This interview was transcribed by Alison Bevege
27 January 2016
Richard Fidler: In 1992, Maajid Nawaz was a 15-year-old living in Essex, England. Maajid was an excellent student. At the same time he was listening to a lot of American hip-hop and tagging walls with a fat felt-tip pen.
Five years later Maajid was recruiting for Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK, an Islamist organisation that wants to see regimes in Islamic countries overthrown and replaced by a new Islamic caliphate.
Maajid turned out to be a gifted and persuasive organiser and he was set to set up branches in other countries. But in Egypt, Maajid was arrested and sent to jail for four years for his political activities. Today though, Maajid Nawaz is the co-founder and chairman of an organisation called Quilliam which is a UK think tank that focusses on counter-extremism, to upholding liberal, democratic values and challenging the very jihadist movement Maajid was once a part of.
In 2013 he ran for the UK Parliament as a Liberal Democrat.
I spoke to Maajid Nawaz late last week, and just to let you know there are some scenes in Maajid’s story where he talks about witnessing some moments of graphic violence.
But today Maajid Nawaz has the ear of prime ministers precisely because he understands precisely what would make a young man or woman want to become a jihadist.
And I’m so glad you could be here, Maajid
Maajid Nawaz: Pleasure, thank you, Richard
Richard Fidler: So, a young 15-year-old Maajid – what was he wearing? What kind of stuff was he into? What was he doing?
Maajid Nawaz: So I don’t know if you guys had the same sub-culture that we had back in those days in the UK, but the hip hop subculture was all about wearing the baggiest trousers you could get your hands on and a matching corduroy top with corduroy trousers pinned up to the bottom and what that meant was you’d fold it round twice and tuck it up that’s so they’d look a bit like genie trousers and then we’d have these big fat trainers on underneath. So they were called click suits, extreme suits and they were huge.
But they were deliberately that large because you had to be able to dance in them as well so they wouldn’t rip, ‘cause you would perform all these acrobatic acts on the dance floor.
So that’s kind of, with bandannas on our head, that’s what we were dressing.
Richard Fidler: As the son and grandson of migrants from Pakistan, what was American hip hop about for you?
Maajid Nawaz: I think it was all about seeking pride in one’s identity, being confident in one’s own skin, especially because I grew up in Essex it was still a very live debate in terms of the race relations. It was what I’ve come to term the bad old days of racism in the United Kingdom. A lot has changed since then, I’m not one of these people that doesn’t want to recognise positive change in my society when I see it, and I think that unfortunately a lot of people today are holding that debate back by not recognising change.
But in those days things were really bad when it came to race relations and hip hop gave us that voice to express ourselves.
Richard Fidler: Was there a bit of Islam anywhere in that stuff? In that hip hop from that period?
Maajid Nawaz: It actually did become influenced by not Islam per se but a version of Islam which took off in the United States and it was a Black Nationalist version of Islam, so you had the Nation of Islam movement, these were people who were in a sense reverse racist. They believed in Malcolm X is associated with having in his early days joined this movement, so they believed all white men were the devil and that black men were god, and it influenced the music of say Public Enemy.
But there were many other rappers who weren’t influenced by the Black Nationalist movement but were still rapping with a heavily politicised message.
And that’s what I found for me was my earliest political awakening that I remember, that I recall came through American hip hop.
Richard Fidler: how present were racist skinhead gangs in your area?
Maajid Nawaz: This is why the Black Nationalist message and hip hop resonated with me because I was spending my days as a 13- 14-year-old being chased by racist skinheads regularly. They were chasing us with everything from hammers and machetes to screwdrivers.
I had to watch many of my friends as a 15-year-old stabbed before my eyes, many of my white friends stabbed before my eyes for having the audacity to associate with me and so they were deemed as blood traitors.
One of my friends had a hammer put to his head, another had his lungs punctured as he was stabbed all over his body, and really this defined my teenage years. It defined my experience with wider society and as I said, these were the bad old days of racism. Things have changed a lot since those days.
Richard Fidler: did you feel you had to carry some kind of a weapon yourself?
Maajid Nawaz: Yes. I never used to carry a weapon but when chased one too many times by skinheads who were twice my age carrying hammers, machetes and screwdrivers I eventually began carrying a concealed weapon myself for self-defence purposes. Thankfully I never had to use it.
Richard Fidler: there was a group that was active in your area that had gotten at you and your friends known as Combat 18. Tell me about them. What kind of an organisation were they?
4.50 Maajid Nawaz: So, Combat 18 was a banned neo-Nazi paramilitary organisation. It was formed by I think former soldiers. Its founder eventually was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. It’s an extremely violent neo-Nazi movement.
They would engage in a sport which in those days they called “Paki bashing“ and what that was is that they would ride around in white vans, a whole bunch of men in white vans, armed with their knives and with their hammers and what have you, and they would ride around the streets of my hometown and my county Essex, and they would look for anyone who had a different skin colour. And then this passer-by, who would be completely unsuspecting, would be spotted by them, they would pull over by his side or her side, and they would jump out of the back of these vans and just attack this person in a totally unprovoked manner.
So we were their sport, we were their game. They were hunting and if they would see me, if they would see anyone else that looked like me they would jump out the back of these vans and just set upon that unsuspecting passer-by.
5.48 Richard Fidler: So this is your first exposure to extremism? It wasn’t Islam it was a kind of fascism
Maajid Nawaz: That’s right.
Richard Fidler: There was a moment when you were cornered by a bunch of these guys and you would have looked into their eyes. What did you see when you sort of looked into that kind of face of extremist hate? In the thrall of its own hatred for the first time? Do you remember seeing?
