An Interview With Abdul-Rehman Malik: Storyteller, Activist, and Cultural Organizer
Abdul-Rehman Malik is an award-winning London based journalist, educator, activist and organizer. Malik is the programs manager for Radical Middle Way, which provides “powerful, faith-inspired guidance and tools to enable change, combat exclusion and violence and promote social justice for all.” He has done work in the UK, Indonesia, Mali, Sudan, Pakistan, Singapore, Canada, and Malaysia. Since 2015 he has been director of Insight Film Festival, a year-round festival celebrating of the intersection of faith and film.
Malik has done extensive work in harnessing cultural products for the sake of social change. Recently, he went to Indonesia, where he trained young leaders to use storytelling to bridge interfaith divides in the country. He is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio, where he gives a modern perspective on faith, spirituality, and citizenship. (See Malik’s documentary on the little-known history of Islam and coffee for a taste of his narrative style.) He has spent the past several years working with organizers and creators from around the world to combat violent extremism by strengthening resilience in at-risk communities and creating positive narratives about the Islamic faith.
The Politic: Could you start by telling readers of The Politic what kind of work you do, what you’ve been doing here during your time as a Greenberg World Fellow, and what some of your longterm goals are?
Abdul-Rehman Malik: So my name is Abdul-Rehman Malik. When I came here to Yale, they told us, “Get your elevator pitch straight.” So during the first two weeks, the World Fellows all worked on our elevator pitches—anyway, I now have an elevator pitch.
Let’s hear it!
I work at the intersection of faith, culture, and social justice. I wear two hats. I am, on with one hat, a journalist. I work for BBC Radio, and I make radio programs and documentaries. The focus on my journalistic work is faith and particularly expressions of faith in the modern world. My specialist area is Islam and Muslim communities in the UK, in the proverbial “West,” and beyond. The kind of stories I try to cover are the ones I feel would otherwise go unreported. I try to find stories in the margins, or in the shadows—things that aren’t necessarily hitting the news cycle, but are themselves interesting and tell us something profound about the world as it is today and how faith continues to be a very important part of people’s lived experience of being human.
And with my other hat on, for the past fifteen years I have been designing and implementing programs that seek to build resilience to violence and extremism, particularly within Muslim-majority countries, but also in places like Malaysia, and the United Kingdom where I live and have lived for the past fourteen years. Our work has been about asking, how do we harness faith-based narratives, religious leadership, and spiritual capital to build community resilience to violent extremism, whether that’s ideological extremism or theological extremism.
But also, how do we present a vision of belonging and citizenship where people feel comfortable with being faithful and being citizens? There really shouldn’t be any contradiction to that, but I think the prevailing politics of our time mean that there often is. We have a generation of young people who were young when 9/11 happened or weren’t even born yet, and whose entire lives have been shaped by a discourse on their religion being depicted as something that is out-of-sync with modernity or their sense of citizenship.
Our work has then been, a lot of the time, about how we can create the kind of spaces where people can explore what it means to be British, or Canadian, or American, or Indonesian, and be modern, and be Muslim in the way they choose to be. For me that work has been very important because it’s taken us to geographies like Indonesia, onto campuses where there’s been active recruitment being done by groups who espouse violence or terrorism, to places like Sudan trying to re-invigorate religious discourse working with local groups, which includes not just religious, theological, or literalist conservatives, but also Sufis and other religious traditions. It’s meant going to Pakistan and supporting religious scholars who are speaking against the Taliban and creating media products that would give people theological arguments and support in their opposition to groups like the Taliban or those who espouse al-Qaeda-like violence.
And in the UK it’s been about creating spaces where we can talk about what it means to be British, Muslim, and citizens. At the same time, what does it mean to be active—to be dissenters, and to be a loyal opposition to what you feel your government is doing wrong.
This work has not only taken me and my colleagues around the world, but has taught us a lot about the role of religion and faith in the modern world. For me, part of the growth of that work has been towards culture and cultural production, and understanding how important culture is, whether it’s music, art, film, literature, dance, poetry, in creating spaces for deep conversation. Also, it’s an expression of where we feel we’re at at a particular moment in time.
