Manwar Ali: Inside the mind of a former radical jihadist

Today I stand before you as a man who lives life to the full in the here and now. But for a long time, I lived for death.

I was a young man who believed that jihad is to be understood in the language of force and violence. I tried to right wrongs through power and aggression. I had deep concerns for the suffering of others and a strong desire to help and bring relief to them. I thought violent jihad was noble, chivalrous and the best way to help.

At a time when so many of our people -- young people especially -- are at risk of radicalization through groups like al-Qaeda, Islamic State and others, when these groups are claiming that their horrific brutality and violence are true jihad, I want to say that their idea of jihad is wrong -- completely wrong -- as was mine, then.

Jihad means to strive to one's utmost. It includes exertion and spirituality, self-purification and devotion. It refers to positive transformation through learning, wisdom and remembrance of God. The word jihad stands for all those meanings as a whole. Jihad may at times take the form of fighting, but only sometimes, under strict conditions, within rules and limits.

In Islam, the benefit of an act must outweigh the harm or hardship it entails. More importantly, the verses in the Koran that are connected to jihad or fighting do not cancel out the verses that talk about forgiveness, benevolence or patience.

But now I believe that there are no circumstances on earth where violent jihad is permissible, because it will lead to greater harm. But now the idea of jihad has been hijacked. It has been perverted to mean violent struggle wherever Muslims are undergoing difficulties, and turned into terrorism by fascistic Islamists like al-Qaeda, Islamic State and others. But I have come to understand that true jihad means striving to the utmost to strengthen and live those qualities which God loves: honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, benevolence, reliability, respect, truthfulness -- human values that so many of us share.

I was born in Bangladesh, but grew up mostly in England. And I went to school here. My father was an academic, and we were in the UK through his work.

In 1971 we were in Bangladesh when everything changed. The War of Independence impacted upon us terribly, pitting family against family, neighbor against neighbor. And at the age of 12 I experienced war, destitution in my family, the deaths of 22 of my relatives in horrible ways, as well as the murder of my elder brother. I witnessed killing ... animals feeding on corpses in the streets, starvation all around me, wanton, horrific violence -- senseless violence. I was a young man, teenager, fascinated by ideas. I wanted to learn, but I could not go to school for four years.

After the War of Independence, my father was put in prison for two and a half years, and I used to visit him every week in prison, and homeschooled myself. My father was released in 1973 and he fled to England as a refugee, and we soon followed him. I was 17.

So these experiences gave me a sharp awareness of the atrocities and injustices in the world. And I had a strong desire -- a very keen, deep desire -- to right wrongs and help the victims of oppression.

While studying at college in the UK, I met others who showed me how I could channel that desire and help through my religion. And I was radicalized -- enough to consider violence correct, even a virtue under certain circumstances.

So I became involved in the jihad in Afghanistan. I wanted to protect the Muslim Afghan population against the Soviet army. And I thought that was jihad: my sacred duty, which would be rewarded by God.

I became a preacher. I was one of the pioneers of violent jihad in the UK. I recruited, I raised funds, I trained. I confused true jihad with this perversion as presented by the fascist Islamists -- these people who use the idea of jihad to justify their lust for power, authority and control on earth: a perversion perpetuated today by fascist Islamist groups like al-Qaeda, Islamic State and others.

For a period of around 15 years, I fought for short periods of time in Kashmir and Burma, besides Afghanistan. Our aim was to remove the invaders, to bring relief to the oppressed victims and of course to establish an Islamic state, a caliphate for God's rule. And I did this openly. I didn't break any laws. I was proud and grateful to be British -- I still am. And I bore no hostility against this, my country, nor enmity towards the non-Muslim citizens, and I still don't.

During one battle in Afghanistan, some British men and I formed a special bond with a 15-year-old Afghani boy, Abdullah, an innocent, loving and lovable kid who was always eager to please. He was poor. And boys like him did menial tasks in the camp. And he seemed happy enough, but I couldn't help wonder -- his parents must have missed him dearly. And they must have dreamt about a better future for him. A victim of circumstance caught up in a war, cruelly thrust upon him by the cruel circumstances of the time.

