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Becoming a Muslim radical


Maajid Nawaz (Pic courtesy of Quilliam Foundation)

BRITISH-BORN Pakistani Maajid Nawaz , 31, is director and co-founder of the London-based Quilliam Foundation, which describes itself as the world’s first counter-extremism think-tank. Based in London, the foundation was founded by “former leading ideologues of UK-based extremist Islamist organisations”.

Once a member himself of the international pan-Islamist radical but non-violent group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), Maajid and his foundation now challenge extremist ideology. They do this through debates, lectures and research to explain the difference between Islam as a religion and Islamism as a political ideology.

Quilliam’s work involves engaging with university campuses, communities, and governments. The foundation also works in Pakistan, where Maajid once recruited for HT, to reverse the tide of extremism among youths. Though banned in many Arab nations, HT is allowed in the United Kingdom, and is said to have a wide network internationally, with a large following in Southeast Asia. It exists openly in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Nut Graph met Maajid during the Alliance of Youth Movements 2009 summit in Mexico City where he agreed to share the story of his journey into extremism and out of it. In this first of a two-part e-mail interview, Maajid talks about the factors and experiences that made him a radical.

TNG: Tell us your experience of being recruited by Hizb ut-Tahrir. How old were you? What approach and ideology did they use, and what made you join them?

Maajid Nawaz: As a third-generation British Muslim, I was raised in an integrated and well-established family; four of my mother’s siblings are doctors. I had absolutely no problem making friends and was in the highest sets in school, later going on to study law at university. As a British-Asian teenager growing up in Essex, I always had a sense of being different. In fairness, this was not due to the majority of people around me, but the actions of a minority of organised racists who made life exceptionally difficult for all around me.


(Pic by sateda / sxc.hu)
By the age of 15, I found myself having to flee random and unprovoked knife attacks, and witness friends being stabbed before my eyes. There were arrests but no charges; apparently, they had “friends” in the police.

Institutional racism was something I knew existed before the phrase itself was coined. The first time I was arrested in an armed raid was on the streets of Essex. Aged 15, I had been playing pool with friends until late. As I was being driven home, we were shocked at being pursued by police helicopters shining spotlights on our car. The road had been blockaded and we found ourselves staring down the barrel of machine guns. I was arrested at gunpoint for “suspicion of armed robbery”.

Unknown to me, earlier in the day my friends had been innocently playing with a plastic pellet gun. A poor old lady had decided that brown children playing with plastic pellet guns could mean only one thing: they intended to rob a bank. I still remember the look on my mother’s face when she came into the police station. We were kept overnight and the following afternoon we were released without charge and with a sheepish apology.

I initially dealt with such incidents by associating with a counter-culture inspired by American rap music. In the 1990s, this was an underground scene that we felt provided a voice and identity to those who were not being seen or heard. This was the beginning of my politicisation, and by now I was already inclined to being anti-establishment.

As time passed, I became more aware of identity issues and world conflicts. The Bosnian genocide struck a chord like no other. Here were white European Muslims being identified solely as Muslims and being slaughtered for it. This genocide coincided with an emerging trend in rap music, whereby American rappers began to identify explicitly as Muslims and mixed samples of Malcolm X‘s speeches into their music.


Memorial to the victims of the Bosnian genocide in Srebrenica (Wiki commons)

Sadly, at this critical juncture, there was no guidance forthcoming from the mosques on such identity issues. In those days, most mosque imams — including my own — were born abroad, ill-educated in both religion and other subjects, misunderstood our culture and could not even speak English.

It was during this period of my life that a member of HT, a young medical student from my hometown who had been recruited while studying at university in London, started explaining HT ideas to me. My premature politicised mind was ripe to receive an ideology that advocated a black and white solution to the problems I had grown up with. The tactics these people used were to avoid mosques and instead look for sympathisers at youth clubs and universities. Our conversations did not revolve around religion, but rather around politics. Islam was presented to me as an ideology.

