TED Radio Hour
9:26 am
Fri October 25, 2013

How Does An Islamist Extremist Change His Mind?

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Turning Points.

About Maajid Nawaz's TEDTalk

For more than a decade, Maajid Nawaz recruited young Muslims to an extreme Islamist group. But while serving time in an Egyptian prison, he went through a complete ideological transformation. He left the group, his friends, his marriage for a new life as a democracy advocate.

About Maajid Nawaz

As a teenager, British-born Maajid Nawaz was recruited to an extremist global Islamist organization called Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose goal is to unite all Muslim countries into one caliphate ruled by Islamic law. He spent more than a decade recruiting other young Muslims to the group, until he was imprisoned in Egypt.

Four years later, Nawaz left prison feeling that Hizb ut-Tahrir was hijacking Islam for political purposes. He remained a Muslim, but he was no longer an Islamist.

He recently released a memoir, Radical: My Journey From Islamist Extremism To A Democratic Awakening. His goal now is to help Muslims work for a democratic culture that values peace and women's rights. He heads Quilliam, a think tank that engages in "counter-Islamist thought-generating."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Hello, London. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDIO ENGINEER: Hello, Washington.

RAZ: Hello, can you hear us?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDIO ENGINEER: Oh, yes, here we are.

RAZ: So our next story comes to us from Maajid Nawaz, who lives in London.

MAAJID NAWAZ: Is that OK?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDIO ENGINEER: Just a bit more.

NAWAZ: I'm going to be speaking about my TED Talk.

RAZ: And he runs a group that promotes democracy in the Muslim world. That's now.

NAWAZ: So I'm assuming now that anything I say from now on could potentially be used, yeah?

RAZ: Yes, yes, yes.

NAWAZ: OK.

RAZ: So the reason he has to be cautious will become clear in a moment.

NAWAZ: Yeah, I do worry. I've grown up worrying and always having to look over my shoulder for one reason or another. So it does come across sometimes as paranoid when people are speaking to me and my eyes are constantly looking left to right to make sure that the coast is clear, in case somebody's coming to attack me.

RAZ: Do you tell people, right off the bat, I used to be an Islamist?

NAWAZ: Yes, I tell people in a palatable way. I try not to scare them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

NAWAZ: My personal story, my personal journey and what brings me to the stage here today is a demonstration of exactly what's been happening in Muslim majority societies over the course of the last two decades at least, and beyond. For 13 years of my life, I was involved in an extreme Islamist organization. And I was actually a potent force in spreading ideas across borders and I witnessed the rise of Islamist extremism as distinct from Islam the faith, and the way in which it influenced my coreligionists across the world.

I grew up in an area called Essex, which is next door to London. And in the '90s, I mean, again, a lot's changed now it the U.K. and so everything I say about racism doesn't necessarily apply so much now. But growing up in the early to mid '90s in Essex, we experienced some severe and violent racism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 1: C18 are the initials of Combat 18.

NAWAZ: There was a group called Combat 18 and this was a neo-Nazi, paramilitary organization.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 1: The name is taken from the first and eighth letters of the alphabet, the initials of Adolf Hitler.

NAWAZ: When they started attacking us with hammers and screwdrivers and machetes, I began self-segregating because they didn't attack me directly. What they did is in one instance, for example, they held me back and forced me to watch as they stabbed my English friends because they were deemed as blood traitors for having associated with me.

That began a process of self-segregation and so from around the age of 15, I began associating with what we call here, we refer to as a West Indian crowd - black British. And I got into a subculture and that subculture was one of hip-hop in its heyday. In its early days, it was all political rap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT THE POWER")

NAWAZ: We were, essentially, hip-hop b-boys. We were into breakdancing, graffiti, and hip-hop music. And there was a certain way of dressing. And we became a very disenfranchised and disillusioned generation seeking an alternative identity.

RAZ: How did you go from, sort of, being a hip-hop b-boy to, sort of, being attracted to Islamist ideology?

NAWAZ: So the transition was relatively easy because in those days, unlike today, hip-hop was very political. Public Enemy and various other groups, Brand Nubian, they were espousing a form of black nationalist and politicized Islamic faith. Now as a teenager experiencing racism at the age of 15 in the U.K., it was easy for me to latch onto that.

RAZ: And he found the perfect place to latch on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 2: The Hizb ut-Tahrir organization sets out to radicalize British youth, and plans for an Islamic superstate ready to enforce its views by violence.

