Maajid Nawaz was an ordinary schoolboy from Southend. So what turned him into a radical Islamist at the age of 16? Here he tells his story
I first encountered racism at around 8 years old. I was having lunch at my primary school, Earl’s Hall, in Southend, Essex, and as usual I was queuing up with my tray to get my food from the dinner lady. This particular day, it was sausages on the menu. I wasn’t quite sure why, but I was aware that my father didn’t want me to eat sausages. “Eat anything you want, even if it is not halal,” he’d said. “The main thing is, keep from eating pork. So no sausages.”
The dinner lady put my lunch down on my plate.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Sausages,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said politely. “I’m not allowed to eat them.”
“What do you mean, you’re not allowed to eat them?” the dinner lady snapped back.
“I’m… I’m not allowed to eat them,”
I repeated nervously. “My dad told me I wasn’t allowed sausages.”
“Why on earth not?”
“I don’t know,” I replied quivering. “All I know is that I’m not allowed to eat them.”
At this point, I remember being very scared. My dad had been so insistent on not eating them that I thought I might have some reaction if I ate them. I could feel everyone in the canteen starting to look at me.
“Stop being so fussy!” the dinner lady shouted, shoving the plate back at me. “This is your lunch, and you’re going to eat it.”
She insisted I ate them in front of her. Now I was crying. I felt the eyes of everyone staring. I was completely conflicted, and didn’t know what to do.
“What a fussy little boy,” she snapped again. “You will eat your sausages.”
I obeyed the immediate threat, and put a piece of sausage in my mouth. At which point, fear took its revenge. I vomited all over my plate. As I continued to cry, the dinner lady’s stance changed.
“Oh goodness me,” she said. “You’re allergic to sausages. That’s why you can’t eat them.”
I shook my head, tried to tell her otherwise, but she was convinced and escorted me off to the medical office.
This whole incident sounds surreal now, which shows how much things have changed in the past 20 years. No school in the UK would dare to do this to a child today. I suspect the dinner lady’s attitude was well meaning in an “eat your greens” way, but there was a lazy cultural ignorance behind it that said much about attitudes of the time. It did not even cross her mind that there might be a religious reason behind my refusal to eat pork.
Earl’s Hall was almost universally white: the only other non-white child I remember was a Sikh called Satnam. For the first few years I was there, the sausages incident aside, I was very happy. I was very good at art. There was an annual art competition at school, and I won first prize for several years consecutively. My picture was then printed for a school exhibition, which made me hugely proud.
I acted in the school plays, and even had a girlfriend, in a very innocent way, called Sarah. The most we ever did was to hold hands, and I think I kissed her once on the cheek.
My mother’s attempts to integrate us into British culture felt quite natural. I had joined the Cub Scouts, for example, and really enjoyed it. But when I was about 10 or 11, the atmosphere at Earl’s Hall primary school suddenly changed. Overnight, the colour of my skin defined me to friends who had previously seen only a happy, friendly and sociable boy. When a child sees the worl
d, they don’t see their own face, only everything else around them. It’s easy for children to imagine that others don’t see their face either. The mid-Eighties changed this for me, for ever. Concern about Aids had risen sharply in the public imagination. For all the government education films about the disease, its rise led to all sorts of rumours and accusations in the playground about its origins. One day, a big lad who had been a good friend for years suddenly turned on me.
“Aids is your fault,” he told me. “It’s people like you that caused the disease.”
At the time, there were stories going around saying how the disease originated in Africa. Not that I was African, but I wasn’t white and as far as this boy’s knowledge went that was close enough. For the first time since the incident with the dinner lady, I felt like all eyes were on me. The kids had started whispering about me behind my back. Children were scared to touch me.
“You lot have sex with monkeys,” he continued. “That’s how Aids started. It’s true.My dad told me.” I tried to reason with him: this was a boy who’d been my friend. “My dad told me I am not allowed to speak to you any more. Now get lost.”
