A British man who once preached violence in the name of religion is now using his voice to spread peace.
Manwar Ali, a former extremist who claims he was involved in radicalizing “thousands” of young Muslims in the 1980s and 1990s, talked about how his mindset changed after realizing that he’d bought into a warped and violent interpretation of jihad.
Jihad is a concept within Islam that literally means “to struggle.” For the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, the word jihad represents an internal struggle to serve God, to be good to yourself and to others.
In a TEDxExeter talk, Ali describes how he came to misuse this word.
“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,” Ali said during the speech, which was filmed in April and featured on TED’s home page in October. “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.”
Ali, also known as Abu Muntasir, was born in Bangladesh. During the talk, Ali spoke about how he lived through his country’s War of Independence, witnessing starvation and violence all around him. Twenty-two of his relatives died during the conflict, he said. These early experiences shaped how he thought about injustice and instilled in him a deep desire to “right wrongs and help the victims of oppression.”
While studying in college in the UK, he met people who offered him a way to channel that desire through a distorted version of Islam that treated violence as a virtue. Ali began to fight on the frontline in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Burma, and recruit young men for extremist organizations.
It was the senseless deaths of these young men around the world that served as Ali’s wake-up call. He faced the truth in 2000 ― that the organizations he was involved in had become “the very instrument through which more deaths occurred, complicit in causing further misery for the selfish benefit of the cruel few.”
Ali now believes there are no circumstances on earth in which violent jihad is permissible.
“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,” he said. “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.”
He went on to start Jimas, a UK charity that works to educate people about the true teachings of Islam. He gives talks at mosques and Islamic centers, and serves as a chaplain at the University of Suffolk.
At the end of his speech, Ali pleaded with those who use Islam to justify cruelty, to “let go of anger, hatred and violence.”
“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,” Ali said. “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.”