Maajid Nawaz (b. 1978)
In the decade and more since the tragic violence of September 11, 2001, Western nations have been struggling to make sense of what happened. Nothing has proven more difficult than the maintenance of clarity in the midst of the heady emotions in the years since Jihadists crashed passenger airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania (in an abortive attempt to suicide bomb a session of Congress, as it was later surmised).
Thankfully, a small but growing number of insider texts have appeared, detailing the multifaceted nature of Islam. One of the major challenges, both to violent radicalism and to the mainstream Western narratives, has come from Maajid Nawaz, the founder of an anti-radical activism group called Quilliam and its international subsidiaries. A former recruiter and rising star in the radical Islamist group Hizb al-Tahrir (which eventually spawned the openly militant Al Qaeda among others), he came to abandon his radicalism and embrace a more liberal, apolitical view of Islam while maintaining his childhood faith. His story is detailed in "Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism."
Nawaz began, as so many radicals, as an average child in a European minority group. His grandfather immigrated to Great Britain from Pakistan during the violent Partition of 1947, in which Pakistan was split from the rest of India. In one of many miniature history lessons within the narrative, Nawaz explains the myopia and apathy of colonial authorities in the face of the violence and death that their policies unleashed, a theme that echoes throughout the narrative. While deploring violence for the act of insecurity and cruelty that it is, Nawaz does not compromise on calling out the sins of Western nations in geopolitics, grievances which (when added to a toxic mixture of half-truths or outright lies) eventually helped give impetus to movements like Hizb al-Tahrir, one of the original international radical Muslim political organizations, founded in 1953.
Growing up in a majority white community in England, Nawaz learned about racism at a tender age, after being punched in the stomach by another boy at school for being a "Paki." The child proceeded to shout that his father had said that "Pakis" slept with apes and thus gave rise to AIDS -- an example of the racist propaganda used to stir up hatred in an already insecure and shrinking Empire by neo-Nazi groups. As Nawaz grew up, he saw many friends (including white friends) beaten and attacked by hate groups like Combat 18, a neo-Nazi group that sent armed men in vans patrolling for vulnerable "Pakis" to beat. It was during such an attack, when Nawaz was alone and unarmed, that an unknown good Samaritan threw himself between the neo-Nazis and Nawaz, taking the beating and hatred that had been intended for another. The complicity of the police with such matters only fueled the passion of Nawaz and his teenage peers for American gangsta rap music by NWA and others.
During a particularly dangerous confrontation, Nawaz was impressed when his brother intimidated and overcame the local thugs by threatening them with a backpack, saying he had friends in Al Qaeda. The gangsters backed down. Nawaz was impressed with this new power that was able to overcome white supremacists, and his brother got him involved in Hizb al-Tahrir, an organization dedicated to recruiting young Muslims around the world to unite in an effort to bring about Caliphates or Muslim rule in their respective countries, usually by infiltrating educational institutions and the military. The proximal goals, of course, included the already theocratic Afghanistan (until the American-led coalition destroyed that dream by ousting the Taliban) and came to include Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other nations.
When at university, Nawaz became a rising star in HT, organizing rallies and recruiting. Threats by African students were answered by a violent al-Qaeda member who offered protective services, eventually murdering an African student during a confrontation and receiving life in prison. The local branch of HT was rebuked by international leadership, as Great Britain was desired as a cash and recruit source rather than as a source of negative media attention.
Eventually, Nawaz became an international recruiter noted for his effectiveness and devotion, traveling to various recruitment centers including Denmark, Pakistan, and Egypt. Despite the toll on his family life, the young man was still committed to the cause when, at the tender age of 24 years of age, he was arrested in Egypt by the secret police for suspected involvement with Hizb al-Tahrir, which was banned in the country after the Islamist murder of Anwar Sadat involving a different organization.
Here, a note of terminology is vital, and Nawaz admirably clears up much of the confusion that still plagues Western media commentary. He distinguishes Islam (religious entity) from Islamism (the political activism that seeks to instate a Caliphate and which is often poorly educated in terms of Islam itself). Islamists sought to infiltrate societies and establish member states to the putative International Caliphate by building up numbers and ideological support. Jihadists, by contrast, sought to use violence suddenly to instate Islamic law. Over the years, Nawaz says, the contrasts between groups and ideologies in the latter two groups have become blurred, as Islamist organizations have started embracing Jihadist principles, and the terms are often used interchangeably by commentators. I found it useful to compare early Islamists with early socialists (say, the members of the Fabian society) who sought ideological converts, and to think of early Jihadists as Communist revolutionaries (say, Fidel Castro) who sought to expedite matters with weaponry.