Not long after, another friend was playing football in the lunch break, and I went over to join in. “Can I play?” I asked. What usually happened is that those already playing would assign you to one or other team. On this occasion I was asking to play and everyone was ignoring me. So I went over to my friend, who was one of the team captains, and asked what was going on. He suddenly turned round and punched me hard in the stomach. The punch completely winded me, and I doubled over in agony.
“This game’s not for Pakis!” he shouted. “Don’t ask to play again.” Once I could catch my breath again, I looked up and saw that I was standing alone. My friends were all playing football. As I fought back the tears, I resolved there and then that when I grew up I would never stand alone again.
It was this incident, more than anything else, that destroyed my childhood innocence. Thereafter I never took part in football again. The kids at primary school wouldn’t let me. By the time I got to secondary school I was embarrassed that I couldn’t play and I didn’t even try to join in.
My parents’ response was to turn the other cheek. There was a feeling among previous generations that they did not have a right to fight back, because they were visitors: they were immigrants.
“So what if they call you a Paki?” they’d tell me. “Just say you are a Paki and you are proud of it, and walk away.”
That’s confusing advice for a child. Children have a very strong sense of right and wrong at that age: here was something that was manifestly unfair, yet I was being told to accept it. Was I really expected just to take the abuse and walk away?
The fact that my skin colour hadn’t been an issue for those early years of schooling says everything about where racism originates: it is a cultural issue, a societal and familial problem that children soak up as they become more aware of the world. But while my generation began by following the same stance that my parents had done, there was one very noticeable difference that separated out those coming of age in the late Eighties from earlier times. It was the level of violence that we faced. And violence breeds violence.
What had changed, particularly in places like Southend, was the rise of the skinhead revival culture. Southend, because of its mods and rockers history, was a place where the shin-high Dr Marten boots of the skinheads stomped with some authority. The casual racism of my primary school years had suddenly gained itself a more sinister edge.
As I would later so painfully learn, Combat 18, an extremely violent neo-Nazi paramilitary organisation, had formed active cells in Southend. No surprise, then, that those children began to believe that “football was no game for Pakis”. The compromise choice of earlier generations, “turning the other cheek”, was no longer an option. It was either time to retreat within the community or stand in the path of these thugs, with dignity and honour.
If you haven’t felt the fear and helplessness that violent, organised racism makes you feel, it’s difficult to understand. Your entire body, because of the colour of your skin, is a moving target. And you cannot leave your skin behind, or pretend it doesn’t exist. At any moment hammer-wielding hooligans could use you for target practice. The “turn the other cheek” philosophy would have got our skulls crushed.
I have lost count of the number of knife attacks we were subjected to by racists; many of my friends had been stabbed, but the police rarely managed to make any arrests, and hardly ever pressed charges. The racist gangs would always boast about “contacts” in the police. I have no idea if this was true, but the bottom line is we were not protected.
One evening I was out late with my brother, Osman, and friend, Ronnie, playing pool. Earlier that day, like many 16-year-old boys, Osman had been messing around with a plastic pellet gun; we called it a BB gun. Playing in open view, he hadn’t thought to conceal what he was doing.
But someone saw what Osman was doing and had called the police, convinced he was going to commit an armed robbery. The police took this accusation seriously, and mounted an all-day surveillance operation.
We finished playing pool about two in the morning, and got into Ron’s car to drive home.
“That’s weird, man,” I quipped from my back seat. “I guess pigs can fly after all!” I was referring to the police helicopters hovering above us.
Suddenly the police cars up ahead skidded to a halt, horizontally blocking the road in front of us. More cars had appeared from behind, blocking our escape. Ron slammed the brakes on.
Armed officers carrying sub-machineguns appeared on either side of the car. “Stop the car! Stay absolutely still! Do not move!”
