So why did “a Western-born Muslim who first found his voice of rebellion through a heady diet of American hip-hop, graffiti, and dance” join Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), a worldwide Islamist organization, and end up languishing in an Egyptian jail for four years?
Answer: Because Islamism gave his hip-hop identity a badass, exotically foreign sheen – and scared the white racists hounding him more than any rap song ever could. But this very Islamism, which Maajid Nawaz, author (with Tom Bromley) of the riveting Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism succinctly defines as “the desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam over society as law,” had much more in store for him. It plunged an earnest but frightfully ignorant and impressionable young man into conflicts far greater and more dangerous than the neighborhood scuffles he was getting into in Southend, his hometown in the southeastern part of England.
Nawaz, born into a Pakistani-British family in 1978, is today best known as co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a think tank dedicated to countering the Islamist narrative of Muslim victimhood and revenge. (He may soon make a name for himself in politics; the Liberal Democrats have chosen him to run for a seat in the House of Commons in 2015.) Earlier, he gained renown of a more infamous variety as a rabble-rouser at London’s Newham College and then as an international recruiter for Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group which aims to re-establish the Islamic caliphate not through violence but by convincing high-ranking military figures in any Muslim-majority country to topple the government and proceeding from there.
Another co-founder of Quilliam, Ed Husain (who also attended Newham), wrote an arresting account of his own history as an HT member, “The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left.” The main difference between the two men’s trajectories is shocking, and shows just how firmly fanaticism took hold of Nawaz. When a tough-talking Christian student at Newham was murdered by a non-HT Muslim acquaintance of Nawaz and Husain’s during a knife-fight, a horrified Husain began his slow drift toward moderation. Nawaz, on the other hand, did not suffer any pangs of remorse for helping to foster a climate of Muslim supremacism and hatred of others. Indeed, he went on to recruit for HT in Pakistan and Denmark, was unfazed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and made his way to Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. This proved to be his undoing. In 2002, 24-year-old Nawaz and several others were arrested for HT-related activities under Egypt’s Emergency Laws.
Unlike one of his two British comrades (and many Egyptians he met behind bars), Nawaz was not tortured. Of course, during the more than four years the three Britons were incarcerated following a controversial trial during which they were found guilty of engaging in proscribed political activity, all suffered monumental indignities. Nevertheless, the Mazraat Tora jail, which housed Egyptian political prisoners of all kinds, from Islamists to liberals such as Ayman Nour and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, served as a new and unlikely college-of-sorts for Nawaz. “The studies, conversations, and experiences I gained,” the author writes, “were crucial in overcoming my dogmatic allegiance to the Islamist ideology.”
Many Egyptian Islamists, especially those of the jihadist kind, used their lengthy jail terms to read up on a religion in whose name they had fought and killed, now often coming up with interpretations that opposed their earlier militancy. Nawaz learned much about his religion through them.
“It might sound strange, given how committed I was to the Islamist ideology,” he muses, “but I had never properly studied Islam or the Qur’an. Islamism was a political movement before it was a religious one, and many of its followers came from irreligious backgrounds.” The author began to see that Islamists have to a large extent grafted modern Western political notions onto Islam. “I couldn’t help noticing that not once were the words ‘law,’ ‘state,’ or ‘constitution’ mentioned in the Qur’an,” Nawaz recalls. “The Qur’an was an ancient text, while political ideas such as a ‘unitary legal system,’ codified law,’ ‘statehood,’ and constitution were modern political concepts; they did not exist at the time the Qur’an was written.”
Notice the somewhat distressing absence of moral reasoning in these historical and theological arguments against Islamism. To be sure, Nawaz experienced what he terms a “rehumanization process” – thanks in large part to the support he received from Amnesty International as well as his communist Egyptian lawyer – one in which a long-suppressed compassion for others began to displace his previously ever-present anger. And at one point, remonstrating with a Dagestani inmate who rejoiced at the 2005 London bombings, he spoke of the sanctity of human life, not just the finer points of Shariah and warfare. Yet, perhaps recalling his own imperviousness to moral compunction in the wake of the Christian college student’s murder, Nawaz maintains that the best way to convince Islamists of the error of their ways is to demolish that which they – like all fanatics – value more than anything else: their ideas.
Still, one wants to ask Nawaz, who remains Muslim but is now moderate and secular, about Islam itself. Don’t the Quran and Hadith include violent and misogynistic passages? Doesn’t the idea of the Ummah, the international community of Muslim believers, militate against national allegiances, and encourage some Muslims to feel closer to a far-flung foreign coreligionist than a non-Muslim compatriot? Nawaz seems to recognize that the problem lies not simply with Islamists’ politicization of Islam, but with a literal reading of scripture by the likes of Salafists. Yet he doesn’t have much to say about how to address this controversial issue, preferring to focus on the perils of Islamism.
At any rate, even if he restricts himself to taking on Islamists, Nawaz will have plenty of work to do. Additionally, he’ll have to contend with non-Muslim Westerners who, wary of the sometimes exaggerated menace of jihadism at home, have grown increasingly prone to ignoring its ascendant role in the rest of the world. In an epilogue written – along with a preface – specifically for the US edition of the book, Nawaz reminds readers of a chilling development underway in several countries: “The simple fact was that since bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda had gone from being a terrorist group to a full-blown insurgency in at least Mali, Yemen, and the Levant.”
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.