I’ve talked before about growing up in a big, diverse town with a large Asian population, and I’ve seen and heard first-hand the kind of racism thrown against anyone non-white by certain groups of people. I grew up being taught about Muslim beliefs, how to question the media and the kind of blind ignorance that has no idea that race and religion aren’t the same thing.
I was instantly intrigued then, by Maajid Nawaz’s book; the true story of a man drawn into radical Islamism who then left and became an activist. I have to admit I went in with high expectations, and sadly the book just didn’t live up to them.
I absolutely loved the start of Radical: hearing about his time in Essex as a youth, being constantly hounded and terrorised and how miserable he was made to feel – I think everyone has probably felt victimised by someone at some stage, so it’s easy to relate to, though I think (and hope) that most readers won’t have been tormented as consistently and relentlessly with such ignorance. Nawaz’s descent into becoming a radical was well done – it was clear how helpless Nawaz felt, how he had no clue at first what he was getting himself into, and how much it meant to him to feel like he’d found his place in the world. Nawaz is very careful to point out that he doesn’t feel his experiences justified his actions, but it’s easy to see how they affected him.
Unfortunately, whilst I loved this part of the book, his move away from radical Islamism was nowhere near as gripping, as understandable, or as relatable. While Nawaz is a brilliant speaker and interviewee, and undeniably has some crucially important things to say, I felt like his explanations for leaving were too superficial. We got such an in-depth, informative look at what led him to radical Islamism, and then by contrast it almost felt like a snap decision. I was left feeling like he said “one day I decided I didn’t believe what I was doing was right anymore…. and here’s all the amazing, important work I did since then”. It’s infuriating, because the first parts of the book are so insightful, and he’s clearly an intelligent man: the way he breaks down ideology, discusses what helps to solidify “us” vs “them” thinking and how that perceived divide can be exploited is all brilliant. His explanations of different views of Islamism from a religious and a political standpoint, from both believers and non-believers, should be absolutely essential ideas for anyone who wants to be less ignorant and more informed. Yet despite all that, his insight into WHY he left and became a campaigner against extremism felt shallow and far too briefly discussed. We see Nawaz take a slow, gradual descent into radical Islamism, where there isn’t really one true moment of decision, but lots of little choices. In comparison, his decision to leave feels immediate and rapid; years of belief changed in a matter of days. I can’t help but feel that more depth exploring what changed his point of view, would make this a far more hopeful, useful book. Now arguably, this is an autobiography, and he shouldn’t have to do that, but ultimately what drew me to the book was this description from the blurb:
Radical is a fascinating and important look into one man’s journey out of extremism and into something else entirely.
Instead, what we got was just a series of events about what he did after leaving, and while that’s very interesting, the writing style is a little bit awkward – not so awkward as to be offputting while I was engrossed, but awkward enough that it became noticeable when the book began to feel like a dry account of all his achievements.
This is a tough book to review, because despite my issues above, I do think he’s got some brilliant points and that the world just might be a little bit of a nicer place if this became compulsory reading. I was absolutely hooked up until the point where he made the decision to leave, but then once it became clear that was all the explanation that was coming, the final section of the book was no longer so addictive, so engrossing, so easy to empathise with. Maybe it’s because I love non-fiction, but don’t read a lot of autobiographies, and so there’s sections of the book that feel almost academic, or like opinion pieces, which are riveting and get you thinking, but then followed up by sections that feel almost like you’re reading “and then I did this great thing….and then I did this other great thing….”. While it’s nice to see the impact one man can make, his experiences mean that his audience is so far removed from what most of the world could ever hope to reach, and so at the same time as you’re inspired by him, it becomes much harder to relate. All in all, I’m glad I read it, and I’d definitely recommend it – but maybe to those who are already autobiography fans.