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Manwar Ali: Inside the mind of a former radical jihadist

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"For a long time, I lived for death," says Manwar Ali, a former radical jihadist who participated in violent, armed campaigns in the Middle East and Asia in the 1980s. In this moving talk, he reflects on his experience with radicalization and makes a powerful, direct appeal to anyone drawn to Islamist groups that claim violence and brutality are noble and virtuous: let go of anger and hatred, he says, and instead cultivate your heart to see goodness, beauty and truth in others.

- Peace activist
A former committed pioneer of violent jihad, Manwar Ali draws on his experience and deepening understanding of Islam to prevent radicalisation and extremism. Full bio

Today I stand before you
as a man who lives life to the full
00:12
in the here and now.
00:16
But for a long time,
00:19
I lived for death.
00:20
I was a young man who believed
00:23
that jihad is to be understood
in the language of force and violence.
00:25
I tried to right wrongs
through power and aggression.
00:32
I had deep concerns
for the suffering of others
00:37
and a strong desire
to help and bring relief to them.
00:42
I thought violent jihad was noble,
00:49
chivalrous
00:52
and the best way to help.
00:53
At a time when so many of our people --
00:57
young people especially --
00:59
are at risk of radicalization
01:00
through groups like al-Qaeda,
01:03
Islamic State and others,
01:05
when these groups are claiming
01:07
that their horrific brutality
and violence are true jihad,
01:09
I want to say that their idea
of jihad is wrong --
01:14
completely wrong --
01:18
as was mine, then.
01:20
Jihad means to strive to one's utmost.
01:23
It includes exertion and spirituality,
01:26
self-purification
01:29
and devotion.
01:31
It refers to positive transformation
01:34
through learning, wisdom
and remembrance of God.
01:37
The word jihad stands
for all those meanings as a whole.
01:41
Jihad may at times
take the form of fighting,
01:46
but only sometimes,
01:51
under strict conditions,
01:53
within rules and limits.
01:56
In Islam,
01:59
the benefit of an act must outweigh
the harm or hardship it entails.
02:01
More importantly,
02:07
the verses in the Koran
that are connected to jihad or fighting
02:09
do not cancel out the verses
that talk about forgiveness,
02:13
benevolence
02:19
or patience.
02:20
But now I believe that there are
no circumstances on earth
02:25
where violent jihad is permissible,
02:29
because it will lead to greater harm.
02:32
But now the idea of jihad
has been hijacked.
02:37
It has been perverted
to mean violent struggle
02:40
wherever Muslims
are undergoing difficulties,
02:43
and turned into terrorism
02:46
by fascistic Islamists like al-Qaeda,
02:48
Islamic State and others.
02:51
But I have come to understand
02:54
that true jihad
means striving to the utmost
02:56
to strengthen and live
those qualities which God loves:
03:00
honesty, trustworthiness,
03:04
compassion, benevolence,
03:06
reliability, respect,
03:08
truthfulness --
03:10
human values that so many of us share.
03:12
I was born in Bangladesh,
03:18
but grew up mostly in England.
03:20
And I went to school here.
03:22
My father was an academic,
03:24
and we were in the UK through his work.
03:26
In 1971 we were in Bangladesh
when everything changed.
03:30
The War of Independence
impacted upon us terribly,
03:36
pitting family against family,
03:39
neighbor against neighbor.
03:41
And at the age of 12 I experienced war,
03:43
destitution in my family,
03:46
the deaths of 22
of my relatives in horrible ways,
03:48
as well as the murder of my elder brother.
03:52
I witnessed killing ...
03:59
animals feeding on corpses in the streets,
04:03
starvation all around me,
04:05
wanton, horrific violence --
04:07
senseless violence.
04:09
I was a young man,
04:14
teenager, fascinated by ideas.
04:16
I wanted to learn,
04:19
but I could not go to school
for four years.
04:20
After the War of Independence,
04:24
my father was put in prison
for two and a half years,
04:26
and I used to visit him
every week in prison,
04:29
and homeschooled myself.
04:33
My father was released in 1973
04:36
and he fled to England as a refugee,
04:39
and we soon followed him.
04:42
I was 17.
04:44
So these experiences gave me
04:46
a sharp awareness of the atrocities
and injustices in the world.
04:48
And I had a strong desire --
04:54
a very keen, deep desire --
04:56
to right wrongs
04:58
and help the victims of oppression.
04:59
While studying at college in the UK,
05:02
I met others who showed me
how I could channel that desire
05:04
and help through my religion.
05:10
And I was radicalized --
05:13