The idea that I was not a Muslim in the religious sense but rather in a larger political context appealed to me. The question “Who are you actually?” is what really got me. It continued in that way: “Are you British? Of course not, they’ll never accept you. Are you Pakistani? The colonial powers created Pakistan 50 years ago and gave you a Pakistani identity. If you really want to be yourself, you have to refuse the identity they want to give you.” These questions were the core of their indoctrination, which fascinated me.

What did your work with the party involve for the 14 years you were with them? Have you ever taken up arms?

As I got more involved with HT activities, from attending secret cell meetings to distributing leaflets that called for jihad in “occupied lands”, I conflicted with Muslims at mosques and, most worryingly, my own parents. I recall with horror being chased out of a northern town by members of the mosque congregation and their imam for distributing HT leaflets outside the mosque. My parents detested seeing those same leaflets in their home. But I was undeterred. For me, Muslims, including my parents, had misunderstood their ideology.

This was an ideology like no other. Religion had been merged with politics in such a way that we worshipped God through our political activities. Where our minds could not grasp a certain idea, we were coaxed through scripture. Where scripture did not bolster a certain notion, we were convinced through rational argumentation.


(Pic by dcubillas / sxc.hu)
The result was a potent mix of political and philosophical stances seemingly justified by religious scripture with the aim of liberating the Muslim nation, or ummah, whose minds had been colonised. The result was producing young men and women who were prepared to give up everything for the sake of a political ideology and go to a religious paradise. I had finally discovered who I was. I was a sharp, ideological Muslim whose mission was to create a new world order.

However, it is important here to say that HT is a non-terrorist party. They do not, and we did not, take up arms against non-combatants. However, this is not to say that they are peaceful. As members of the group, we believed in the religious necessity of convincing the armies of democratic and non-democratic Muslim-majority countries to instigate military coups against their regime. Military coups are inherently a violent act, and when they occur against a democratic regime they are a violation of international law.

I took on board this ideology as my own, propagating it through campuses and across borders until it consumed my life. In 1994 we took over the Students’ Union of Newham College. I was elected as president of the union and my entire committee were HT activists. We proceeded to radicalise the campus to such an extent that regrettably, one of our supporters ended up murdering a non-Muslim student on campus by plunging a machete through his heart. The man convicted for the murder acted beyond the strict guidance of HT, yet his actions demonstrate the way in which HT ideology can create an atmosphere where such violence can brew. The entire students’ union committee, with me at its head, was expelled from the campus in one clean sweep.

I continued my studies and eventually ended up at the University of London to study Law and Arabic. In 1999, while still at university and at the tender age of 21, I was sent by the group’s global leader to Pakistan to export HT there. Pakistan had by then acquired a nuclear bomb, and it was felt that HT’s “caliphate” would vastly benefit from being a nuclear power. Once having achieved my aims in helping to set up HT Pakistan, I returned to the UK in 2000. I was then again asked to set up the Pakistani branch of HT in Denmark. From Monday to Friday I would study at university, and on the weekends I would fly out to Copenhagen to set up cells for HT in that city. My travels eventually ended in Egypt, post-9/11, where my activities finally caught up with me.


Arrested in Egypt, then a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Courtesy of Maajid Nawaz)

What are the factors that cause a person to be radicalised? Is poverty, as we are often told, a root cause of terrorism?

There are many factors that come together which Islamists then manipulate and construe through a meta-narrative of a struggle between Islam and the west. Grievances, as in my story, do push angry people to seek alternative solutions.

Islamists will use an individual’s experiences of racism, colonialism, poverty and concerns about foreign policy, as well as any questions they may have about their own identity, to support the Islamist ideology and justify terrorism. However, without the existence of this ideology, the grievances [would be] expressed through normal channels of youth anger and sub-culture. The way in which that ideology combines with grievances is the root cause of terrorism.

Islamism is a modern ideology masquerading as an ancient religion. As such, it shares a common trait with many other constructed ideologies. This trait is its fundamental, theoretical justification for change regardless of circumstances. Ideologies do not merely provide “solutions” to perceived problems; they provide a framework within which to define problems in the first place.

