18 August 2012
I first met Maajid Nawaz along with his colleague Ed Husain in October 2009 when I attended the Quilliam fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. We have stayed in touch since then.
The very evening I was about to order his autobiography from Amazon.co.uk I received an email from Quilliam asking for my postal address as Maajid wanted to send me a complimentary copy! I was delighted to receive a signed copy and recently finished reading it.
The book is a very readable 378 pages with well-spaced type that is a comfortable size to read. It has just over two pages of glossary for the Arabic and Urdu terms which are used occasionally and three pages of Internet resources. In this short review, I can only give a brief impression of the book and have chosen some highlights.
There is a short preface by Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK who mentions how proud she is of her work with the organisation. She praises John Cornwall who prompted Amnesty International to adopt Maajid as a Prisoner of Conscience and who wrote letter after letter to Maajid while he was in prison.
In passing, such work is why I give Amnesty International a small annual donation although I do not have time to become personally involved with its work.
Maajid starts with a vivid 11 page introduction, instantly immersing us in three moments from his life:
These three episodes illustrate just what a remarkable life Maajid has had in 34 short years since being born in Essex in 1978.
The book is divided into 32 chapters grouped into the three phases of his life.
Maajid explains that his family originate from Gujrat which is not to be confused with Gujarat in India. Gujrat is a city and district in the Punjab in Pakistan. His maternal grandparents were caught up in the horrors of partition and Maajid describes how they were separated when the train they were travelling on was attacked although fortunately both survived.
Maajid grew up in Southend, a relatively small place with a current population of 160,000 of whom 96% are white; the percentage was even higher when Maajid was growing up. As he grew older, he increasingly suffered from racist violence at the hands of white thugs. As a defence mechanism he developed a “hip-hop” “bad boy” identity hanging around with other boys of Pakistani and Afro-Caribbean origin along with some white boys who wanted to be part of the same scene.
“All of this – the music, the clothes, the hairstyles, the graffiti, the dancing, the clubbing, the MC-ing, the lifestyle that was hip-hop – meant that none of us had any problems with girls. They were almost like groupies, white middle-class girls who’d got into hip-hop and wanted to be part of it.… We were just out to have a good time, and were buzzing on a sound, and identity, that we could finally claim as our own.”
Maajid was perpetually at risk from white gang violence. He describes movingly how one of his white friends, Matt, was stabbed (although not fatally) trying to persuade a gang of Combat 18 thugs not to beat up Maajid. He is open about the shame he felt that someone else was nearly murdered trying to help him while Maajid himself was able to do nothing while Matt was being stabbed and beaten up.
Maajid gives an insightful summary of how attitudes to identity within his community have changed over time.
“Many British-born Muslims simply did not consider themselves part of the mainstream race debate. The Rushdie affair helped this shift along somewhat. The communities adopted a more isolationist stance, a policy of self exclusion. For many, the nature of how they identified themselves was changing. So instead of calling themselves British Asians as my parents had done, this generation now defined themselves as almost exclusively Muslim. They believed that their allegiance to the global Islamic community, the ummah, hindered them from defining themselves as being part of the country they were born in.
To see how this self-segregation took hold, you only need to look at how weddings changed. When I was growing up the Asian weddings we went to were mixed, both ethnically and in terms of religion. They were also mixed gender-wise and dancing was the norm. Slowly, weddings involving Muslim couples went from being a celebration to being more akin to a sombre religious ceremony, with no gender mixing and certainly no dancing. Segregated with a curtain and often manned by frustrated men dividing whole families along gender lines, this shift symbolises how the culture changed.”
Maajid explains how external events, especially the ethnic cleansing and murder of white European Muslims in Bosnia helped to change attitudes amongst Muslims in Britain and facilitated the rise of groups advocating politicised Islam.
Maajid describes a potentially catastrophic but ultimately amusing incident which finally led to the white gang ceasing to harass him and his brother Osman. With a friend the three of them were surrounded by the white gang which was led by a chap called Mickey. Instead of immediately launching an assault, Mickey ask for a parlay which took place between Osman and Mickey and which ended by Mickey and his gang standing down and deciding to leave Maajid, Osman and their friend alone. Afterwards Maajid asked Osman how this had come about.
“Osman looked at me with a level of confidence in his eyes, ‘I told him we’re Muslims and we don’t fear death. We’re like those Palestinian terrorists he sees on the television blowing up planes. We’re suicide bombers. We’ve been taught how to make bombs and I’ve got one in my rucksack. If you even try to make a move, I’ll set mine off. Trust me, I don’t give a shit. If we have to take ourselves out to take you out, then that’s what we will do.’… Osman’s bluff played on Mickey’s racism, no question about it. Mickey may or may not have watched the news, but he knew his Combat 18 literature. This depicted Muslims as terrorists, and suggested that we were all murderers given half the chance. So when Osman said he had a bomb in his rucksack, and that we had links to suicide bombers, it confirmed every prejudice that Mickey came to believe about us.”
