Co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an organisation that challenges extremism, sharp-suited Maajid Nawaz is now worlds away from the torture facilities of Mubarak’s Egypt, where he found himself incarcerated in 2002 for his work with Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Lucy Snow talks to him about anti-Semitism, the Muslim Brotherhood and his own transformation.
Nawaz’ journey from Southend-on-Sea to the cold floor of Egypt’s dungeons – listening as his friends were tortured with electricity – is a fascinating one, but follows an all too familiar pattern. The victim of racist abuse and police brutality, politicised by the massacre of Bosnian Muslims, wooed by a charismatic recruiter before his 17th birthday, Nawaz turned to Islamism because he wanted to belong to something.
“I began to experience more and more extreme racism from paramilitary skinheads, in the form of hammer attacks and knife attacks,” he tells me. Far from the fake tan and white stilettos now synonymous with ITV2’s favorite home county, Essex in the nineties was “a bit of a hood”. “People left East London because of immigration. They moved to Essex to get away from people like me, only to find that I was already there, and they weren’t too happy with that.”
Nawaz and his gang styled themselves as Essex B-Boys. Public Enemy’s black pride and NWA’s clarion call to ‘fuck the police’ made sense to a group of youths – Moe the British-Kenyan, Mike the West Indian, Maajid’s brother and cousin – who found themselves on the periphery, running from the police as often as they were running from skinhead thugs. “At 15, I was held at gun point by Essex police authorities, because my brother was playing with a toy gun, as young kids do,” he tells me.
Also at 15, Maajid found himself surrounded by a gang of Combat 18 recruits, intent on ‘Paki-bashing’. Convinced he was about to be killed, Maajid bowed to the inevitable, praying for it to be over quickly. But then a white passer-by intervened. Maajid looked on helplessly as they set upon the ‘Paki-lover’ who had dared to intervene with reason and rationality. He recalls the incident in his memoir, Radical: “Like famished hyenas they descended upon him, plunging their knives deep into his torso, beating his head with their clubs and knuckledusters.”
If Southend-on-sea was Maajid’s personal battleground, Muslim persecution was on the global stage in Bosnia. Nawaz explains the significance of seeing these reports on TV, of blond-haired, blue-eyed Muslims being massacred by Serbian forces under a campaign of ethnic cleansing: “It brought to the fore a radical, politicised, explicitly Muslim identity. Up until Bosnia, we’d associated these problems with race.” The abuse Maajid had experienced wasn’t just about the colour of his skin; it was about Islam.
Enter Nasim Ghani, a recruiter for Hizb ut-Tahrir. Educated, charismatic, an Essex boy himself, he had Maajid hooked: “He managed to join all these dots together, convince me of what we call the Islamist narrative, that there’s some sort of global war going on against Islam and Muslims.”
Described by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell as “the most dangerous of the Islamic fundamentalist groups” in the UK, Hizb ut-Tahrir’s (HT) essential goal is the unification of all Muslim states under a ‘Khilafah’, or Islamic state, ruled by Islamic law. It was also exactly what Maajid was looking for. “For my generation, this was a search for identity, a search for a political cause, and rebellion,” he explains, “it was, as we saw it at the time, erroneously, a tool to resist colonialism. We felt that the Islamist ideology was the authentic ad indigenous voice of Muslim people.”
Maajid was soon a full-fledged member of the group. He was sent to London’s Newham College to recruit more members and excelled, becoming President of the Union and running increasingly provocative campaigns: ‘Women of the West – Cover Up or Shut up’, HT’s posters screamed. Throughout his twenties, he moved up and down the country recruiting, and traveled to Denmark and Pakistan to spread the HT message.
In September 2001, Maajid landed in Egypt, ostensibly to study Arabic, on what would be his last recruitment mission. Promoted up the ranks, he was now in charge of all HT activity in Alexandria. Maajid was an ideologue, and God knows he had a lot of raw material in a post 9/11 world. In Radical, the significance of that New York morning is explicit: “How easy it is for a victim to construct a narrative of half-truths and inspire thousands in the name of righteous indignation,” he writes, “If America could bomb and invade in response to being bombed, why couldn’t jihadists bomb and invade in response to our own deaths?”
Running HT in Egypt was a risky business; although the group wasn’t official banned, they did not have the necessary permit to operate in the country. So when the raid came at 3am on April 1, it was not a surprise. Maajid was taken away from his wife and baby son. In Radical. he recounts the scene: “You haven’t even read me my rights… Do you even have a
warrant to search my flat?” he demanded. “Welcome to Egypt Maajid. We do as we please”, came the agent’s chilling reply.
When he was arrested, Maajid knew the score – HT had an active policy not to support their ‘fallen soldiers’. He wasn’t their responsibility; in fact, he was now just a number – 42. I asked him if he felt abandoned by the organisation, whether this was significant in his eventual disillusionment. “That was a factor that was there”, he admits.
But disillusionment was a slow process. Describing his imprisonment, he wrote: “The heat and the cold. The begging screams from the torture room at the end of the corridor. The waiting. It’s the sort of place that when you first enter, you can’t quite believe exists.” Yet even under the constant threat of torture in Mubarak’s infamous al-Gihaz, Maajid remained loyal to HT, sticking to the line that he was in Egypt to study.