By doing this, they effectively “discover” problems where there may be none, and can act as an obstacle to solving other problems when the solution doesn’t fit certain dogma. Islamism is formed by superimposing certain western political paradigms onto the religion of Islam. The absence of such modern Islamist notions in Muslim political systems and society is subsequently equated to the absence of Islam itself. Whatever institutions are found in place are subsequently described as Kufr (disbelief), which must be overthrown as a religious obligation.

Herein lies the problem. Islamism is not driven by a sense of material injustice in this life. It is driven by an ideological agenda that will seek change regardless of such material injustice. For Islamists, the absence of Islamism is itself the injustice. All [human]-made legislation is considered to be oppressive, and only divine legislation is capable of liberating [humans] from such oppression. Any material problems, such as poverty, crime or conflict, are hence not primary reasons for Islamist radicalisation, they are simply convenient recruitment tools used to further destabilise those who rule by [human]-made legislation. 

Part 2 tomorrow:
Leaving religious extremism

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7 Responses to “Becoming a Muslim radical”

  1. slipnot says:

    “Are you Pakistani? The colonial powers created Pakistan 50 years ago and gave you a Pakistani identity. If you really want to be yourself, you have to refuse the identity they want to give you.”

    Gee, that says exactly how I feel about being Malay.

  2. Juana Jaafar says:

    Salam, Saudari Pengarang,

    Penting untuk temuduga ini diterjemah ke dalam Bahasa Melayu untuk bacaan golongan umat Islam Malaysia yang kurang fasih membaca dalam Bahasa Inggeris. Harap TNG dapat membuat demikian. Terima kasih.

    Nota dari pengarang: Salam, saudari Juana, dan terima kasih atas maklumbalas anda yang amat kami hargai. Kami di TNG amat menyedari pentingnya maklumat dan analisa yang dimuatkan di laman kami disebarkan dalam bahasa kebangsaan dan juga bahasa perantaraan lain di Malaysia. Malangnya, kami kekurangan sumber tenaga manusia dan dana untuk melaksanakannya. Harap maaf. Kami sentiasa mencuba memperbaiki mutu laman berita ini. Terima kasih atas sokongan anda dan kritikan anda yang membina.

    Shanon Shah
    Pengarang Kolum dan Komen

  3. RashadZAli says:

    Rather interesting interview. Unfortunately a lot of unanswered questions. Specifically:

    1. How does he explain the fact that this “counter-extremism” think tank is a British government funded and backed entity:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article5549138.ece

    which has been supported by the VERY same British neo-conservatives who supported Tony Blair’s calls for the invasion of Iraq:

    http://www.iengage.org.uk/component/content/article/557-martin-bright-praises-quilliam-foundations-grand-alliance-with-zionists-and-neo-cons

    and which even its own former supporter alleges supports wholesale surveillance of ALL British Muslims in ALL aspects of their lives:

    Spying “Morally Right” Says Thinktank:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/oct/16/spying-morally-right-says-thinktank

    Govt. Spying on Innocent People:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/oct/16/anti-terrorism-strategy-spies-innocents

    Seems much like failed communists and anarchists who became ultra-right wing, pro-imperial neo-conservatives in the US:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2008/02/01/GR2008020102389.html

    this “foundation” and its director are now cheerleaders for US/UK imperialism in the Muslim World.

  4. racist says:

    This is what would happen if most Malaysians are not multilingual: they would be at the mercy of others just because they don’t understand English.

  5. Stephanie Rudat says:

    This interview is one of the best I have read on Maajid Nawaz. I applaud you.

  6. Ida Bakar says:

    “Islamism is not driven by a sense of material injustice in this life. It is driven by an ideological agenda that will seek change regardless of such material injustice.”

    Perhaps this is the best wake-up call for our so-called religious leaders. Although, hopefully it would be towards greater openess and dialogue, and not towards ethno-religious tempurung.

  7. mummygee says:

    A very interesting read indeed! I agree that more Malaysians should read articles such as this. Hence the need for translation so that more of us will leave the “tempurung” we’ve been so comfortable under.

    Well done TNG!


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