enough to consider violence correct,
05:15
even a virtue under certain circumstances.
05:19
So I became involved
in the jihad in Afghanistan.
05:24
I wanted to protect the Muslim Afghan
population against the Soviet army.
05:27
And I thought that was jihad:
05:32
my sacred duty,
05:35
which would be rewarded by God.
05:36
I became a preacher.
05:43
I was one of the pioneers
of violent jihad in the UK.
05:47
I recruited,
05:53
I raised funds, I trained.
05:54
I confused true jihad
05:57
with this perversion
as presented by the fascist Islamists --
05:59
these people who use the idea of jihad
06:05
to justify their lust for power,
authority and control on earth:
06:08
a perversion perpetuated today
by fascist Islamist groups
06:13
like al-Qaeda, Islamic State and others.
06:18
For a period of around 15 years,
06:22
I fought for short periods of time
06:25
in Kashmir and Burma,
06:30
besides Afghanistan.
06:32
Our aim was to remove the invaders,
06:37
to bring relief to the oppressed victims
06:40
and of course to establish
an Islamic state,
06:44
a caliphate for God's rule.
06:48
And I did this openly.
06:50
I didn't break any laws.
06:53
I was proud and grateful to be British --
06:56
I still am.
06:59
And I bore no hostility
against this, my country,
07:01
nor enmity towards
the non-Muslim citizens,
07:05
and I still don't.
07:09
During one battle in Afghanistan,
07:13
some British men and I
formed a special bond
07:16
with a 15-year-old Afghani boy,
07:19
Abdullah,
07:22
an innocent, loving and lovable kid
07:24
who was always eager to please.
07:27
He was poor.
07:30
And boys like him
did menial tasks in the camp.
07:32
And he seemed happy enough,
07:36
but I couldn't help wonder --
07:38
his parents must have missed him dearly.
07:39
And they must have dreamt
about a better future for him.
07:43
A victim of circumstance
caught up in a war,
07:49
cruelly thrust upon him
07:52
by the cruel circumstances of the time.
07:54
One day I picked up this unexploded
mortar shell in a trench,
08:00
and I had it deposited
in a makeshift mud hut lab.
08:06
And I went out on a short,
pointless skirmish --
08:11
always pointless,
08:14
And I came back a few hours later
to discover he was dead.
08:16
He had tried to recover
explosives from that shell.
08:21
It exploded, and he died a violent death,
08:23
blown to bits by the very same device
that had proved harmless to me.
08:27
So I started to question.
08:33
How did his death serve any purpose?
08:36
Why did he die and I lived?
08:42
I carried on.
08:45
I fought in Kashmir.
08:47
I also recruited for the Philippines,
08:48
Bosnia and Chechnya.
08:51
And the questions grew.
08:54
Later in Burma,
08:57
I came across Rohingya fighters,
08:59
who were barely teenagers,
09:02
born and brought up in the jungle,
09:04
carrying machine guns
and grenade launchers.
09:06
I met two 13-year-olds
with soft manners and gentle voices.
09:12
Looking at me,
09:18
they begged me
to take them away to England.
09:20
They simply wanted to go to school --
09:28
that was their dream.
09:31
My family --
09:36
my children of the same age --
09:37
were living at home in the UK,
09:39
going to school,
09:42
living a safe life.
09:43
And I couldn't help wonder
09:45
how much these young boys
must have spoken to one another
09:47
about their dreams for such a life.
09:50
Victims of circumstances:
09:54
these two young boys,
09:58
sleeping rough on the ground,
looking up at the stars,
10:00
cynically exploited by their leaders
10:03
for their personal lust
for glory and power.
10:05
I soon witnessed boys like them
killing one another
10:09
in conflicts between rival groups.
10:13
And it was the same everywhere ...
10:17
Afghanistan, Kashmir, Burma,
10:21
Philippines, Chechnya;
10:23
petty warlords got the young
and vulnerable to kill one another
10:26
in the name of jihad.
10:30
Muslims against Muslims.
10:34
Not protecting anyone
against invaders or occupiers;
10:37
not bringing relief to the oppressed.
10:42
Children being used,
10:46
cynically exploited;
10:47
people dying in conflicts
10:49
which I was supporting
in the name of jihad.
10:51
And it still carries on today.
10:56
Realizing that the violent jihad
11:03
I had engaged in abroad
11:07
was so different --
11:13
such a chasm between
what I had experienced
11:17
and what I thought was sacred duty --
11:22
I had to reflect
on my activities here in the UK.
11:24
I had to consider my preaching,
11:30
recruiting, fund-raising,
11:32
training,
11:33
but most importantly, radicalizing --
11:35
sending young people to fight and die
11:38
as I was doing --
11:40
all totally wrong.
11:42
So I got involved
in violent jihad in the mid '80s,
11:47
starting with Afghanistan.
11:51
And by the time I finished
it was in the year 2000.
11:54
