RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One of the most vivid voices now calling on Muslims to renounce terror is that of a young man who himself spent years inside Britain's radical jihadi network. Hassan Butt was recruited while still in school. He went on to recruit others during his stay in Pakistan, and most dramatically called publicly for martyrdom actions.
When he returned to Britain in 2002, just over a year after the 9/11 attacks, he was arrested and his passport was confiscated.
Then in early 2006, Hassan Butt left the jihadi network. He joined us from his hometown of Manchester, England, to talk about the terror network he was once part of and spoke for.
Mr. HASSAN BUTT (Activist/ Commentator): There isn't one model for people who become radicalized or people who turn towards terrorism. I think that needs to be understood from the beginning. People have different backgrounds, different histories, but the joining factor of all these people is the fact that they all believe in Islam and they all believe that the work that they're doing pleases God.
So, I guess, when I was approached at the age of 17, I was actually - I grew up in an area of Manchester where we had a lot of racism. So, as a result, I guess these people came along and they gave me this version of Islam. And they'd seen that we were involved in gangs and we were involved in violence. And these people actually gave me a type of new outlook to life and they kind of empowered me with Islamic ideas.
MONTAGNE: As you describe yourself one might think that you were somehow deprived or uneducated, but in fact, as I understand it, you were quite a successful scholar and your family was not poor.
Mr. BUTT: You're right. I grew up in a very prosperous family. My elder brothers are doctors. My younger brother is a successful businessman. But I guess actually what happened was my first high school that I went to was a majority white high school and I suffered a lot of racism. And I really wasn't getting through my studies as smoothly as, for example, my parents would want me to. They then moved me along to a school that was predominantly Muslim and in a different area of Manchester. And actually as a result I made friends with people there and those people are involved in gangs and probably did come from a lot more deprived backgrounds.
MONTAGNE: You were part of radical Islam, as you would call it yourself, for several years and you recruited others. What did you tell those you were talking to that they found the most compelling?
Mr. BUTT: Obviously, we'd talk about the atrocities that were taking place in Palestine, in Iraq, the atrocities that were being committed by Muslim governments with the support or with the silence, I guess, of the Western regimes. And these would be inspiring factors, but this wouldn't be the thing that would turn someone from a normal political activist to someone who would turn to militant radical Islam. It became us teaching these people that the only solution Islamicly that we have is to fight these people and to kill these people. And we would use Islamic theology and we would show them that the work we were engaging in was an obligation upon Muslims, using various interpretations of the Koran and various interpretations of the saying of the Prophet Muhammad.
MONTAGNE: And the word terrorist, that wasn't part of the vocabulary.
Mr. BUTT: No, we actually - I mean, we were quite proud of the fact that we will be called terrorists. I mean, there's a verse in the Koran which means, strike fear into the hearts of the unbelievers. We would actually say terrorism is part of Islam. It's not something against Islam. This word was actually used in the Koran; it comes from the word irhab. And, you know, this wasn't something that we were ashamed of.
MONTAGNE: What made you leave?
Mr. BUTT: It was a long process. When I came back to Britain after leaving Pakistan, there was a lot of questions in my head, and if I be, you know, completely honest, those questions initially weren't doubts. Those questions were appearing so that I could have more conviction in carrying out the work that I was carrying out. Over time, when these things weren't being explained, I really then began to question everything that I had done. And I really began to think, well, is this really being done in the name of Islam or is this being done in the name of some political agenda. For me, these people became murderers who just enjoyed killing and causing havoc rather than trying to achieve any type of stability as a result of it.
MONTAGNE: Well, what you've just said sounds - may be utterly accurate, but it sounds like an intellectual process. And I think there is so much emotion tied up in these attacks. You could look at the July 7th attacks, for instance, or any of these attacks, and say, oh, my gosh, those people had - they're innocent, you know. They had families.
Mr. BUTT: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: They're just trying to make their way in the world. Was there an emotional component to your change, or even a spiritual component?
Mr. BUTT: As a Muslim, I don't take away my spirituality from my intellectual. I mean, it was - I mean, I was sitting here thinking how is it possible for me to justify killing people, like you've said, who are just going and earning a living or going and trying to get back to their families, or people who don't even know anything about international politics. So I guess, yeah, there was a certain emotion that was in me. But I guess, for me, the way we are brought up within the network is to detach ourselves from our emotions and to think about things rationally and logically.
MONTAGNE: You have since spoken out on the other side.
Mr. BUTT: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: And one of the things you say is that the interpretation of Islam has to be updated.
Mr. BUTT: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: Out of, as you've put it, the Middle Ages. Elaborate on that.
Mr. BUTT: For a long time, a lot of people, especially the moderate Muslims, have been talking about how peaceful Islam is and how loving Islam is. And what they've tended to do is ignore the verses and chapters in the Koran that talk about violence, that talk about killing. And they've hope by ignoring it or being in denial about it that this problem will disappear. And this hasn't been the actual case.
If I'm a young Muslim who has picked up the Koran and come across certain chapters in it and in there it says, kill the unbelievers until they become Muslim, fight them until they say (speaking foreign language). You know, if a young Muslim reads that and he goes to the mosque and the mosque says, oh, don't ask questions like this, or the moderate Muslims says, oh, don't discuss things like this. If they then go to the radical Muslim who is willing to discuss this Koranic chapter, then naturally he's going to become inclined towards him because this person is giving him answers to questions that his mind has.
And so hence what I'm calling for is there to be an open debate. Firstly, we need to be able to go back to the books of Islam and to be able to do a new, what we call ijtihad, or create a new reality and explain. Hang on a second, you know, everything that was written in the medieval times is not applicable today. And then that new reality needs to be addressed to young Muslims.
MONTAGNE: Have you met with suspicion on the part of, say, the moderates that you want to reach?
Mr. BUTT: Yeah. I mean…
MONTAGNE: Or your former groups? Do they say you must be an informer, somebody must be paying you?
Mr. BUTT: Yeah. I've had people accusing me of being a traitor, people accusing me of never really understanding Islam. The moderates accuse me of jumping on the bandwagon of making Islam look bad because they don't want Islam to change, I guess.
MONTAGNE: And British authorities, I mean, surely they were watching you over those years that you were an extreme radical.
Mr. BUTT: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: What's been your experience now?
Mr. BUTT: I've been contacted by the security services. And one thing that I've stressed to everybody is, my issue isn't to have, you know, handful of people arrested. You know, I won't be appearing in court against anybody. My aim is to change a whole generation of Muslims and not just have a handful of Muslims arrested which they already have under surveillance anyway.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. BUTT: Not a problem at all. Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Hassan Butt spoke to us from Manchester, England. Until last year, he was a prominent public voice for Britain's radical jihadi network. You can hear an extended version of our interview at npr.org.
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