Ayub Ayubi: My Life As A Former Ideological Extremist
Ayub Ayubi is the founder and chairperson of Renaissance by Social Innovation in answer to violent extremism and radicalization. Ayub implements cultural conflict resolution skills and ample opportunity for dialogue, space and time for students on a global scale.
Ayub works tirelessly as a researcher, trainer and facilitator to counter violent extremism, cyber extremism and to instill pluralism, critical thinking skills and conflict resolution. He holds a degree in Certified Chartered Accounting (U.K). He also completed several certifications about countering violent extremism. He regularly blogs on issues related to education, violent extremism and civic education.
My name is Ayub Ayubi, and I am the chairperson for Renaissance Foundation for Social Innovation. Pakistan is not a country which is often discussed in light of reform, growth and efforts to eliminate misunderstandings or bring about tolerance, but the extraordinary work of millions of young men and women to counter extremism, and embark on a path of social connectivity and tolerance is growing rapidly. Pakistan also happens to be a country of extreme importance in terms of dialogue when it comes to religious extremism. Everyone in this country has seen or experienced extremism first hand, therefore the responses from Pakistani citizens to religious extremism is unique and original.
In 2011 I founded an organization to counter religious extremism because I too was once a radical extremist. I come from a highly religious and very rigid background. Although my father is not what one would call a “radical Islamist”, somehow I started leaning towards radicalism, and the idea that my faith should be central to every aspect of my existences, and everyone else around me. I wanted my views to be accepted openly and be applied through all spectrum of life with in my country of birth, Pakistan. Maybe it was because I visited many mosques and was a passionate teenager. I also saw first hand injustices, and charismatic religious preachers and people alike gave me the sense that political Islam was the only form of resistance that would not only ensure social justice, but prevent future injustices towards Muslims. This very broad and misguided view is presented daily to fresh and impressionable minds that cannot easily distinguish between faith, and it’s centrality to one’s values, and it’s separation from government. There isn’t much idea of diversity among people, and also among people of one faith group.
I remember listening to Sipah Sahaba lectures and felt happy when I heard of the attacks on Shias. This was strictly because I was taught in a way about my religion that I felt that all Muslims are one group of people with a monolithic background. I couldn’t at a young age, distinguish between facts of geography and understanding of my own religion from different perspective. I became disillusioned, and started following a terrible and rigid ideology. I was ready to transform into a fighter for my beliefs and thought of everyone that questions my commitment to my faith, as an enemy. This was a very dangerous and dark time. In 2002, after my studies ended, I decided to go serve the Islamic Militants and be trained by them.
Admittedly, I was influenced by an ideological version of religious extremism in the past. I relate it to my birth into an orthodox family in a very strict social environment. I learned how to become a full-fledged Muslim. My developing mind accepted the inherited religious ritual that a real Muslim had to internalize, the Holy Quran in Arabic and recite prayers five times a day. I felt I was an exceptional Muslim, superior to other humans. I even felt proud when I learned from sermons that every other religion or thinking, including that of other Muslim sects, would not be rewarded “Jannah” in the next life because they are not true believers in Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) and Allah. It was the most radical experience in my life when my peers told me that the world could only be safe after it was cleansed of all infidels and other Muslim sects. In school I could air my thoughts and felt that whatever interpretation I believed was true because to reach society the Quran would tell only what is true.
To challenge dogmas gave my life a new understanding. I questioned and re-challenged preconceived thinking and gradually — every time I challenged hatred based dogmas and religious theory, more positive insights emerged from the obsolete old ones. My belief in the Holy Quran began to develop when I started understanding it from my heart and soul rather than just memorizing it; when I started understanding the Quran, I realized that it is not based on enforcement and radicalization and in fact it does not support attitudes of hate. The journey that was initially so painful for me now evolved into transformation and tolerance without the former guilt.”
Call it good luck or fate but my family did not allow me to leave. This was the most important decision of my life that my family took for me. I listened to them, joined college and decided to study further. At college I got involved in student politics & activism and realized I had a passion for it. I was instantly exposed to seeing things differently, and bringing about change in a good, thoughtful, and inclusive way. I realized that effective communication of differences was the best way to approach misguided views. A radical society with extremist Islamic views in college that I was very involved with gave me an outlet to channel my radicalism.
One day our society got into a fight with another society from college. My so called peers did not take a stand and I was left fighting alone and I was badly beaten up by the other society that day. I felt quite betrayed. At the same time, I noticed a liberal left society that prided themselves with intellectual autonomy that was also very active in college. I was curious and observed them, and was instantly impressed by their openness not only to different views but most importantly to dialogue. They were very friendly people and very loyal to each other and quite welcoming towards me. I was intrigued. These guys were also working against injustice and inequality which was a huge attraction for me. Two things were battling in my mind at this point; I found myself sympathizing with my conservative orthodox mentality and the radical groups and on the other hand I wanted to be part of this leftist group because they were representing Che Guevara who I am extremely inspired by. I found a new way to channel my radicalism via Che Guevara by joining the leftist group. I also became very interested in English and Urdu Literature which really helped shift my mindset. This transformation of my views, and challenging my own thought became very important to me in the next few years because now I am able to think through my own thoughts, challenge my own views and weight it up against contrary information and hopefully be able to reach a constructive, meaningful, and inclusive solution that doesn’t impinge on someone else’s inalienable rights.
It was 2005 by then and I was changing; my attitude, my mind, my behavior were all transitioning. Today, I can’t recognize the boy I was in 2002. It is a complete paradigm shift and I have a liberal stance in life now. This has been a decade long journey- ten years of gradual transformation. What is ironic is that now I face problems from my family. Till I was a radical fundamentalist Muslim, my father had no problem with it, but now they see someone that is going against the grid. I want to be able to assure them of my stance is not drastic, and destructive but constructive, inclusive, and reforming. I am in search of understanding myself and those around me, and I am not longer held back by ideological narrative that is used by many to influence millions of young, impressionable minds. I no longer stand for bloodshed, and injustices. I am now a person that looks at differences that can be discussed.
I get this peculiar sense that my family would have been okay if I had died in the name of God they would have resolved to the fact, but I see this as an odd and mysterious hypocrisy. I feel that the best way to be a person of faith and complete morality is to invest time in other people and give time to the betterment of others. Now I see myself as a cohesive force in a country that faces many divisions among it’s masses. I gave my life for a good cause. Even as a liberal, secular person, I see the importance of faith in not only my only life but also in other people’s lives. I am also able to recognized how each person has complete autonomy to see how they want to practice their faith in whatever way they feel inspired. But at the same time, I feel that religion should never be pushed in a way that is detrimental to the society and cohesion. I hope that one day, my family will overcome their differences and see me as a change for the good and not the bad. I am no revolutionary, but a human with desire to see world peace, and cohesion among different faith based groups. I want religious freedom in my country and tolerance towards differences of opinion.