In any case, it was after long torture and imprisonment that Nawaz found himself imprisoned with various groups in the Mazrah Tora prison, from convicted homosexuals to the liberal politicians arrested for running against "President" Mubarak. Nawaz was represented by an Egyptian Communist and was adopted by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience, causing him to question HT's messages that sought to dehumanize atheists, Communists, and Western society in general. After the show trial, however, it became obvious that years of imprisonment lay ahead.
During this time, yet another example of Western hypocrisy emerged that caused hatred to boil over among the thousands of political prisoners interned indefinitely at the prison - Tony Blair accepted a vacation getaway from Hosni Mubarak, despite his crimes against humanity that included torture and secret police. "Indeed, Prime Minister Tony Blair had accepted a succession of free holidays from Mubarak at the exclusive Sharm el-Sheikh resort while we Britons were tortured in Mubarak's jails. (Blair later stated he had made a charitable donation equal to the cost.)"
Nevertheless, the kindness of Amnesty (and its local Christian representative), the exposure to liberal traditions in the Prison Library and in books leant by the British Embassy (from 1984 to The Lord of the Rings, one of Nawaz's new favorite series of books), old ideological assumptions were challenged while kindness thawed his hatred. "It was the unconditional nature of Amnesty's support that humbled me: you're a human being so you deserve our support."
He began to study the texts and theology of Islam for the first time in his life, realizing that Islamism is less about religion than it is about politics. "It might sound strange, given how committed I was to the Islamist ideology, but I had never properly studied Islam of the Qur'an." He began to feel that the place of Islam was religious rather than politically revolutionary -- Islamic law had never been made into a monolithic code, not even under the Ottomans, who had established local courts run at the discretion of local officials; instead, the Islamist desire to establish a codified form of Sharia (of which many interpretations existed) was simply a relic of the Colonial European notions of the Nation State and jurisprudence. Instead of breaking free of European cultural baggage, Islamists were increasing their dependence upon it.
The 7/7 London Tube bombings in 2005 also rocked Nawaz's perspective. "From the distant vantage point of Mazrah Tora at the time, I felt revulsion when I heard the news. In contrast to my reaction to 9/11, I immediately thought of the human cost involved. Gone were my ideological acrobatics and my Machiavellian justifications. This time I saw the plain and simple death of innocents." No longer was "The West" a faceless, inhuman Other to be destroyed, now that the victims were in Nawaz's home country.
Nawaz had a passionate debate with a fellow prisoner, a bomb-maker named Omar. "I turned to Omar and asked him: Do you know where the biggest demonstrations against the Iraq War took place? From news clippings in old newspapers, I showed him pictures of the million-strong march of February 15, 2003, in London. The fact that the largest demonstration against the Iraq War was not in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan, but in the UK, touched me. These were human beings in London, campaigning for other human beings in Iraq. Rehumanization. Where the heart leads, the mind can follow." (The latter is a frequent refrain throughout the last section of the book.) "And we went on like this for an entire day, discussing theology, politics, and war, until eventually Omar began to rummage his hand through his hair and appear extremely uncomfortable. So I stopped pushing. For a moment, I thought he might turn on me. I'd seen him wrestle in the prison yard with bear-like Ahmed, and if he wanted to, he could settle this in an instant. But Omar was no fool, certainly not unintelligent, and he had grown very fond of me. A couple of days later, there was a knock on my cell door. Omar was back: 'Maajid, I've been thinking about what you said. I've decided you're right. I agree. British civilians are not a legitimate target.' On that day I felt that I had saved many future lives from the hands of this bomb-maker friend of mine (who after Egypt's uprising is also likely roaming free)." The reader notes that when this friendship was underway, Nawaz was not yet de-radicalized.
In the end, upon his release to England, Nawaz was to do much soul-searching. His marriage, founded on shared radical ideals, fell apart. "I had seen too much, learned too much to ever again be that same Maajid she had married. In many ways I think I was a nicer person then, and like so many nice people who seek power, I wanted to force everyone else to be nice. It's a form of totalitarianism." Desperate to convince himself of his failing beliefs, and trying to finish his final exams for his long-delayed undergraduate degree, he made one last recruitment effort.
