Retreat from Radical Islam
Edit Schlaffer Speaks With Quilliam Co-Founder Maajid Nawaz
Maajid Nawaz, 31, is a good-looking, eloquent young Englishman – not how you would imagine an Islamist who once set up radical cells all across Europe. Rather than a beard he wears Hugo Boss, he is cosmopolitan and convinced that the Muslims in the West need to establish a western type of Islam.
A few years ago, however, there was a different Maajid Nawaz, a young student from an immigrant Pakistani family. His father was a crude oil engineer and the family well established. Why then was Nawaz so angry at English society, in that had been home to his family for three generations?
Nawaz had joined the leadership of a fundamentalist group called Hizb ut-Tahrir, not forbidden in England as it was in countries like Egypt and paid for it with a long prison sentence.
Afterwards, he joined Ed Husain, the bestselling author of The Islamist and a companion from his militant days, and began travelling to England’s renowned universities, where they are fighting to win over the hearts and minds of young, alienated Muslims. Together they have founded the Quilliam Foundation, a think-tank in London, to support peaceful co-existence between Islam and the West, and make clear to young Muslims that they have to leave their cultural baggage behind in order to construct a new, common Europe.
Maajid Nawaz however also reminds the governments of the West to support mobility and hence, social acceptance for the Muslim population.
Edith Schlaffer: You were born and raised in England, with educational opportunities and upward mobility in the British middle-class. How did your personal journey to Islamist extremism begin? Why didn’t you try to adapt, rather than resisting?
Maajid Nawaz: My mother grew up in England and at 18 she was about to begin studying at the university, and then tradition prevailed and my grandfather summoned a young man form Pakistan and married her off. But she always tried to ensure that her children only spoke English at home and raised us very liberally. We had a beautiful house in a good neighbourhood, but there was a problem that we felt very strongly: the racism of the early nineties.
ES: Were you directly affected by exhibitions of racism?
MN: Not only me, but also my friends, who were predominantly white and English, not a matter of course at the time. There were organized groups of racists, who attacked them for being friends with someone like me They were called traitors. It often became violent. Early on, I witnessed how young people were stabbed because of their ethnic heritage; the officials did not intervene. This is how young men from immigrant families were radicalised, but not as Muslims, rather as rebels against the state.
ES: How did your parents react?
MN: My father was involved with his work and as a young man, I was not prepared to take advice from my mother. I thought, she’s a woman, and said to her, "You won’t be attacked out there like I am. What do you know about street fights?" I spent more and more time with boys from the subcontinent.
Then one night we were leaving a billiard hall, I was only 15. All of a sudden there were police cars surrounding us, machine guns directed at us, the roads were blocked and we were arrested for alleged armed robbery. It was a shocking experience. It turned out that an elderly woman had been watching my brother and how he played with a plastic gun, ans she had called the police. Then she searched out me and my family. We were released in the morning, and he even got his plastic gun back. From this point on I had decided to fight back.
ES: What did this fighting back look like? Were the heated questions of the identity and acceptance of the current Muslim generation already present?
MN: It all originated in Racism; I identified more with those of a common ethnicity and less with my religion. But Bosnia was a turning point, when we saw how the European Muslims were being massacred. At the same time the Nation of Islam became a theme in Rap music, which I loved.
I joined the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, because there was something there that appealed to me: the black and white answers that this group provided was precisely what an enraged young mind needed.
ES: How were you recruited? Do the Islamists operate in the local mosques?
MN: No, the Imams were uneducated. They spoke no English and did not attract me whatsoever. I saw Islam as an antiquated Religion. I was pulled into the network by a young Medical student. The tactics these people used were to avoid mosques and rather look for sympathisers at youth clubs and universities. Our conversations did not revolve around religion but rather around politics. Islam was presented as an ideology.
The message of being Muslim in a larger political context, appealed to me. The question "Who are you actually?" is what really got me. It continued in that way:
"Are you British? Of course not; they’ll never accept you.
"Are you Pakistani? The Colonial powers created Pakistan 50 years ago and gave you a Pakistani identity.
"If you really want to be yourself you have to refuse the identity they want to give you."
That was the heart of their indoctrination, which fascinated me.
ES: So you were offered a Muslim identity in the context of a global Muslim super state as a starting point for belonging to something personally and politically.
MN: At 17, I was already sent to the Cambridge University Campus to implement this identity rhetoric: I know who I am, and what about you, are you just a marionette of the Brits? The package that I was selling was an ideology; religion was only an element. Praying was not important; social behaviour was. Segregation was also important; the women all wore headscarves. Until then I had lived very differently.
ES: You lived in an open society and were determined to leave it.
MN: I left home at 16, to begin a graphic design course at a college in London. Once there immediately applied for the student council so that I was voted in and Hizb ut-Tahrir could take control; we simply used the student council’s money for our own activities. Everyone knew what was going on, but that was the Zeitgeist of multicultural Great Britain. It was under the guise of political correctness – the "Leave them be, that’s their culture," – that radicalisation was even possible. On the open days, when the parents came to visit, we prayed in the hallways to signalise that this college is occupied. Everyone put up with it.
ES: How do the hierarchical structures work inside the organisation? Were you approved of and accepted immediately?
MN: In my first two years of activity I gained trust, I was seen as competent, as someone who can get the job done. I studied hard and got into SOAS, the renowned University in London and when I was 19 I took the oath of Hizb ut-Tahrir and quickly became a national speaker.
ES: And what about your relationship to girls? Love is just as important as politics, especially for such a rebellious young man as you.
MN: Yes, I married at 21. She studied biology and was an activist. Hizb ut-Tahrir makes sure that the young men marry girls from within the community, it is important that they share the same world view.
At this time Pakistan had become a nuclear power, and I was ordered by headquarters to go there and prepare for the Caliphate. I signed up at the Punjab University as a cover and began learning Urdu at record speed and establishing the cell structure. We wanted to be the first to claim this terrain.
For the first time my views differed from the leaders, even though they were not ideological differences, rather organisational. They didn’t tolerate any contradiction, any critique, or recommendation. I was even suspected to be a British agent, acting specifically against the establishment of the organisation in Pakistan. This completely upset me; I had broken off my law degree in London for this mission, and I returned to England with my wife.
ES: What were your personal experiences like in Pakistan? Your English youth was always inseparably linked to Pakistan, your country of origin.
MN: I didn’t know very much about Pakistan when I arrived, the last time I had been there I was five, on holiday. One thought never left me: "Oh God, these are my people, I’m here, to create a country for them." I doubted whether I could ever into this country or was even ever meant to fit in.
ES: This double identity is a problem that many people with an immigrant background have. How did you handle it?
MN: It was insolvable. So I returned to England, determined to finish my degree. I was ordered to establish Hizb ut-Tahrir in Denmark, so I studied intensively and flew to Denmark every weekend. It was very strenuous. In the third year it was obligatory to spend a year abroad. I also studied Arabic and my professor recommended I go to Egypt. Hizb ut-Tahrir was illegal in Egypt, but he reassured me. After all I was travelling as a British student. I arrived in Egypt with my wife and small son one day before 9/11, and in no time the world and my life were turned upside down.
ES: Did you do propaganda from Hizb ut-Tahrir in Egypt?
MN: I was there to study, but of course I made no secret of my ideas about how important it was to establish a Caliphate. One day my apartment was stormed, they dragged me out of the living room with a blindfold, my wife and little one were there, and they took me and some others to an interrogation with National Security in Alexandria. The first act was taking me on the outside stairwell to the roof of the building and threatening to throw me down if I don’t cooperate.
Then the interrogation began. We were a large group, huddled in a small room, arms tied behind our backs with blindfolds. They tortured systematically, with electrodes, we went through everything. We got numbers, I was 42. When they started with me the first question was, "Where do you come from?" When I said I was English they went crazy. "No, no where do you actually come from, your father? Aha, Pakistan. So you are Pakistani."
ES: Did you know what exactly was expected of you? How did you mentally prepare yourself to cope with this extreme situation?
MN: They wanted information from me about Egyptian members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. They tortured one man in front of me. It was unbearable, if I talked they would catch my friends on the outside, but in the meantime they drove my companion crazy right before my eyes with an electric cable.
ES: How was it possible to keep you there without a lawyer?
MN: After 9/11 it the world went berserk; everything was possible. I finally was put on trial and I was imprisoned for 5 years for the crime of propagating an organisation that was forbidden in the country.
ES: How did you cope with your time in jail? Did you ready yourself, make a plan?
MN: It was the place where my intellectual journey began. After two years of solitary confinement I was transferred to the Mazra Tora prison and had the opportunity to talk to political prisoners, with survivors of the attacks in Sadat and many that turned away from radical Islam. I got books form the Azhar University, but most importantly I spoke with ex-jihadists. There were members of Gama al-Islamiyah, the largest militant group in Egypt, who had decided to distance themselves from terror.
ES: It must be a difficult process to take the journey back, to leave the ideologies and indoctrinations of the Islamist group behind you.
MN: Before someone is ready to change his ideas, he has to open his heart. I was filled with hate and anger. But during my trial something decisive happened: Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience, it was an unbelievable feeling to know that there is someone fighting for you on the outside. Amnesty’s "soft" approach made me seriously consider alternatives other than revenge.
ES: You were released in March 2006 and returned to England. What were your plans?
MN: I was greeted by television cameras; the video of my arrival in Heathrow was put online. But the Group was still my family; after 14 years I was determined not just to give up, to prove that I had not gotten weak in prison. I quickly ascended to the top-leader status and became a member of the PR-Committee, which pretended to be the Leadership, in case the actual leadership became forbidden. However, my doubts increased and I had to admit to myself that the organisation would never change.
ES: How did you re-enter everyday life?
MN: I completed my degree; my family was a great support. During the time of graduation I decided to leave Hizb ut-Tahrir, I was 29 years old, it was 2006. I made an appearance on Newsnight, a leading English TV channel stating, "I have to tell the world that I not only leave Islamism behind me, I decline it completely." The story was everywhere, from the BBC to The New York Times.
ES: Today you are on a reverse mission; you are de-radicalising people who have been sucked into Islamist groups. Thank you for speaking with me.
Dr. Edit Schlaffer is a social scientist, author, activist and founder of Women Without Borders, an advocacy, PR and lobbying organisation for women around the world. This interview first appeared in German in Die Presse on Apr. 4, 2008.