Beware The Former Jihadis With Stories To Sell


The Western media loves rolling out reformed ‘moderate’ Muslims, so long as they tell the story we’re already used to hearing, writes Michael Brull.

The West really loves stories of former Muslims, and former Muslim radicals. Their stories are familiar. The woman who was oppressed by Islam, but then took off her veil, embraced Western freedom, and now urges her former fellow Muslims to abandon Islam. The woman who rejected Islamic oppression, and now hopes to reform it, so that it’s better aligned with liberal values which are identified as Western. These stories convey the reassuring message that Islam is backwards and oppressive, the West is terrific, and when it comes to any conflict between Muslims and the West, the answer is to support former Muslims (invariably identified as extremely brave and inspiring) who are challenging Islam.

Former Muslims who challenged both – who were critical of Islam, but also critical of the West – would not tap into this lucrative market. An atheist from a Muslim background who criticised Western colonialism and support for dictators, who opposed Israel and Zionism, but who also was critical of aspects of Islam would not make Westerners feel fuzzy about their superior civilisation. A critique of elements of Islam will not take off, because it’s not reassuring enough. Nuances and expertise are boring.

A handful of former Muslims get plenty of public attention, and constitute most of what Westerners hear from actual Muslims in the media, because they tell the West what it wants to hear. Their stories are more or less the same arguments as those presented by conservative and liberal pundits across the Western world, except they’re from a different vantage point. This vantage point offers the authenticating touch of being from the Muslim world.

Muslims who agree with received wisdom – Islam oppresses women, Muslim leaders need to denounce terrorism, the Muslim community needs to police itself and prove it is opposed to terrorism, and so on – are endorsed by being identified as “moderate” Muslims. They are urged to rein in other Muslims, convince those other Muslims not to be extremist or radical. This often constitutes the entirety of the ideological and political spectrum that Muslims can occupy in Western political discourse. Muslims are either moderate, or they are radical. These are typically measured from the vantage point of Western interests, rather than actual values or ideology. Thus, Saudi Arabia is moderate, but Iran and ISIS are both radical.

Former Muslims are beloved in the West, but former jihadis and former terrorists are regarded as even more impressive. The more lurid the claims about youthful fanaticism, the better. The Western response isn’t that a former fanatic lacks judgment and probably shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is that the regretful convert – now a “moderate” Muslim, in love with the West, eager to prove loyalty to all its values and policies – has deep and profound insights into the “radicalisation process”. Having come out the other side, this psychological insight – rather than being an unreliable and self-serving anecdote – is the key to battling jihadism. Not addressing Muslim grievances, such as by changing Western foreign policy. The problem of jihadism is conceived of as an individual pathology. The problem is internal to Muslim communities, and internal to those who are “radicalised”, which is typically conceived as a type of unexplained brainwashing. The solution is to be formulated on an individual level.

To give an analogy, suppose someone wanted to improve relations between Aboriginal people and the police. One approach would be to consider why Aboriginal people had issues with the police, and try to reform policing and practices and institutions. Another would be to try to understand the bizarre pathologies of individual Aboriginal people that “radicalise” them against police. The latter is more politically palatable, as it shifts the blame entirely onto Aboriginal people.

Likewise with former jihadis, whose stories are satisfyingly flattering to the West. They are too incoherent to be persuasive, and naturally contribute to Western suspicion of Muslims. There is zero evidence they have provided any useful policy recommendations.

It is hard to conceive of any metric by which the policies associated with the War on Terror since 2001 have had any success. No matter, they are persisted with. We continue to support tyrants in the Middle East, and back Israel’s occupation. We have intervened in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iraq, while the US has also bombed Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya. ISIS has carved out its supposed state in Syria and Iraq. The American-backed Saudi invasion of Yemen has devastated the country, and strengthened Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s hand sufficiently for them to be able to create their own mini-state there. We still haven’t left Afghanistan, and Libya is such a catastrophe that the US is considering bombing it to address the rising strength of ISIS. The threat of home-grown jihadi terrorism in the West is probably higher than it has been since 2001.

Yet no policy changes are on the way. We still find Muslims who promise that everything is fine, the West is perfect, it is Muslims who need to change, and they provide the key to understanding the Muslim mind.