6.08 Maajid Nawaz: So you know that moment that you’ve just alluded to – these were like other-worldly people to me. I had no idea whether they even had brains to comprehend that I’m a human being, because I saw them, I only ever interacted with them at the other end of a hammer or a machete attack. These were like monsters. These were beasts. My heart would leap every time I heard – because the minute they’d see any of us on the street the first thing they’d do, they’d raise a Nazi salute and then they would shout a racial pejorative in our direction, the n-word or in my case “Paki”, and then they would run at us with their weapons.
And so having only ever interacted with them in that way, they were beasts in my perception. And when I looked at them, I looked at the eyes of wild beasts who were hunting their prey.
And this incident that you refer to is a classic example of that, cause I truly felt that was, as a 15-year-old, I was surrounded by them, I was left alone, my friends had gone in different directions, I eventually got cornered.
And I thought that I was about to be murdered.
Richard Fidler: And who stepped in to help you?
7.08 Maajid Nawaz: There was a passer-by who saw this, he saw that I was a lot younger than them and he intervened, and he asked them to leave me alone.
Richard Fidler: was he a tough guy? This passer-by?
7.17 Maajid Nawaz: No he was just some random guy walking past. He was, I remember him being taller than me. He certainly wasn’t a fighter and I don’t think he was expecting what happened next.
What happened is they held me back and they were so angered by the fact that he tried to defend me that they forced me to watch as they stabbed him all over his body.
Richard Fidler: was he killed?
7.34 Maajid Nawaz: He had lungs punctured, he was on the floor, I remember distinctly what he did as they ran away after. I mean they all set on him, there were like five of them stabbing him. They had planks of wood with nails hammered into them that they were hitting him with, there were machetes.
When they got him to the floor, and he had multiple puncture wounds all over his body, and as they ran away I remember him getting up and continuing to walk towards them. I don’t know if that was a state of shock. All I remember thinking was this man really just saved my life.
8.05 Richard Fidler: he was a white guy, too.
Maajid Nawaz: He was a white guy, that’s right.
Richard Fidler: What did you think after that?
8.08 Maajid Nawaz: Shame, guilt that this has had to happen, because of me and the colour of my skin, and denial. You know what I should have thought was they’re not all bad, you know, there’s a guy who has defended me. Instead what I thought was I need to segregate myself even further, it sent me even further down the black nationalist self-segregation message, because I felt such a level of guilt and shame that this had happened because of me that I then deliberately isolated myself from any white friends whatsoever.
8.35 Richard Fidler: How was it that, I think it was your older brother, wasn’t it?
Maajid Nawaz: given that was a mind of a 15-year-old
Richard Fidler: given this is still your 15-year-old self were talking about here. How was your brother I think it was, able to keep them at bay? To stop bothering you so much?
8.46 Maajid Nawaz: So as this happened over a period of a year and a half or so it got worse and worse and worse. So we first started by carrying concealed weapons for self-defence purposes ourselves. But that wasn’t enough because we were always outnumbered, and they were, as I said, twice our age.
And then we became aware of the nascent jihadist scene. Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
Richard Fidler: Right, this is pre-September 11, isn’t it?
9.13 Maajid Nawaz: Absolutely, a long time before.
Richard Fidler: But still these stereotype of the Muslim as terrorist is starting to bubble up in the culture?
9.18 Maajid Nawaz: Because of Hamas. Because before that, because of the PLO you weren’t necessarily Islamist but they were Arabs who were committing Black September, you know, acts of terror against Israel. So what my brother did, is he played on that, and used the neo-Nazis very stereotypes against them.
And I remember one day he was carrying this green rucksack, and we were surrounded as usual by these guys, and he called their bluff.
He said “Do you see those guys on the news who blow things up? Well were Muslims, that’s us, that’s what we do. And in this backpack here there’s a bomb, and if you guys take one step closer were gonna blow this thing up and we don’t care if we die with you because we go to heaven.”
And to my surprise, to my shock, these guys backed off. It confirmed every stereotype they had. And you know that was the first time I realised the power of a narrative. Of a message.
It defeated these guys where no amount of knives that I was carrying or anything had ever succeeded before.
10.17 Richard Fidler: in this nightmare and in this bag you can’t see it but it’s the worst thing you can possibly imagine
Maajid Nawaz: Exactly. It worked. They backed away.
10.24 Richard Fidler: Your parents, did they bring you up to encourage you to intermingle with the broader population in the UK or to keep yourself to yourself?
10.30 Maajid Nawaz: We had a very integrated upbringing. We spoke English at home, you know, which for that generation of my parents’ generation that’s unusual. Usually they would speak Urdu or Arabic in their native tongue at home and you’d learn English at school. We spoke English with our parents. Our parents had a diverse set of friendships. They were liberal, secular, no real religious affiliation, I mean they were nominally Muslim but that was it, really.
10.56 Richard Fidler: how were you then attracted to or recruited to Hizb ut-Tahrir?
11.00 Maajid Nawaz: After that incident when we realised the power of a message, and we realised the power of being able to control our situation and intimidate people just by the message without having to do anything else – just scare them with the aura of what we could represent. We realised there was something bigger than us, because it worked. It was a practical case of what worked.
At the same time as everything we’ve just discussed was happening in the United Kingdom, the Bosnian genocide was unfolding on our same continent of Europe. So we looked to Bosnia and we saw that there were Muslims being killed in Bosnia and this was a huge problem for us, because we thought wow, that’s people being killed, these are white Muslims, blonde hair and blue eyes but they’re still being identified as Muslims, so if it wasn’t an issue of racism then it’s gone beyond that, there’s still going to be these attacks even if we were white because of our Muslim names.
11.53 Richard Fidler: so how were you approached? Was it in a mosque or was it elsewhere?
11.55 Maajid Nawaz: So Bosnia was the key recruitment drive. It was the key thing that allowed an entire generation of people that were my age, around 16 years old to be approached by Islamists who said – “do you want a solution to this problem?”
