by Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad
NOTE: This interview was originally published in the Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad, a publication for the Dutch Jewish community and those who support Israel, and is reproduced here with its permission. Walter's story and his insights in Islamist anti-Semitism, merit attention from our readers.
A former jihadi describes his transformative course to de-radicalization
Portions of the narrative have been revised and edited for a non-Dutch audience. The interview has been translated by Abigail R. Esman in its entirety and is reproduced here unchanged.
Born in 1985, Jason Walters (better known as Jason W) is the son of a Dutch mother and American father who had served in the U.S. military, He converted to Islam at 13, and soon began to radicalize. He made two trips to Pakistan, the first time at 18, intending to continue on to Afghanistan and join the Taliban. That failed. Later, he joined the Dutch Hofstadgroep, a loose-knit organization of radical Muslim youth whose membership also included Mohammed Bouyeri. It was Bouyeri who, in 2004, murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
Soon after Van Gogh's death, police raided the Hofstadgroep headquarters in The Hague. During the ensuing standoff, Walters threw a hand grenade at the police, wounding four officers before being arrested. He received a fifteen-year jail sentence. In 2013, after serving nine years, he was released. He deradicalized in prison.
His brother Jermaine, however, also a former Hofstadgroep member, joined the Islamic State, and was killed in Raqqa in 2015. Jermaine's wife and children are believed still to be in the border region between Syria and Iraq.
Walters now studies Crisis and Security Management at the University of Leiden, and recently completed his dissertation for a Masters degree. The thesis, titled "Islamic radicalization and de-radicalization from an existential perspective," is dedicated to his brother Jermaine. He includes a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies."
This is the first major interview that Walters has given since his 2013 release. He talks about his time as a Muslim terrorist, about the Hofstadgroep, and about virulent anti-Semitism in the Muslim community. And how he himself, once a rabid anti-Semite, now considers himself a friend of Israel and the Jews.
Now he sits at a kitchen table in Amsterdam: black cap, glasses and beard. Now and then he smokes a cigarette. He is not willing to be photographed. "I want to return to the public step by step." A conversation with the Nieuwe Israelitisch Weekblad (New Israelite Weekly) is a first step, and entirely unexpected. But Jason himself initiated the interview, contacting the magazine directly.
Nieuwe Israelietisch Weekblad: Why did you want to have this discussion?
Jason Walters: I was very radical, and as [a] radical Muslim you are extremely anti-Semitic. But the more and more I deradicalized, the more guilty about this I felt. I've been terribly unjust, and I very much wish to set this right. I have to make good, as someone who previously stood on the wrong side, who has made a horrible mistake. This has become a core theme for me, as much for Jews as Israelis. And not just that: I see also that the pit of anti-Semitism that I myself fell into has now, in one way or another, become normalized in society. It's becoming mainstream. Maybe not as virulently as with Muslims, but you find everywhere the same old stereotypes. There is no balance anymore in the debate over Jews and Israel.
NIW: How did anti-Semitism play out when you were in your radical phase?
JW: Mostly in an obsession with conspiracy theories. As a Salafi-jihadist, anti-Semitism is tied up in your worldview. It is a premise that guides all your perceptions. The dogma is: The Jews refused Mohammed, they are intrinsically bad, they are cursed. There are various hadiths [the Islamic book of the statements and actions of Mohammed] wherein Jews are called the henchmen of the devil, of the anti-Christ. One of the signs the Day of Judgment has arrived is that the Jews will all be assembled at some point in the Middle East, and then, under the direction of Jesus, no less, will be eradicated. It colors your worldview, your thinking, your behavior. You demonize all that is Jewish. During my trial and while I was still living in that world, I thought: The outcome of this will be determined in Tel Aviv. That is where my sentence will ultimately be written."
He laughs. He was brought to justice as an active member of the Hofstadgroep, a radical Islamic group in the Netherlands, one of whose members, Mohammed Bouyeri, killed Theo van Gogh in November, 2004. During a subsequent police raid at the Hofstadgroep headquarters in The Hague, Walters threw a hand grenade at the officers.
