From Islamist radical to fighter for change

The JC Essay


By Maajid Nawaz, June 29, 2012
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I became an Islamist without ever having read the Koran, as I admitted to Newsweek's Christopher Dickey in an interview last year. People may not know but Islamists often come from educated, liberal backgrounds, in fact many of them are irreligious. Disillusionment with what they see around them, coupled with a powerful ideological narrative, leads to their political conversion. The ritual aspect of Islam, things like praying and fasting, I have noticed, comes as an afterthought.

I know this from first-hand experience, which I discuss in length in my recently published book about my journey from Islamist extremism to a democratic awakening. Radical explains how and why I joined the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir at the age of 16, and worked tirelessly for their cause across four countries before witnessing torture and being imprisoned in Egypt by the time I was 24.

It was while I was held in Mazra Tora - the same prison that eventually held Hosni Mubarak - that my political awakening began to occur, leading me to go on to co-found, alongside British author Ed Husain, the think tank Quilliam as a counter-extremism organisation.

Radical begins with my life as a British Pakistani (and Muslim) teenager growing up in Essex, where I witnessed many of my close friends being stabbed in violent racist attacks when I was as young as 14. By the age of 15, my brother and I were falsely arrested for suspicion of armed robbery because he had been playing with a toy gun in the local park and somebody reported him to the police.

My 'enemy' was fighting for my rights when my own group had a policy of viewing its fallen soldiers as a distraction

Around the same time, the atrocities in Bosnia were taking place amid widespread international paralysis. All this, coupled with the alienation and identity crisis that I felt at home, was the ideal breeding ground for an angry young teenager to seek out a subculture. Enter Hizb ut Tahrir.

Founded in Jerusalem in 1953, Hizb ut Tahrir operates globally and has had a corrosive effect on Arab and Muslim-majority societies wherever it nurtures cells. For example, in 1974, Hizb ut Tahrir member Salih Sirriya led 100 followers in a bloody and violent coup attempt in Egypt, known as the Military Academy Case.

The failure of this effort, and subsequent crackdown on the group placed it firmly on the radar of Egypt's Security Services. To avoid this attention and to continue operating, another Hizb ut Tahrir member, Salim el-Rahhal, started Tanzim al-Jihad in Alexandria. President Anwar Sadat was eventually assassinated by the same Tanzim al-Jihad in 1981 for negotiating with Israel and signing the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty.

Tanzim al-Jihad went on to split into two parties, one of them being Jihad al-Islami, led by the man who is now considered Bin laden's successor in al-Qaeda: Ayman al-Zawahiri. "Thus," I have concluded in the book, "the snail's trail becomes clear: the traceable effect that Hizb ut Tahrir has had on the world of Islamism as we know it."

Hizb ut Tahrir is still legal in the west, including the US and the UK. Having inside knowledge of Hizb ut Tahrir and its workings, I can say that the world should be paying attention to their rhetoric. In the past year alone, the group has been accused of two military coup plots, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and has been accused by Rashid el-Ghannouchi - leader of the Ennahda party that recently won Tunisia's elections - of attempting to destabilise Tunisia.

Documented in my book is how, during my time as an Hizb ut Tahrir member, we succeeded in recruiting Pakistani army officers who were subsequently arrested by President Musharraf in a coup plot in Pakistan during 2003.

Hizb ut Tahrir's tactics differ from Al Qaeda's, in that Al Qaeda uses suicide bombers and terrorist attacks to achieve their goals, whereas Hizb ut Tahrir believes in recruiting people from the army and attempting coups. Ultimately, these are merely two strains of the same ideology: Islamism. I define the term as the desire to impose a particular interpretation of Islam over society through state law. Islamists can be both violent and non-violent, as we see in the case of Hizb ut Tahrir and Al Qaeda.

As far as goals are concerned, the two groups differ little. In fact, the Al Qaeda's goals were first articulated by Hizb ut Tahrir. These are: to overthrow governments in all Muslim-majority countries; to replace them with their version of a Caliphate; and to destroy Israel through a foreign policy they call "jihad" (which is an appropriation of a traditional Islamic term). Hizb ut Tahrir essentially want to create one global "caliphate" and impose their interpretation of Islam as state law, and they also have an expansionist foreign policy, intent on conquest.

This third objective is essentially self-explanatory but that they are working towards the first two is equally worrying. Such efforts not only destabilise and create unrest in the Middle East region, as my example of Hizb ut Tahrir's influence over Sadat's assassination has shown, but they also popularise a virulently antisemitic message. This is because of the lazy way in which groups like Hizb ut Tahrir fail to differentiate between Israelis and Jews.

