‘For a long time, I lived for death’: York Dialectic Union Hosts Ex-Jihadist Speaker


Daisy Couture (she/her) reports on Muhammad Manwar Ali’s talk at the recent York Dialectic Union event.

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Image by Avvayar De Mel

By Daisy Couture

On 10 October 2023, the York Dialectic Union invited Muhammad Manwar Ali to speak at their second event of the year. Ali is an ex-Jihadist who now works for the UK’s Home Office and Crown Prosecution Service. From the 1980s, he spent 15 years radicalising, recruiting and fundraising for organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Union offered him the chance to reflect on his experiences of fighting, his reasons for turning to jihadism, and what we can do to combat the issue of radicalisation.

Ali was 17 years old when he joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He asserted that this was because he wanted to fight for the Palestinian cause as a Muslim (as opposed to, for example, a Marxist, or any other political affiliation). From here, he spent 15 years fighting on and off in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Burma.

A portion of Ali’s talk focused on the psychology behind radicalisation. Should we blame it on trauma, an unpleasant childhood or weak character? According to Ali – no, we shouldn’t. He made it clear throughout that he takes full responsibility for his decision to both radicalise and be radicalised.

Self-awareness was a running theme of Ali’s speech. Self-awareness, he said, helped him to realise that what he was doing was not really ‘him’. On the flip side of this, radicalised people often become comfortable with something he called “learned ignorance”, and the pretence of justifying their actions through God.

The root causes of terrorism, Ali stated, sound simple – but are really quite complex. One cause is outdated religious jurisprudence, or the understanding and practices of divine Islamic law as laid out in the Quran. Another is misinterpretation, whether of sacred texts, jihad, or national history. Ali was quick to suggest that he does not believe Muslims are under attack, though he did affirm that they are oppressed. But having such a narrow focus on suffering, he claimed, can breed a victimhood mentality. This is another root cause of terrorism.

Ali derided England’s culture of feeling too scared to criticise Islam, a culture where the risks of being labelled Islamophobic or racist have begun to outweigh the benefits of speaking out. He certainly did not shy away from such a label, presenting us with a photograph of himself protesting Lee Rigby’s murder with the English Defence League.

“I was never anti-British,” Ali said – he simply believed in Muslim causes. However, he no longer believes that explicitly Muslim causes exist. Rather, different factors (such as politics, inequality, discrimination) underlie them. Rounding off his speech, Ali stated that he is considering giving up Islam and converting to Protestantism.

York Dialectic Union President, Adam Moses, had some follow-up questions for the speaker.

When asked why it took him 15 years to leave the terrorist movement, Ali answered that it can feel like you are being ‘stained’ with jihadism. It is easy to doubt your faith, he said, because you don’t want to betray God. He said that his final straw was the realisation that a merciful God would never sanction the violence of jihadists.

Moses also asked Ali how he thinks radicalisation has changed from the 1980s up to now. He answered that it has changed in two ways – in intensity and in depth. More radicalisation is occurring at a more intense level, and those involved have shallower knowledge of the scriptures they are supposedly following.

Ali now gives talks at mosques and Islamic centres to discourage young people from pursuing a radical path.

The York Dialectic Union’s next event will be on Friday 20 October, where guest and student speakers will debate the motion ‘This House Supports the Dissolution of the United Kingdom’.