Radical: Democracy, Not Islamism

Report by Jim Treadway

"We were attacked by hammers, by screwdrivers, by knives, by clubs with nails," Maajid Nawaz said of the attacks he faced as the teenage son of Pakistani immigrants in Essex, South London, in the early 1990s.

"These were men in their 20s, with shaved heads…it was a sport for them.  They called it ‘Paki-bashing’."    

Nawaz discussed his memoir Radical at the Frontline Club, tracing his path from an angry, hip-hop obsessed teen, to a high-level organizer for the global revolutionary Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), to a four-year prison term in Egypt, to his co-founding of Quilliam, a London-based think tank that counters Islamist extremism.

"Hip-hop culture was crucial in developing the self-confidence needed to assert oneself," Nawaz remembered.  But it was Islamism that truly gave him community, security, and identity.  An organizer for HT handed him a flyer one day, 

"an articulate, young, trendy, and intelligent man who was studying medicine, from my hometown, who could relate to me and my problems."

Nawaz joined HT, electrified by

"the level of power and seeing results that came immediately as a result of me adopting this identity…  how we managed to face down so many of the conflicts and violence that we were exposed to on the streets of Essex….  Suddenly, we had backup.  Suddenly we were members of this internationally feared and renowned club…the global Muslim community."

Nawaz built HT branches in Britain, Denmark, Egypt and Pakistan. The aim of HT being to reestablish a Muslim caliphate like the Ottoman Empire, whose "armies would protect Muslims across the world just as the American army protects American citizens."

After 9/11 he was imprisoned in Egypt and there he experienced a change in thinking, coming to believe that Islam as a faith had nothing to do with the political project of Islamism. Islamism, he came to feel,

"was a stifling, totalitarian, victimhood ideology that prevented independent thought, and all it ever did was breed more extremism, more discrimination, more racism, and more division."

At Quilliam, Nawaz seeks to address the grievances of Muslims and to reverse radicalisation by taking on the arguments of Islamism and countering them.

Nawaz does not agree with the line of thought from the right or the left. The left, he says, must challenge the injustice not only of racism but of Islamism as well. The right, he says, must show care for Muslims’ grievances at the hands of  racism and Western foreign policy. 

Muslims, meanwhile, must question their own narrative.  Nawaz explained,

"sadly…the victimhood narrative has become popular.  And it’s part of the story, but it’s not the whole story."

He put particular focus on Muslims’ ideological narrative, without which,

"the 7/7 bombers wouldn’t have said, in their thick Yorkshire accents by the way, that your people have attacked my people.  Here’s a British Pakistani talking about the Iraqis as his people, in a Yorkshire accent…  So the recalibration of identity…is what I call the ideological narrative […]

What we’re trying to do [is] engage the young, angry British Muslims with counter-narratives. Those young angry Muslims aren’t engaged in faith […] They’re people like me who weren’t particularly religious, and then get politiciised. […]

Crucially, Nawaz emphasized that the title of his book, Radical, doesn’t refer to his days spreading Islamism.  "[It’s] describing me now," he said.

"I’m trying to reclaim the word, and to say that what’s truly radical in majority Muslim societies is to advocate democratic culture on the grass roots.  [If that] can be entrenched…  then we can secure the future, the democratic future."

Watch the full video here:

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