One day I picked up this unexploded mortar shell in a trench, and I had it deposited in a makeshift mud hut lab. And I went out on a short, pointless skirmish -- always pointless, And I came back a few hours later to discover he was dead. He had tried to recover explosives from that shell. It exploded, and he died a violent death, blown to bits by the very same device that had proved harmless to me. So I started to question. How did his death serve any purpose? Why did he die and I lived?

I carried on. I fought in Kashmir. I also recruited for the Philippines, Bosnia and Chechnya. And the questions grew.

Later in Burma, I came across Rohingya fighters, who were barely teenagers, born and brought up in the jungle, carrying machine guns and grenade launchers. I met two 13-year-olds with soft manners and gentle voices. Looking at me, they begged me to take them away to England. They simply wanted to go to school -- that was their dream. My family -- my children of the same age -- were living at home in the UK, going to school, living a safe life. And I couldn't help wonder how much these young boys must have spoken to one another about their dreams for such a life. Victims of circumstances: these two young boys, sleeping rough on the ground, looking up at the stars, cynically exploited by their leaders for their personal lust for glory and power.

I soon witnessed boys like them killing one another in conflicts between rival groups. And it was the same everywhere ... Afghanistan, Kashmir, Burma, Philippines, Chechnya; petty warlords got the young and vulnerable to kill one another in the name of jihad. Muslims against Muslims. Not protecting anyone against invaders or occupiers; not bringing relief to the oppressed. Children being used, cynically exploited; people dying in conflicts which I was supporting in the name of jihad. And it still carries on today.

Realizing that the violent jihad I had engaged in abroad was so different -- such a chasm between what I had experienced and what I thought was sacred duty -- I had to reflect on my activities here in the UK. I had to consider my preaching, recruiting, fund-raising, training, but most importantly, radicalizing -- sending young people to fight and die as I was doing -- all totally wrong.

So I got involved in violent jihad in the mid '80s, starting with Afghanistan. And by the time I finished it was in the year 2000. I was completely immersed in it. All around me people supported, applauded, even celebrated what we were doing in their name. But by the time I learned to get out, completely disillusioned in the year 2000, 15 years had passed.

So what goes wrong? We were so busy talking about virtue, and we were blinded by a cause. And we did not give ourselves a chance to develop a virtuous character. We told ourselves we were fighting for the oppressed, but these were unwinnable wars. We became the very instrument through which more deaths occurred, complicit in causing further misery for the selfish benefit of the cruel few.

So over time, a very long time, I opened my eyes. I began to dare to face the truth, to think, to face the hard questions. I got in touch with my soul.

What have I learned? That people who engage in violent jihadism, that people who are drawn to these types of extremisms, are not that different to everyone else. But I believe such people can change. They can regain their hearts and restore them by filling them with human values that heal.

When we ignore the realities, we discover that we accept what we are told without critical reflection. And we ignore the gifts and advantages that many of us would cherish even for a single moment in their lives. I engaged in actions I thought were correct. But now I began to question how I knew what I knew. I endlessly told others to accept the truth, but I failed to give doubt its rightful place.

This conviction that people can change is rooted in my experience, my own journey. Through wide reading, reflecting, contemplation, self-knowledge, I discovered, I realized that Islamists' world of us and them is false and unjust. Through considering the uncertainties in all that we had asserted, to the inviolable truths, incontestable truths, I developed a more nuanced understanding.
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I realized that in a world crowded with variation and contradiction, foolish preachers, only foolish preachers like I used to be, see no paradox in the myths and fictions they use to assert authenticity. So I understood the vital importance of self-knowledge, political awareness and the necessity for a deep and wide understanding of our commitments and our actions, how they affect others.

So my plea today to everyone, especially those who sincerely believe in Islamist jihadism ... refuse dogmatic authority; let go of anger, hatred and violence; learn to right wrongs without even attempting to justify cruel, unjust and futile behavior. Instead create a few beautiful and useful things that outlive us. Approach the world, life, with love. Learn to develop or cultivate your hearts to see goodness, beauty and truth in others and in the world. That way we do matter more to ourselves ... to each other, to our communities and, for me, to God. This is jihad -- my true jihad.

Thank you.