Maajid Nawaz is not your typical democracy activist. For more than 12 years, he was a member of the UK branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a hardline Islamist party that calls for a global Islamic state that would invade and conquer infidel nations, forcibly veil women, and stone apostates and adulterers to death. After serving the cause in Pakistan and Palestine, he was incarcerated for five years in Egypt, where he began to question the ideology.
Upon returning to London, he abandoned Islamism and started the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank countering extremism and promoting liberal democracy, named after the first Englishman to build a mosque in Great Britain. NOW Lebanon spoke to Nawaz, who has just released a memoir, Radical: My Journey From Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening.
The first half of your book tells the story of your transition in the 1990s from an essentially secular, girl-chasing hip-hop fan to a Hizb ut-Tahrir zealot. How did that happen?
Nawaz: The journey involved me suffering from a severe level of violent racism in Essex [in England]; both on the street from groups like Combat 18 and at the institutional level. In those days before the murder of Stephen Lawrence [in 1993], the level of racism in the British establishment was quite entrenched. That led me to feel very disenfranchised from society.
On top of that there was Bosnia unfolding right before our eyes. A few countries away, on the European continent, there was a genocide committed against Muslims. These combined to produce an acute identity crisis within me, which is where these ideological groups step in and push solutions that are black-and-white, which to a teenage mind can seem to make a lot of sense.
You spent five years in prison in Egypt in the 2000s, during which you began to have serious doubts about Islamist ideology. What made you change your mind?
Nawaz: There were two main factors, although I must emphasize it was a process, it wasn’t a sudden light-bulb moment.
First, Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience. I saw people fighting for justice on my behalf who weren’t Muslims, and that had a profound impact on me.
Second were the discussions I had in prison with the “Who’s Who” of political prisoners, from the assassins of Anwar Sadat through the entire Islamist spectrum to liberal political prisoners.
After leaving Hizb ut-Tahrir, you co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, which aims to counter extremist ideology and promote democratic pluralism. How, in practical terms, can that be done?
Nawaz: There’s a grass-roots approach and a policy approach, as I described in my TED talk. We work on both sides. Governments have a role—for instance in choosing their partners and interlocutors—who they engage with. They have to make sure they aren’t unwittingly encouraging extremism. Media, too, have a role to be sure [in making sure] they are not furthering the Islamist narrative through their reporting.
On the other end we try to build up a grass-roots allegiance for democratic values in countries such as Pakistan. To directly compete with groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Lashkar-e-Taiba who are working to recruit young Pakistanis. That is a long-term solution. The Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928 and it took them until 2012 to win elections in Egypt. You have to start somewhere.
You’ve founded a similar organization, Khudi, in Pakistan. What sort of obstacles do you face there?
Nawaz: Security is a big one. We’re talking about an environment where “secularism” has become an insult and a swear word; where democracy is viewed with suspicion and a synonym for corruption. An environment where people are killed by mobs upon the mere accusation of blasphemy. So we have to be very careful what we say and how we say it. But there are large chunks of the country, especially the youth, who are increasingly disillusioned with the status quo and are turning to our organization.
Turning to the Arab Spring, as someone who was tortured by President Mubarak’s infamous state security, what did the Egyptian revolution mean to you?
Nawaz: It was a cathartic moment, because the ideas of non-violent uprising that led to Tahrir Square were the sort of ideas that were being debated by us in prison all those years before. And in fact some of those involved in starting the intellectual input were my cell-mates—people like Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the famous Egyptian sociologist, and Ayman Nour. So it was a vindication, especially because Mubarak is now in the very same prison we were.
Have the recent electoral victories of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia been a disappointment to you?
Nawaz: Not really; they were expected. What’s more important in these countries is to have what I call a democratic trinity in place: a firm entrenchment of democratic values, democratic institutions and the democratic process. If those three can be rooted in society it’s more important than any one party or who wins the election.
In “Radical” you write that “If the West […] had intervened earlier and harder” in Bosnia, it might have limited “the spread of Islamism and [Hizb ut-Tahrir].” Does this suggest a reason to intervene in Syria?
Nawaz: It suggested a reason for Libya, because Libya was a very uncontroversial and legal intervention. The problem with Syria is we have to try and be consistent. As Muslims, sometimes we like to have our cake and eat it too. So when we disagreed with the Iraq war, we were the first to shout that this was an illegal intervention and it was Western colonialism, and yet in Syria we are frustrated that intervention hasn’t been possible. I am frustrated about that. The problem without a coalition is that now if states do intervene, it gives other governments like Iran and Russia the perfect excuse to say, “Well this is illegal, we’re backing the Syrian regime.” And that leads to a potential regional war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
I’m sure a lot more can and must be done to help the rebels, but I’m saying it’s simply not analogous to Libya or Bosnia. It’s very complicated—Lebanon is there and suffering from sectarian fallout—so it’s one of these ones that’s genuinely stumped me, because I’m very keen to see the back of the Assads, but I’m not very keen to further entrench Iran, Hezbollah and Russia in the region. I don’t think anyone really has a solution to this.
Do you worry that just as Bosnia turned you to Islamism, today some young Muslims are doing the same because of Syria?
Nawaz: Of course, absolutely. In fact we know that a minority of the fighters in Syria are foreign jihadists. However, I think that those groups would capitalize on it with or without intervention.
Turning to Lebanon, your former Hizb ut-Tahrir leader, Omar Bakri Muhammad, currently resides here. Do you think the Lebanese government should ban him and other Salafist-Jihadists from the country, as the UK has done?
Nawaz: I have absolutely no doubt that he’s involved in ratcheting up sectarianism in the Syrian conflict right now. But he’s a Syrian national, so I don’t think it’s possible to extradite him at the moment.
In general we have to distinguish between extremist thought and calling for violence. Hizb ut-Tahrir is not banned in the UK, and I’ve argued for them to remain legal, while organizations like al-Muhajiroun, which was Omar Bakri’s in London, are banned and I’ve argued for them to be banned. The distinction I make is that groups that directly call for terrorism need to be outlawed, whereas groups that call for extremist thought need to be challenged by civil society.
Finally, might you ever consider extending your activism to Lebanon?
Nawaz: I would love to, but capacity is one of the issues. We are working very hard to build up and expand the Khudi model into other countries. We’ve already started training people in three other countries. It’s a matter of time.
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