Given how much inconvenience young Muslims suffer from being typecast as potential terrorists, it is good to see that occasionally there can be benefits from such typecasting!
Maajid stresses the distinction between Islamism and Islam.
“Islam is a religion… As a religion, Islam contains all the usual creedal, methodological, juristic and devotional schisms of any other faith.
…Simply defined, Islamism is the desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam over society as law. Understood in this way, Islamism is not another religious schism, but an ideological thought that seeks to develop a coherent political system that can house all these schisms, without necessarily doing away with them. Whereas disputes within Islam deal with a person’s approach to religion, Islamism seeks to deal with a person’s approach to society.”
This is as good a concise definition of Islamism as I have seen. Personally, as explained in my piece “Time to retire Islamism?” I generally avoid using the word since too many Muslims fail to understand the difference between Islamism and Islam. Accordingly my own preferred usage is “political Islam.”
Maajid explains that his own journey into Islamism began in 1992 when his brother Osman was handed a leaflet in Southend by a Bangladeshi medical student called Nasim Ghani. The leaflet was about the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in India by a Hindu mob. Many Muslims were killed in the subsequent communal rioting. The leaflet was using this incident to promote the message of Hizb ut-Tahrir (The Liberation Party) commonly abbreviated as HT. Maajid mentions that Nasim Ghani went on to become the leader of HT in the UK and the founder of HT in Bangladesh.
How do you spell the organisation's name?
The spelling I have always seen is Hizb ut-Tahrir, and that is how the organisation's UK website spells it. In the book, Maajid spells it Hizb al-Tahrir, while most of the time using the common abbreviation HT.
When I queried it, Maajid explained:
"In answer to your question, yes, the popular, phonetic and HT spelling of their name in English is Hizb ut-Tahrir. But being a student of Arabic, I decided to use the custom common in transliteration techniques when spelling out their name. These generally hold that when transliterating an Arabic word into English, the definitive article is rendered in its nominative form, rather than be affected by the changes that occur to Arabic vowels due to grammar rules. The same has been done by Dr Suha Taji Farouki in her Phd thesis on Hizb al-Tahrir (the first one ever done) and is the custom among Arabic scholars."
From that first leaflet received by Osman, Maajid went on to attend HT study circles in people’s houses, typically five or six students with someone like Nasim as a speaker. Gradually he became an HT activist.
At the age of 16 once he completed his GCSEs, Maajid’s parents expected him to go to Southend College. However by then he was a zealous supporter of HT and wanted to move to London “where the action was.” Accordingly he persuaded his parents to let him attend Barking College in East London to do a specialist graphic design course. However his main objective was to be more involved in HT and he rented a room in a flat with some other activists with the aid of Nasim Ghani who by now was in charge of HT activities in East London.
Nasim introduced Maajid to Ed Husain, another HT supporter, who was studying at Newham College. When Maajid visited Newham College’s campus in East Ham he was “blown away by the number of Muslims there.” Accordingly he switched from the graphic design course at Barking to doing A-levels at Newham College. Obviously he did not tell his parents immediately since A-levels could be studied just as easily in Southend!
At that time Ed Husain was in his final year and needed someone to replace him as the lead HT recruiter at Newham College; Maajid was the perfect replacement.
Maajid points out the important distinction between HT and Salafists.
“When I joined, the Islamic Society (ISoc) at Newham was dominated by the Saudi-Salafists, or literalists. In those days, before the merger between some Salafists and Islamism, the Salafists hated HT and everything we stood for. In the UK, a group called JIMAS coordinated all Salafist activities. JIMAS were known rivals. They loathed us more than non-Muslims, for what they saw as our twisting of the Islamic message. The Salafist philosophy was far more religious than the HT message: there was no political element to their thinking. They dismissed our views are not being religious enough and we in turn dismissed them for providing religious cover for the Saudi king and other absolute rulers.”
At that time the Salafists controlled the Newham College ISoc. However Maajid and the other HT supporters decided to leapfrog them by putting up a slate for the Student Union elections, with Maajid at the top of the slate as candidate for president. HT were much more effective campaigners than the Salafists since they had a much wider appeal and in particular were able to capture the female Muslim vote:
“…partly because we were seen as trendy young guys, and partly because of the Salafist attitude to women. Salafists would criticise women for not wearing headscarves, to which we’d say, ‘Do you think the Bosnian Muslim woman was wearing a headscarf when she was raped? How does that make her any less your sister?’ We had a female HT supporter who stood for the role of women’s officer, and who didn’t wear a headscarf; we conveniently tolerated that if it could win us the elections. We secured the female vote, hands down.”
