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Leaving religious extremism


Maajid Nawaz (Pic courtesy of Quilliam Foundation)

FORMER British Muslim extremist Maajid Nawaz told The Nut Graph in an interview published yesterday about how he embraced radical Islamic thought. In this second and final part of an e-mail interview, the former Hizb ut-Tahrir member talks about how he began renouncing extremism after his arrest in Egypt following the 9/11 attacks.

Maajid, who is today the director and co-founder of the London-based Quilliam Foundation, says Islam is compatible with a secular democracy. He also argues that Islam’s diversity of thought precludes the establishment of syariah as state law.

“Traditional Islamic and Muslim history never obliged the authorities to enshrine syariah as state law due to its many possible interpretations,” notes Maajid, who is planning a speaking tour next year to Southeast Asia, which may include Malaysia.

TNG: How did you end up in prison in Egypt?

Maajid Nawaz: I was sent to Egypt by my university for the language year of my Arabic and law degree. It was my misfortune to have arrived one day before the 9/11 attacks. Unaware as to how 9/11 would affect the security environment in such a dramatic way, I continued to propagate Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) ideology to friends undeterred. This earned me the ire of the authorities.

After a long cat-and-mouse chase, I was eventually, and for the second time in my life, arrested at gunpoint. They wanted information from me about Egyptian members of HT. They tortured one man in front of me. It was unbearable. If I talked, they would catch my friends on the outside; but in the meantime they drove my companion crazy right before my eyes with an electric cable. Eventually, I was sentenced to five years for membership of HT.

What caused you to change your views while in prison? What was that process like, and who facilitated it?

It was during my detention in the Egyptian prison that I began to utilise my time by studying as much as I could about the ideology that I professed to be working for. My aim was to study Islam to such a depth that once released, I would be even more potent at propagandising than before.


Arrested in Egypt (Pic courtesy of Maajid Nawaz)
As I studied various branches of traditional Islamic sciences, however, I grew more and more surprised. The sheer breadth of scholastic disagreement that I found, on issues I had believed were so definitive in Islam, surprised me. Where we had been willing to challenge, even overthrow, regimes on certain issues, traditional jurists of Islam had treated these as academic disagreements to be debated through books.

It slowly dawned on me that what I had been propagating was far from true Islam. I began to realise that what I had subscribed to was actually Islamism sold to me in the name of Islam. And it is with this realisation that I can now say that the more I learnt about Islam, the more tolerant I became. My studies, alongside my being adopted by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience, greatly aided my intellectual reform. Amnesty’s efforts taught me that even those who knew that I considered them my “enemies” had the capacity to stand for justice in my case.

Did you find the answers against extremism within the Quran itself? Please share.

Absolutely, the Quran is full of messages that contradict the extremism I previously promoted, like: “We created you from a single male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other (49:13).” However, more important is the realisation that the Quran is only ever interpreted by limited human beings. The mindset that we bring to the Quran, and the lens that we use to interpret its passages, have more to do with the message we learn from it than the literal words themselves.

Hardly ever does the Quran speak for itself, every word is subject to much disputed principles and methodologies of interpretation. It is by delving deeper into the theological sciences and scholastic disputes surrounding the methodology of interpretation that I realised [something]. That the theo-political message espoused by extremists has more to do with their own social-scientific biases than with what the Quran actually says or does not say.

As the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Imam Ali is reported to have explained when challenging those who said that “the rule is for none but God”: “The Quran is merely lines between two covers, it does not speak for itself and requires an interpreter”.

What is the difference between Islam and Islamism, and how is Islam compatible with secular democracy?

Islamism emerged with Hasan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s. Further developed by al-Mawdudi and Qutb, it was crystallised by al-Nabhani in the 1950s. It is the modernist attempt to claim that political sovereignty belongs to God, that the syariah equates to state law, and that it is a religious duty of all Muslims to create a political entity that reflects the above.

Islamists are of varying shades, and differ in exactly how to bring about this utopia. Most are socially modern yet politically extreme. Islamists usually hold some contempt for Muslim scholars and sages; disdain for most normal Muslims, and a hatred of the West.

In short, Islamism is the belief that Islam is a political ideology. Islamism is not compatible with democracy because it insists that political sovereignty does not belong to the people.

Islam, on the other hand, is entirely compatible with not just democracies, but monarchies and dictatorships. Islam did not invent any of these, but can survive in all of them. This may come as a surprise to many “moderate” Muslims who claim that Islam is inherently democratic. However, again, I believe that such “moderates” make the same mistake as Islamists by imposing their own very modern political ideals on centuries-old religious scripture.

The truth is, like all religions, Islam does not prescribe any one mode or system of governance. This is its strength and the secret behind its survival through all sorts of regimes in the past. The result of such a realisation is that the political system that we call for as Muslims has more to do with our own preferences than with definitions in Islamic scripture. Hence, the solution would be to honestly detach scriptural justifications for our own modern political ideals, and simply have a political and intellectual debate instead. In such a debate, I would come down on the side of liberal democracy.


Maajid engaging youths in Pakistan (Courtesy of Quilliam Foundation)

Tell us what you know of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Malaysia. Are there links between HT in Malaysia and Britain?

There have been historical links between HT in Malaysia and the UK. Many Malaysian students who came to London to study were recruited by HT in the 1990s, and then went back to Malaysia to set up HT activities there. HT in Malaysia was greatly bolstered by this London connection and such activists continue to operate till this day.

Malaysia has a dual-track legal system where civil law and syariah law co-exist. What is the basis of Quilliam’s argument against equating syariah law with state law?

Syariah is the religious code of Islam but it has no specific prescriptions for modes of governance; traditional Islamic and Muslim history never obliged the authorities to enshrine syariah as state law due to its many possible interpretations.

Unlike Christianity, Muslim history did not battle for church and state separation since the clerics were almost always a separate entity from the rulers. Each school of thought was free to adopt and follow its own theological interpretations at will, and the regime rarely co-opted any one school of interpretation. From the earliest of times, there has been a plethora of approaches to government, with early Muslim rulers (Imam Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, for example) even fighting those who claimed “rule is for God”, and Muslim scholarly giants such as Ibn al-Qayyim (died 1350) condemning those who claimed to rule in God’s name.

We should remember that what is important is not the means used in the seventh-century understanding of the syariah, but rather its maqasid (goal or purpose) — aims which need to be sought, such as justice and protecting religious practice. Modern scholars like Dr Sherman Jackson have stated that these maqasid are safeguarded within liberal democratic political entities. Therefore, there is no need to impose seventh-century understandings of syariah as state law.

A subject of great debate in Malaysia is a preventive law that allows detention without trial. What is your stand on detention without trial for terrorists, and non-violent extremists?

Having spent five years in an Egyptian jail cell for my activities with HT, I have very strong views on such human rights issues. If somebody is involved in terrorism, then they should go before a court and be held to account for their crimes.

When it comes to non-violent extremists, we should not be criminalising their beliefs. Rather, their views should be challenged and debated, as my organisation Quilliam does. If we are to make the case for liberal democratic values, then we must not compromise them for short-term gains.

See also: Becoming a Muslim radical

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2 Responses to “Leaving religious extremism”

  1. Karcy says:

    I was about to comment that if he were in Malaysia, he’d be regarded as “too liberal” and branded a heretic of sorts. Then I Googled Quilliam Foundation to find out more about it and found out that a number of British Muslims were uneasy with the organisation as well. Big debate on the Muslim Matters website.

    These kind of things make me sad.

  2. Naif says:

    This is a brilliant article and interview. Kudos to TNG.


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