Well how do you think Islam even reached Bosnia in the first place? It was via the Ottoman Caliphate. And after the destruction of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, there was nothing to protect the Bosnian Muslims against such an onslaught. So the only solution was to resurrect this Caliphate so that you have a state that protects Muslims against things like the genocide in Bosnia.
Richard Fidler: but how did they reach out to you, personally?
12.28 Maajid Nawaz: they were distributing fliers in the high street, when my brother came across some of these fliers he mentioned these to me and we approached these guys we said listen we want to talk to you. They invited us to some of their study circles and the process began.
Richard Fidler: what that was in someone’s home was it?
Richard Fidler: and what would they show you at those meetings?
12.48 Maajid Nawaz: Videos of the atrocities that were committed in Bosnia,
12.51 Richard Fidler: And how did that affect you emotionally? Watching those videos of those atrocities?
12.55 Maajid Nawaz: As a 16-year-old I was completely disenfranchised from my own society, seeing mass graves of Bosnian Muslims, seeing body parts chopped off and seeing the torture of mutilation in these videos it shocked me to my core.
13.11 Richard Fidler: So going along to those meetings, I suppose the reason why I bring up the emotional side of it is that you can persuade people all you like but really you’ve got to do that through the heart as well as the head, don’t you. That’s the main thing that’s got to really grab you. What were you infused with? Was it a sense of terrible injustice? Or rage or what? Was it …
13.27 Maajid Nawaz: I think the injustice of it all because if you keep in mind that while the genocide was unfolding in Bosnia there was an arms embargo. So while the Russians could arm the Serbs, nobody could arm the Bosnians to defend themselves because there was an arms embargo. And ostensibly that arms embargo was to prevent the escalation of war, but in practice what it meant was the Dutch peacekeepers stood by while Srebrenica, the massacre at Srebrenica against the Bosnians.
So we were filled with a raging sense of injustice with a desire to do something about it knowing that we could be next. We were really, really angry about what was going on and again in those days we personally knew people that had gone over there in charity or in defence and came back with live testimonies so this was all very real for us.
14.10 Richard Fidler: Maajid you came close into Hizb ut-Tahrir. Tell me a bit about the organisation and their aims and their methods and how they…
14.18 Maajid Nawaz: so take, let’s start with the word “Islamism” as distinct from the religion. “Islamism” is the desire to impose any form of Islam over society, and Islamist groups vary in their aims and means.
Right, so Hizb ut-Tahrir is what I call a revolutionary Islamist group. It seeks to overthrow Arab and Muslim majority governments via military coups rather than by terrorism such as those acts that al-Qaida and ISIS engage in.
Their desire is to infiltrate the armies of Muslim majority states, incite military coups, overthrow those regimes and replace in their wake a, replace them with a Caliphate.
And that Caliphate would be an expansionist, global Muslim empire that would enforce their version of Islam over society. That’s the basic aim of this group.
15.04 Richard Fidler: how about Western countries like Britain? Is there a desire to introduce a Caliphate to somewhere like Britain? Or is that a much more long-term project?
15.12 Maajid Nawaz: So the desire would be to establish a Caliphate in the Muslim majority society, not in Australia, not in Britain.
So what’s the purpose of their operations here in Australia or in say my case in the UK? Their aim there would be to utilise the media to broadcast the message, especially in the English media, a bit like ISIS is doing now.
Hizb ut-Tahrir recognised early on that the BBC would be a fantastic vehicle through which to disseminate the notion of the importance of resurrecting a Caliphate.
So today’s big media is social media, you know in those days it was all about BBC and ABC and CNN. So one was media.
15.50 The other was raising funding. Hizb ut-Tahrir takes a tithe, a 10 per cent of the gross monthly income of all of its members who are earning, and so it was able to raise a great deal of funds which when converted from sterling into say let’s take Pakistani rupees as an example it is a great deal of money for their operations in Pakistan.
And so there was that element.
And then the third was recruiting high-calibre, highly educated, international, globally mobile members. Because once you have a British passport, you can speak English, you can travel to most especially in those days you could travel to most countries in the world with that passport so they were able to attract really high quality, high calibre recruits as a result of their operation.
And then send them to third countries
16.35 Richard Fidler: a lot of the governments you can point at today, that they want to overthrow, they’re pretty terrible governments like Syrian government of Assad, or the Saudi government I don’t know, how do they feel about the Saudi government? Do they want to overthrow that because it’s pro-American?
16.48 Maajid Nawaz: Well it’s an absolute monarchy and its not expansionist and it enforces the penal code aspect of the medieval version of Islam
16.58 Richard Fidler: Egyptian government as well?
16.59 Maajid Nawaz: – Yep, that’s a republic. They don’t like republics.
17.01 Richard Fidler: So they’re aiming themselves at those governments but their activities within those countries are considered criminal?
17.07 Maajid Nawaz: Now all of those governments are nasty, all the ones you mentioned. But that’s a … you see correlation isn’t causation. It just so happens they’re nasty governments but even if they were the perfect democracies they’d still want to overthrow them. So let’s take Tunisia, which isn’t a perfect democracy but it’s a good example of an Arab democracy. They want to overthrow it. Let’s take Turkey which again isn’t perfect democracy but it’s relatively democratic. They want to overthrow it.
So in their mind it doesn’t matter whether they are brutal dictators or peace-loving democracies. What matters is their version of Islam isn’t enforced over society and so they want to overthrow those governments because they’re not ruling by how they see Islam should be enforced.
17.44 Richard Fidler: Maajid do you see similarities between that kind of Islamism and fascist ideology? European fascist ideology?