HT won the election with all of their slate getting elected, and found themselves in control of the student union, which controlled funding for the ISoc. They also controlled the debating society and were able to bring in external speakers selected by HT. It was a complete HT takeover.
In Southend Maajid had suffered from white violence. Now at Newham College he found racial tensions between the Muslim Pakistani students and the non-Muslim African students who had previously dominated the College. He organised the Pakistani students into a more cohesive force motivated by religion.
“We’d inspire the students with tales of jihad, assure them of backup through our networks, but most of all we led by example. In the middle of such confrontations, which would often spill out into the college courtyard, we would suddenly drop into coordinated prayers, right there in the open in front of our adversaries. And after our prayers, we’d stand back up and shout Allahu akbar at the tops of our voices in unison, like a war cry. The African students all had knives; some of them were carrying machetes. But after everything I’d been through in Southend, that sort of weaponry didn’t faze me. By this point, I’d been going around with my knife strapped to my back for years. I was so desensitised to the threat of violence that I could stand up to the African students without thinking twice. Imbued by my Islamist beliefs and the confidence of my election victory, I stoked the acrid atmosphere still further. Our display of fearless religious zeal did the trick, it galvanised the Pakistani youth, and it made them stand as Muslims. But it was only a matter of time before someone got badly hurt.”
Maajid goes on to describe in some detail the confrontation that led to one of the African students being killed which is also mentioned in Ed Husain’s book “The Islamist.” Fortunately Maajid himself was not directly involved in the incident and therefore did not get involved with the police. However after the death Newham College expelled the entire Student Union committee, including of course Maajid, with immediate effect. Under severe parental pressure, he then registered at the local grammar school in Southend, successfully keeping secret his expulsion from Newham College. He managed to get the A-level grades he needed to study Arabic at SOAS: The School of Oriental and African Studies in London. HT were also pleased with him and admitted him as a full member of HT.
“Out of our elite group I was the first one selected to become a full member of the group, a hizbi. It wasn’t a big ceremony: just one on one with Nasim, who by now was one of the leaders of the national group. I swore an oath of allegiance to God, the Qur’an and to obey and follow the instructions of the group’s leader or amir. I promise to represent the ideology at all costs, and to be prepared to make sacrifices for the cause. Convinced of the injustice of non-Islam, or kufr, I meant every word I uttered with the chilling sincerity of a true believer.”
Maajid recounts how, while he was at Newham, he met a Pakistani girl he liked. They approached their parents in the traditional way, and the parents met to discuss matrimony. Unfortunately her parents were opposed to Maajid and the girl getting married since, against her will, they had already planned her marriage to a cousin in Pakistan. In the, sadly, all too common way, they took her on a holiday to Pakistan to visit their extended family and while there coerced her into marrying her cousin. When she was back in the UK, she was willing to run away from her forced husband and Maajid’s mother was agreeable to taking her in. However Maajid advised the girl to seek religious guidance. Sadly she chose to consult a Salafist Shaykh who knew that Maajid was part of HT. Perhaps motivated by the acrimony between HT and the Salafists, the Shaykh advised the girl to stay with her forced husband.
A little while later Maajid’s brother Osman introduced him to another young Pakistani woman, Rabia, who was also an HT supporter along with her six sisters. They got married while Maajid was at university aged 21. Shortly afterwards HT’s global leadership asked for British Pakistani members willing to volunteer to go to Pakistan to found a branch of HT there. Maajid decided to answer the call.
Maajid spends a few pages describing his time in Pakistan and then his return to the UK. After passing an exam retake, as part of his course he had to spend a year in Egypt learning Arabic at the University of Alexandria. He, Rabia and their infant son arrived in Alexandria the day before 9/11. Maajid reproduces a three page polemic that he wrote justifying 9/11. He writes “while we in Hizb al-Tahrir disagreed with the tactics that Al-Qaeda employed, most of us shared their sense of vengeance.”
Subsequently Maajid has visited Ground Zero on several occasions and spoken there. He reflects upon his original 9/11 polemic:
“Stalin once infamously said that a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic. That’s what my response to 9/11 became. It wasn’t about individual people, it was about the overall picture, and by this time I was so consumed by the suffering of ‘my own people’ that I had no empathy left for the suffering of those I accused of causing it. There is a lesson there, I believe, for the more hawkish elements among Western societies too.”
While studying Arabic in Egypt, Maajid of course got involved in HT activities. This eventually led to his being arrested by the secret police and spending four years in Egyptian prisons where prisoners were systematically tortured. This is covered in graphic detail although fortunately Maajid escaped the worst forms of torture.
