In an interview for The Times, Quilliam chairman Maajid Nawaz explains how his time in an Egyptian prison helped him to realise that Islamism is nothing more than a manipulation of religion and, ultimately, why it led him off the path of extremism.
Maajid Nawaz can understand why two aspirational Muslim brothers from Cardiff have ended up going on jihad in Syria. Born in Southend to a middle-class Anglophile household of Pakistani origin, he and his brother also turned from being A-grade students into Islamist extremists.
By his teens, Mr Nawaz was getting into fights with the “Paki-bashing skinheads” in Essex. When he moved to London to study law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, he watched one of his fellow Islamist extremists stab an African student to death. By 21, he was a leading firebrand in Hizb ut-Tahrir, the militant organisation that wishes to overthrow all infidel regimes, and by his mid-20s he was arrested in Egypt for belonging to a banned radical group and jailed for four years.
“I was very like the Cardiff students,” he says. “The difference is that in prison I changed, I realised I hadn’t really been religious, I was just angry with the neo-Nazis and racists I had encountered on the streets of Essex.”
He came back to Britain, set up the anti-extremism think-tank Quilliam and started wearing suits, checked shirts and brogues. As we sit in the Montague Hotel, which is covered in tartan wallpaper and chintz sofas and drink afternoon tea, he explains how he now advises the prime minister and is a parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn. “I am planning to become a quite respectable Liberal Democrat MP.
“What fascinates me is how the would-be doctor in Cardiff who thought he wanted to be prime minister became radicalised and joined a group, Isis [Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham], which is more horrendous than al-Qaeda. We missed the opportunity to channel someone who wanted to be engaged in society and improve the world, who was highly intelligent and an obvious leader but who instead chose to fly 2,500 miles to become an outcast in his own country.”
Mr Nawaz believes that, like him, the brothers probably became radicalised because they were seeking respect and power. “I was bought up in the bad old days of racism. I hated being attacked by skinheads but when we scared them away by becoming extremists it became more fun. It gave me self-confidence.”
Now he thinks the divide is not between Anglo-Saxons and Asians but Muslims and other cultures. “My parents were agnostic, they bought me up liberal, in those days the Asian weddings were mixed with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. There would be dancing and music for men and women. Now it is hard to find weddings and parties like that, the friendships have broken apart. British Asians became British Muslims.
“They started segregating men and women, becoming more conservative. Young people in the East End started declaring Sharia zones. It has slid backwards and disaffected youth see an outlet and a power source in becoming radicalised as Muslim Islamists.”
Britain, he says, needs to develop a co ordinated strategy to address non-violent extremism in the community and in jails, mosques and schools. “Three per cent of the population is Muslim, 20 per cent of the prison population is Muslim. We should be engaging with them while they are in jail, winning the cultural war by sowing the seeds of doubt. You have to be 100 per cent certain to want to blow yourself up.”
It was in prison that Mr Nawaz’s life changed. “Prison in Egypt is horrendous for the Egyptians, less so for those from the west. I had no room to move and cockroaches all over my floor. I eventually got a bed but insects still came up the metal tubes. Torture is systematic, mostly pre-conviction. Prison food is gruel and I have suffered terrible digestion problems ever since.”
But he began to study. “I soon realised I was abusing my faith for a political project. Islamism is not the religion of Islam but a modern political ideology inspired by 7th century norms.”
The National Offender Management Service needs a counter radicalisation strategy, he says. “If we send guys who have planned terrorist attacks to prison, do we let them just live out their sentences and then come out and continue on their mission or do we use the time to change them? We need to de-radicalise prisoners so they don’t turn into murderers.”
Britain must also ensure that the ideology of Islamism becomes as unattractive and
old-fashioned as communism for young people.