NIW: Did the Hofstadgroep have plans to attack Jewish targets?
JW: No. But I should add that we, before Bouyeri killed Van Gogh, were doing a lot of soul-searching: what is our role? We didn't really know if we should focus on dawa [proselytizing and conversion] or focus on jihad. We had at that point made no strategic choices.
But that hate for Jews was deeply rooted was completely clear. All the evil in the world was ascribed to the Jews. Because you have an ideology that is immune to reality, you also can have ideas that are self-contradictory. I can give you an example, about the Holocaust. We had three completely different theories about it, all of which we could believe in with equal intensity, depending on the context. On the one side: The Holocaust was a hoax, a conspiracy in order to found Israel. At the same time, we would say to Christians, "you created the Holocaust. We would never have done such a thing, because Islam is more morally elevated." And then there was a third view: the Holocaust happened, but it was just, it was a righteous punishment, Jews are intrinsically bad and they are cursed by God, so hence it is God's punishment for their sins. It was absolutely no problem at all to switch around from one theory to the other.
NIW: In prison you began to see it differently. Can you explain what happened?
JW: It began with reading the Quran, day and night. You become as an extremist so entangled with that worldview that it determines everything. Ultimately you aren't even a person anymore, you lose yourself in a kind of intoxicated mist. And you think you are constantly experiencing miracles. The religion totally defines you: you have no more right to your own opinion, no right to your own emotional life. If your opinion contradicts the religion, you are wrong, you need to readjust your thinking.
Until I began working on a project to assimilate science with belief, with the beginning premise that all modern scientific insights could also be found in the Quran. That would be a great way to win hearts and minds. If you could find Einstein's relativity theory in the Quran, that would be a strong argument to prove that it was given by God.
But in studying science, the whole thing collided into itself. In my Islamist worldview, truth was derived from the authority: God. And he didn't have to be empirically consistent. This, of course, is incompatible with the scientific view, that is based on rational consistency, the absence of contradiction, and empirical validation. On top of this, I discovered new concepts, like causality.
So in short, my worldview began to show holes. I was forced to ask all my questions all over again. Basic questions: What do I think of this? What is truth, what is knowledge? But then came a kind of emptiness. I decided to go to school, to study, did my bachelors in prison in general cultural studies: literature, cultural history, philosophy and art, with emphasis on the early modern era to the Enlightenment. And this was how I discovered philosophy. Plato, Nietzsche and Heidegger became crucial to the process for where I finally landed. What I had sought for so long, I found in philosophy. And so then the whole world had to be rediscovered, as if I'd been born again. I'm still doing that.
NIW: So it is a sort of expanded insight?
JW: Well, it was twofold. On the one hand there was the intellectual development, but there was also an emotional turning point. That was when, sometime in 2008 while I was in prison, I saw the film Schindler's List. At the end of the film, something in me broke. For so many years, I had this hate within me; but I was so struck, so shaken by that song [at the end of the film] that I burst into tears. And I actually hardly ever cried in prison; I thought of that as a sign of weakness while I was trying to emulate power. It was the first time I'd cried in years. And then the entire anti-Semitic view just fell away. That knot. I suddenly saw Jews as normal people, who are also vulnerable, and like all people have their good and bad qualities. And then I also realized that if things had gone just a slight bit differently in the World War II there would be no more Jews at all in Europe, and half of the Israeli people wouldn't even exist.
From this I began to understand the Israeli viewpoint much better. The film truly broke me, and from that emerged the feelings of guilt, because I suddenly saw how anti-Semitic my worldview had been. In a flash I saw the banalities of it all. It melted all away at once.
NIW: While you were building a new life after Islamist extremism, your brother Jermaine was still in the middle of it. So much so, that he traveled to Syria in order to join ISIS with his wife and children.
JW: That was a gigantic slap. I had started over, optimistic and driven to make something wonderful of it. I picked up three courses of study, I took extra classes, with an enormous hunger for knowledge and growth. When I was freed I had broken all my connections with people with jihadist points of view, but this was my brother, family. And then he left, but thankfully he came back – and from that I began also to doubt my own judgment. Later it turned out to have been a reconnaissance operation. When he left, he went in total secrecy with his wife and children. I only heard about it after he'd been gone for three days, and by then it I was too late to stop him. You know, people often criticize the police or AIVD [Dutch intelligence service], or say "they should have known." But I knew my bother better than the AIVD knew. And I also was wrong.