As the helicopter spotlight lit us up, the armed officers rushed to the car doors and pulled Ron and Osman out of their seats, through their still attached seatbelts, slammed them on the ground, then held them in locked positions. I watched armed police putting a gun to my brother’s head. Then a hand grabbed my collar and lifted me out of my seat and down onto the ground where another gun greeted me.
“You,” the officer shouted in my ear, “are under arrest for suspicion of armed robbery.”
None of this was making any sense to me. I hadn’t been with Osman in the daytime and didn’t know he had been playing with his plastic BB gun. But there was no time for thought, and certainly no time for questions.
I was 15 years old. I had no criminal record. They threw us all in the cells for the night while they inspected the ‘“evidence”. In the morning, after all that, they handed Osman back his pellet gun in a plastic bag and let us go. On the way out, furious at being profiled, I decided to ask one last question. “Is there anything, anything at all, that we did wrong?”
“No, you did nothing wrong. It was a misunderstanding. Sorry about that.” And that was it.
Around the same time I was in the park with the usual posse. Osman was with me and a friend called Nas. We were spotted by [racist skinhead gang leader] Mickey and his crew; there were about half a dozen of them. They were carrying baseball bats, and no doubt were strapping knives. They caught us by total surprise, so we split in different directions. Eventually, once we’d properly tooled up, we re-emerged looking for the rest of the posse, at our recognised rendezvous point opposite my house. Osman, Nas and I were the only ones who made it back; the others must have gone their separate ways.
Then, we saw Mickey and his entire crew heading our way. But we were battle-hardened. Despite being grossly outnumbered, we stood our ground. This was right outside our home; we could see our front door, if we didn’t have a right to walk here, then where could we walk? I had my knife strapped to my back as usual. Osman had a green rucksack on his.
The stand-off continued, and despite outnumbering us Mickey began to look nervous. Next, to our surprise, Mickey stepped forward and asked to parley. For a moment, Osman and I exchanged confused glances. Mickey had never uttered a single word to us. It took us a moment to get used to seeing Mickey as anything other than a knife-wielding demon who only knew the word “Paki”. Once we composed ourselves, Osman indicated to Mickey that he should go over the road, while he too crossed over and waited for Mickey to join him. What followed was a tense few minutes. My brother and Mickey were deep in conversation. Nas and I were switching between watching them, and watching Mickey’s mates. Everyone was poised, hands on baseball bats and fingers ready to unhook knives, in case it all kicked off.
After about ten minutes, Mickey and my brother crossed over, halfway between the two groups and shook hands. I watched in disbelief as Mickey returned to his friends and told them to stand down.
Osman looked at me with a level of confidence in his eyes. “I told him we’re Muslims and we don’t fear death. We’re like those Palestinian terrorists he sees on the television blowing up planes. We’re suicide bombers. We’ve been taught how to make bombs and I’ve got one in my rucksack. If we have to take ourselves out to take you out, then that’s what we will do.”
That discussion was the end of our trouble with Mickey’s racists. They had decided we were too dangerous, too connected to take on.
The issue, put simply, was respect. And that came from the assertive new identity Osman had adopted. Islamism. It had done what years of knife fights could not. It had won the psychological war, and defeated our enemy. For the first time, I caught a glimpse of its power, and how it was capable of transforming my standing at a stroke. Osman, who by this point had become a committed Islamist, had been banging on about this for a year, but I’d never taken him seri
The violence I’d been subjected to, the police discrimination, a greater awareness of foreign conflicts such as Bosnia, all this undoubtedly made me receptive to the Islamist message. I was desperately looking for answers. But while all that was essential background, it was that afternoon in the park, and the fear in Mickey’s eyes, that triggered my decision to take things further.
Now, here, with a defeated and retreating enemy, I finally understood what my brother had been talking about. Islamism, I realised, could give me the respect that I’d craved since primary school. Here today, outnumbered, I stood my ground with Osman, and we won because we invoked Allah.