“Islamism is not a religion, it is an obsessive, outdated ideology. We are still being too multiculturalist and politically correct about it, we say, ‘It’s the natives, it’s their culture, they have bizarre habits we can’t criticise.’ But the people who are being radicalised are very smart,
western-educated people. In the 1990s some of the hotbeds for recruitment were some of the best universities in the country. I was recruited at one.” He doesn’t blame either Theresa May, the home secretary, or Michael Gove, the education secretary, for failing to tackle it. “It was Eric Pickles, the secretary of state for local government, who was meant to come up with a strategy four years ago to counter non-violent extremism in communities and give the young alternatives. But he doesn’t seem to have done anything yet.”
He thinks the British need to start trying to win the intellectual battle, making the Islamist extremists seem unacceptable.
“We have shifted the debate on racism and homophobia . . . we need to replicate that with Islamism. Islamists are homophobic, antisemitic and sexist yet they are not jeered at. White males can’t be sexist and racist, so brown Muslims shouldn’t be able to get away with it either. Your culture does not excuse you.”
Mr Nawaz wants to convince Muslim actors, politicians and athletes to speak out against Islamist extremism. “We need to show Muslim role models succeeding. The cool thing should not be going to jihad but going into politics, winning gold medals, being a film producer. These Muslim children are very clever, articulate and hard-working, they can do whatever they want. They need to see they can succeed in Britain in conventional ways. It isn’t fun fighting. At first that young Cardiff kid leading a battalion in Syria will feel he never had so much power in his life but soon it will become scary. We need to show those kids we can empower them in different ways.”
He would also prefer all state schools to be secular. “No state education in Britain should demean girls or use megaphones for the call to prayer. If you want to be devout, be devout but don’t expect schools to administer your devotion.”
Nor should teachers be allowed openly to hold extreme views. “Adults in Britain — from teachers to doctors and parents — all need to make it clear that beheading people, stoning women and female genital mutilation is not acceptable in the modern age, anywhere in the world.”
It is insane, he says, that the British accept medieval interpretations of a religion. “Of course you should be able to cover your head but you shouldn’t be able to wear a burka in places where you can’t wear a helmet, hoodie or balaclava — whether in a bank, at Heathrow or in a classroom. We are fine telling off white working-class children with hoodies but it’s disempowering allowing women in burqas to keep covered up in all situations because it is saying, ‘They are not one of us, they don’t have our standards’.”
The groups that need help and support, he says, are “the minorities within the minorities. Women at risk of honour killings, liberal voices, humanist voices.”
As a former leader of an Islamist group, Mr Nawaz thinks that Isis’s rapid success in Iraq, with 800 jihadis overpowering 30,000 soldiers, is a huge propaganda coup. “They see the hand of God, but we must make it clear that the big guns within Syria and Iraq are using Isis. To say I am angry would be an understatement. A jihadist group so maniacal that even al-Qaeda has disavowed it now controls a third of Iraq.”
The only way to defeat them, he believes, is for Sunni armies to fight Isis with the intervention of Turkish airstrikes. “It needs to be Sunni on Sunni, the Kurds should be encouraged to fight from the north and the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his Shia-led government need to share power with the Sunni Arabs. But it won’t happen. Instead, the Americans may strike, the British won’t stand in their way. The result will be disastrous and spark a regional war that will spread to the west.
“What we need is for Isis and al-Qaeda to turn in on themselves and become a bit Life of Brian. This is the People’s Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Front. They should be seen as brutal, gory and ridiculous, not glamorous.”
The west, he is convinced, became lulled into a false sense of security by the Arab Spring. “After the Arab uprisings, everyone took their eye off the ball. They became distracted by the recession and desperate to believe that democracy was coming to these countries so they didn’t need to worry.” That is why he would like to be a Liberal Democrat MP, and maybe foreign secretary one day. “The Arab uprisings were our chance. There was a moment when it was cool to be an Arab rather than an Islamist. We should have capitalised on that. We could have stopped these genocidal jihadists with airstrikes in Syria. Instead we let the region sink backwards again. We should have taken Isis out back then.
“That’s why I want to go into British politics. I want to prove that the best way to change the world is through democratic engagement — and get that boy from Cardiff back here becoming an MP.”
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