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28. September 2012

Maajid Nawaz © Clemens Fabry

How Do You Become an Islamist?

By Edit Schlaffer and Ulrich Kropiunigg, originally published in German in "Die Presse", 22.9.2012

Maajid Nawaz does not conform to our image of or the profile of a typical radical extremist. Or does he? He studied law, with a specialization in English and Islamic law, grew up in a sheltered middle-class English family, is good-looking, polite, and sensitive. He was magically drawn to Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s promises to establish an Islamic state, and launched a career as one of their most engaging Islamist recruiters in Europe. This path abruptly ended in an Egyptian jail a few days after 9/11, where he spent five years in solitary confinement. Today, Maajid advocates for the other side. He is a passionate counter-terrorist who is fighting a different jihad, for the democratic awakening of young Muslims around the world, and directs the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-terrorism think tank in London.

Edit Schlaffer and Ulrich Kropiunigg interviewed Maajid Nawaz in London.

Edit Schlaffer: Hizb-ut-Tahrir drew you into its clutches at the age of 15, an age at which youths are potentially very vulnerable. You were passionate about hip hop, but racism was a problem. How do you see it today? Does the young generation still struggle with similar issues?

Maajid Nawaz: When I was growing up in the South End in the early 90s, it was much more about race, and less about identity or religious belonging. The difficulties we faced were about skin color. Today, I don’t think racism is as severe in Britain. We have a Pakistani Muslim woman in the cabinet, there is a Pakistani male in the opposition leadership, Sadiq Khan is a very senior Labour shadow minister, and Obama is the president of the United States. If you had told me these things 15 years ago, I would have laughed.

Ulrich Kropiunigg: But still, the potential for disturbance remains. Young Muslims’ search for identity is a significant concern around the world.

MN: Yes, and at the same time identity still plays a crucial role for young Muslims who are joining extremist causes today. The debate has moved from being racially based to being ideationally based, which is a far more complicated problem.

ES: How are young men radicalized today? On the one hand there are high levels of youth unemployment, disenfranchisement, and lack of perspective. On the other hand, today there are deliberate attempts at integration on different levels. What aspects of radical networks remain so attractive to the youth?

MN: It is about a sense of grievance—whether real or perceived—that causes an identity crisis. Young Muslims can easily be misguided to thinking “Okay, I don’t seem to be welcome in this society, as they are banning minarets and headscarves. I have no choice but to isolate myself even further.”
These are subjectively perceived grievances, but are still not sufficient as a source of radicalization on their own.

ES: Palestine has always been an important justification…

MN: No, not as an entry point. The entry point will always be local grievances, whether real or perceived. But this will lead to an identity crisis and the search for belonging, at which point a charismatic recruiter will provide a comfort zone to say: “Hey, you belong to my gang, not to this group. You belong to us.” Only in the final stages will the recruiter sell the global narrative to a young, angry, disillusioned Muslim. “You’re not just suffering in Britain or in Austria. You are also suffering in Palestine, in Chechnya. In fact, there is a global war against Muslims.”

UK: Why would someone like you fall for the messages of these extremists?

MN: I had a problem with violent racism and with the war in Bosnia, and I suffered from a dramatic identity crisis that led me to question whether I was British, Muslim or Pakistani. This is what tends to happen when young Muslims join extremist organizations. But it depends on the charismatic recruiter to push the youths toward political, revolutionary, or military Islamism. I decided to fight.

UK: It is interesting that more than 90 per cent of your peers did not choose the same path.

MN: Yes, human beings are not a science experiment and react differently. In my case, I decided to fight. And that verges more on a psychological discussion than on a discussion about radicalization in a political context.

ES: But you personally went through this process.

MN: The psychological aspect is important on the home front. My mother could not have stopped me; teenagers do not listen to their mothers anyway. But what she did tell me stayed with me. She became very important to me when I was in prison. The temptations of the radical group were increasingly countered by my mother’s messages that she gave me during childhood.

ES: So you came full circle.

MN: Yes. The period of my radicalization was an aberration, and I have now returned to the values and principles by which my mother lived. My mother was strong, she significantly influenced me.

UK: What attracted you to Hizb-ut-Tahrir? Is it possible that you thought that they were in possession of the truth, and that your mother by comparison only had opinions?

MN: The desire for certainty was born from my identity crisis, and my mother, as a typical liberal, would say „no, nothing is certain.“ And that would infuriate me. “What do you mean, nothing is certain? What’s happening in Bosnia—is that right or wrong?“

ES: She wanted a balanced view, but you thought only one way.

MN: Yes, insecurity led to my need for certainty and stability. I think that the insecure seeks security, and the secure ones love and relish insecurity. In the context of radicalization, the charismatic recruiter offers the insecure a solution that explains everything.

UK: In your case, did the narrative take on a more political or more religious tone?

MN: In my book „Radical,“* I describe the process as a political revolution with religious connotations, not as a religious rebirth with political connotations. Today, however, we are being confronted by the religious, Salafi Saudis. They joined forces with the political Islamists, just like I was in my youth. The hybrid was Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is a hybrid of the political Islamists that we were and the religious fundamentalists. They are fundamentalist in their religion and Islamist in their politics.

ES: Do you think that from a psychological perspective, the absence of fathers—we live in an increasingly fatherless society—plays a role?

MN: I would say that the deficit is the absence of role models. But we still need to keep it general, because even those who were not raised by their fathers have alternative role models. The absence of role models is certainly a central factor, and the father is one of the most important role models in this context.

UK: Looking back, how did you see yourself? Were you a revolutionary?

MN: Yes, definitely. By the way, my father wasn’t very present during my childhood. He worked in Libya.

ES: You attended the renowned School of Oriental and African Studies and went to Egypt on study abroad. Your organization was banned there. After 9/11 the police stormed your house, sent your wife and baby back to England, and threw you in prison.

MN: Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience, which began the process of re-humanization for me while I was in solitary confinement. My definition of “re-humanization” is: I no longer saw the others as the enemy, but as human beings. And I began to read English literature, which helped me to deal with moral complexities. I began reading texts by former jihadis challenging Islamist ideology, which oriented me in the ideological discussion. And I read theological works. All that helped me to be able to distinguish Islam the religion from Islamist ideologies.

UK: While you were a group member, was it possible to challenge their ideologies?

MN: It depends on which group you’re in. The political Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, are more open to an internal debate. The next stage is the revolutionary Islamist, like my group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir. They are very similar to Leninists in a sense; they do not tolerate internal debate. And then you get to the final stage, the terrorists. Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s response to critical questioning would be to expel members who challenged their ideas. That is why I left before they even tried to expel me.

ES: So in today’s Egypt, under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, you would not have been imprisoned?

MN: Yes, because Mubarak was a secular dictator. In today’s Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot force their ideology on society. They are an organized fraction, but they do not form the overwhelming majority.

ES: Do you see the danger of radicalization in Egypt today? Are there signs that it will head in this direction?

MN: We have to wait and see what happens in Egypt. In Libya, it is a big issue. It is a question in Egypt, because 75% of the population did not vote for the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate in the first round of elections. The liberal youth wasn’t organized.

ES: Yes, but this could change, when you think back on your time as a recruiter. How did you select the young people? Who is fair game?

MN: Everyone who is a Muslim is a potential target.

ES: What about non-Muslims? There are converts, after all.

MN: First you approach Muslims, and then their non-Muslim friends.

UK: How serious is the issue of recruitment today, especially at university campuses across Britain, where one traditionally found sympathizers for the cause?

MN: Recruiting is still taking place, and people still don’t know enough about it. I think that after the Islamist heyday of the 90s, however, the groups are now suffering. They are finding it harder to recruit, but the ideas are spreading faster. Young people are adopting the ideologies and principles without formally joining a group. For this reason the Islamists are facing difficulties, because people are no longer becoming official members. This means that you have loose cannons running around that may act unpredictably, for example going to Syria. It is no longer like it was in the 90s, when Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Brotherhood were very popular at universities. People have become disillusioned with the groups, but at the same time are now more susceptible to their ideological narrative.

UK: When you were recruited, were you simply at the right place at the right time, or did someone approach you in particular?

MN: It was a medical student from my hometown.

UK: How did he approach you? Were you open to being recruited, did he have an easy time with you?

MN: No. It had to be someone who was above my intellectual level. He was a medical student, and I was only 15 at the time. He was able to discuss politics and world events, and he was able to relate to racism in the South End. It had to be somebody who can connect with you and understands where you are coming from.

ES: How do you view current efforts to counter terrorism?

MN: Most countries do not even have a strategy. And where is the implementation? Who are the partners? And statistics show that the threat of terrorism has decreased in 2011.

ES: So the strategists are just leaning back and saying „we did that well.” What kind of narrative exists today to recruit young people? The racist narrative has dried out.

MN: They are providing other grievances, other narratives to inject into the young people. At the moment it is the situation in Iraq and Syria. These are cauldrons that are brewing again. Western-born Muslims are going to fight in these countries, and will spread their newfound belief in Jihadism when they return home.

UK: So what is the dominant narrative today?

MN: The narrative is that the war against Muslims and Islam is still going on. They point to Syria as evidence, and to the fact that the military disbanded the Muslim Brotherhood when they were in the parliament. They point to Burma, Chechnya, and still to Palestine. So there is still plenty of material for the Islamists to use when recruiting young people.

Edit Schlaffer is the founder of Women without Borders ( and SAVE-- Sisters Aganist Violent Extremism. Ulrich Kropiunigg is a university professor for medical psychology.
*Author of „Radical“, WH Allen, London, 2012


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