Maajid Nawaz talks of turning the tide

Michael Petrou talks to Maajid Nawaz, author of Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening

Dave M. Benett/Getty

For more than a decade, Maajid Nawaz was a leading member of the extremist Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir — recruiting members in Britain, Pakistan, Denmark, and Egypt, where in 2002 he was arrested, abused, and jailed for four years. He renounced Islamism upon his return to Britain and co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, a think-tank that promotes pluralism and democracy, and Khudi, a Pakistani social movement with the same goals. His new memoir is: Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening.

Q: You describe a childhood in Essex, England, in which you were almost unaware that you had brown skin. How did that change?

A: I was at primary school. There was a football incident when I was punched in the stomach and told that this game is not for Pakis. All of a sudden during that year the racism kicked in, and I started feeling very different from everyone else.

Q: At first you found community and empowerment through hip-hop music. But eventually you turned Islamism. You say it was like a tool to force your enemies to respect you. It wasn’t really a religious thing for you.

A: No. I’ve often said that this was a political revolution with religious connotations, rather than a religious revolution with political connotations. My primary motivation for joining Hizb ut-Tahrir was one of a need for identity, a need to address the injustice that I saw. Basically I needed a framework to make sense of all the grievances that I saw around me.

Q: That does raise question about some of the religious-based strategies for confronting Islamism.

A: It does. I don’t think interfaith is the best way to challenge the rise of Islamist extremism.

Q: Interfaith?

A: Jewish leaders, Christian priests and bishops, imams, and all sorts of religious leaders getting together and discussing tolerance and harmony.

It misunderstands and therefore misdiagnoses exactly what the problem is. Islamist extremism isn’t born from religiosity. Most recruitment to Islamist organizations doesn’t occur in the mosques, and most Islamists do not respect mosque imams.

The guy who recruited me was a doctor studying at Barts (a British university). Osama bin Laden was an engineer. Ayman al-Zawahari was a pediatrician. Islamism was born from a milieu that was completely distinct from traditional theological centres of learning. In fact it was an anti-colonial struggle.

I was never religious growing up. I never really understood what Islam is at all. I joined Hizb ut-Tahrir, and most of my work was focused on the political, strategic, and tactical level. We emphasized very little of religion, to be honest.

There is a religious element to it now. The Taliban and al Qaeda are personally very devout. But even then interfaith misses the point, because they’re fighting for political dominance.

Q: What works?

A: My story is the exception. Most people, once they commit to Islamist activism, especially if they become jihadists, will never leave. And if they do leave, it will be to disengage from violence, but they will still believe in the Islamist ideology. It’s very rare for them to then both abandon jihadism and Islamism, and then even rarer for them to be willing to criticize Islamism in public. It’s not what we should be aiming for.

What we should be aiming for is preventing people joining in the first place. And that means looking at the youth bulge in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Central Asia. When they have problems, where to do they go? Who do they join? What is their vision?

Q: Does that mean that the current ranks of jihadists are a lost cause?

A: They’re not a lost cause. I think there are different objective we need to set for them. Disengagement is a very realistic objective for existing jihadists. There are always one or two who will go further. But for the bulk of them, disengagement from violence, as was done with the IRA, that’s a very realistic objective.

Q: Should governments ban Hizb ut-Tahrir?

A: I’m opposed to banning Hizb ut-Tahrir in countries where they’re not actively seeking power, such as Britain, Canada, America, Europe. In Muslim majority countries, where they have a specific and declared objective of overthrowing democratic regimes — not even governments, but regimes, the entire system — through a military coup, and where they’re actively planning that military coup, well that violates both the national law of that country and international laws.

But if they’re merely members of an organization whose franchise in a different country is attempting to do that, then there’s no direct criminal offence. And to criminalize that causes problems with issues of human rights and freedom of speech.

Q: You’re opposed to criminalizing propaganda?

A: Unless it incites violence directly.

Q: At the Quilliam Foundation, you’ve received some hostility from people one might assume would be your allies: non-Muslim liberals. What’s going on?

A: Let’s keep in mind that Quilliam was founded toward the end of the neo-conservative era and George W. Bush’s tenure. The left wing took the view that even to address the subject of Islamism meant serving the neo-conservative agenda. And of course the right wing took the view that Islamism needed to be addressed to serve the neo-conservative agenda.

It was very polarized. And into this mix we came. And we said we wanted to turn neo-conservatism on its head. In other words, we don’t want to bring democracy at the barrel of a gun. We don’t want to bring a supply led approach to democracy by trying to impose it from the top down. But rather we think we need to create demand for democracy from the grassroots.

We have consistently been oppose to human rights violations, rendition, occupation, torture. But the same reasons why we’re opposed to all those things — i.e. from a human rights perspective —oblige us to be opposed to Islamist excesses as well: such as the view that women must be stoned to death; women cannot be heads of state; homosexuals must be killed; non-Muslim minorities must be discriminated against; you must impose beards on men; you must impose headscarves on women.

Q. How do you feel about the future of political Islam and liberalism when you look at the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood in places like Egypt?

A: In the long run, I’m optimistic. This was a necessary step for the evolution of these societies. The fact that these uprisings have removed brutal dictators is a good step. But in the short term what that means, sadly, is that we’re going to have a new challenge. That’s how to come to terms with those who, as a result of being the most organized in society for a long time, won the elections. And that’s the Islamists.

Let’s be frank. They didn’t win by an overwhelming majority. In their strongest country, Egypt, they had to go to a second round of voting. And even then, Hosni Mubarak’s former prime minister was second. And that tells you the level of the protest vote that was against the Brotherhood. Everybody hates Mubarak, yet they were wiling to vote for one of his former acolytes just to keep the Islamists out. I think that bodes well for the future.

Q: Tell me about your work in Pakistan.

A: Islamist social movements have been working very diligently with young people to shift their vision of what the social contract should be — from one of democracy to one of theocracy. And that permeates into every institution in society, whether it’s the military, educational institutions, or even secular parties.

So what we’re trying to do is create an alternative social movement that over the long term can once again pull back that debate to bring about a consensus as to the social contract needing to be democratic, not theocratic.

Khudi is a mirror of the 13 years of experience I gained inside an Islamist organization, and an attempt to replicate that with a democratic culture and democratic values — which means that we’re not going to see results in the next five years. It’s a 10- to 20-year process before we even start seeing anything.

Q: Why did you pick Pakistan?

A: It was the country in the world where the most need was. The Taliban had taken over large chunks of the country. I thought if I can do it there, I can do it anywhere.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.