On April 28, three days before Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEAL forces in Abbotabad, Pakistan, Maajid Nawaz stood in front of a small audience at the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center and talked about being an Islamic extremist.
“How does someone like me end up in a dungeon alongside the assassins of the Egyptian president?” he began.
If it’s a sensational question, it’s also one that Nawaz is uniquely qualified to answer. As a teenager of Pakistani descent growing up in Essex, England, Nawaz rapidly ascended the ranks of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamist organization. By the time he was 20, he was setting up satellite chapters around the world. And at 24, he was serving a five-year sentence in an Egyptian prison.
Despite early and deep involvement in radical Islam, Nawaz’s life has since followed a different trajectory. Now 33, five years removed from prison, he travels the world, speaking out against radical Islam, and countering what he calls “the extremist narrative” — the premise that Western countries like the United States are determined to destroy Islam.
But how does a well-educated, upper-middle class British teenager turn into a Islamic radical?
As Nawaz tells it, things began to change at age 13 or 14, when he says roving gangs of racist skinheads began tormenting him, targeting him in what they called “Paki-bashing.” The police weren’t much better. According to Nawaz, on one occasion, his brother was profiled and arrested when a neighbor spotted him playing with a toy gun.
When he was about 16, Nawaz met a young medical student who introduced him to Hizb ut-Tahrir (also called the Islamic Party of Liberation), a radical Islamist group that seeks the complete withdrawal of Western interests in the Middle East and the restoration of the Muslim caliphate, a pan-Islamic religious state.
“You’re not English, and Pakistan was carved out to satisfy colonialist desires,” the student told Nawaz. “Think back to a time before colonialism. Your only loyalty is to the Muslim people.”
“His arguments were very convincing to my young mind,” said Nawaz, a third generation British Muslim.
Those arguments did more than convince Nawaz. The young convert went on to become an international advocate for Hizb ut-Tahrir, beginning by radicalizing the local college where he was enrolled.
“We basically realigned existing gang conflicts along religious and political lines,” said Nawaz. He later set up Hizb ut-Tahrir chapters in Denmark and Pakistan.
Nawaz is careful to point out that he is no anomaly. Contrary to the caricature of the cave-dwelling terrorist, he says those attracted to radical Islamist ideologies often come from educated backgrounds like his.
“Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, an engineer — these were men who took the principles of empirical science and imposed them on religion,” said Nawaz.
In 2001, shortly before the World Trade Center attacks, Nawaz moved to Egypt to study Arabic Law. He was then rounded up along with other members of his organization in a crackdown on Islamic extremists and sentenced to five years in jail, where he says he was regularly beaten and tortured.
While in prison, Nawaz met some of the leading members of Egypt’s most violent groups, including the surviving assassins of the late Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadaat. In conversations with them, he came to believe that “the narrative” proffered by Islamic extremism was not only false, it was the principal factor contributing to radicalization.
Nawaz said he met many other prisoners who had also re-evaluated and abandoned extremist Islamic ideology. He went back to the Quran and other original Islamic texts — sources he found to promote compassion and peace rather than violence — and reconsidered his own interpretation of Islam.
When Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned in Egypt in 2002, Amnesty International took up Nawaz’s case as a freedom of speech issue. In 2006, Amnesty International arranged for the release of Nawaz as a “prisoner of conscience.” In 2007, Nawaz officially severed all ties with radical Islam. He has since co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, a non-profit organization with a mission to counter the Islamic extremist narrative and promote pluralism across the Muslim world.
Nawaz was a subject of a “60 Minutes” segment in early April.