17.52 Maajid Nawaz: That’s where it comes from. I believe if you analyse the historical trajectory of Islamism, first Islamist group was founded in 1928. It was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood. At that time in Europe, there was a fascist trend that was arising, and it influenced Arab thought as well.
Ideas of a superstate and a superpeople with an expanding border to conquer other people sound very familiar. And the reason they do is because we see them in the form of Nazism, and in the form of the USSR, and in the form of Italian fascism.
We’ve seen this play out before. So all the Arabs did is they took those ideas which are political ideas and they imposed them on a medieval interpretation of the faith.
And the reason I say that is because, look – they say the constitution must be Islamic and the state must be an Islamic state. But the very notion of a state is a European modern political idea that emerged within the emergence of the nation state in Europe
Constitutions. These are modern ideas. The entire Islamic scripture is bereft of any reference in Arabic of the word “state” of the word “constitution” even of “law” because these are very modern political ideas that emerged with modern European political form.
So what they’ve done is as these ideas have emerged, they’ve read these concepts into Islamic scripture and came out with what I call the Islamist ideology.
19.16 Richard Fidler – Islam and Islamism. Tell me about the difference you see between Islam and Islamism.
19.21 Maajid Nawaz: This is a great question. So of course there is a relation, it’s an offshoot, right. Of course that’s why I say it’s incorrect to say that ISIS has got nothing to do with Islam, it’s got something to do with Islam. It’s as incorrect as saying it’s got everything to do with Islam. The truth is it’s got something to do with Islam and that something is the way in which Islam is used for a political ideology.
The difference between Islam and Islamism is quite straightforward. Islam is a religion, and like any religion is interpreted in as many ways as its followers interpret it.
On the other hand, Islamism is the desire to impose any version of Islam over society by law. And so that distinction there is key because you can be – look my issue isn’t whether somebody is a conservative devout Muslim – I’m no religious role model by the way. I make that very clear. I don’t consider myself devout, or I don’t want anyone to follow me in a religious sense.
But somebody who is, you know that’s not my thing. You can pray five times a day, if you’re a female you can dress how you like, whether that’s covering your hair or not covering your hair. That’s not my thing.
My thing is don’t impose that on other people whether by law or by force. If it’s not by force and it’s by law we call that theocracy. If it’s by violence we call that terrorism. And that’s the distinction that I’m keen to point out here.
20.40 Richard Fidler: So as a young man and as a guy in his late teens, early 20s, you were with Islamists and associating with them and very much part of the cause. How did the Islamists you were with and yourself view old conservative Muslims, people from your dad’s generation for example?
20.56 Maajid Nawaz: Yeah, we saw them as ignorant of their faith. These are men and women who were praying five times a day, fasting in the month of Ramadan. We saw them as ignorant because they weren’t seeking to impose a version of Islam over society and resurrect a Caliphate.
21.11 Richard Fidler: But they were more observant than you were
21.13 Maajid Nawaz: Yes that’s right, yes. And that’s the arrogance of young hot-headed revolutionaries. Its thinking that we knew, we really understood Islam and they didn’t. Of course, because we were coming with something new.
I remember my parents, my father my mother telling me – what sort of Islam is this? We’ve never had anything like this before, where are you getting this from? And wed respond by saying well, you haven’t heard anything like it because you’re ignorant of true Islam. And of course we thought we knew what true Islam is.
21.37 Richard Fidler: And did your mother want to hit you over the head when you said this? Or your dad?
21.41 Maajid Nawaz: Well she did slap me once after a particularly nasty incident at Newham College.
Richard Fidler: Yes tell me about that incident.
21.47 Maajid Nawaz: When I first joined Hizb ut-Tahrir, I left home immediately to go to London to go join a college, Newham College, for the purposes of recruitment. And so I’m 16, I’ve moved out of home, and I very quickly stood for the student union elections then and my entire committee who stood with me for these elections were all activists with Hizb ut-Tahrir.
We won, in a fair and square election, we won because we managed to court the huge number of Muslims who were at that college, we courted their vote. So here was me, an activist, a theocratic activist of Hizb ut-Tahrir, just been elected to president of the student union of this college.
So, what we did, is we used our position to recruit all the Muslims on the campus to further radicalise them. And we really polarised the atmosphere on that campus.
22.33 Richard Fidler: who were your perceived or real enemies? On that campus?
22.36 Maajid Nawaz: Generally they were people that were non-Muslims, but specifically they were a group of people who opposed our presence and didn’t like the fact that we were preaching our message.
One of my supporters who wasn’t a student at the college, nor was he a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir but he was a self-appointed supporter who had come from outside, his name was Saeed Nur and he
22.59 Richard Fidler: Describe him for me please
23.00 Maajid Nawaz: He was a lot older than all of us, he was a very tall, very big guy, and he would carry a machete in his leather jacket. And he named the machete Abd al-Jabbaar which means “servant of the compeller”
And we had some trouble with some of the non-Muslim Nigerian-origin students on the campus and the trouble culminated to a point where Saeed Nur intervened, and in 1994 – I still think to this day that we witnessed in the United Kingdom, it’s the first jihadist street murder, because Saeed Nur stabbed Ayotunde Obanubi a Nigerian British student at Newham college, through the heart with his machete that he named Abd al-Jabbaar to cries of “Allahu Akhbar”, and poor Ayotunde Obanubi lost his life on that day.
23.50 Richard Fidler: Where were you when that happened?
23.51 Maajid Nawaz: Standing right next to the entire scene.
So though I didn’t participate in this violent act I at the time was responsible and the college held me responsible for polarising the atmosphere on campus and for poisoning that atmosphere to a point where something like this could happen.
And of course Saeed Nur was there as my supporter.
So the college held me responsible for that polarisation. For the poisonous atmosphere that wed created. And so they – in an unprecedented move – they expelled the president of the student union which was me and my entire student union committee in one clean sweep six of us were expelled from that college. And obviously the murderers were sentenced to life imprisonment.