I was completely immersed in it.
11:59
All around me people supported,
12:00
applauded,
12:02
even celebrated what
we were doing in their name.
12:03
But by the time I learned to get out,
12:08
completely disillusioned in the year 2000,
12:10
15 years had passed.
12:12
So what goes wrong?
12:17
We were so busy talking about virtue,
12:20
and we were blinded by a cause.
12:25
And we did not give ourselves a chance
to develop a virtuous character.
12:32
We told ourselves
we were fighting for the oppressed,
12:37
but these were unwinnable wars.
12:41
We became the very instrument
through which more deaths occurred,
12:45
complicit in causing further misery
12:49
for the selfish benefit of the cruel few.
12:53
So over time,
13:04
a very long time,
13:05
I opened my eyes.
13:08
I began to dare
13:11
to face the truth,
13:15
to think,
13:16
to face the hard questions.
13:19
I got in touch with my soul.
13:21
What have I learned?
13:34
That people who engage
in violent jihadism,
13:36
that people who are drawn
to these types of extremisms,
13:42
are not that different to everyone else.
13:46
But I believe such people can change.
13:49
They can regain their hearts
and restore them
13:54
by filling them
with human values that heal.
13:57
When we ignore the realities,
14:07
we discover that we accept what
we are told without critical reflection.
14:09
And we ignore the gifts and advantages
that many of us would cherish
14:17
even for a single moment in their lives.
14:21
I engaged in actions
I thought were correct.
14:28
But now I began to question
how I knew what I knew.
14:33
I endlessly told others
to accept the truth,
14:39
but I failed to give doubt
its rightful place.
14:43
This conviction that people can change
is rooted in my experience,
14:52
my own journey.
14:57
Through wide reading,
15:00
reflecting,
15:02
contemplation, self-knowledge,
15:04
I discovered,
15:06
I realized that Islamists' world
of us and them is false and unjust.
15:07
Through considering the uncertainties
in all that we had asserted,
15:16
to the inviolable truths,
15:21
incontestable truths,
15:23
I developed a more nuanced understanding.
15:26
I realized that in a world crowded
with variation and contradiction,
15:36
foolish preachers,
15:41
only foolish preachers
like I used to be,
15:43
see no paradox in the myths and fictions
they use to assert authenticity.
15:46
So I understood the vital
importance of self-knowledge,
15:53
political awareness
15:57
and the necessity
for a deep and wide understanding
16:00
of our commitments and our actions,
16:04
how they affect others.
16:07
So my plea today to everyone,
16:10
especially those who sincerely
believe in Islamist jihadism ...
16:12
refuse dogmatic authority;
16:18
let go of anger, hatred and violence;
16:22
learn to right wrongs
16:27
without even attempting to justify
cruel, unjust and futile behavior.
16:28
Instead create a few
beautiful and useful things
16:36
that outlive us.
16:40
Approach the world, life,
16:45
with love.
16:47
Learn to develop
16:50
or cultivate your hearts
16:51
to see goodness, beauty and truth
in others and in the world.
16:52
That way we do matter
more to ourselves ...
16:57
to each other,
17:01
to our communities
17:03
and, for me, to God.
17:04
This is jihad --
17:07
my true jihad.
17:08
Thank you.
17:10
(Applause)
17:12

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About the speaker:

Manwar Ali - Peace activist
A former committed pioneer of violent jihad, Manwar Ali draws on his experience and deepening understanding of Islam to prevent radicalisation and extremism.

Why you should listen

Manwar Ali (also known as Abu Muntasir) is one of the few scholars in the UK who has been directly involved in jihad. For around fifteen years he radicalised, recruited, fundraised and fought in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Burma. Now he draws on this experience in his work with the UK's Home Office and Crown Prosecution Service.  

Ali is a Muslim scholar who teaches Islam to restore balance, enhance human values and address issues of extremism through education, social projects, charitable events and open discussion. He works to foster peaceful coexistence through mutual understanding, good-neighborliness and caring engagement.

Ali founded the UK Muslim educational charity JIMAS and pioneered Zakat distribution in the UK. For more than 30 years he has had extensive experience in teaching Islam. He has helped make British Islam relevant and important to life now, preparing many students for life and leading the way in practicing civic engagement as an Imam.

Ali holds a B.Sc. (Hons) and M.Sc. in Computer Science, an MA in Islamic Studies and a Diploma in Arabic.

More profile about the speaker
Manwar Ali | Speaker | TED.com