"I tried to recruit Fatima [an outspoken Pakistani student]. Like the death throes of a dying body, I tried to project all my insecurities about my existential crisis onto her. I showed her my BBC interview and told her about how important it was that we Muslims know our identity properly. And Fatima just looked at me square in the face as she said, 'I may not be able to argue with you, or respond to your points, but I know what you are saying is simply bullshit. And you know what, Maajid? So do you!' "
Finally, Nawaz left HT and radicalism behind, founded an anti-radical activism network called Quilliam (along with its subsidiaries). He has advised the British and American governments (once sitting beside and conversing with former President George W. Bush during a special luncheon event).
Among the most important messages in the book are Nawaz's insistence on the dangers of popular multiculturalism. Of his last months as a recruiter and spokesperson, he writes: "I watched as our ideology gained acceptance and we were granted airtime as Muslim political commentators. I watched as we were ignorantly pandered to by well-meaning liberals and ideologically driven leftists. How we Islamists laughed at their naïveté." Not only does supposedly multicultural ideology fail to truly know the nuances of the cultures it pretends to embrace, it commits the typical error it publicly attributes to its enemies by essentializing minority culture into a simplistic stereotype (letting one segment of a population speak for the whole population, for instance): "Most Muslims are not Islamists; yet the organized minority dominates the discourse. Islamism had been creeping upon Muslims for over eighty years now, and little had been organized to directly challenge it. Yes, certain Muslim associations have been stressing a tolerant Islam, but this was not sufficient."
Another vital and (to me) new message was Nawaz's efforts to redefine Islam in the political discourse not as a necessarily hegemonic and intolerant force but as a religious pursuit, whose theology's true interpretation allows and even encourages healthy engagement in modern, liberal society. Nawaz boldly calls for new interpretations of the traditions of Islam for the modern era, and for the depoliticizing of Islam as a whole. He has faced assassination attempts for his about-face and his liberal minded efforts, but he remains courageous in his new identity.
So what do I think? I think Nawaz is filling an important niche and is doing important work. He's a brilliant, honest guy with the integrity to stand up for what he believes in against overwhelming odds. That being said, I will admit that as a secularist and atheist, it was jarring to see his repeated inline blessings upon "the Prophet" and his "Companions" whenever they came up. Nawaz is by no means retracting his basic religious identity, but seeking to redefine it in a positive way. Few public figures with his ability and clout have done so, and I think it's vital for figures like Nawaz to step forward and call for reformation in Islam. However, having grown up in a different religion with many shared holy texts, I know well that religions hold the seeds of totalitarianism and oppression within them, no matter how nice, intelligent, or well-intentioned their practitioners may be. The nice Christian intellectual still has an Old Testament that commands the brutal stoning to death of adulterers, homosexuals, witches, and even disrespectful children. I have not read more than a smattering of Muslim sacred texts, but I have read enough to see that they contain at least strong evidence of misogyny, tolerance for violence against "the unbeliever," and more fundamentally, of an unhealthy prostration before an all-powerful, rather less than kind deity whose word is law. In other words, religion generally does not think well of critical thinking or freethinking, which is central to a free and progressive society. While I think Nawaz is a very good man, I think he is still subject to the same dangers as any other devotée of religion, certainly any follower of the three monotheisms (not excessively to echo the great Christopher Hitchens). One small element that also bothered me was his criticism of Ayaan Hirsi Ali (atheist former Muslim, author of the bestselling Infidel, collaborator on the Submission film that got Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh murdered, and women's rights activist). As a good secularist, Ali lays the blame for religious violence at the door of religion, which seems to be a fairly logical place to put it. Nawaz needs to do more work on convincing me that Islam is a religion, fundamentally, of peace rather than a religion with peaceful and violent people within it (just like the Christians and Jews have yet to convince me that their religions have ever consistently been religions of peace).
I think that irrational beliefs, like religious superstitions, need to be fully discarded to rid us forever of the specter of religious terrorism and totalitarianism, but the root problems are human. And besides, the majority of religious people will always cling to a form of their faith, so it is all the better that there are charismatic advocates standing up for the kinder, gentler forms of those faiths. Nawaz opened my eyes to the rich diversity of opinion and the pleasant surprise of liberal thought within the Muslim community worldwide. He is right to call for more vocal support for democratic ideals, and he is also right to call for an end to the Western abuses and hypocrisy that give fuel to the Islamist flame -- all without justifying the vile atrocities committed in the name of radical Islamism. Whatever the label they use, there will always be good and kind people fighting the efforts of the violent, the ignorant and the small-minded; and I am glad someone of the caliber of Maajid Nawaz has come over to the right side.