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25.10 Richard Fidler: my guest today is the chair of an organisation called Quilliam which is a think tank working against the influence of Islamism and other forms of extremism in the UK and internationally. He’s a man who’s got the ear of many influential people now including British Prime Minister David Cameron.
You are hearing the story now of how Maajid was radicalised into a group called Hizb ut-Tahrir in his teens.
You were speaking there of that campus murder you were right next to as it happened. What did you conclude from that? Could you think or make any sense of it at the time?
25.39 Maajid Nawaz: You see we had the plausible deniability as Hizb ut-Tahrir to say that we didn’t in any way condone violence as a means to bring about the Caliphate. What I should have done was look back and thought “this is the natural, logical outcome of the extremist narrative. It will inevitably lead to this conclusion”.
But I was 16, I was ignorant, and I didn’t come to that conclusion. I allowed myself to believe this was an aberration and we should remain focused on resurrecting the Caliphate through the means of a military coup, which was Hizb ut-Tahrir’s methodology.
26.14 Richard Fidler: You were sharing a place with a bunch of other guys with a similar mindset. What role does humour have? Were there certain no-go areas for humour or could it get black?
26.22 Maajid Nawaz: There is a concept of humour, and it’s not like there’s no jokes told, but there are of course in that climate there are red lines and one of them is blasphemy.
It’s something which you wouldn’t touch or go near. And I think that’s why the work of the brave people at Charlie Hebdo who lost their lives in pursuit of this trying really to shatter those taboos and to understand what I’ve now come to believe that no idea should be above scrutiny.
Just as no people should be beneath dignity.
It’s why their work at Charlie Hebdo was so important, because they were questioning the unquestionable. And I think that’s the only way society can progress.
27.00 Richard Fidler: You became an organiser in other nations, a very valuable member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. What brought you to Egypt?
27.03 Maajid Nawaz: So after having travelled to Pakistan and Denmark in pursuit of this cause, I eventually arrived one day before the 9/11 attacks in Egypt.
Obviously we didn’t know that was going to happen.
Now ostensibly I’d gone for my degree, for by this time Id reached university I was studying law and the Arabic language combined at SOAS which is a university in London, and I arrived in Egypt ostensibly as I said to pursue that degree course and it was the language year of my degree.
But of course I continued trying to recruit people to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Now, when 9/11 happened, the security climate around the entire world including in Egypt completely changed. But by this time I was used to being able to preach openly about resurrecting the Caliphate.
27.49 Richard Fidler: Used to freedom of speech were you?
27.50 Maajid Nawaz: Yeah, yeah. From the UK to Denmark to Pakistan and now Egypt, I had been very open about my affiliation. So, 10 months or so after a brief cat-and-mouse chase, in the middle of the night my house was raided, and the Egyptian state security came in with their guns and with their grenades, and they blindfolded me.
They tied my hands behind my back and they took me to the dungeons of the state security headquarters in Cairo.
28.16 Richard Fidler: Were you given a trial?
28.17 Maajid Nawaz: Eventually, but first we witnessed a whole bunch of torture. There were four Brits in total but one Brit was tortured by electrocution, and all of the Egyptians were also electrocuted.
Then we were put into solitary confinement.
28.29 Richard Fidler: Were you tortured yourself?
28.30 Maajid Nawaz: I was forced to watch the other British prisoner tortured by electrocution. We were then put into solitary confinement for four months, in cells that have no lights and no beds and no toilets. Bare, concrete cells.
Eventually after four months of that we were charged for membership of a banned organisation, which was what we were convicted for and sentenced to five years in prison.
As political prisoners mind you. This wasn’t a criminal offence in Egypt to be a member of an organisation.
29.00 Richard Fidler: Did Amnesty International take up your case?
29.01 Maajid Nawaz: So Amnesty adopted us as Prisoners of Conscience
29.04 Richard Fidler: Did you see anything in that at the time? I mean the fact that a Western liberal organisation like Amnesty International would want to actually champion the injustice of your imprisonment?
29.14 Maajid Nawaz: So Richard, you said earlier that part of the conversion has to be an emotional conversion first, and this was actually precisely what changed my heart.
It was the first time in my then relatively young life that I found this sense of an organisation, part of officialdom, standing up for my rights.
Despite disagreeing with everything I believed.
And that really profoundly touched me and it had an impact on me to a point that made, contributed largely to the man that you see sitting here in front of you today.
29.44 Richard Fidler: who were the people and what were the books you were reading in that four-year prison stint in Egypt, that started to shift your thinking?
29.48 Maajid Nawaz: I was incarcerated with the who’s-who of Egypt’s jihadi scene. I mean it was everything from the assassins of the former president Anwar Sadat, who was killed in 1981, through to the current leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, through to the leadership of Hizb ut-Tahrir and Communists and liberal political prisoners. It was a political prison in the proper sense of the word.
There were debates and conversations on a daily basis. Ideologies crossing ideologies, and so as well as the conversations, debates, friendships and discussions that I had that really helped shape my again, still hitherto young mind, I was 24.
So that was really like a second degree for me.
I also sunk sort of head first into reading. Everything from English literature all the way through to Islamic theology in depth, and of course continued my Arabic language studies as well.
And over the course of those four years I like to think that I went from being a boy into becoming a man.
And I think one last thing I’d like to say is what had a real influence on me was reading George Orwell in prison.