I also direct a little film festival called the Insight Film Festival, which is a festival that celebrates the intersection of faith and film. We have a really cool and diverse board. It wasn’t started by me, but I was asked to become the director in 2015.
Do you have experience working in film?
I do. I’ve done some film production, and I’ve always been an appreciator of film. I’ve also done a lot of film programming. Insight has this amazing board of directors who are of all faiths and none—we’ve got atheists, we’ve got Christians, we’ve had Sikhs on there, people of Jewish faith… all kinds. It’s been great because we’re united not by a shared religiosity or by a shared confession, but we’re all united by the fact that we think faith and religion and belief is a vital part of the human experience. It’s such a central, core part of what it means to be human. And we all believe that film is one of the ways in which we can explore that, challenge that, critique that, get under the skin of it.
So we host screenings across the United Kingdom. We support young filmmakers from around the world to share their short films. It’s a lot of fun. But we have no budget, we work on a shoestring.
That brings me to another question I had about the work you do. How are you able to secure funding for the projects you work on?
I have to say that in a way I’m lucky, because the work I do for the BBC is commissioned, so once it’s been commissioned it’s good to go. But the work of the Radical Middle Way—
My apologies for interrupting, but could you also briefly explain to our readers what the Radical Middle Way is?
Of course. The work that we did around building resilience to violent extremism was done through an organization called the Radical Middle Way, and that organization was established in 2005 in the aftermath of the July 7 terror attacks in London. The group of us who helped found the Radical Middle Way under the auspices of one of my very dear friends and mentors had already been engaged in doing journalism on Islam.
We had all been working for a publication called Q-News. It was an independent, Muslim affairs and current affairs magazine, but when the 7/7 bombings happened, it was a real moment for us. Do we continue to remain critics and reporters, or do we engage in the work of getting dirty and close and messy with communities? We chose to do the latter, to get close with communities and to use our very ample experience with those communities and our vast networks to engage with community. So the Radical Middle Way was formed.
For the first five years it was funded by grants from the UK Government, so we were funded with grants from the Foreign Office and the Home Office, and a smaller department known as the Department for Communities and Local Government. And as the politics around counter-terrorism changed, by the time we got to 2011 it was difficult for us to continue in our relationship with government, so we disengaged. And government probably disengaged from us.
There was a lot more demand to do what was known as “hardline, frontline de-radicalization,” and that’s not what we were doing. We were about strengthening the mainstream, and about providing a steady flow of ideas, digital content, programming, that created spaces within our communities and broadly, consistently, where real pertinent political issues could be raised and talked about in a way that was safe and honest. Where religious perspectives were not just respected, but were valued. It became more difficult for us [to find funding], but we continued on to work with Somali diaspora communities, we’ve worked in places like Malaysia, we’ve continued to do film and content production work. And because our work during the first five years was quite vast—for a civil society organization to have worked in five countries, five international locations plus the UK was remarkable. So we’re still called on often by international forums and national governments to advise on countering violent extremism strategy.
Often, we’re the critics in the room. We are not beholden to anyone, so we can be very honest about when we think things are working and when they’re not working.
Great. How have you brought this experience into your engagement here with the Yale community?
One of the most interesting things at Yale has been to share some of that experience. Over the last three weeks, I’ve done a set of three-plus-one talks. I had this idea that what I wanted to do at Yale was to really get under the skin of the so-called CVE policy, especially given the fact that countering violent extremism was such an important part of the Obama Administration’s counterterrorism strategy and was particularly important in the Clinton and Kerry State Department. Under the current [Trump] Administration it’s confused. We don’t actually know where the policy on countering violent extremism is going to go. It’s heading probably in a direction that is counter-productive.
That having been said, I wanted to use this opportunity at Yale to do some deep reflection of my own, on what the last 14 or 15 years have meant in this kind of work. I was able to give a talk at the Law School which was about rethinking countering violent extremism, then I gave a second talk which was on counter-narratives, which was called the Asymmetry of Passion. This is on the question of how you harness public opinions in geographies that don’t support groups like al Qaeda and ISIS, but are at the same time often not motivated to combat—people are dealing with real-life stuff.
