Reading Radical

I’m reading Maajid Nawaz’s book Radical. It’s intensely interesting, and (not surprisingly) disturbing.

One thing about it that’s slightly odd is that so far, at least (Part One), he describes a totally male world and discusses it from a completely male point of view. Women just aren’t there, nor are girls in his childhood. He mentions women only as consumer items, things to “chase.”

Sometimes their absence is really surprising. For instance there’s a part where he writes about his older brother Osman’s shift to Islamism. It includes one of those offhand mentions of women as things –

Osman started going with Nasim to his talks and study circles, and pretty soon became a changed person. Everything we’d been doing together – going to clubs, chasing women – was now anathema to him. [p 48]

– and then there’s discussion of the fact that until then the brothers had sided more with their mother “and taken advantage of her more liberal views” but now Osman was sharing their father’s interest in Islam. He thought the sons were becoming traditional Muslims, and was pleased…

…and that led, inevitably, to a change of mood in the household: the balance of power, as it were, had started to shift. You could see it in Abi’s reaction. She didn’t know how to respond to Osman’s criticism of her behavior. Later on, when I joined him, she would become even more isolated. [pp 48-9]

And that’s all; in the next paragraph he moves on. He hadn’t mentioned “Osman’s criticism of her behavior” before and doesn’t go on to say more about it, and I want to know more. What behavior? And how did Osman go about criticizing it? I can imagine all too easily, but I don’t want to imagine, I want to know. It seems like a very important point, to me, but Maajid does nothing with it.

Then an even more striking example, at the end of Part One when he is discussing Hizb al-Tahrir’s idea of “the Khilafah,” the Caliphate.

It would sweep across all national boundaries; HT’s version of Islam would be the ruling philosophy. Apostates, adulterers, and minorities considered abhorrent, like homosexuals, would suffer the death sentence. Criminality would be met with rough justice; thieves would have their hands cut off. Rights such as free speech would be curtailed, because “God’s law” must trump all. [p 61]

And that’s the end of that topic. Notice anything missing? Yeah. Not a word about women; nothing for instance about how differently “adulterers” who are women are treated compared to men. Nothing about child marriage or having to “cover” or being confined to home, nothing about polygamy or unequal inheritance or domestic violence.

It’s an uncomfortable read in this way. I hope he knows a lot more women now.


  1. Dave Ricks says

    The US Constitution fascinates me in the 15th amendment: “The right… to vote shall not be denied or abridged… on account of race,” with no mention of men or women.

    Implicitly those words applied to men but not women, then women got the right to vote explicitly 50 years later in the 19th amendment.

  2. Omar Puhleez says

    The Caliphate sounds to me like the ultimate nightmare society. The Koran thus becomes the original bible of Orwellian totalitarianism.

  3. S Mukherjee says

    Words are failing me a bit at the moment, so all I’ll say is that I understand you perfectly, Ophelia. I have the same sensation when I read so many essays and stories — do women not exist as human beings or people in this writer’s mind?

  4. Gordon Willis says

    do women not exist as human beings or people in this writer’s mind?

    If I may take this question as more generally applicable, I think that the answer is: in principle they do (and I can already hear cries of outrage and offence that anyone could ever get a different impression), and in actual fact they don’t! (and I can already hear…). I say in actual fact and not in practice because I think that the former is more nearly true (tumult and riot). I just said somewhere that for women to gain equal rights, religion must be defeated. But then I thought that religion will be quite easily defeated if we men are defeated first. But secularism must fight on all fronts. I surrender, by the way!

  5. says

    It improves a little as he moves on in time. I’m not sure if in the first section he’s just describing it as he remembers it, or if he consciously decided to portray it as all-male because that was part of what was wrong with it.

    There’s a place much later (I’ve done some jumping ahead along with reading sequentially) where he does make the point about women being stoned to death for adultery. I think that whether it’s intentional or not he’s portraying a split between his young self and his more liberal self as he added years and experience.

    Sequentially, there is a bit where his mother plays a bigger part – by staying up all night fighting with him about going to grammar school in Southend instead of another Islamism-filled college in London, and finally convinces him.