He heard about Jermaine's death from his mother, who learned it from Jermaine's wife.
"I was totally destroyed, completely lost for a year.
NIW: Your sister-in-law and nephews and nieces are still there [in the Caliphate]. There has been a great deal of discussion about the return or repatriation of ISIS-fighters. What do you think?
JW: Let me be very clear: the adults have joined a group that stands for genocide, for slavery, for war against humanity, attacks. They made a conscious choice to join the enemy. So they must pay the price. They are not just criminals, they are potentially war criminals. The best comparison is with the Dutch who joined the SS during the war. That is the category. The worst.
But the children had no choice. My nephews and nieces, the oldest was seven, were dragged into this. They were de facto kidnapped by their parents, and a solution has to be found for them. They deserve a second chance, however indoctrinated and traumatized they may be. Children are also extremely resilient. But the parents deserve none of this; they should face the consequences of their deeds, whether they are hung in Iraq or waste away in a refugee camp. That means: take the children from the parents. It is an enormous dilemma, but I would ask that the parents sign an agreement: we'll bring your children safely to your family, but you stay here.
I know, it is an imperfect solution.
NIS: Why do you think ISIS never attacked Israel?
JW: For the moment, their priority is to re-Islamize Islamic cultures. Israel is not their first priority. But be warned, they stand totally behind the destruction of that country; they have also called on groups in the region to fight against Israel. But at this moment, their battle against the Shiites is more urgent. ISIS would attack Israel – as well as others – if they could, but they are more involved in the Syrian Iraqi border. Israel is seen as a long-term problem.
NIW: And where do you stand on Israel?
JW: When the religious source of my anti-Semitism fell apart, I began reorienting myself. First I looked at a map and thought, how would I be if I were Israeli? You can have a nuclear bomb, but you can't do anything with it if the enemy is just 15 kilometers away. The West Bank is higher, there are no natural borders except the Jordan River. And you don't draw borders for five years, but for the next five hundred or a thousand years. You do it not only for yourself, but also for your children and great-grandchildren. So you need to think about it carefully. And then I thought: what would have happened if Gaza were in Syria? Then it would have been like the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus: a huge, mass grave.
I'm not saying that Israel hasn't made mistakes, but I think they've behaved with quite a bit of restraint. Especially if you read Jewish history. I was amazed to learn, for instance, that it wasn't until the 19th century that the Jews in Europe were granted basic civil rights. Their security in this part of the world was always fragile. It was an unstable tolerance. History has proven that Jews need their own fatherland, because no one else protects them. That isn't abstract, that is totally concrete. And naturally they choose for power, for force.
NIW: Do you understand that your words will surprise a lot of people?
JW: Yes, but there is also another aspect to it. I know how it is in the other world. Dutch and Europeans in general have a tendency to think that there's nothing outside their part of the world. They look through Western, rose-colored glasses at the Arab world. I am no representative of the Israeli government, but I know very well that you cannot judge the situation there from your comfy-cozy sofa in Amsterdam. Israelis understand very well that their survival is uncertain. Israel doesn't sit in Europe, it's in a backwards slum where a great many people think of Israel in terms of genocide. Europeans do not understand that region, which I find astounding. The rules of the game in the Middle East are not the same as those in the contemporary West.
Israel is also as hated by the secularists as by religious fanatics. They see Israel as the last colonial power in the Arab world. They have suffered three crushing defeats, but instead of focusing on the deep-rooted malaise in their culture, they keep stubbornly projecting their own shortcomings on Israel. Everyone, secular, Christian or Muslim in the Arab world, is against Israel. That has also to do with that phenomenally stupid Arab pride.
NIW: With the benefit of your own knowledge of the situation, can you maybe explain why so many Muslims here in The Netherlands, even if they're not religious, identify so closely with Palestinians?