When the British Embassy came calling for its citizen, Maajid was transferred to prison. And it was here that his transformation begun. He explains the process to me: “Amnesty adopting me as a prisoner of conscience – that opened my heart to consider human rights discourse, which until this point I’d been closed to. The second thing was the four years I spent studying and discussing with all the other political prisoners, from the assassins of the former Egyptian President and the Muslim Brotherhood, all the way through to the liberal prisoners.”
Incarcerated, with nothing to do but read and talk and think, Maajid began to question the organisation he had given his life to, whether their interpretation of the Koran was correct. “I had years of discussion and debate and reading, and a lot of the books these people had written criticised their own previous jihad thinking, and my own thoughts evolved in a way that led to me becoming the person I am today.”
Eventually freed after four years, Maajid touched down in Heathrow a HT hero. The organisation that had been happy to let him be tortured, to let him rot in jail now wanted him as their leader. At first, he hid his change of heart – not least because his wife was still a loyal HT member – but in 2007, he sent a mass email stating that he was leaving HT, and threw away his mobile phone.
His entire life was with Hizb ut-Tahrir – his friends, his family, the mother of his child. How difficult was it to remove himself from all of this? “It was a re-identity crisis. It was extremely hard, because you have to pull yourself out of something that has become your life, your identity. It was traumatic. My family fell apart, my ex-wife was very upset with my turn, my change of views, and there was a huge level of character assassination from former members themselves. I had to literally reinvent myself and rediscover who I thought I should be, or should have been, at the age of 28.”
“You have to pull yourself out of something that has become your life, your identity. It was traumatic. I had to literally reinvent myself”
“The hardest thing is to trust yourself and let yourself be free to explore the things you like to explore. Part of my journey in the re-identity crisis is still ongoing – I recently got engaged, for example. She’s American. Before I was in HT, all of my friends were English, and all my girlfriends were white, so it’s no surprise to me know that I ended up back with somebody who is American and non-Muslim, because it’s how I was raised. I am settled with the conclusion that I am very happy with the multiplicity of my identity. Joining HT was about denying I was Pakistani, denying being British, and all about being nothing but Muslim. Muslim first, and Muslim last.”
Reformed, Nawaz and a friend from his Newham days, Ed Hussain, decided to set up Quilliam. The organisation would fight extremism and promote moderate Islam, redressing the balance of its founders’ years of manipulating faith to fit their political message.
Since Quilliam was founded in 2008, the Arab world has undergone enormous change. I ask Maajid about the effect the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s election has had on the country that held them prisoner, Egypt. “There are two extremes in this debate: those that want to just boycott the whole thing, like when Hamas got into power in Gaza, just blockade it. And there are those who want to capitulate and say ‘well they’re elected, so why can’t we just like them?’ Both are hypocritical.”
“So what we call critical engagement is the middle ground. It’s basically recognising the legitimacy of the government, who were elected just as Bush was elected, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything they say. So then the starting point is, you’re legitimate, because you’re elected, unlike the umbrella groups in the UK that we were very critical of – the sort of self-appointed custodians of the British Muslim community. First of all, there isn’t any such thing as one definition of a British Muslim community… but we judge them not by the standard of just being representatives of the Muslims in Egypt; they are representatives of the Egyptian people, which includes 20 per cent Coptic Christians… if you want to be the representatives of Egyptians, then represent your entire community – represent your women, your Copts and represent your minorities. And in that case what makes sense is to be a civilian, civic state that is religiously neutral. So when they behave in a way that is religiously neutral, when they behave in a sensible way, we applaud them and encourage them; and when they behave in an idiotic way, such as writing into their constitution that women can’t be president of Egypt and nor can Copts, then that’s when we’re extremely critical of them.”
I pick up Maajid’s reference to the plurality of the British Muslim Community. Not long before we met, he had written a piece in The Times condemning Lord Ahmed – the first Muslim peer – for allegedly blaming a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ for his dangerous driving conviction. Does he think that there is a lack of positive British Muslim role models? “If you look at politics, there are two I can point to who are sensible, one in Labour and one in the Tories. That’s Sajid Javid and Sadiq Khan…these two are elected and sensible. In sport we’ve got some very good role models – Amir Khan, Mo Farah – but sadly, I think in public commentary, in public intellectual life, and policy and politicians, there’s still a long way to go.”
In light of the Lord Ahmed affair, does he think that anti-Semitism is as much of an issue in the UK as Islamophobia? “Recently there’s a certain street rise in the hatred of Islam, in the form of the EDL and other groups. But let’s keep something in mind – Muslims aren’t a race, criticisms of the religion of Islam are not Islamophobia. It’s like me criticising Catholicism because they don’t allow divorce – that’s not a racist thing to say. When it’s specifically anti-Muslim hatred, a hatred for people regardless of their behaviour, who have an allegiance to that faith – it’s that sort of hatred that we should have a problem with. On anti-Semitism, usually the people who hate Muslims on the far right extremes also tend to hate Jews. With the rise of anti-Muslim street sentiment, there is also the rise of anti-Semitism. But then add to that the pre-existing anti-Semitism that exists among certain sectors of Muslim societies – we shouldn’t take our eye off the ball when it comes to anti-Semitism.”
Even-handed as always. The man who was imprisoned for his stringent beliefs can now see both sides of the coin. He brings it back to Quilliam: “what we do is promote sensible voices.” Perhaps that level detached moderation is only possible when you’ve seen first hand what extremism can do.
Words: Lucy Snow. Image: Chris Boland. Used under a Creative Commons licence.