    He tells a gripping story. Do not miss this book.

  6. Gordon Willis says

    Just the urge to consolidate power, get the best possible approval for whatever I happen to want. I think we started out as mere animals and religion helps us to justify holding onto some of that past. It may have had some good things at the time, but it certainly involves a lot of power-seeking, and the religions I know anything about seem to be inventions of men, fought over by men, and governed by men, with little regard for women as actually real, and not so much no regard for their equal rights as denial of the very idea of rights, especially in respect of women.

  7. Omar Puhleez says

    Gordon @#8:

    A good and thoughtful post.

    However, disagree where you say: “I think we started out as mere animals and religion helps us to justify holding onto some of that past. ”
    Some religions may acknowledge a continuity between us humans and the rest of the world of animals, but the Abrahamics to my knowledge at first would have none of it, and subsequently (and only grdgingly) approved only bits of it. When Darwin put that idea forward in 1859, he united all the sects of Protestantism, as well as the Catholics, and as far as I know the Muslims and Jews into one huge chorus of disapproval and condemnation.
    It was quite a feat on his part.
    The ‘humanisation’ of animals, as was done by Kipling, Disney etc, I think helps young people to see them as kindred spirits, and not merely as put there by God for Man to use as he sees fit. Logically, and doctrinally, Baloo the bear and Donald Duck should invite denunciation from every pulpit around, but the preachers are obviously reluctant to do that.

  8. Gordon Willis says

    Omar, thanks. I was not referring to religious views of human evolution. All I meant was that I imagine religion and culture growing out of the murky fears and social dispositions that must have been part of our animal past. These ancient fears and habits have simply persisted, gradually changing — at least to our conscious minds — as more rational thought and wonder goes into the question of who we are and where we are and what we are, but continuing alive and well in our basic instincts. Religion makes these fears visible, which was a good thing once, but because it is designed to protect us by appeasing the mysterious powers we once feared and could not understand it endorses them and builds and refines on them, and therefore cannot free us from them. It even actively tries to prevent us from becoming free of them, as a result of the irrational fears that it perpetuates.

  9. says

    Your comments are very acute. As you say in your follow up, his mother does figure more later. she is fascinating and I finished the book feeling very eager to meet her. But overall, there is virtually nothing about women.

    Maajid’s family life is reminder that any family or individual can embrace extremist ideologies. His family were not fundamentalists and his mother, seems to have been a free thinker, reading Rushdie, having an open mind and a typical liberal, educated Muslim woman. She would fit, I imagine, easily into the family circles of so many people I know.

    I don’t think this is so much about displaying a male world, as keeping the book a racy, readable thriller format with very little that is separately analytical. At least that is how I remember it. And I’m afraid that does say a lot about the book. stuff on women is not a ‘sexy’ part of the narrative.

    There are other things that are problematic about the book, but I agree it is an immensely good read.

  10. sacharissa says

    I haven’t read it but it sounds like an interesting contrast with Ed Husain’s “The Islamist”. Husain says that attitudes to women were what made him doubt Islamism because he was close to his mother and sisters. It was meeting the woman who became his wife that made him distance himself from Islamism and later on he discusses the negative effect their time in Saudi Arabia had on his wife.

  11. says

    This reminds me of an anecdote related by a feminist Jewish woman. As I recall it, she was reading the words of a highly Orthodox rabbi, who wrote that all Jews were required to do a certain ritual–a ritual that was normally restricted to being performed by men.

    At first, she was delighted that the rabbi was so inclusive. Upon further reading, however, she realized the rabbi had forgotten that women existed!

  12. Silentbob says

    @ 2 Omar Puhleez

    The Caliphate sounds to me like the ultimate nightmare society. The Koran thus becomes the original bible of Orwellian totalitarianism.

    Nonsense. The Torah predates the Koran by more than a thousand years and includes all the horrible stuff like death for adultery, and homosexuality, marrying rape victims off to their rapist, “an eye for an eye”, treating menstruating women as unclean, massacres of unbelievers, slavery, etc.

    Also, I’ve never read it, but I don’t think the Koran says anything about the Caliphate. I think that idea came about later.

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