:46
So that begs the next question.
09:50
Why is it that extremist organizations,
09:53
whether of the far-right or of the Islamist extremism --
09:56
Islamism meaning those who wish to impose
09:59
one version of Islam over the rest of society --
10:01
why is it that they are succeeding
10:03
in organizing in a globalized way,
10:05
whereas those who aspire to democratic culture
10:07
are falling behind?
10:09
And I believe that's for four reasons.
10:11
I believe, number one, it's complacency.
10:14
Because those who aspire to democratic culture
10:17
are in power,
10:19
or have societies
10:21
that are leading globalized, powerful societies,
10:23
powerful countries.
10:25
And that level of complacency means
10:27
they don't feel the need to advocate for that culture.
10:29
The second, I believe,
10:32
is political correctness.
10:34
That we have a hesitation
10:38
in espousing the universality of democratic culture
10:41
because we are associating that --
10:44
we associate believing in the universality of our values --
10:46
with extremists.
10:49
Yet actually, whenever we talk about human rights,
10:51
we do say that human rights are universal.
10:53
But actually going out to propagate that view
10:57
is associated with either neoconservativism
10:59
or with Islamist extremism.
11:02
To go around saying that I believe
11:04
democratic culture is the best that we've arrived at
11:06
as a form of political organizing
11:09
is associated with extremism.
11:12
And the third,
11:14
democratic choice in Muslim-majority societies
11:16
has been relegated to a political choice,
11:18
meaning political parties
11:21
in many of these societies
11:24
ask people to vote for them
11:28
as the democratic party,
11:30
but then the other parties ask them to vote for them
11:32
as the military party --
11:34
wanting to rule by military dictatorship.
11:36
And then you have a third party saying,
11:38
"Vote for us; we'll establish a theocracy."
11:40
So democracy has become merely one political choice
11:42
among many other forms
11:45
of political choices available in those societies.
11:47
And what happens as a result of this
11:50
is, when those parties are elected,
11:52
and inevitably they fail,
11:54
or inevitably they make political mistakes,
11:56
democracy takes the blame
11:58
for their political mistakes.
12:00
And then people say, "We've tried democracy. It doesn't really work.
12:02
Let's bring the military back again."
12:05
And the fourth reason, I believe,
12:07
is what I've labeled here on the slide as the ideology of resistance.
12:09
What I mean by that is,
12:12
if the world superpower today was a communist,
12:14
it would be much easier for democracy activists
12:16
to use democracy activism
12:18
as a form of resistance against colonialism,
12:20
than it is today with the world superpower being America,
12:22
occupying certain lands
12:25
and also espousing democratic ideals.
12:27
So roughly these four reasons
12:29
make it a lot more difficult for democratic culture to spread
12:31
as a civilizational choice,
12:34
not merely as a political choice.
12:36
When talking about those reasons,
12:39
let's break down certain preconceptions.
12:41
Is it just about grievances?
12:43
Is it just about a lack of education?
12:45
Well statistically,
12:48
the majority of those who join extremist organizations are highly educated.
12:50
Statistically, they are educated, on average,
12:53
above the education levels
12:55
of Western society.
12:57
Anecdotally, we can demonstrate
12:59
that if poverty was the only factor,
13:01
well Bin Laden is from one of the richest families in Saudi Arabia.
13:03
His deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a pediatrician --
13:06
not an ill-educated man.
13:09
International aid and development has been going on for years,
13:11
but extremism in those societies, in many of those societies,
13:14
has been on the rise.
13:16
And what I believe is missing
13:18
is genuine grassroots activism
13:20
on the ground,
13:22
in addition to international aid,
13:24
in addition to education, in addition to health.
13:26
Not exclusive to these things, but in addition to them,
13:29
is propagating a genuine demand for democracy on the ground.
13:32
And this is where I believe
13:35
neoconservatism had it upside-down.
13:37
Neoconservatism had the philosophy
13:39
that you go in with a supply-led approach
13:41
to impose democratic values from the top down.
13:44
Whereas Islamists and far-right organizations, for decades,
13:47
have been building demand for their ideology on the grassroots.
13:50
They've been building civilizational demand for their values
13:53
on the grassroots,
13:55
and we've been seeing those societies slowly transition
13:57
to societies that are increasingly asking for
14:00
a form of Islamism.
14:03
Mass movements in Pakistan
14:05
have been represented after the Arab uprisings
14:07
mainly by organizations
14:09
claiming for some form of theocracy,
14:11
rather than for a democratic uprising.
14:13
Because since pre-partition,
14:15
they've been building demand for their ideology on the ground.
14:17
And what's needed is a genuine transnational
14:20
youth-led movement
14:22
that works to actively advocate
14:24
for the democratic culture --