30.53 Richard Fidler: What Orwell are we talking here? 1984? Or Animal Farm?
30.54 Maajid Nawaz: Animal Farm in particular because Animal Farm really is a take on what happens when the lunatics take over the asylum, really. And in Orwell’s case he was talking about the communists. In my case I was now living with the who’s-who of the jihadi scene, and living up close with them for four years and having the conversations and the discussions that I had –
We were debating things like is it allowed when the Caliphate is established to enslave women? Right so everything you see ISIS now doing were the debates I was having in prison with the jihadists and feeling disgusted that if ever they came to power this is what they were telling me they would do. I knew that when ISIS takes these, enslaves these Yazidi women, I knew those theories had been there for a long, long time, for many years.
So when I was released from prison in 2006 I called it then. I said if these guys ever resurrect this so-called Caliphate it’s going to be hell on earth. It would be a nightmare.
So I left not only Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2007, but I disavowed Islamism as a modern theocratic totalitarian ideology that could only ever be part of the injustice it claims to fight against.
31.58 Richard Fidler: While you were in prison you wrote that you memorised half the Koran. Did that mean when you gave up Islamism you gave up Islam as well? Or something just the opposite of that? I wonder how reading and memorising the language of the Koran which is quite poetic might have changed your thinking – or was it more an impediment to change?
32.18 Maajid Nawaz: No it was a combination of reading the Koran and other scripture up close, but also studying medieval Islamic jurisprudence the way I did.
I came to realise that actually ideas and concepts that we were prepared to overthrow governments for and die in the process if we were to fail, you had to be absolutely certain. So these ideas that we were so certain over, when I read traditional Islamic theology everything was disputed.
Stuff that we thought was 100 per cent definite was disputed by these theologians and disputed in a way where one would write a book and the other would say “I don’t like what you just said” and here’s another book against it.
They were academic disputes that they would have through the pages of books.
32.59 Richard Fidler: Sounds like you loved certainly though. Did you love certainty and being exposed to these different ideas…
33.04 Maajid Nawaz: I needed certainty. Because I grew up in a world where there was a genocide across the continent and I was being hounded in my own streets. I needed black-and-white answers to what were, quite literally, pun intended, black-and-white problems.
33.16 Richard Fidler: So, then, being exposed to a more grown up world and more complex and grey world, did that undo you a bit?
33.22 Maajid Nawaz: Well, I think it made me. It made the person that you see sitting here in front of you
Richard Fidler: But you have got to be pulled apart before you can be put back together, don’t you?
Maajid Nawaz: Yes so it was a real unravelling. You know originally I’d say the identity crisis, am I British? Muslim? Pakistani? Led to me becoming an Islamist. I think there was another identity crisis in leaving to have to then fundamentally put all those things back together again after they had been broken and try work out who I was.
Thankfully I had my mother’s voice still in my head when she all throughout consistently all those years opposed me being an Islamist so I had something to fall back on which were the ideas which she was attempting to instil within me, which was basically a form of humanism.
34.06 Richard Fidler: Once you went back to the UK and made the decision to leave Hizb ut-Tahrir, what kind of a price did you pay for leaving that organisation?
34.12 Maajid Nawaz: I think there’s more of a price for speaking up against Islamism after leaving than there is just leaving per se. many people have since left Islamist groups but have kept quiet, have gone back to their homes, looked after their children, raised their children, gone and got normal day jobs, and the groups are, if they’re not terrorist groups, like Hizb ut-Tahrir is non-terrorist yet extreme, they are prepared to ignore them.
What they absolutely despise is somebody – especially like us back in 2008 when we founded Quilliam, it was unheard of in the west for former Islamists of that level to come forward and say “not only have we left but were going to start speaking up, not only against this one group but against the entire phenomenon of theocratic Islamism, and were going to isolate it from Islam as a faith and were going to really focus on it and critique it.”
It was unparalleled. It hadn’t been done before and so there was a huge backlash. There was a security backlash, familial you know my marriage ended up breaking up, my ex-wife was still a member of the group, there was a community backlash, I lost all my friends because of course for 13 years now I’d been involved in this scene. I had to really, really understand deep down who I was, who I wanted to be.
35.26 Richard Fidler: You thought very long and hard about the nature of Islamism, and its connections and similarities with other forms of extremism like European far-right groups. Talk to me about some of your thinking along those lines, how that evolved over time and the way you break down the appeal of a social movement like Islamism for young people.
35.44 Maajid Nawaz: Let’s break it down. Social movements succeed because they work on the ground, on the grass-roots and they recruit people with four key elements – a very clear set of ideas that people can affiliate to, and also a very clear narrative. Now the narrative would be the propaganda. They also need leaders who are charismatic, the people can follow, and they need symbols, and a goal. So I’m going to add a fifth one.
So that’s five elements there.
– Symbols, and
– A goal
So let’s apply that to the Islamist ideology.
The ideas are clear. We know what Islamism wants – in enforcing a version of Islam over society. The narrative – its propaganda is known to us. They teach their followers that there’s a global war going on against Islam and Muslims, and Muslims have to fight back and defend and look after themselves. That’s how they recruit people. That’s their propaganda. That’s their narrative.
So they have leaders. Their leaders are identified, known. If we think now of Bin Laden, we can still think of what he looks like, his face, its etched in our memories.
Then they have the symbols, things like the black flag which ISIS always raises. No social movement can fully succeed without a level of iconography around it.
36.54 And the fifth that I just added there is the goal. So it’s a very clear goal that the Islamists want is the resurrection of the Caliphate.
It’s why ISIS declared this Caliphate and others in jealousy like al-Qaeda have said “no, we don’t recognise that” because they were meant to get there first, because the Caliphate is the prize.
Right, so those five elements, now any social movement that has those five elements and is working on the grass roots will attract people because that’s the nature of a social movement.
The problem is we’ve just gone through this thought experiment with Islamism – but if I ask you, Richard, to think of these five, in the Middle East, for a democratic movement
37.32 Richard Fidler: No, they’re not there, are they?
37.33 Maajid Nawaz: What are their ideas? What are their narratives? Who are their leaders? What is the symbolism for democracy in the Middle East? What is their goal?