JW: That comes from the "ummah" idea, which is deeply rooted throughout the Arab world. The nationalism or sense of national identity of Arabs is not so large; there's more of a sense of tribes. But the ummah, the Islamic world, is even larger, and everyone, religious or not, feels inextricably tied into it. If one part of the ummah feels pain, the entire body feels pain. And Israel lies in the heart of the ummah, the heart of the Islamic world. It is not West-China, where many Muslims are also oppressed but no one pays attention. Also a lot of youths who are not per se religious, are very emphatically Muslim. If you insult Islam, they grow furious, even if they themselves are "bad" Muslims. I think that it's probably a matter of overcompensation: "okay, in my personal life I'm not exactly a good Muslim but if concern myself with the condition of 'my brothers' then I can compensate somewhat." The identification with Palestinians is a true passion."
NIW: How do you see the future of Jews in The Netherlands?
JW: I think it will become extremely difficult. Maybe there will be an Islamic Enlightenment, but the current tendency is extraordinarily distressing. Look at France and Sweden. The reaction from the communities and the government is inadequate, even cowardly. For the sake of their precious peace, things get trivialized and downplayed. Jews are and remain the primary targets. What surprises me is that organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood have made Israel-hate mainstream, and a lot of people on the left of the political spectrum accept that without question. It's absurd. But there is a fundamental problem with the Muslim community, with the religious part but also absolutely the non-religious groups, and to my absolute amazement, this gets seriously downplayed as well. There is a huge amount of hate, anti-Semitic ideas are imported and even in academic circles and among Leftists it is made totally acceptable, salonfahig. That is extremely disturbing. And bizarre. This is where the death of reason happens.
NIW: What according to you is the value of deradicalization programs for Muslims in Holland?
I'm very skeptical of so-called deradicalization programs. Radical ideas are growing wildly here. In 2004 there was a list of 120 radicals who were being monitored. Today there are hundreds, if not thousands of extremists and sympathizers. There are a few such "programs." But what we now call "deradicalizing," we called "reclassifying" five years ago. There are those searching [solutions] but I have the idea that policy makers have no idea what they should do. There's an odd view that sees radical ideology and thinking as if it were some kind of clinical condition. It isn't. It is an existential choice. It is as if you think that you can turn a totally convinced social-libertarian into a totally convinced far-right nationalist.
There is no painless solution. Maybe we will finally have to address some difficult questions: to define "freedom of religion" differently, or consider whether our current society and its laws are equipped to handle this problem. I truly think it will go this far. I sincerely hope that they don't wait to lock the barn after the horse is stolen.
NIW: Do you see a role for yourself in this?
JW: I had hoped for a boring job, something like philosophy professor, but I increasingly realize that we have a problem, the problem of Muslim extremism. It is disrupting our society. I am afraid that if a serious attack happened here, like what happened at the Bataclan, that it would lead to a spiral of violence, also from the reaction of the far Right. If that gets released, I don't know how you could put it back in the bottle. But I see too much looking-away to keep from throwing oil on the fire. I am at an age where I think about children, and what kind of community I will give them. Suppose my child is homosexual; can he or she freely be who he is in a few years? We are standing at a historic turning point; the enlightenment and free society are under pressure. I have no answers, but I hope that I can contribute in some way to clarifying the situation, and bringing insights. Every answer begins with a clear analysis of the problem. Yet this is totally not happening. And no, it's not a fun subject; you can become depressed from it, but I have a responsibility. I was a part of the problem. I have seen both sides of it.
NIW: You realize that some will read this interview with skepticism?
JW: Yes, absolutely. People know my history. With the throwing of the hand-grenade, and how I thought then, these are things I will have to live with the rest of my life. I accept that.
I know the hatred, the anti-Semitism that I had is so virulent, it is a racism that is practically metaphysical. It is much deeper than, say, homophobia. The guilt that I feel about that is something you can't just take away. But should I therefore not do any of this? I see now what the Jews have given the world, and it should be appreciated for what it is. I hope that there are people who can draw hope from this story: that even for someone who has stood entirely on the other side, enlightenment and change are possible.
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