14:26
which is necessarily more
14:28
than just elections.
14:30
But without freedom of speech, you can't have free and fair elections.
14:32
Without human rights, you don't have the protection granted to you to campaign.
14:35
Without freedom of belief,
14:38
you don't have the right to join organizations.
14:40
So what's needed is those organizations on the ground
14:42
advocating for the democratic culture itself
14:44
to create the demand on the ground for this culture.
14:49
What that will do
14:53
is avoid the problem I was talking about earlier,
14:55
where currently we have political parties presenting democracy
14:58
as merely a political choice in those societies
15:01
alongside other choices
15:04
such as military rule and theocracy.
15:06
Whereas if we start building this demand on the ground on a civilizational level,
15:08
rather than merely on a political level,
15:11
a level above politics --
15:13
movements that are not political parties,
15:16
but are rather creating this civilizational demand
15:18
for this democratic culture.
15:20
What we'll have in the end
15:22
is this ideal that you see on the slide here --
15:24
the ideal that people should vote in an existing democracy,
15:26
not for a democracy.
15:30
But to get to that stage,
15:32
where democracy builds the fabric of society
15:34
and the political choices within that fabric,
15:37
but are certainly not theocratic and military dictatorship --
15:39
i.e. you're voting in a democracy,
15:44
in an existing democracy,
15:46
and that democracy is not merely one of the choices at the ballot box.
15:48
To get to that stage,
15:51
we genuinely need to start building demand
15:53
in those societies on the ground.
15:56
Now to conclude, how does that happen?
16:01
Well, Egypt is a good starting point.
16:04
The Arab uprisings have demonstrated that this is already beginning.
16:06
But what happened in the Arab uprisings and what happened in Egypt
16:09
was particularly cathartic for me.
16:12
What happened there was a political coalition
16:15
gathered together for a political goal,
16:18
and that was to remove the leader.
16:20
We need to move one step beyond that now.
16:22
We need to see how we can help those societies
16:24
move from political coalitions,
16:26
loosely based political coalitions,
16:28
to civilizational coalitions
16:30
that are working for the ideals and narratives
16:32
of the democratic culture on the ground.
16:34
Because it's not enough to remove a leader
16:36
or ruler or dictator.
16:38
That doesn't guarantee that what comes next
16:40
will be a society built on democratic values.
16:42
But generally, the trends that start in Egypt
16:46
have historically spread across the MENA region,
16:48
the Middle East and North Africa region.
16:50
So when Arab socialism started in Egypt, it spread across the region.
16:52
In the '80s and '90s when Islamism started in the region,
16:55
it spread across the MENA region as a whole.
16:58
And the aspiration that we have at the moment --
17:01
as young Arabs are proving today
17:03
and instantly rebranding themselves
17:05
as being prepared to die for more than just terrorism --
17:07
is that there is a chance
17:10
that democratic culture can start in the region
17:13
and spread across to the rest of the countries that are surrounding that.
17:15
But that will require
17:17
helping these societies transition
17:19
from having merely political coalitions
17:21
to building genuinely grassroots-based social movements
17:23
that advocate for the democratic culture.
17:26
And we've made a start for that in Pakistan
17:28
with a movement called Khudi,
17:31
where we are working on the ground to encourage the youth
17:33
to create genuine buy-in for the democratic culture.
17:36
And it's with that thought that I'll end.
17:39
And my time is up, and thank you for your time.
17:41
(Applause)
17:43

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About the speaker:

Maajid Nawaz - Anti-extremism activist
Maajid Nawaz works to promote conversation, tolerance and democracy in Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Why you should listen

As a teenager, British-born Maajid Nawaz was recruited to the global Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose goal, broadly put, is to unite all Muslim countries into one caliphate ruled by Islamic law. He spent more than a decade there, rising into its leadership, until he was sentenced to four years in an Egyptian prison for belonging to the group. But he left prison feeling that Hizb ut-Tahrir was hijacking Islam for political purposes and that its aims were dangerously similar to the aims of fascism. While remaining a Muslim, he was no longer an Islamist.

His goal now is to help Muslims in the West engage in their current political frameworks, while encouraging non-Western Muslims to work for a democratic culture that values peace and women’s rights. In the UK, he co-founded Quilliam, a think-tank that engages in “counter-Islamist thought-generating” -- looking for new narratives of citizenship, identity and belonging in a globalized world.

He says: "I can now say that the more I learnt about Islam, the more tolerant I became."

More profile about the speaker
Maajid Nawaz | Speaker | TED.com