The role of former-Muslim and former-Muslim-radical was also played by former-Iraqis – that is, Iraqi exiles who swore that Iraqis were eager for the West to invade their country. One of the most influential was Kanan Makiya. Makiya became the darling of Western intellectuals by writing a book denouncing Arab intellectuals, particularly those who criticised Western foreign policy (singling out Edward Said, and also for some reason Noam Chomsky).

new matilda, Kanan Makiya
Kanan Makiya, right, appearing on CNN.

As the 2003 invasion of Iraq loomed, Makiya promised American President George W Bush, and Vice-President Dick Cheney, that the invaders would be greeted with “sweets and flowers”. As noted by Jordan Michael Smith, reporting for the Boston Globe, Makiya provided a useful voice for “the most hawkish elements of the Bush administration”. He met with the leading figures of the administration, and promised them the war would be a success, and Iraqis would be grateful for it. He “was even more influential in moving liberals and Democrats toward support for an invasion on humanitarian concerns.” For example, the influential writer and former New Republic editor Peter Beinart explained that he supported the invasion “because Kanan Makiya did.”

It became hard to support the war, or admire its advocates, once the war turned into the catastrophe that it did. Yet Makiya continued to peddle the same tripe the West loves. In the 2013 profile, he claimed that “What has happened in Iraq is primarily the fault of Iraqis, not of Americans”. He has since published a novel, presumably to argue this theory at length. Naturally, it has been enthusiastically reviewed, from New York Magazine, to Kirkus Reviews, to co-editor of Dissent Michael Walzer.

The Western sympathy for reformed Muslims and reformed jihadis applies here too. Other than the usual suspects from overseas, there is the case of Zaky Mallah. Before his famous appearance on Q&A, he appeared in Australian media 134 times. 12 times in the ABC, 24 times in Fairfax, and 40 times in News Corp. This was despite his conviction for threatening ASIO staff, lack of expertise or experience in anything relevant, and, as of 2015, enthusiasm for al Qaeda. Despite his enthusiasm for Al Qaeda – Al Qaeda! – former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes continued to defend Mallah, explaining that Mallah denounced “extremism”, was “an outspoken OPPONENT of IS”, and “we need reformed radicals like him.” Naturally, Mallah is presently “on good terms with ASIO and counter-terrorism police”, and meets with them “regularly”. Doubtless, they expect to receive from him the key to understanding radicalisation any day now.

The love affair with reformed radicals continued with Fairfax’s feature on Muslim voices. The first one featured is Aisha Novakovich. Of the various “voices” featured, Aisha’s is highlighted and quoted from in an Age editorial on their series. In her video interview, Aisha explains that when she was 16, she had a picture of Osama Bin Laden on her pin-up board in her bedroom, as she had a massive crush on him. That is, around 2000, she was an al Qaeda enthusiast. She later became an enthusiast for Abdullah Azzam, a theorist of jihad who inspired Osama Bin Laden.

Aisha goes on to discuss counter-terrorism policy, saying that “harder” elements, such as “border patrol”, “military intervention… have their place”. As is customary for former radicals in search of Western patrons. It doesn’t take long for the pitch: there are also “soft approaches” – the personal approach to countering violent extremism. Alas, “we have a lack of funding”.

Within her story, she acknowledges that growing up, her position was isolated. Her family and friends thought she was a “fanatic”, and a visiting friend was appalled by her Osama Bin Laden poster. Still, despite her extreme and unpopular views – perhaps in the phase when she was enthusiastic about Abdullah Azzam – Aisha won a Multicultural Ambassador (Youth) Award. She was by then also the Muslim and Youth representative of the Western Australian State Government’s Anti-Racism Strategy Steering Committee. Perhaps they also expected her to offer deep insights into jihad.

In 2015, the federal government was giving out grants for countering violent extremism programs in secret. The theory was that if these programs were not publicly known to be working for the government, they wouldn’t seem like government propaganda. 95 organisations applied for money, 34 received grants, totalling $1.6 million. This year, the NSW government appears to be vesting $8 million in similar programs.

Is there a need to improve relations between the Australian government and Muslims in Australia? Absolutely. Can government funded community programs contribute to this? Maybe. But a lurid story and former fanaticism are not the same as insight, knowledge or credentials. There are over 1.7 billion Muslims in the world. There are plenty of Muslim voices which are worth listening to. Yet somehow, Western media only ever seems to find space for those who promote the same tedious narratives.

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).