If someone’s living in Baghdad, or Cairo, or Beirut, they’re not going to wake up every morning and think, “What am I going to do against ISIS today?” Because they already oppose ISIS, and they have to put food on the table, support their families; these are often people who are in great distress.
On the other hands, you have those stalwarts—those fanboys and fangirls online—who wake up in the morning and are totally enthusiastic and passionate about supporting Da’esh. They want to spread the message of Da’esh.
So how do you then bridge this asymmetry of passion? You have one small group of people who are very passionate, and a large group of people who oppose the smaller group but are not necessarily passionate in the same way. And that’s a real dilemma. Because for civil society organizations like the Radical Middle Way, our challenge is how we do a bit of jujitsu. How do we use this sense of opposition, and turn it into something that’s actually going to have some kind of impact? It’s a real dilemma.
And how have you tried to begin to approach this dilemma?
One way has been trying to look at messaging in a way where we think of it not only as a kind of digital disruption. A lot of what governments have thought in the last ten years is, “We need to disrupt al Qaeda or ISIS’s narratives,” through some kind of counter-narrative work or strategic communication. Or, by taking their servers down.
What we’ve learned is that these [extremist] networks have gotten messier, but they’ve also gotten far more sophisticated, and they’ve almost become, like, neural networks. They’re connected to each other in so many different ways that they don’t even know how they’re connected. It’s not a rational process, but it’s the way technology can be utilized by creating a very diffuse and decentralized approach to information transmission and amplification.
It’s interesting that you say this, because I am considering graduate study with a data science background, and the issue of online social networks is one of the most fascinating of our time.
I can tell you that the ground is shifting fast in this field. It’s a fascinating area to get into. What I’m realizing is that the kind of network analysis that was sufficient five years ago isn’t now —it’s become so much more sophisticated.
I agree. It’s become much harder to do good, strictly qualitative work, even in fields like your own. That in mind, how have you been able to approach the issue of online messaging from a civil society angle?
This is one of the challenges that I think civil society organizations like ours has always had. We don’t have the capacity for large quantitative analysis. But what we are beginning to understand is that the whole notion of “digital disruption” [for countering violent extremism] is something which is aspirational, but not entirely achievable.
So we need to approach this differently. We need to say, “There will always be these fanboys and fangirls.” There will always be people dedicated to producing content that promotes violence, social rupture, social in-cohesion, constant and perpetual and war. Frankly, that narrative is not just a Da’esh narrative. It’s a white supremacist narrative, it’s a neo-nazi narrative, it’s a neo-fascist narrative, extreme conservatism, extreme protectionism—the notion that we must protect the borders of our homeland, whatever that is—and interestingly the borders of our homeland are not necessarily physical. They can be digital and ideological. And in the case of Da’esh at some times, their borders are theological.
Our approach has been different [than the disruption strategy espoused by many governments today]. We go back and say, “Look, there’s some good old-fashioned social movement theory.” The social movement theory tells us this: when you have large groups of people who broadly accept an idea, they are not necessarily going to be motivated to get behind that idea because they already accept it as de facto. We need to give them a vehicle for their ideas.
That reminds me of Tocqueville’s observations about religion in his Democracy in America. He wrote that Christianity was taken as the baseline of morality in America so much so that there was no debate about its legitimacy. Maybe there was a debate about factions of Christianity, but the morality of America has, from the start, been so rooted in Judeo-Christian beliefs that we have not had much conversation on it.
Right. [Christianity] just exists. And in the same way that Tocqueville observed within a certain America, a tacit acceptance of Christian values, we have survey after survey showing us that suicide bombing has very little support in the broader Muslim world. This is tacitly accepted. Something like 96 or 97 percent of people are opposed to it under any or most circumstances.
This is interesting. Because when you’re opposed to something like that, you’re just like, of course, I’m opposed to it, but I’m not going to do anything about it or I can’t do anything about it. And I’m going to get angry when somebody does it because I’ll think, “That’s not part of my faith, my culture, or my morality.”
The interesting thing about social movements is that they harness the inert arguments, right?
What social movements say are, “Do we as a society accept X? Can we rally around X?” And all you have to do is support it, buy into it, wear the pin, come to the rally, tell your kids about it, have it mainstreamed into the education system. That’s where things start to move.