By 16, I had joined a radical Islamist group Hizb al-Tahrir (HT). Full of the zeal of the converted, I moved to a sixth-form college in London to be where the action was. All the major universities had recruitment drives: Oxford and Cambridge, Exeter, Durham, everywhere. But in London the Nineties was the decade of Islamism.
Manor Park in East London might not have been that far from Southend, but it felt like a different world. The diverse community of East Ham made racism less of an issue. And the rising strength of Islamism and Jihadism meant for the first time that you didn’t mess with Muslims. With that knowledge, I could walk the streets with confidence.
When I arrived, Nasim, a friend from Southend, appointed one of his protégés, Ed Husain, to help me settle in. Ed, a passionate HT daris– student – was studying at Newham College. We quickly became very close.
Before term started Ed asked me which college I was enrolled in. Barking College, I told him.
“You don’t want to be in Barking ya akhi, my brother, all the action’s at Newham College. I’m at Newham’s East Ham campus. That’s where all the Muslims are, and that’s where we could really kick things off together.”
I went along with him to the East Ham campus and was blown away by the number of Muslims there. So I switched from Barking to Newham. I was at Newham for an HT takeover.
I was recruiting, and skipping lessons to do so. As soon as I set foot in Newham, the potential of the place was clear. Newham was a big college with two campuses – one at East Ham, one at West Ham – with thousands of students and many Muslims.
Ed Husain, who was in his final year, needed to hand over his HT drive to someone else and I was the perfect replacement. Ed was a studious type and a devout Muslim. I liked his religious devotion, it helped to calm my wilder side, and we developed a lasting friendship.
I went to his house, got to know his parents and remember spending Ramadan breaking my fasts with his family. It soon became apparent that Ed and I could work together as a strong team. Ed suggested that I should run for president of the Student Union, and that our HT group should stand on a single slate.
The election was a runaway success. I didn’t only become student president: all the other HT candidates won as well. We were now the most senior students on campus, with authority to represent students in front of management and to control student funds. At the same time, we set up the Debating Society to arrange events and bring in external speakers. On the forms, we claimed to have been inspired by Gladstone and Disraeli, and by parliamentary debates. We managed to hoodwink the management into letting us set up an HT front group. Such takeovers were happening across UK campuses; Islamism was firmly on the rise.
I spent 13 years of my life as a member of Hizb al-Tahrir. Thirteen years as a deeply committed Islamist ideologue totally prepared to sacrifice all for my cause. HT wanted to control the intellectual life of a nation, to be in such a position of influence that they could hijack the Army and instigate a coup. To this end I worked in four different countries setting up cells that recruited young people and army officers to the cause. In 2001 I went to study Arabic at Alexandria University: my job was to revive the original HT organisation in the county. To travel to Egypt as a member of Hizb al-Tahrir and to participate actively in recruitment was always going to be a high-risk activity and, sure enough, in April 2002, I was arrested and imprisoned in al-Gihaz. I will never forget al-Gihaz. It is the sort of place that remains etched on your memory for ever. The sort of place that still, a decade later, I can recall with disturbing clarity as it wakes me up in the night: the piling of the bodies, the begging screams from the torture room at the end of the corridor. The waiting. It’s the sort of place that when you first enter, you cannot quite believe it exists. But it’s real. [Before Nawaz could be tortured, he was transferred to a political prison south of Cairo, where he spent four years before a campaign by Amnesty International led to his release.]
In the weeks and months after my release in March 2006, I took stock of my situation, and my self-esteem began to falter. I was now 28 years old, still an undergraduate with no guarantee that I would be allowed re-admission to university, h
ad a six-year-old son to support, no job to go to, and a four-year stint in jail as an Islamist political prisoner in a post-9/11 world. I began to panic. For the first time in my life I began to feel old. Not old in the conventional way, I was still only 28, but old inside my heart. The burden of what I knew and what my conscience was telling me about Islamism was heavy on my mind. My doubts kept growing, but the more they screamed for my attention, the more I sought to bury them away in denial. This is all I’ve known in my adult life, “My name is Maajid Nawaz. I am a member of Hizb al-Tahrir.” What was I if not this? So I set myself some goals – if I could give myself something to aim for, then that might help lift me out of this trough.
