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.

Matt Dunham/AP/File
Maajid Nawaz (seen here in a 2006 file photo) grew up in Britain and became an Islamist extremist. But now he's reversed course and founded Khudi, which challenges extremist religious ideas and instead promotes democracy.

In the late 1990s, British Pakistani Maajid Nawaz was helping to recruit Pakistani army officers to an extremist Islamist group – with a view to overthrowing the Pakistani government. Now he's using the tactics he learned as an Islamist to try to curb extremism in Pakistan

"There are, to use a phrase, transferrable skills," Nawaz, co-founder and chairman of the London-based counter-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation, said in a recent telephone interview.

Now a man courted by the world's top political leaders and a TED speaker, Nawaz was once a top international recruiter for Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), a group that seeks to create a Muslim superstate, a global caliphate.

It aims to oust governments by military coups, after first spreading its ideas among the military, intellectuals, and general population. Once in power, its aim is to pursue an aggressive policy of foreign invasion and expansion, and impose its own version of Islam as state law.

Nawaz set up HT cells in Britain, Denmark, and Egypt. In Pakistan, he targeted intellectuals, military officers, and even the Taliban, who at the time were not considered revolutionary enough for HT.

But his life changed in 2002, when he was jailed by the Egyptians. During his time in prison, his ideas were deeply challenged, and in the end he decided to leave HT.

Having played a significant role in bringing about a shift to extremism, he said he felt a responsibility to use his experience and knowledge to try to reverse that work.

"It's a very difficult thing to do, but when I first started this I thought if we don't do it, who the hell is going to?" Nawaz told AlertNet. "This opportunity only comes around once every so often when you've got someone who's got that experience and who knows the Islamist arguments and is able to put them forward and then critique them.

"Bit of a burden," he said with a laugh.

In 2010, he founded Khudi, the first social movement in Pakistan to challenge extremist religious ideas and instead promote democratic culture among the country's youths.

Its aim is to spread democratic values in every area of Pakistani life as its members become journalists, judges, politicians, and activists.

"It's a very grandiose and long-term ambition, but already we're beginning to see fruits," he said.

Tens of thousands follow Khudi on social media. They've organized national and international conferences, and local television station Express News TV is airing a series of debates on extremism.

Extremism in Pakistan exists not just in the Taliban strongholds in Pakistan's northwestern states bordering Afghanistan – where schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot for standing up for girls' education – but also in the country's heartland, Nawaz said.

"Our analysis is that Pakistani society has been affected by extremism to an unacceptable level," Nawaz said.

He cited the example of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab and a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, who was shot dead in January 2011 by his bodyguard for suggesting Pakistan's blasphemy law be reformed.

Taseer had angered many people because of his defence of a Christian woman who was sentenced to death on blasphemy charges. Lawyers hailed Taseer's killer as a hero, tossing rose petals at him after he was arrested. More than 500 lawyers offered to defend him for free.

"The way that the murderer was treated as a hero openly and brazenly, that's an indication," Nawaz said.

Just this month, Pakistan authorities in the southern city of Karachi were caught off guard by the shootings of polio vaccination workers, saying they had not expected attacks in areas so far from Taliban strongholds.

Signs of tolerance of the Taliban appear even when hotels are blown up and Pakistanis die, Nawaz said. "There's a side-stepping, there's 'oh that couldn't have been the Taliban because why would they kill other Muslims, it must be America trying to make the Taliban look bad.'

"We're a long way from people being able to name and shame the perpetrators, and we're even further away from people disassociating themselves from the aims," he added.

The idea for establishing Khudi as a social movement came from the Islamist way of organizing people.

Islamist groups radically changed public opinion in the Middle East by setting up social movements and sending members into every strata of society – journalism, engineering, medicine, law, politics – carrying the Islamists' ideas, Nawaz said. Arab socialism, which dominated public opinion in the 1950s and '60s, was completely obliterated by Islamism in the 1980 and '90s.

"So I thought why not set up a movement that mirrors that, but instead of Islamism, the democratic culture?"

Nawaz was born and brought up in the British coastal town of Southend. There he saw many of his close friends stabbed in racist attacks, and he and his brother were falsely arrested on suspicion of armed robbery after playing with a toy gun in the local park.

At the same time, atrocities were being committed against Muslims during the Bosnian war. Nawaz writes that this, coupled with the alienation and identity crisis he felt at home, was the ideal breeding ground for an angry young teenager seeking out a subculture. Aged 16, he joined HT.

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.

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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