September Issue 2010

By | News & Politics | People | Q & A | Published 14 years ago

“The more I learnt about Islam, the more tolerant I became”
– Maajid Nawaz


Maajid Nawaz was born and raised in England, subjected to violent racism as a boy and subsequently recruited by the Hizb-ul-Tahrir at the age of 16. He went on to become one of its central leaders, expanding the organisation’s base in the UK and exporting it to Denmark and Pakistan. Incidentally, the Hizb-ul-Tahrir is banned in Pakistan. While it does not believe in violence, its objective is to overthrow democratically elected civilian governments by using military means.

Nawaz studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and later at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). While at SOAS, he went to Egypt in 2002 to study Arabic but he was arrested for his association with a banned organisation. He spent four years in prison, was an Amnesty prisoner of conscience, interacted and debated with some of the worlds’ leading jihadists and liberal political prisoners and had his epiphany.

He returned to the UK and left the Hizb-ul-Tahrir. This took a toll on his personal life as his ex-wife remains a member of the Hizb-ul-Tahrir. He has set up the Quilliam Foundation — a think tank to promote counter radicalisation strategies through debate and discourse and Khudi, a grassroots organisation to promote democratic ideals in Pakistan.

Maajid Nawaz was recently in Pakistan and spoke about the need to challenge extremist ideas with modern ideas through civil society activism.

Q: Why and when did you leave the Hizb-ul-Tahrir?

A: It was during my detention in an Egyptian prison that I began to utilise my time by studying as much as I could about the ideology I professed to be working for. My aim was to study Islam in such depth that once released, I would be even more potent at propagandising than before.

As I studied various branches of traditional Islamic sciences, however, I grew more and more surprised. I had the opportunity to interact and debate with some of the world’s leading jihadists as well as liberal political prisoners. The sheer breadth of scholastic disagreement that I found, on issues I had believed were so definitive in Islam, surprised me. Where we had been willing to challenge — even overthrow — regimes on certain issues, traditional jurists of Islam had treated these as academic disagreements to be debated through books. It slowly dawned on me that what I had been propagating was far from true Islam. I began to realise that what I had subscribed to was actually Islamism sold to me in the name of Islam. And it is with this realisation that I can now say that the more I learnt about Islam, the more tolerant I became.

Q: Does the radicalised Muslim see the infidel Muslim in the same way as he sees the ‘infidel’ West?

A: He does. If you define yourself as being at war with the infidel, then you define who the infidel is and who the Muslim is. It’s very reductionist; infidels are non-Muslims or people who do not subscribe to their thinking. The philosophy is: either you are with us or against us.

Q: How are the so-called westernised Pakistanis viewed?

A: Depends on the group. The group I belonged to viewed them as agents of colonialism. Muslims, but confused Muslims. Terrorist groups, like Al-Qaeda, would consider them infidels and hence potential targets.

Q: What tools are available to you to fight radical Islam?

A: First, the experience I gained from the Hizb-ul-Tahrir, their tactics, strategies, ideas and the critique of those ideas. In Pakistan, we are launching a national magazine to connect students from the various provinces to focus on a Pakistani identity rather than a separatist one. We are also working on coalitions and alliances with civil society. Groups like Al-Qaeda developed an extremist network. They are the umbrella organisation working across the board with other extremist groups, pushing the same agenda and cooperating where necessary. What was missing were civil society pressure groups working to instil democratic values, and that’s the void we are trying to fill.

Q: Who, in your view, is a liberal?

A: A true liberal is one who would not oppose a woman who chooses to wear hijab or a man who grows a beard because that is freedom of religion. A true liberal would have a problem with someone who wants to oppose that with violence.

Q: What if a woman wanted to wear a miniskirt?

A: A true liberal would not stop her from doing that. That’s the point. It’s about protecting the individuals’ choice to exercise personal freedoms.

We are against using the law to force women to dress in a particular way. The Taliban forced women to wear the niqab and some countries have now banned the hijab — both violate liberal principles.

Q: What is the Pakistani identity? Do you need to be Muslim to be Pakistani?

A: Absolutely not. These are some of the things we need to reconcile with as Pakistanis; you don’t need to be Sunni Muslim to be Pakistani. We need to create space for a religiously neutral Pakistani society where no one ijtehad is forced by law over the rest of society.

We must cater for all denominations, all views, so that if you wish to wear hijab, it’s up to you — the law should not have a view on this.

Q: What should the state be doing to deal with the issue of extremism?

A: It needs to set up a counter-radicalisation strategy inside Pakistan. Identify those ideas that are extremist and promote voices that are challenging those views inside Pakistan. Adopt a de-radicalisation policy for prisons whereby they actively try to de-radicalise jihadists they have already caught. It’s a very complicated process; Libya and Egypt have successfully managed to do it. In Libya, most of the jihadists were in prison. What they did was to take religious scholars who were against jihadism and engage them in debates with these largely uneducated jihadists. The religious scholars were able to demonstrate that historically Islam never had a clergy, that the doors of ijtehad should remain open and whichever view of Islam you take you cannot think it’s the only view. We also need to use human rights and promote democracy. That’s what Khudi was set up for. It is essential to do development and welfare work inside Pakistan. At the end of the day, a close-minded and bigoted jihadist will not listen to the likes of you and me, but may listen to a religious scholar who he does not see as an infidel.

Q: Increasingly, we are seeing more radicalised Muslim youth in the West, Faisal Shahzad being a case in point. Has your think tank achieved any measure of success in its two-year existence?

A: Success, in terms of changing ideas, is a long-term process. The government of Pakistan has responded well to us and I hope they adopt a counter-radicalisation strategy. Quilliam is a think tank and Khudi is a grassroots organisation and we are trying to promote Khudi in Pakistan.

Q: What is your source of funding?

A: We apply for grants, both governmental and non-governmental ones. Money also comes from institutions and private donors. We need to make it self-reliant from funding within Pakistan. It’s difficult but let us be ambitious.

Q: Pakistan has a huge adolescent population and they have no future.

A: If we don’t deal with this as a country then those people will become key targets of the radicalisation agenda. In order to deal with this, we need to mend the economy.

Q: What is your advice to the government on this front?

A: Quilliam has produced one report on Pakistan. On the national level, Pakistan needs to deal with the identity issue, social sector development and eradicate corruption. On the counter-radicalisation side, we need to identify those areas that lead to violence and intolerance, and challenge them. Most importantly, we need to adopt a national policy — and there isn’t one at the moment — for prisons universities and the media.