Creating a Liberal Islam: The Story of Maajid Nawaz

In the air on September 11th 2001, along with the four aircraft 19 Al Qaeda operatives hijacked to carry out their audacious attack on America, was another airplane on which was another Islamist, intent on another equally nefarious a mission. That other Islamist was Maajid Nawaz, author of this engrossing account of what led him to take that flight on that fateful day and what befell him upon arriving at his destination.

Unlike the 19 Al Qaeda operatives, who were all on board US domestic flights, the flight on which Nawaz was a passenger was an international flight from the UK to Alexandria in Egypt. Similarly, unlike the 19 Al Qaeda hijackers, Nawaz had no intention or wish to prevent his aircraft from arriving at its destination.

The ostensible purpose with which the 24-year-old British-born and bred Muslim of Pakistani extraction had taken that flight that day, along with his wife and small son, was to spend a year at the university there to improve his Arabic, as part of his degree in Law and Arabic at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. His real purpose was to assist in the revival in Egypt of the Islamist party to which for the previous decade he had belonged and which, despite being legal in the UK and USA, had long been proscribed in Egypt.

That organization was Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) or the Party of Liberation. Founded in Jordan in 1953 by Palestinian sharia judge Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, its goal was to (re)establish a so-called ‘Caliphate’. By this expression HT understood a political state in which all Muslims would be brought under single rule. As its founder put the party’s defining tenet in his 1962 book The Islamic State:

‘The minds of Muslims… only conceptualize the system of government through the depraved democratic regimes foisted upon Muslim countries…  The point at hand is… [to] establish… one single state over the entire Muslim world.’

In his 2003 book Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, journalist Ahmed Rashid has well explained the grandiose vision of HT’s founder that had inspired Nawaz to embark on his hazardous journeying to foreign lands:

‘an-Nabhani confidently predicts the party’s eventual control over the entire Islamic world and the spread of Islam to the non-Muslim world… [A] caliph elected by an Islamic shura (or council) would have dictatorial powers in a highly centralized system… Sharia (Islamic law) would prevail, Arabic would be the language of the state, and the… defence minister… would prepare the people for jihad against the non- Muslim world.’

Following the assassination in 1981 of Egypt’s President Anwat Sadat by Islamist army officers, one can well see why so fragile a regime as it would not welcome a political organization potentially so subversive as HT, and hence why that party was  proscribed from operating there. One can equally well understand why HT would have been equally as keen to re-establish a presence there, given that it was dedicated to establishing the caliphate by way of a military coup in some Muslim country engineered by military officers who had become its cadres.

It mattered little to HT in which particular Muslim country the initial coup would be carried out. Until 9/11 and the resultant US-led invasion of Afghanistan, HT had thought that this country might serve as the hub of the caliphate that would initially encompass Uzbekistan to its north and the much coveted nuclear-armed Pakistan to its south. Indeed prior to embarking on his mission to Egypt, Nawaz had taken a year out from his studies, on the orders of his party, to spend in Pakistan on a recruitment drive there.

As Nawaz explains, although he shared their deep resentment towards America that had prompted the 19 Al Qadea operatives to carry out their suicide attack on the day  he flew out to Egypt, he did not approve of the attack, judging it ill-timed and counter-productive. Nawaz thought that America’s inevitable countervailing action was bound to prejudice the possibility Afghanistan could become the hub of the caliphate, something that might otherwise have been possible. The ensuing heightened state of global security would make his recruitment task in Egypt that much more perilous and difficult. And so it duly proved.

Shortly after settling in Egypt, Nawaz was arrested and imprisoned for involvement with the proscribed organization to which he belonged. He was eventually tried and received a five year term of imprisonment for the offense, of which he duly served the first four years before being allowed to return to the UK.

It was during his prison term, Nawaz relates, he first began to have doubts about the Islamist ideology that he had previously embraced with such enthusiasm. Initially he kept these doubts to himself, even upon returning to the UK, where, so he relates, he was offered leadership of the UK branch of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Eventually, his doubts became so firm he resigned from the party at some considerable personal cost, his wife having remained a loyal member since the time they had first met, and his having won over to it a large number of members of her family while they were in Pakistan.

As Nawaz explains in Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening, he had first embraced the Islamism espoused by HT because he had seen in it a bulwark against the racist violence to which he and fellow south Asian Muslims had been subject whilst growing up together in the English sea-side resort of Southend on Sea in the 1980s. Through the narrative of ubiquitous Muslim victimization that was cleverly spun to him by the party member who originally recruited him, Nawaz came to believe only a caliphate could free Muslims from the various forms of oppression they were suffering globally.

Disillusion with the party and its outlook set in shortly after Nawaz began his sentence at Mazrah Tora prison. As he explains:

‘For me, with its rich mix of prisoners, from the assassins of Sadat all the way through to the liberals ands even homosexuals, Mazrah Tora became a political and social education par excellence. The studies, conversations and experiences I gained… were crucial in overcoming my dogmatic allegiance to the Islamist ideology… I came to re-evaluate everything I stood for.’