My starting point was my degree. I went back to SOAS [the School of Oriental and African Studies] to see if they would allow me to continue my law and Arabic degree. They could quite easily have told me where to go. I’d done my first year and taken two years out, done my second year, and then was imprisoned for four years halfway through my placement abroad.
To my relief, two of my old Arabic lecturers were still at the university. SOAS let me back in. I’d been arrested a few months before I was due to take my third-year Arabic exams, so my faculty head said I’d have to pass those in order to be allowed back. As my one-year placement in Egypt had been extended by several years, my ability in Arabic was not in question. I took the exam, and got 97 per cent.
It was in the junior common room of SOAS that I met her. Proudly Pakistani, proudly female, her answer to the face veil was to wear her beauty brazenly, her answer to stoning the adulterers was to cite Rumi’s “Let the lover be”. She embraced life in all its splendour where I had come to embrace the afterlife in all its austerity, and she despised the madness of men who cared more about whether their position in prayer was correct, than they did about spilling innocent blood. She was a political science postgraduate, and she approached me one day with the question “So, are you a PhD student?”
“No, I’m an undergraduate. I was imprisoned in Egypt after 9/11. I served four years. I’ve just got back.”
I tried to recruit her. Like the death throes of a dying body, I tried to project all my insecurities about my existential crisis onto her.
And she just looked at me square in the face as she said, “I may not be able to argue with you, or respond to your points, but I know what you are saying is simply bulls***. And you know what, Maajid? So do you.”
And that was it. With those words the penny dropped. My mouth froze as I struggled to speak. She had no idea she had just become the proverbial butterfly to unleash a whirlwind. And I had just found my new best friend, my rock of support among the confusion that was my life after leaving HT.
In the end, the timing of my decision was forced. While I had been in prison, Nasim had been in Bangladesh, setting up HT out there. He now needed to get back there to resume this work, which meant that HT UK would need a new leader. I had the media profile, the international experience, my Arabic and Islamic learning, I had cut my teeth the hard way and I had the intellectual ability. For Nasim, I was the ideal candidate.
It was one thing to be arguing for my views within the organisation, it was another to be leading a group whose ideology I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable about. The timing couldn’t have been worse. I was in the middle of revising for my final exams at university, but I had to make a move before anything was formalised. I called Nasim and asked to see him alone at a cafe in Brick Lane, London.
This was one of the most nervous conversations of my life. I had been a member of Hizb al-Tahrir for over a decade. I had known Nasim since I was 15 years old, and through that time he had been a friend and mentor to me through thick and thin. But I owed it to him to tell him my decision, face to face. “I know you are preparing me to take over the leadership of the group, but it’s something I’m going to have to turn down. In fact, I no longer believe in HT and I need to leave the group immediately. Please consider this my resignation.” I just blurted it out.
Nasim was astonished.
We sat in the cafe, going back and forth. It never got heated. It was more about sadness, and regret, and resignation. Nasim knew that I wouldn’t have come to this decision lightly. He knew that I’d thought through the consequences, and that it would be unlikely we’d see each other again. In the end, as a favour to him, I agreed that I wouldn’t announce my resignation for a fortnight. Maybe it was to give him the opportunity to tell the rest of the group himself, or because he wanted time to have another go at persuading me. If it was the latter, I didn’t give him the chance. I switched my phone off for two weeks.
When the fortnight had passed I released an e-mail to the media, rather than leaving it to the group to announce and twist the reasons for my departure. “In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful,” I began. “Assalaamu alaykum.”
I tried to keep my resignation as brief and as dignified as I could:
“I have deemed it necessary to announce that, after serving in Hizb al-Tahrir for 12 years and since I w
as 17 years old, I have decided to leave the party and resign my membership effective immediately. I humbly request that I do not discuss the reasons for my decision at this moment in time, and ask that I be left to complete my much delayed final examinations. Forgive me for any offence caused.”
