In his newly-published autobiography, “Radical: my journey from Islamist extremism to a democratic awakening”, Maajid Nawaz, chairman of the British counter-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation, recounts his transformation from being a member of an extremist party to founding one of the world’s first counter-extremism organisations.
Nawaz began as a member and leader in Hizb ut-Tahrir — a party calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate — then abandoned his radical ideas in an Egyptian prison before returning to Britain to combat the same ideology he had previously worked to spread.
Al-Shorfa spoke to Nawaz about his personal journey and his views on al-Qaeda, the Taliban and extremism.
Al-Shorfa: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Maajid Nawaz: I spent 13 years on the leadership of a global Islamist group called Hizb ut-Tahrir, working to create a global super-state that would enforce one interpretation of sharia. We hijacked the name “caliphate” to refer to this state.
During my time on the leadership of this group, I helped co-found the organisation from the UK [in] Pakistan and Denmark, and I eventually ended up attempting to revive the group’s fortunes in Mubarak-era Egypt. It was in Egypt that my activities finally caught up with me and I was taken to the state security headquarters in Cairo, where I witnessed torture and was eventually convicted to five years in prison as an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience.
A few months after my return to the UK from prison, disillusioned with Islamist ideology, I decided to leave my group and actively began campaigning as a critic of the intellectual stagnation that Islamism has suffered from, advocating for new democratic framework of thinking instead.
As opposed to Islam — a faith — I define Islamism as “the desire to impose any interpretation of Islam over society by law”. In pursuit of my intellectual critique of Islamism, I became co-founder and chairman of Quilliam — the world’s first counter-extremism organisation.
Al-Shorfa: Tell us about your journey — first why you joined an extremist group and what led you to renouncing this ideology.
Nawaz: As I narrate in my autobiography “Radical”, I was raised in an integrated and well-established family; four of my mother’s siblings are doctors. I had absolutely no problem making friends and was in the highest sets in school, later going on to study law at university. But as a British-Asian teenager growing up in Essex, I always had a sense of being different. In fairness, this was not due to the majority of people around me, but the actions of a minority of organised racists who made life exceptionally difficult for all around me.
By the age of 15, I found myself having to flee random and unprovoked knife attacks, and witness friends being stabbed before my eyes.
It was during this period of my life that a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a young medical student from my hometown who had been recruited while studying medicine at a university in London, started explaining Hizb ut-Tahrir ideas to me. My premature politicised mind was ripe to receive an ideology that advocated a black-and-white solution to the problems I had grown up with. The tactics these people used were to avoid mosques and instead look for sympathisers at youth clubs and universities. Our conversations did not revolve around religion, but rather around politics. Islam was presented to me as a political ideology.
The idea that I was not a Muslim in the religious sense but rather in a larger political context appealed to me. The question “Who are you actually?” is what really got me. It continued in that way: “Are you British? Of course not, they will never accept you. Are you Pakistani? The colonial powers created Pakistan 50 years ago and gave you a Pakistani identity. If you really want to be yourself, you have to refuse the identity they want to give you.”
These questions were the core of their indoctrination, which fascinated me.
Al-Shorfa: Why leave Hizb ut-Tahrir?
Nawaz: It was during my detention in the Egyptian prison that I began to utilise my time by studying as much as I could about the ideology that I professed to be working for. My aim was to study Islam to such a depth that once released, I would be even more potent at propagandising than before.
As I studied various branches of traditional Islamic sciences, however, I grew more and more surprised. The sheer breadth of scholastic disagreement that I found, on issues I had believed were so definitive in Islam, surprised me. Where we had been willing to challenge, even overthrow, regimes on certain issues, traditional jurists of Islam had treated these as academic disagreements to be debated through books.
It slowly dawned on me that what I had been propagating was far from true Islam. I began to realise that what I had subscribed to was actually Islamism sold to me in the name of Islam. And it is with this realisation that I can now say that the more I learnt about Islam, the more tolerant I became.
I often say: Where the heart leads, the mind can follow. My desire to question my own assumptions was greatly encouraged by my being adopted by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience. Amnesty’s efforts taught me that even those who knew that I considered them my “enemies” had the capacity to stand for justice in my case. It was their outreach that enabled me to be emotionally prepared to question my deeply-held prejudices.
Al-Shorfa: Why Quilliam? What is the goal and why draw people like Noman Benotman to its ranks?
Nawaz: Through my prison experience and what I learnt about the flexibility of Islam, I came to realise that the modern dogmatic ideology of Islamism — devised for a 20th-century world when Europe too was witnessing the rise of fascist ideologies — was one of the main factors holding Muslim-majority countries back. After leaving my Islamist group, I decided many young Muslim minds desperately needed help in moving away from totalitarian worldviews, and towards more constructive and inclusive dialogue. Quilliam was founded to act as an intellectual hub and centre of gravity for former Islamists like myself to use as a platform to start encouraging a more critical and progressive attitude in the Muslim way of thinking, [which] had come to be dominated by Islamism.
