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Former Islamist seeks to turn the tide of religious extremism in Pakistan

Maajid Nawaz has founded Khudi, the first social movement in Pakistan to challenge extremist religious ideas and instead promote democratic culture among youths.

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After working for HT in Britain, Denmark, Egypt, and Pakistan, he said, he was hunted down by Egypt's state security, tortured, and imprisoned for four years, aged 24. While he was held in solitary confinement, he vowed to become a suicide bomber.

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But, in a move that was to change his life, Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience.

The fact that an organization he believed to be a soft tool of colonialism – and therefore his enemy – was fighting for his rights, deeply moved him.

"I am, in part, the person I am today because of their decision to campaign for me," he writes in his autobiography, Radical

Amnesty's support helped him rehumanize.  “... instead of being fascinated with the afterlife and death, for the first time in many years I began to reconnect with life, and with humanity. This is not something you can teach, it is something you must live and feel," he writes.  

Discussions with his fellow inmates who challenged his ideology and encouraged him to study the Koran and Islamic theology, were also instrumental in changing his ideas.

He was released from prison in 2006, and decided to leave HT. That decision came at great personal cost – separation from his wife who was still part of HT.

He has since lunched with former US President George W. Bush, been summoned to brief British Prime Minister David Cameron, and met former British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Since establishing Khudi, he has received appeals from Somalis, Egyptians, and Iraqis to help them set up a Khudi equivalent in their countries. He also wants to set one up in Libya.

"The Arab uprisings when they happened gave us more of an impetus, because we saw that that's genuinely possible." And because the uprisings were sparked by young people who didn't have a social movement, they formed youth-based coalitions that were easy for the Islamists to hijack, and ultimately hijack their revolution, Nawaz said.

Nawaz says it will take 30 or 40 years for a new generation of people from Khudi to enter every part of Pakistani society and change people's values.

"It's an enormous mountain to climb ... What I want to do is see things in the long term, and climb properly."

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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