News stories about Westerners recruited into radical Islamist movements are all too plentiful. Questions regarding what to do about this trend are even more abundant. Insights into the heart of the problem remain disturbingly rare.
Shedding some light in this dark void is an extraordinary new autobiography, Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism, by Maajid Nawaz. Radical offers readers an insider’s view of recruitment into an Islamist organization, hardcore activism, and ultimately what makes departure from such a movement possible. Nawaz uses the term “Islamism” to describe a political movement. Islam, by contrast, serves as an influence which ultimately leads Nawaz out of extremism.
Maajid Nawaz was born in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex, England to parents of Pakistani descent. He grew up in a middle-class family in a region of England where the vast majority of the population is white. During his youth, some portion of that white population wanted no part of anyone with darker skin in their midst. Racist, brutish kids in his town aggressively harassed kids with darker skin, Nawaz included.
In Nawaz’s account of his childhood, I was struck by how the lack of religious formation he had as a child seems to have contributed to his vulnerability when Islamist recruiters swooped into his life, claiming to explain to him what Islam really is. His parents were largely secular, and the local mosque did not seem to have any serious interest in raising children in the Islamic faith. As Nawaz describes, “The few times I’d been to the mosque it had been a disaster. The imam didn’t speak English, and . . . I told my parents I wasn’t going back because he used to hit children.”
By age 16, Nawaz was “angry and disenfranchised.” And he knew very little about the teachings of Islam. His was a context ripe for the Islamist political radicals who began to introduce him to a world of “grievances, identity crises, charismatic recruiters, and compelling narratives.”
These radicals were from an international movement that calls itself “Hizb al-Tahrir,” Arabic for The Party of Liberation. Hizb al-Tahrir, aka HT, aims to establish a world-wide government serving, and imposing, its own interpretation of Islam. These HT activists offered their plans for global governance to Nawaz as a ready-made solution for everything ranging from his own problems of racist harassment to the rest of the world’s problems too.
Later in life, Nawaz realized “what Islamism is all about: it isn’t a religious movement with political consequences, it is a political movement with religious consequences.” As a fundamentally political movement, religion was important only in so far as it served HT’s political aims. Thus the relevance of the Quran and other texts of the Islamic tradition was reduced to their support for HT. Nawaz describes the selective reading of Islamic texts for HT’s self-justification: “The element,” writes Nawaz, “that supported the story was mentioned; the part that complicated the issue was ignored.”
Over time, Nawaz adopted this ideology, and it eventually became his beacon of purpose in life. He began traveling the world—Pakistan, Denmark, Egypt—to recruit others and expand the HT movement. He also married a fellow HT activist. But then he landed in an Egyptian prison, where HT was banned by the Mubarak government.
Americans who do not understand why Egypt is in such turmoil after a decades-long American investment of millions upon millions of dollars need to read Radical. Nawaz’s account of the Mubarak government’s brutal torture and imprisonment of those who espoused ideas and tried to engage in the political process is chilling. “Mubarak’s Egypt,” Nawaz reminds his readers, was a state “built on the opposite of what the West was meant to hold most dear.”
While imprisoned in Egypt, Maajid began to encounter conceptual challenges to his rigid, narrow HT ideology. In particular, Islam itself posed the most fundamental challenge. Maajid met Muslim intellectuals in prison who schooled him in the Quran and other texts of Islam—the very texts for which HT activists had not had time while pursuing their all-consuming political agenda. For Nawaz, the religious consequences of this experience were very personal. As his narrow commitment to Islamism developed cracks, he says, “I was horrified to realize that I was abusing my faith for a mere political project.”
Nawaz began to realize that he had not only been putting politics before faith but was also promoting an agenda which contradicted Islam itself. “My questions bore deep,” Nawaz writes, “to the very legitimacy of imposing shari’ah as law. After learning and studying how this had never been done before, I began to see such a goal as un-Islamic.”
Prison is also where the compassion and dignity of universal human rights helped Nawaz to enter into a process he describes as “rehumanization,” rediscovering humanity beyond the starkly drawn confines of HT’s “us versus them” framework. In particular, the work of Amnesty International, which campaigned for Nawaz’s release, reached deeply into the hardened heart of this HT radical. Nawaz had campaigned for a political system that would overthrow the very Western democratic framework that made Amnesty International possible, yet Amnesty International supported Nawaz simply because he was a human being and imprisonment of human beings on the basis of political conviction is wrong. This astonishing contradiction was not lost on Nawaz.
Discovering the humanity of others outside HT through the diversity of his fellow prisoners and the compassion extended by Amnesty International began to loosen the tight grip of the HT ideology that Nawaz had allowed to guide and control his life. “Like many ideologies,” writes Nawaz, “Islamism derives part of its power from its dehumanization of ‘the other.’”
Discovering the humanity in others sapped HT ideology of its power over Hawaz. But something so powerful and controlling does not fully evaporate overnight.
One of the most interesting and important contributions of Radical is Nawaz’s account of the period between his former HT radicalism and his current pro-democracy activism. “It is important to understand,” emphasizes Nawaz, “that my change of views wasn’t an overnight process. Ideological dogma doesn’t work like that: it’s not like a tap you can just switch off.” Such a change is about far more than ideology alone; it is fundamentally about the human person. This process involved many layers as Nawaz went through changes “emotionally, and then intellectually, then politically, and finally socially.”
This took years. For the development of counter- and de-radicalization programs, it is vital to understand how deeply enmeshed individuals can become in extremist movements. These movements become the personal identity as well as a social cocoon for those who develop radical commitment to an extremist cause. Nawaz explains, “My doubts kept growing, but the more they screamed for my attention, the more I sought to bury them away.” He thought to himself, “This is all I’ve known in my adult life: ‘My name is Maajid Nawaz. I am a member of Hizb al-Tahrir.’” Leaving this behind was not simple.
Today, Nawaz is no longer a member of HT. He now runs a think tank in London, the Quilliam Foundation, which works to counter extremism, and he is running for Parliament in the U.K. His autobiography Radical is an exceptionally important contribution to the literature of our post 9/11 world, because it brings the reader inside the human, individual dynamics of one young man’s transition into the extremism of HT and his eventual departure from it.
And Radical is more than just informative. Radical is, quite simply, a fascinating, gripping read.
Jennifer S. Bryson, Ph.D., is Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ.