Logo SAVE - Sisters against violent extremism

15. April 2008

Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz with WwB  © Clemens Fabry

f.l.t.r.: Edit Schlaffer, Maajid Nawaz, Ed Husain, Elisabeth Kasbauer

Maajid Nawaz © Clemens Fabry

"Beyond Revenge"

An interview with Maajid Nawaz by Edit Schlaffer

Thirty-one-year-old Maajid Nawaz is a good-looking, eloquent young Englishman. This is not what you would imagine from an Islamist who once formed radical cells across Europe. Rather than a beard, he wears Hugo Boss; he is a cosmopolitan, and is convinced that Muslims in the West need to establish a Western-style Islam. A few years ago, however, there was a different Maajid. He was a young student, the son of a crude oil engineer and a member of a well-established immigrant Pakistani family. Why, then, was Maajid so furious with the English society in which his family had been at home for three generations?
He rebelled and joined a fundamentalist group called Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was not outlawed in England unlike other countries, such as Egypt. He was part of the management structure of the organization and paid for this affiliation with a long prison sentence.
He travelled with Ed Husain, the bestselling author of The Islamist and a companion from his militant days, to England’s renowned universities where they fought to win over the hearts and minds of young, alienated Muslims. Together they founded the London-based think tank the Quilliam Foundation to support cohabitation between Islam and the West and to convince young Muslims that they must leave their cultural baggage behind in order to construct a new, common Europe.
But the responsibility does no lie with Muslims alone; Maajid Nawaz also reminds the governments of the West that it is their responsibility to provide social mobility and acceptance to the Muslim population in order to achieve this coexistence.

Edit Schlaffer: You are a young Englishman, born and raised in England, provided 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 choose to resist?

Maajid Nawaz: My mother grew up in England and after she turned 18, she was about to begin studying at the university. Then tradition prevailed and my grandfather summoned a young man from Pakistan and married her off. But she always made sure that her children only spoke English at home and were raised very liberally. We had a beautiful house in a good neighbourhood, but there was still a problem that we felt very strongly: the racism of the early nineties.

ES: Were you directly affected by displays 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 would attack them for being friends with someone like me and they would call them ‘traitors.’ It often came to violent encounters. Already at an early age I witnessed young people being stabbed because of their ethnic heritage. The authorities didn’t intervene. This is how young men from immigrant families were radicalised; not as Muslims, but rather as rebels against the state.

ES: Did your family not give you any support when it came to these conflicts? How did your parents react?

MN: My father was occupied with his work, and, as a teenage boy, I wasn’t prepared to take advice form my mother. I thought: she’s a woman, and I told 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. One night when I was only 15, we were exiting a billiard hall. 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. I found out that an old lady had seen my brother playing with a plastic gun and had called the police; then they investigated me and my family. We were released in the morning and he got his plastic rifle back. From this point onwards I was determined to fight back.

ES: What did this fighting back look like? Did Islam play a role at this point, and were questions of identity and acceptance – popular amongst the current Muslim generation – already present?

MN: It all originated in racism, because I identified more with those with whom I shared a common ethnicity and less with my religion. But Bosnia was a turning point, when we saw how European Muslims were being massacred. At the same time, the “Nation of Islam” became a popular 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 were precisely what an enraged young mind needed.

ES: How were you recruited? How does one enter the radical circle of Islamists? Did they operate in the local mosques?

MN: No, the Imams were uneducated, 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 instead look for sympathisers at youth clubs and universities. Our conversations did not revolve around religion but rather around politics. Islam was presented to me as an ideology. The idea that I was not a Muslim in the religious sense but rather 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.” These questions were the core of their indoctrination, which fascinated me.

ES: So you were offered a Muslim identity in the context of a global Muslim super state, and this was presented to you as a base for belonging to something personally and politically?

MN: Already at 17, I was sent to the Cambridge University campus to implement this identity rhetoric: “I know who I am, but what about you? Are you just a marionette of the Brits?” The package that I was selling was an ideology; religion was only one aspect and praying was not important – social behaviour was. And segregation was important; the women all wore a headscarf, for example. Until that point, I had actually 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 I got there I immediately applied for a place on the student council so if I was voted in, 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 at the time. Under the guise of political correctness, the underpinning of the idea was: Leave them be, that’s their culture, radicalisation happens. On 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 hierarchal structures work inside the organisation? Were you approved of and accepted immediately?

MN: During my first two years as an activist, I gained trust and was seen as competent, as someone who can get the job done. I studied hard and got into SOAS, the renowned University in London. It was at this time, when I was 19, that I took an oath to become a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir and soon after became a national speaker for the organisation.

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 young men marry girls from within the community because it is important that they share the same world view. At this time, there was a very important break: Pakistan became a nuclear power. I was ordered by headquarters to go to Pakistan and, with our group’s propaganda, 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 that of the leaders, but they were not ideological differences, rather organisational. That was the beginning of my turning back. I noticed that they didn’t tolerate any opposition, critique, or recommendations. I was even suspected to be a British agent, acting specifically against the establishment of the organisation in Pakistan. This completely upset me and it was then that I remembered I had broken off my law degree in London for this mission, and I decided to return to England with my wife.

ES: What were your personal experiences in Pakistan, the country your family comes from? Your time as a youth must have been inseparably linked to your country of origin.

MN: I didn’t know very much about Pakistan when I arrived. The last time I had been there was on holiday when I was five. But one thought never ceased to occupy my mind: “Oh God, these are my people, I’m here, to create a country for them.” My time in Pakistan brought up another doubt in my mind: whether I fit into this country, or was even ever meant to fit in.

ES: That is a problem that many people with an immigrant background have, this double identity. How did you handle it?

MN: It was insolvable, so I returned to England, determined to finish my degree. I was ordered by the oranisation to establish Hizb ut-Tahrir in Denmark, so I studied intensively during the week so I could fly to Denmark on weekends. It was very strenuous. It is obligatory that you spend one year abroad during your third year of studies. I studied Arabic in addition to law, so my professor recommended that I go to Egypt. I had my doubts because 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 for Hizb ut-Tahrir in Egypt?

MN: I was there to study, but of course I made no secret of my plans to establish a Caliphate. One day, my apartment was stormed; they blindfolded me and dragged me out of the living room while my wife and little one watched, and they took me and several others to be interrogated by the National Security in Alexandria. Their first tactic was taking me to the outside stairwell on the roof where they threatened to throw me down if I didn’t cooperate. Then the interrogation began. We were a large group huddled in a small room, arms tied behind our backs with blindfolds. They systematically tortured us 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 mean time 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, the world went berserk, everything was possible. I finally was given a trial and was imprisoned for five years for propagating an organisation that was forbidden in the country.

ES: How did you cope with your time in jail? Did you prepare yourself, make a plan?

MN: That was where my intellectual journey began. After two years of solitary confinement I was transferred to the Mazra Tora prison where I had the opportunity to speak with political prisoners, 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. I met 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. What happened in your mind?

MN: Before someone can 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, and 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 to revenge.

ES: You were released in March 2006 and returned to England. What were your plans?

MN: I was greeted by television cameras and the video of my arrival in Heathrow was put online. But Hizb ut-Tahrir was like a second family to me and I was determined to not just give up after 14 years. I felt the need to prove to them I had not simply 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 was ever outlawed. 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: My family was very supportive while I completed my degree. During the time of graduation, I decided to leave Hizb ut-Tahrir; I was 29 years old and it was 2006. I made an appearance on Newsnight, a leading English TV channel, and said, “I have to tell the world that I not only leave Islamism behind me, I recant it completely and entirely.” 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.

This interview was published in the Austrian newspaper DIE PRESSE on April 12th 2008.


« Back to overviewSend a friend Print article