So how do we get a whole group of people to move and build resilience actively, while at the same time now not taking them away from the real day-to-day dilemmas of living life. What [the Radical Middle Way] tried to do in our own small way – really we only one organization in the space – was about resilience. We were about saying, what are the arguments? What is the positive messaging we can use? And here are some arguments about Islam as a religion to live for, not just as a religion to die for. And I think our goal was that there’s already a normative opposition to al Qaeda and Da’esh, we just need to constantly be strengthening that. Through social discourse, through culture, through the arts, through language and literature, theology, our politics—that was the approach we took. At times that meant rebutting [groups like Da’esh’s] arguments, at other times that meant totally ignoring them and saying, “They are so marginal to our experience that we are going to talk about what it positively means to be Muslim instead.”
And how is that different from most current policies which deal with countering radical extremism?
Current policy talks about straight rebuttal. I’m not saying there’s no role for countering other people’s narratives or for straight rebuttal, but there’s got to be more than that.
You’ve got to give something for people to believe in that is exciting. Da’esh and al Qaeda, because of their opposition to what they feel is Western imperialism, intervention in what they consider the Muslim world, they have a very strong political argument. They can point to, basically, the invasion of Iraq or constant meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, or CIA-engineered coups, or European backing for autocratic regimes—all of which are true and have happened—and create a situation where people have become marginalized, inequality has grown, people are downtrodden, there are sharply divided into the haves and have-nots—Da’esh and al Qaeda are able to capitalize on that political rhetoric.
That makes our job very hard. Because we, at the same time, have to say we oppose autocratic rule, the continued bifurcation of society between the rich and poor. We have to say we have issues with the ways people are treated and political opposition is crushed. At the same time, we have a problem with Da’esh and al Qaeda because we don’t believe they are the solutions to these things.
The Arab Spring was, for a glimmer, a moment, a possibility of what an active political movement could look like. But the endemic problematics of these countries and the fact that power doesn’t cede itself very easily to others meant that all kinds of things happened which prevented the promise of the Arab Spring from emerging.
Now we’re sort of into this very long Arab Winter, which is deeply depressing. That, of course, has been complicated by Syria and the Syrian catastrophe, but at the same time, we’ve been reminding people that the “refugee crisis” in inverted commas did not start with Syria. People have been trying to cross over the last five or six years – longer event – by the Mediterranean from places like Chad, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Libya, Niger. Why? Abject poverty, war, and corruption. The total exploitation of people. People’s living in indentured servitude or slave-like conditions. They are trying to flee for their lives and economic reasons. People have been trying to cross the Mediterranean for all these years, and we’ve had black bodies and black babies and black women washing up on the shoes of islands like Lampedusa, and the world didn’t really care. As a body politic and as a society, we didn’t really care. That is, until the Syrian crisis started.
Why do you think people didn’t readily address the issue of refugees from these regions until the Syrian crisis hit?
Part of the issue of the Syrian crisis was that Syrian refugees were successfully able to make it into Europe. They had a route. It was dangerous and difficult, but it was a route and they were able to make it to Europe. Now that they could make it to Europe, it becomes a European problem.
And the nature of Syria within the broader “Arab” world meant it had a massive destabilizing impact coming right after the Arab uprisings and revolutions. For Europe and the U.S., as well as Russia and Iran, this was incredibly concerning.
I think this is why, in many ways, the Syrian controversy has gotten a lot of uptake—not that it shouldn’t, as it is devastating.
But I see it all as a continuum. The Syrian crisis comes out of a political catastrophe, but it is part of the movement of people to seek human security first and foremost, and economic security, and a life for their families and children. The same problematics with the global system remain. The same issues underlying [these crises] remain. There may be different contextual factors geographically, but a lot of [these refugee crises] are very, very similar.
This is a broader political argument, but these crises have certainly affected our work in a narrow way, because all of this feeds into a broader political narrative of extremism or rejection or revolution. Sometimes this is positive, but often it is not. It is a difficult terrain, and I don’t know where the future of this terrain is, but my time at Yale has helped me grapple with these questions.
Abdul-Rehman Malik is a 2017 Maurice L. Greenberg World Fellow.