37.40 Richard Fidler: Well that’s the nature of Democracy isn’t it, it’s fuzzy? Like “what do we want? Reasonable discussion. When do we want it? In due course”, you know. I mean it’s never going to suit sloganeering. Well not very easily anyway, unless it’s under direct, direct attack and direct threat
37.51 Maajid Nawaz: Well, you say that, because you’re living in a democratic country but actually if you think about it the coloured revolutions in Eastern Europe, can turn into something. The Arab uprisings, what was known as the Arab Spring, was sparked initially by young Arab democrats.
Of course they were then hijacked by Islamists, and the reason they were isn’t because the young Arab democrats didn’t want democracy, it’s because there weren’t the social movements to step into that void with the manpower that a social movement brings to the scene and to fill the vacuum after the Arab dictators were overthrown with democratic infrastructures.
Whereas the Islamist social movements have been operating for decades so they were already there.
And so actually my diagnosis of the problem there was the lack of democratic social movement which is what led to the Islamists hijacking what was initially a democratic uprising.
38.40 Richard Fidler: If we see this as a kind of social movement, does the whole idea of a war on terror make any sense then?
38.47 Maajid Nawaz: if you see it as I’ve just described it, it makes no sense whatsoever. When President Bush was in charge, if I were to caricature his period, it would be an attempt to impose democracy at the barrel of a gun which is what the neo-conservative era, what I can kind of sum it up to be. And the last two years of Bush I think he realised he was making a mistake and he attempted to change tack but it was too late.
If we take the Obama period, I think what he realised is you can’t impose democracy at the barrel of a gun. So what the Obama administration did, again misdiagnosing the problem, is they took away the democracy part of it and they kept the gun.
So it was Obama that had the kill list, not President Bush. You know the kill list was President Obamas secret list of targets the US Government could kill without trial, just because some intelligence service somewhere had put them on his list, the President would authorise their assassination. Targeted assassination.
39.42 Bush didn’t have a kill list, it was Obama that had a kill list. Drone strikes under President Obama increased at a rate far more than President Bush ever used. So what Obama did was keep the gun and ditch the democracy bit.
And actually again both Bush and Obama misdiagnosed the problem. What we’re dealing with is a global jihadist insurgency. What you need is to recognise this is an ideological movement from the grass roots and the only way to challenge it is to challenge those ideas and to foster an ideological challenge to that with these ideas, narratives, leaders, symbols and goals, which you’re helping to foster on the grass roots.
Of course, and law and war have a place but they’re not the solution.
40.21 Richard Fidler: you see jihadi extremism and it’s like a global brand. How do you feel about a global brand?
40.26 Maajid Nawaz: Well, the only way is to discredit that brand and come up with a new one. So let’s take – so what should the mission statement be?
The mission statement should be to make Islamist extremism as unattractive as soviet communism has become today.
If you look back to the 1950s and 60s, young angry teenagers were wearing Che Guevara on their T-shirts.
Now you find them in Pakistan and other places wearing Osama Bin Laden on their T-shirt.
40.47 Richard Fidler: But Soviet communism eventually came to look like a rusty tractor instead of Che Guevara.
40.50 Maajid Nawaz: Absolutely. That’s the silver lining to the ISIS cloud is that. We’ve got to be able to successfully point to the brutality and the atrocity and the failures in governance of ISIS. And the fact that now you’ve got Hezbollah, which means the “Party of God” fighting ISIS which means the “Islamic State” fighting al-Qaeda who are themselves claiming the mantle of Islam. And then you’ve got Saudi Arabia, religious monarchy, fighting Iran, another theocracy. So it’s a bit like in the Life Of Brian when you have the Judean Peoples Front fighting the Peoples Front of Judea.
These are the sorts of things we’ve got to exploit to say all of these groups and states are all claiming to fight in God’s name are fighting each other
41.32 Richard Fidler: Maajid, one of the things that’s interesting about your ideas is that I think a lot of people hearing you right now that consider themselves on the left side of politics would be nodding their heads very firmly. But you also think one of the biggest problems in combatting the Jihadist brand in Western countries and particularly in Britain is political correctness. Why is that such a problem?
41.52 Maajid Nawaz: Let’s talk about President Obama. He’s been there for eight years. He’s yet to be able to name Islamist extremism. And the reason as his administration explains it, is because we don’t want to upset Muslims. Well, hold on a minute. If we can understand that Islamist extremism is distinct from the religion of Islam, and were naming it precisely to isolate it from Islam, why would that upset anyone apart from the Islamists who don’t want to be isolated from Islam?
It’s a bigotry of low expectations to think that Muslims would automatically identify with Islamists if we named Islamist extremism.
And actually I call this the Voldemort effect. I read all the Harry Potter books in prison. And in these books you’ve got the evil character who’s called Voldemort. Now the people are so scared, petrified of Voldemort that two things happen.
One, they refuse to recognise Voldemort exists, when indeed he’s alive.
And the second is that they cannot name Voldemort so they say “He Who Must Not Be Named”.
So He Who Must Not Be Named doesn’t even exist. And that’s where we kind of got with the problem of Islamism.
Due to political correctness, we cannot even identify the problem and we don’t even want to acknowledge the problem exists.
Of course there’s a problem with a theocratic tendency that has arisen within certain sectors of my own Sunni Muslim community.
We have to identify that problem, isolate it from Islam as a religion, and by doing so we empower those reforming voices from within. Muslim voices – who stand most to lose if theocrats come to power.
Its Muslim women who lose first. Its Muslim gays who lose first. It’s dissenting Muslim and liberal Muslim voices who will be killed by groups such as ISIS.