One such profoundly transformative experience Nawaz underwent at Mazrah Tora was his being adopted by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience. He writes:

‘Amnesty’s support… took me aback. It was its unconditional nature that humbled me… Islamism derived part of its power from its dehumanisation of “the other”… I thought now of… [the] bonds [that over the years I had forged] with non-Muslims who actually cared about my well-being… For the first time in many years, I began to reconnect with… humanity… not something you can teach… [only] live and feel.’

Other powerful influences contributing to Nawaz’s moral and political rehabilitation were several of the other prisoners with whom he associated who often harbored attitudes and outlooks very different from his. One such prisoner was Aymoun Nour who, as Nawaz puts it ‘had challenged Mubarak for the presidency when to do so was still a cardinal sin’. Nawaz relates so the impact that Nour was to have on him:

‘Nour and I would spend time going for walks around the prison yard… I wanted to understand what motivated people to sacrifice for a cause other than Islamism… [in Nour’s case] liberalism, a Godless cause and the bane of religion… To my shock, Nour explained how in his younger days he too had been a supporter of HT… “So why did you leave the cause?” I asked… Nour looked at me and simply said: “I grew up”… He just left that phrase hanging there, and left me to think about it. Which I did.’

By 2005, when he learned about the London tube-train bombings of July 7 in which 52 commuters died at the hands of another set of Al Qaeda suicide-bombers, Nawaz relates: ‘I felt revulsion…. In contrast with my reaction to 9/11 … I immediately thought of the human cost involved. Gone were my ideological acrobatics… This time I saw the plain and simple death of innocents.’  Who says prison doesn’t work?

It took Nawaz a year upon his return to the UK to summon the courage to leave HT and publicly disavow his previous allegiance to the Islamist cause. Together with his friend Ed Husain, another former HT member who had also since seen the error of his ways and left the party, Nawaz went on in 2008 to found, and still runs, a counter-extremism think-tank that they named the Quilliam Foundation, after William Quillaim, as Nawaz puts it: ‘the Englishman who opened England’s first mosque, to make the point that Islam doesn’t always have to clash with society.’ With characteristic disarming hyperbole, Nawaz explains their purpose in founding Quilliam:

‘our idea was to create… a platform from which we could directly challenge the dominant discourse of Islamism… to spread a counter-narrative to Islamism, hoping to inspire the mushrooming of our cause anywhere and everywhere.’

From that platform, the two former Islamists have come to advise governments on both sides of the Atlantic how to combat extremism, as well as nurture a democratic culture in Muslim countries unfamiliar with its ways. In connection with the latter task, Nawaz has been on speaking tours of university campuses in Pakistan. He has also encouraged, and even directly assisted, the recent political upheavals in the Middle East known as the ‘Arab Spring’, a development in which Nawaz places the highest of hopes. He writes:

‘One of our senior activists and analysts at Quilliam is Norman Bentoman… a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group… When the Arab Spring swept into Libya… Norman… opened Quilliam’s front against Gaddafi’s regime… We used [our] contacts… with the [British] government… to put Norman in touch with the air campaign. Norman had… information on the ground in Libya which he was able to pass on [to] … the RAF… Norman was [also] one of the key figures behind [the defection of] the former head of Libyan intelligence, Moussa Koussa… and was the first to break the news.’

Nawaz also boasts about the role his organization played in supporting the young Egyptian activists whose protests eventually brought down President Mubarak. He writes:

‘In my work for Quilliam, I had come across the leaders of… the group that first sparked Egypt’s anti-Mubarak protests. Again, no one had taken them seriously when they announced…they would lead a revolution against Mubarak. So when…the protests started to spiral… I tweeted: “World you must watch Egypt.” I wanted people to know that this was a movement led by liberal, young Egyptians. I didn‘t want the protests depicted as being Islamist-led… What the Egyptian protests showed was… a third way of genuine people power: radical democracy. It’s what we’d been arguing was possible for a long time… And so I… used Quilliam’s considerable press outreach to immediately… endors[e] the protestors’ demands… Every time I tweeted a link or a comment, I got calls from journalists… What followed was a non-stop cycle of media appearances and newspaper interviews, phone conversations and articles. … We knew from early on that our message was getting across… “Our lobbying works”, I tweeted, when Western leaders began to distance themselves from the [Mubarak] regime.’

There seems here not a little megalomania, as well as a lack of political judgment similar to that which earlier had induced Nawaz to embrace the Islamist cause that he now opposes. While it thoroughly commendable of him to have had the courage to admit, not least to himself, the error of his former Islamist ways, it seems equally as naïve of him to have thought, and seemingly still to think, the initial spontaneous ‘democratic’ demonstrations in countries like Egypt and Libya would not end up being captured and taken over by organized and dedicated Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. They have now gained power in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and in Morocco have had for the first time to be admitted to the government. They now also threaten to bring down the governments not only of Syria and Jordan, but also those of the Gulf states too. Hizb-ut-Tahrir members, who have close ideological links with the Muslim Brotherhood, are rubbing their collective hands in glee.

Nawaz concludes this absorbing account of his overly eventful, yet still comparatively young, life by disclosing he has been approached by Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party to stand for the Westminster Parliament on their behalf. While his election there would certainly represent an advance on his former membership of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and be a way of keeping him harmlessly occupied, the notion that so still misguided a figure might actually one day come anywhere near to holding the reins of power in Britain fills this reviewer with dread. Nawaz still has much further growing up to do.