The moment I hit “send”, a dozen years of my life had come to a close.
It was on the site of one of the 7/7 attacks, appositely enough, that our counter-extremism organisation, Quilliam, came into being. Two years after the bombings, London life had moved on, and apart from the commemorative plaque in Tavistock Square, much had returned to normal.
When I left HT, I also left my friends behind. My life had been so entwined with the organisation that my entire social circle had gone with it. I didn’t have a job or any money, and so I lived in my car. I’d drive around until I found a space in one of the streets near SOAS – Tavistock Square, Russell Square, usually – and that would be where I spent the night.
Just at the time when all my HT friends were turning on me – “Traitor!” “Sell-out!” “Agent!” – I bumped into someone from my old days.
“Maajid! Subhan Allah! Habib – my dear friend, you’re back from Egypt. I saw your news on TV.”
Standing on the SOAS steps, exactly where I had last left him, still wearing his trademark blazer, was none other than Ed Husain, now studying for his PhD.
It had been ten years, but the bond between us remained strong. Ed was writing his book The Islamist. Sensing that my thoughts had moved on he asked me to look through and comment on the Newham sections, which served as a reminder, if I needed one, of how far I had come.
The conversations and debates Ed and I shared in my clapped-out blue Renault Clio during those depressing early days were critical to informing our joint direction for years to come. For both of us, it wasn’t enough just to leave HT behind.
“We need to reform the way we Muslims see politics,” Ed suggested.
“No, habib, trust me, everything, absolutely everything needs to be reformed. I’m talking about enshrining absolute freedoms, human rights, a respect for individual liberty, women’s rights and reconciling modern scientific facts with Islamic interpretation. And I don’t just mean in the lofty circles of academia or theology, that’s all been done before, but actually out there, in the real world, just as we did for Islamism back in the day.”
“You do realise, Maajid, we will be roundly attacked,” Ed said.
Islamism in Europe had set Muslim communities back by an entire generation. In an effort to protest discrimination, all it achieved was further segregation, and further social immobility created more discrimination, rather than less, repeating the cycle of racism, Islamist extremism, more racism, and more Islamist extremism.
What exacerbated the situation was a lack of understanding about what Islamism was. Governments were allowing the Islamist narrative to drive the debate, and accepted their claims that they represented the majority Muslim voice. This simply wasn’t true: Islamism was a modern political phenomenon with opinions that could be every bit as offensive as those held by far-right organisations – its anti-Semitism and homophobia, for example. But government and society instinctively resisted challenging this for fear of coming across as racist.
Ed and I wanted less separation of communities, and more involvement of Muslims in every aspect of society. The state could help here, but it could never drive the process: imposing ideas like democracy and human rights would only lead to resistance. Instead, the change had to come from within communities themselves, a “ground up” not a “top down” process.
What we were encouraged by was the reaction to our ideas. Ed’s book was published to a lot of media attention and discussion and the editor of Newsnight agreed to do an item about my departure from HT.
On the day the Newsnight piece was due to be aired, Ed and I were invited in to the Communities and Local Government department at the Home Office, to brief them about Islamism. As we entered the room we realised just how senior the meeting was: as well as Hazel Blears, Communities Secretary at the time, also present were Foreign Secretary David Miliband, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism.
The last time an official had asked me about my political views, I was fingerprinted and had my DNA taken under caution in the interrogation rooms at Heathrow Airport.
Here we now were, offering our opinions to three cabinet members. Later that week, I received a rather bemused call from my mother. “You’ll never gu
ess who came to see me after your story was aired on Newsnight,” she said. “It was the Essex Police. They came to offer an apology for having arrested you at gunpoint all those years ago when you were 15. They saw it on TV and felt bad.” I burst into laughter. Here was my “green rucksack” moment.