An Ex-Radical’s Open Letter to ISIS Fighters: Quit Now While You Can!
Maajid Nawaz, a former radical Muslim, understands the faith, the fanaticism and fears of the Islamic State jihadis. Here he speaks to them in their own language.
Dear Western Fighters in Syria and Iraq,
I address these words directly to you Muslims from Western nations who went to Syria to fight that brutal dictator Assad, and now may be feeling like you joined the wrong war.
I reach out to you hoping to be able to bring our countries closer to healing. I understand why you were so moved that you left your secure, comfortable lives to defend the defenseless in a far off land. Some time ago, I too left my comfortable life in Britain to export the idea of building a Khilafah [caliphate]. I went to Pakistan. I went to Denmark. And I went to Egypt. I too was originally moved by a horrific war in Bosnia, where Muslims were being slaughtered in a genocide, and I too wanted nothing but justice, peace and dignity for my religion. I eventually came to understand that there is a better way to achieve those things.
I know what an Arab dictator can do. I feel that same anger you do. Mubarak’s henchmen did the same to us in Egypt. We watched men succumb to their torture wounds and die before our very eyes in prison. We witnessed rape, dishonor and the destruction of families. I still feel that pain every day, eight years after being released.
So I know that you were not moved to emigrate—make hijra—and fight jihad with the aim of spreading corruption, injustice and oppression. Those were the very ills that you wanted to defeat, not help sustain. Your intentions were to answer the call of your brothers and sisters who were pleading for your support, to raise the word of Allah high. You found yourselves unable to stand by and watch while Assad’s henchmen tortured, raped and slaughtered their way through Syria.
ISIS appeared to be the most effective in fighting back against such brutality so you joined them, which at the time may not have appeared too controversial to you. For those few months it may have appeared quite simple to decipher the good from the bad. And you knew that were you to be killed while fighting Assad’s tyranny, you would be granted the status of shuhadaa’—martyrs—by your Lord.
You probably flinched when you first heard that your group became locked in combat with other Muslims more than it was with Assad. You probably felt sick to your stomach when you heard that even al-Qaeda had disowned ISIS, and worse when you heard that the two groups were killing each other. Now, and despite your best intentions, you find yourself as everyone's enemy, even other Salafi-jihadis. As roughly 30 of you from Britain recently declared, you know this is not what you went out to fight for. You are trapped, lost in a great tribulation—fitna—and most likely wondering how to get out without betraying your religion. But you know that no matter whether your cause is just or not, killing other Muslims is not jihad, it is qital, and those killed in qital are not martyrs who live, they are simply fighters who die. They will maintain no special status before their Lord. They will not be green birds flying beneath the great throne—arsh—of Allah until the Final Day. They will be subjected to inquisition, and will await resurrection in the grave like any normal Muslim.
If you look into yourselves, you know that you are no longer fighting jihad to alleviate oppression, and you are no longer warriors—mujahideen, but mere fighters—muqatileen who fight and obey orders to kill other Muslims. As such, you are fully aware that you can no longer be sure of Allah’s blessings, nor His victory. To make matters worse, the world is gathering against you. Muslim and non-Muslim are preparing to fight you. Many clerics—ulema—consider your group ISIS akin to the ancient seditious sect of Khawarij, and the rest of the world simply considers it the worst terrorist group to have emerged in history.
ISIS’s days are numbered, but yours do not have to be. There is still time for you to take account of your deeds before the world turns on ISIS collectively, for that day is surely coming.
Seek sanctuary in the justice systems of your home countries by surrendering yourselves. To do so would not be to turn your back on jihad. This is no jihad. This is the worst Muslim on Muslim civil war of our age. To consider what I ask must be scary. How will you be treated? Will you be arrested? Will you be imprisoned? Probably yes. You joined a group the brutality of which the world hadn’t seen since it rid itself of the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge. You may have even committed some of those atrocities yourselves. You will need to take responsibility for your role in joining ISIS, and the world will want to feel safe from you for a while. But while in prison in any democratic country, you know that you will not be tortured as Assad does his own people, nor electrocuted as Mubarak did to us in Egypt.
Islam allows you to acknowledge the fairness of non-Muslim justice, as the Prophet (upon him peace) did when he praised the justice of the Ethiopian King Habasha. You know deep down that, despite their many failures, democratic governments will generally treat their prisoners according to a defined set of standards. You will have rights to practice your religion. You will serve your time and, eventually, you will be released. All of this is better than dying in a great tribulation—fitna— and facing a most uncertain judgment from your Lord, which is your most likely alternative.
I make a promise to all of you who heed my advice. If you invite me, I will put myself on the line, as my colleague from Quilliam Dr. Usama Hasan and I did for Babar Ahmed and Talha Ashan at their invitations. We will fairly represent to the judge what you were probably thinking when you went, why people like you decide to return, and how it is possible to repent and regret such mistakes. I believe you yet have value in your lives, no matter what you may have done and I am happy to testify to that effect. If you choose to, I will also commit to meeting with you, listening to you and seeking to find a better way forward with you. Your effect in deterring others to travel without proper consideration would be hugely significant.
If you take one step to the good, we will all make leaps towards you. That is a promise. I have not given up on you. To do so would have been to give up on myself.