Hizb ut-Tahrir washed their hands of him once he was arrested. While he was in prison, his parents divorced and his mother met someone new, a white Englishman who at that time was not a Muslim. They came to visit Maajid in prison and while they were visiting him Maajid supervised the man’s conversion to Islam and then conducted the Islamic religious wedding, the nikah, for his mother and new stepfather. This illustrates the principle that any Muslim can conduct a wedding since Sunni Islam has no concept of priesthood.
Maajid found himself in the same prison, Mazrah Tora, which had once held Sayyid Qutb, the place where Qutb wrote “Milestones.” Sayyid Qutb's disciple who smuggled the manuscript of Milestones out of prison was Mohammed al-Badei, and by now he was back in prison again and Maajid got to know him. It was talking to him and other representatives of various radical groups in the prison that caused Maajid to gradually change his views.
Maajid writes eloquently:
“Many political prisoners, and criminals alike, harden their beliefs and skills while incarcerated, coming out more committed than ever. For me, with its rich mix of prisoners, from the assassins of Sadat all the way through to the liberals and even homosexuals, Mazrah Tora became a political and social education par excellence. The studies, conversations and experiences I gained in Mazrah Tora, over months and years, were crucial in overcoming my dogmatic allegiance to the Islamist ideology. Having entered prison as an extremely idealistic 24-year-old, full of rage against society, over the course of four years, and for the first time in my life having nothing else to do but study, I came to re-evaluate everything I stood for.”
When Maajid returned to the UK, there was huge media interest. Initially he kept to himself his change of views and gave various media interviews and spoke at rallies on behalf of HT.
“To begin with, I wanted to find a way to accommodate my changing views within HT. I felt the way forward was to hone my arguments, and convince other members to come round to my revised position. In that BBC HARDtalk interview with Sarah Montague, [worth watching at the link] she had asked me what I stood for, and I replied that HT were calling for a ‘representative Caliphate’. This led to a great deal of furious discussion inside the group. What did I mean by a ‘representative Caliphate’? The Caliphate was ‘the Caliphate’. There should have been no argument about that: this was the imposition of Islam on society.
But I had seen how people could change in prison. I had seen how someone’s certainty to the point of death, could change to become regret and sorrow at lives lost. I’d seen how almost every facet of our ideology relied on modern European political philosophy, and that any Islamic legitimacy it had was at best only one view. I had seen how Islam could be abused to justify almost any political position, including torture. I remembered the character flaws of all the Islamists I’d come to know, both inside HT and others. It was fanciful, I felt, that just because someone was a committed Islamist, they would run things the right way. This came back to the decoupling of Islamism and justice in my mind. There needed to be some accountability, not only built into the system, but into the very formation of our ideology itself, which was, ultimately, a man-made construct.”
Maajid’s doubts about HT increased but meanwhile HT approached him to become the UK leader. This caused Maajid to stop temporising and he decided to resign from HT. At the same time he sent an email to the media to ensure that his reasons for resigning were spread first-hand, and not spread in a distorted form by HT in a distorted form. 13 years of his life had been spent with the group. Sadly his wife was still completely committed to HT and this led to their separation.
He goes on to recount how he and Ed Husain jointly founded the counter-extremism organisation Quilliam. The book runs through to the Arab spring and the fall of Gaddafi in Libya.
The book is a compelling memoir. What struck me most strongly is how personal it was, giving real insight into how Maajid felt at each stage in his life.
As I read it I was grateful for the more peaceful upbringing that I enjoyed compared with Maajid. My teenage years were spent in Moss Side in Manchester; although a slum it was racially very mixed and therefore I did not encounter the type of skinhead violence that Maajid experienced in Southend. Surveys show that the most bigoted racist attitudes are always found amongst those people who have the least actual contact with the group that they are prejudiced against.
I recommend the book to everyone who wants to understand why some Muslims become radicalised. It is also a compelling read, and you want to turn each page to find out what happens next.
This is a big subject on which much has been written. In my view, there are two common characteristics that Muslims who become radicalised show:
As Maajid points out in his book, they see every injustice committed by non-Muslims on Muslims.
However they do not see Muslims who are being unjust to other Muslims, or Muslims who are being unjust to non-Muslims. Least of all do they pay any attention to non-Muslims being unjust to other non-Muslims.
If you measure injustice by the numbers of people killed (a crude measure but one that has the advantage that you can estimate it) then over the last half century far more Muslims have been killed by other Muslims than have been killed by non-Muslims.
People who become radicalised often display great religiosity, such as growing long beards or never missing a prayer.
However they have spent relatively little time reading the Quran in a language that they understand, reading the many volumes of Hadith, reading the many commentaries on the Quran or the writings of Islamic scholars, both historical and modern. Most of all they fail to acknowledge the wide diversity of religious views amongst Muslims.
Instead they fixate upon the very narrow view of Islam propagated by whichever group they have fallen into the clutches of.
With my permission, a slightly abridged version of this review has been posted on the site Think Scotland.
Kindle edition above