Post-Egypt's uprising, Hizb ut Tahrir is already busy reactivating its cells there, and is soon to organise a "Caliphate" conference in Egypt. If Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces continues to obstruct the development of democracy, Hizb ut Tahrir may undergo a resurrection of fortunes.

My book charts my recruitment and eventual rise through the ranks of Hizb ut Tahrir. During my time as an Islamist activist, I even travelled to Jerusalem to undergo ideological training there so that I could take our potent message back to Europe and Pakistan.

My plans were thwarted only by my imprisonment in Egypt. However, and somewhat paradoxically, during these years I went through a process of self-reflection and revision of my ideological convictions and, soon after my release in 2006, I unilaterally renounced not only Hizb ut Tahrir, but the Islamist ideology as a whole.

The book seeks to explain how and why I changed my mind, and what I did next. When I was in jail, Amnesty International adopted me as a Prisoner of Conscience. Here was my enemy - I then believed Amnesty to be a soft power tool of colonialism - and yet it was fighting for my rights when my own group had a policy of viewing its fallen soldiers as a distraction. Amnesty's subsequent work for my release, through a man called John Cornwall, had a profound emotional impact on me.

Secondly, I spent years inside prison discussing and debating with prisoners from across Egypt's vibrant political spectrum. This process of debate and study, and the recantations of many former Jihadists in Egypt's jails, had a profound effect on my own understanding of the Islamist ideology. It felt to us that the Arab Spring was happening in that prison on a micro level before it could be unveiled on a macro level.

Soon after my departure from Hizb ut Tahrir, I co-founded Quilliam to help provide alternative narratives to Islamist propaganda. The same passion that drove me to join Hizb ut Tahrir now drives me in my work at Quilliam, and at Khudi - a social movement we founded and are busy popularising in Pakistan in order to challenge Islamist narratives at the grass-roots and to promote the democratic culture. This passion essentially derives from the same desire for justice that I had when I joined Hizb ut Tahrir, except now I see that Islamism is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

In the years prior to our founding Quilliam, debate in the West had become polarised between either supporting secular dictatorships in return for security, or supporting extreme Islamism. We wanted to present a third way to deal with this challenge, the radical democratic alternative.

Quilliam was a way of encouraging this third way. Islam is not inherently democratic, just as it is not inherently totalitarian. In fact, Islam is a religion subject to the same interpretative pressures of all other trends in modern thought. In this sense, Islam is as compatible with democracy as it is with dictatorships, and the choice of which system to adopt for Muslims is actually a political, not a religious, choice. What is needed is to discredit those who insist there is only one way - an "Islamic" way - of doing politics. It follows therefore, that much of our work involved injecting some much needed nuance into the polarising debates around such issues.

T o this end, I recently undertook a trip to Israel to understand the Arab-Israel conflict as part of a Liberal Democrat parliamentary fact-finding delegation, where I met Fatah representative Dr Husam Zomlot and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev, as well as Britain's ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould.

Among my many observations while there, a few in particular highlight just how complex this conflict is. Most people will not know that 20 per cent of Israeli citizens, inside Israel proper, are actually Arabs, most of whom are Sunni Muslims. Many may or may not have complaints about the way they are treated in Israel, and I am under no illusion about the grievances resulting from Israel's continued occupation of Palestine, but Arab Israelis also have religious and language rights - Arabic is an official language of Israel - and they have political representation, and hold some positions of power.

This complexity is further highlighted through the example of Ghajar, a village on the border of the Golan Heights and Lebanon. The residents of Ghajar are Alawites, a sect within Shi'ite Islam; many hold Syrian nationality and affinity with Syria's ruling Alawite family. But, under Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, Israel granted these villagers citizenship. To add to the confusion, Hizbollah in Lebanon claim Ghajar as a Lebanese village. Currently, the northern half is under Lebanon's control while the southern half remains under Israeli control, and is claimed by Syria. Simplistic Islamist solutions, if applied to either of these two examples, would have little truck with local stakeholders.

My story is an effort to communicate and popularise some of this complexity through the medium of storytelling, and by humanising my experiences. I've tried to pull no punches, and wrote Radical as a raw and sometimes uncomfortable mirror to society. Through this, my hope is that my experiences can help all sides of the debate to continue working towards a more accurate and empathetic understanding of the issues at hand, and to begin the process of rehumanising "the other", just as Amnesty's work helped me to leave the ghosts of torture behind and to seek positive change through democratic activism.

Current events in the Arab world, I believe, have since vindicated the choice I made in Mazra Tora prison all those years ago. Radical democratic activism is here to stay.

This essay was co-written by Saleha Riaz. Maajid Nawaz is chairman of Quilliam. 'Radical - My Journey From Islamist Extremism to A Democratic Awakening' (W H Allen) will be published on July 5. Follow him on Twitter here

Last updated: 10:13am, June 29 2012