Former Islamic extremist renounces ideology

British national left group in 2007, says extremism "an abuse of theology for political ends."

Maajid Nawaz 244 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maajid Nawaz 244 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even justified grievances are not sufficient cause to turn Muslims into Islamic extremists, a former radical told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in an address Friday. Maajid Nawaz, a British national who in 2007 announced he had left the extremist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir after imprisonment in Egypt, discussed how he had become radicalized and now hoped to use his experience to prevent the further spread of the ideology to which he once adhered. In this ideology, he said, Israel is a "cancer" that needs to be destroyed on the way to re-establishing the caliphate not just in the Middle East but around the world. Nawaz said his group would exploit grievances "which would vary from alienation in Western countries to frustration with dictatorships in Arab states to corruption in poor nations" to persuade disaffected Muslims to support Islamic extremism. But Nawaz said it was only after a process of indoctrination, when the goal of worldwide caliphate was presented as the solution to every problem, that radicals were created. "We do not believe that grievances are sufficient enough to explain radicalization," he said, pointing to poor and oppressed non-Muslims around the world who haven't resorted to terrorism. "Why don't other aggrieved communities act in this way?" Nawaz gave his own story as an example of how the process works. He said that he faced discrimination, harassment and even false arrest in his native Essex as a youth, despite being a third-generation British citizen. "I didn't feel like I belonged and it lead to a crisis in my identity." But it was only once he was connected with Hizb-ut-Tahrir's program and ideological indoctrination that he became radicalized, in turn traveling the world to indoctrinate others. He served as a long-time member of the British leadership committee of the group, which is an international Islamist political party. Nawaz's travels took him to Egypt, where he was arrested in 2002 because of his participation in the organization. It was there that he first began to question what he himself had been preaching. What first "opened [his] heart," Nawaz said, were the dogged efforts of an Amnesty International worker who was pushing for his release since he hadn't been involved in any violent acts. Nawaz initially rejected his help because he was "the enemy," a Westerner, but still the Amnesty worker persisted in sending him letters every week and supporting him. "It led me to the thought that there are good non-Muslims out there," he explained. "That led me to question the ideology." With that opening, he was more receptive to the ideas of Western-oriented reformers and democracy advocates who were also imprisoned with him. And he had time to read the classical texts of Islam and see where they differ from what the Islamic extremist groups were teaching. Nawaz said that this extremist view of Islam "in which governments can be overthrown and civilians killed in pursuit of worldwide Islamic domination" is a modern ideology rather than a traditional religious teaching. "It's an abuse of theology for political ends," he told the Washington Institute. Nawaz has now joined with others who have left Hizb-ut-Tahrir to form the Quilliam Foundation, "Britain's first Muslim counter-extremism think tank," as it describes itself. As part of that work, he now talks to alienated Muslims and shows them how Islamic extremism doesn't adhere to Islam's own teachings and history. To that end, he also works with imams in Britain so that they can identify potential radicals and try to deconstruct their arguments. Nawaz indicated that he was opposed to countries being held "hostage" to the demands of a minority population who would like to see certain policies changed just so the government can avoid providing the initial trigger of grievance. But he added that "bad policies" such as excluding immigrants from society should be changed for everyone's benefit. He rejected the label of "the War on Terror" in approaching the problem. "It's insufficient to think of the problem as just with terrorism," he said. "The problem is with the ideology."