Through our work with governments we aim to influence policy. Through our work with media we aim to initiate counter-narratives, and through our work with communities we aim to galvanise people into organising alternative fresh, new discourses. This is all done so that we slowly begin to help change the norms of political discourse that have become so enshrined among youth in the Arab political street.
Noman Benotman was one of the many former Islamists who joined Quilliam. As a former fighter against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and a former commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, I believe he brings a breadth of unparalleled experience to Quilliam. Due to this background Noman quickly stood out as the most prominent voice among the others who joined Quilliam, and so it was only natural — my honour in fact — that he accepted my offer for him to take a title as Quilliam’s president.
Al-Shorfa: In your book, you warned against groups like al-Qaeda, Hizb ut-Tahrir and others. How do you see their role in the Arab Spring, seeing that they claim to have the same goals?
Nawaz: My criticism was not directed at the desired goal but the vehicle and the means being used to reach it. What I mean by “vehicle” is that I could call for the overthrow of a dictatorship in order to replace it with another type of dictatorship: a religious dictatorship (a theocracy), or I could call for the overthrow of a dictatorship to replace it with democracy. Therefore, the ideology used to overthrow the dictatorship and present an alternative is what I refer to as the vehicle.
By the “means”, I am referring to the violence used by al-Qaeda and by Hizb ut-Tahrir. The means I support is what transpired in Egypt, when young people took to the streets (to demand that [former President] Hosni Mubarak’s regime be replaced) in non-violent demonstrations. This does not mean revoking the right to self-defence, but rather that change is achieved by means of non-violent popular movements.
In the cases of Libya and Syria, the problem with the vehicle remains, meaning that two people could fight the same regime but for totally different reasons. In Syria, for example, you could fight [Syrian president Bashar] Assad alongside [Jabhat al-Nusra] or alongside the Free Syrian Army. The two sides are totally different, even though both are fighting Assad. So, what I am saying is that the problem is in the ideology used to justify the change, and no matter what happens I cannot support [Jabhat al-Nusra] because I know — and we all know — what will happen next if it reaches power.
Al-Shorfa: The Taliban recently targeted a 14-year-old girl for criticising them. As a person of Pakistani origin, and as someone who has once been in the ranks of extremist groups, how does that make you feel?
Nawaz: Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old girl, had the courage and the patience to do what the men in the nation of Pakistan failed to do — challenge the Taliban. She resembles the spirit for which we set up Quilliam, and is the best symbol of how the excess and brutality of Islamism is not the same as Islam the faith.
Whereas Islam encourages education, and as we all know began by the very first revelation “read”, the Taliban would even shoot a 14-year-old girl for the crime of asking to do simply that. Hizb ut-Tahrir, the group I used to belong to, does not have a policy of banning women from education, but they do believe that democracy is apostasy. When the Taliban shot Malala in the head at point-blank range, they said their real reason was because she was bringing “Western ideology” to Muslims. It is this common hostility to adopting a progressive mind-set that Islamists of different groups share, and it is the dogmatic uncritical mind-set that we at Quilliam wish to keep challenging.
Democracy is not just about holding elections. Hitler was elected after all. Rather, without a human rights culture, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, of association and belief, there can be no free and fair elections. Developing a consensus around this culture — one that allows for religious practice but doesn’t impose it — in Pakistan and even elsewhere is crucial. Only through unifying people in Muslim-majority societies — with all their varying beliefs, ethnicities and languages — under this culture can we develop a vision to manage a country and move forward with ambition.
To achieve the above, we need to start building a civilisational consensus around how the country should be organised. This is not the work of one person, one organisation or one movement. This is the work of a generation. This process has no “quick fix” and will take decades. This is work we started in Pakistan but hope will spread elsewhere too.
Al-Shorfa: What is your message to youth who might be thinking of joining extremist groups?
Nawaz: I say to Muslim youth: take up these ideas and this vision and work with us to help build your future. Develop your own local initiatives and contact us with your ideas and efforts. This is not just our cause; it belongs to us all. Quilliam will provide support and co-operation wherever possible. Let us work together to reposition Muslims globally as agents of respectability, enlightened thought and intellectualism once more, rather than as symbols of terror, murder and backwardness as we’ve sadly become to be portrayed.
This will not happen overnight, it will not happen in a week, or a month. We cannot promise sudden change, but if we stand together and start working through collaborations, we will see positive change in the next generation, just as we have seen negative change in ours. Do not give up, Islam is your identity, it does not belong to the terrorists who would have you shoot children, or to the Islamists who would ask you to suspend your mental faculties and critical thought. To give up on this cause would be to give up on yourselves.