So it’s those minorities within the minority communitythat we should seek to defend and speak out on behalf of.
43.54 Richard Fidler: one of the incidents which illustrates the kind of thing you’re talking about, very neatly I think, is what occurred on your twitter account when you tweeted a cartoon that was deemed in some quarters to be offensive to Muslims.
44.07 Maajid Nawaz: Let’s start by defining this cartoon so none of your Muslim listeners switch off after hearing what you’ve just said. Cause I want to reassure everyone that this was a stick figure called “J” and another stick figure called “Mo” by a cartoonist and all it was, was that J had his hand waving at Mo and Mo said “hi” and J was saying “how you doing?”.
44.32 Richard Fidler: That’s the cartoon was it? Stick figures, not realistic images.
Maajid Nawaz: Stick figures. Saying “Hi” and “How you doing?” to each other in speech bubbles. Called Mo and J. So I was on a BBC debate show. This context is crucial, I plead with your Muslim listeners now to hear me out here. The debate was about non-Muslims being offended at the way Muslim women dress in their religious garb, the hijab and the face-veil, the niqab.
And I said we are in a liberal country which doesn’t force anyone to dress according to our tastes. Everyone is free to dress how they like. And there were Muslim women in the audience wearing face veils. I said you are free. I said “I don’t agree with it. If I was a woman I wouldn’t be wearing a face veil. But while I disagree with you, in the decision to cover your faces, I will defend your right to do so”.
And a non-Muslim said “yes but I’m offended they are covering their faces”.
I said “You can be offended but you’ve got no right to insist that they do not offend you.” So you’ve got a right to be offended, but you’ve got no right to insist that these Muslim women do not offend you.
What do you do with your offence? You go home and sleep on it, but you can’t force them to change their behaviour.
So then, almost poetically what happened next was a guy sitting next to these same Muslim women who had just argued for their right to wear what they like in a free country, undid his shirt.
45.52 And under his shirt he was wearing a T-shirt with this stick figure image that we’ve just described. And immediately these same Muslim women who I had just defended wearing their face veil turned to him and said “you can’t wear that”
And he said “why?”
This is live on TV.
He said “Why” and they said – “It offends us”.
So now everyone in the audience is in an uproar. The guy who’s hosting didn’t know what to do because this is a moment – by the way this was a year before the Charlie Hebdo attacks – right but everyone still knows it’s controversial, right we had the Danish cartoon incident. Everyone knows it’s controversial.
So I thought OK look. As a Muslim here, who’s a liberal as well, let me speak up.
So I said “Listen, my sisters. I’ve just defended your right to wear the face veil. I will defend his right to wear that T-shirt. And just like he’s offended at your face veil but he can’t force you not to wear it, you’re offended at his T-shirt but you know what? You don’t have a right not to be offended. You have a right to be offended but not to not be offended. So please, lets just everyone leave everyone else alone, and let’s dress how we like.”
Now what the BBC did, is they didn’t show the T-shirt. What they did is they cut away the moment they undid his shirt and showed it from a long cut only not from a close up.
47.05 Richard Fidler: What they didn’t show the image of the cartoon?
47.07 Maajid Nawaz: No. And there was an uproar about that. Like why are you favouring Muslims? And a lot of the non-Muslim audience felt somehow that there was a favouritism going on here.
So I went on Twitter to calm things down and I said look – my god, the Arabic phrase I used was “Allahu Akhbar” I said my god is greater than to take offence at this innocuous cartoon. And so I tweeted it with those words that god is greater than this.
What happened next was – this was in the middle of my Parliamentary campaign as I’m running for election – I got multiple death threats, serious hundreds of death threats came in.
Terrorist organisations in Pakistan sent in death threats. A petition was set up in the United Kingdom to have me deselected as a Parliamentary candidate that was signed by 20,000 people I don’t know it was probably global so wherever they came from but 20,000 people signed.
48.02 Richard Fidler: 20,000 Muslims? Or people in the broader community?
Maajid Nawaz: whoever signed it – Muslims I imagine, but whoever signed it – actually considering there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world it’s not that many, but for one parliamentary candidate it’s a big thing.
It became a huge pressure. To the point where the Deputy Prime minister Nick Clegg, who was Deputy Prime minister of the United Kingdom, had to intervene in the national media to say my candidate has a right to not be offended at something.
So here is a cartoon I didn’t draw, and they’re upset that I was not offended by a cartoon that I did not draw. And that’s the absurdity of it.
Blasphemy has got to a stage where it’s not just that you cannot say something, but you have to express the same level of outrage that I’m expressing otherwise you’re also committing blasphemy.
48.48 Richard Fidler: I don’t know that it’s seen in Western countries that Islam has a history of saying that we really disagree about this but at the end of the day well sit down and eat together.
48.56 Maajid Nawaz: Well you know there have been times in Islamic Spain where there was a great culture of learning – now I say this with a caveat – these were medieval times so of course they were medieval standards. But relative to those times science and maths thrived in the courts of Baghdad and in Islamic Spain.
49.16 Richard Fidler: It was the golden age of Islam, isn’t it?
49.20 Maajid Nawaz: What it was is I think there has been a decline in an understanding and especially because of Saudi Arabia and the kind of literalism that emerged from there, otherwise known as Salafism or Wahhabism.
There has been a resurgence of a vacuous form of literalism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism funded via petrodollars coming from Saudi Arabia. In particular after the war against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, otherwise known as the Afghan Jihad, and that was really a catalyst for all of this kind of thinking which then spread across the world from there.
49.54 Richard Fidler: It’s been fascinating speaking with you Maajid, it’s been great to have you on the program, thank you so much for telling us your story.
Maajid Nawaz: A pleasure, thank you very much, it’s been good to talk to you, too, Richard, thank you very much.