RAZ: When he was 16, Maajid joined that Islamist group.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 2: An Islamic state across the Muslim world under Sharia law is the central aim of Hizb ut-Tahrir. There has been much debate about how extreme Hizb ut-Tahrir is. It insists that it works through exclusively political means.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

NAWAZ: At the age of 17, I was recruiting people from Cambridge University to this organization. At the age of 19, I was on the national leadership of this organization in the U.K. At the age of 21, I was cofounding this organization in Pakistan. At the age of 22, I was cofounding this organization in Denmark. By the age of 24, I found myself convicted in prison in Egypt, being blacklisted from three countries in the world for attempting to overthrow their governments, being subjected to torture in the Egyptian jails and sentenced to five years as a prisoner of conscience.

By the way, we were laughing at Democratic activists, all the way across the world. We felt they were the - they were from the age of yesteryear. We felt that they were out of date. I learned how to effectively communicate across borders without being detected, eventually I was detected, of course, in Egypt.

RAZ: So you are in jail in Egypt, and they put you on trial.

NAWAZ: And the charge, to quote from the Arabic of it, which I still remember, was (speaking Arabic), which means in English, propagation by speech and writing for a banned organization. Now to charge somebody with thought crime leaves the door open for Amnesty International to get involved. So Amnesty then, the moment we were charged, adopted us as prisoners of conscience.

RAZ: What did you think when you heard that?

NAWAZ: That was the beginning of my own emotional transformation. It was the first time in my life that instead of looking over the shoulder for one enemy or the other, I had been embraced by an organization that said we vehemently disagree with everything you stand for, but we certainly don't think you should've been tortured for it. And because you weren't caught in the midst of any criminal activity in Egypt, we don't even think you should have been charged for it or convicted for it.

RAZ: So when Amnesty adopted you, that began your emotional transformation. When did your intellectual transformation begin?

NAWAZ: That took five years. Four years studying in prison - studying, debating, and discussing. And I was in prison with the who's who at the time of Egypt's political opposition. That atmosphere, as one can imagine, led to a very rich conversation. And I read lots and lots of literature. I read George Orwell. I also studied traditional Islamic theology.

And I eventually came to the conclusion that I had grossly misunderstood Islam. And though I never was really devout, and still am not devout, one thing I did come to realize was that I was abusing the religion of my heritage for political purposes. In fact, there's no such thing as Islamic political thinking. An Islam didn't leave behind any political ideology and certainly didn't leave behind any system of government.

RAZ: When you were finally released from prison, you went back to the U.K.?

NAWAZ: Yes, I returned to London. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 3: Last year, Maajid Nawaz was released from prison. Four years in a Cairo cell...

NAWAZ: I rejoined my leadership position on the Islamist organization. It took me another, roughly, 10 months to come to the conclusion that I actually indeed had no place left on the leadership of this group. And so in 2007, I think I unilaterally resigned my position from the leadership.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER 3: Now Nawaz wants to persuade other members of Hizb ut-Tahrir to leave the party, and has started to publish a series of papers arguing against the theological basis of Hizb ut-Tahrir ideas.

NAWAZ: And of course, what happened when I left was my marriage broke down. My ex-wife remained, at the time, with the organization. I have no idea if she still is or not because she doesn't speak to me anymore. But she felt very let down because she'd waited all those years for her hero, her Islamist-resistance hero to return only to - for him to come and say well, it was all wrong. It was a very difficult time. My friends turned against me, and they suddenly considered that I was a traitor.

RAZ: Did you ever go through depression? I mean, did you ever think, my friends are leaving me, everybody's turning away from me, who do I have? I mean, 'cause who did you have?

NAWAZ: I was indeed very distraught that my wife left me. When the final divorce came through, I punched a wall and I actually broke my knuckle, and I was very, very upset. And I had no friends left, so I had to literally pick myself up from scratch. At the time, I was sleeping in the back of my car, which was parked on Russell Square in London's West End.

RAZ: So you're sleeping in your car and you're doing all of this thinking about who you were. I mean, how did that evolve into who you became?

NAWAZ: It was very difficult because whereas joining the group at 16 involved an identity crisis, leaving it, I think around 29 years old, involved a re-identity crisis. And the best way I can describe it is, imagine taking a silk cloth and throwing it on a rose bush, and then pulling it off with the thorns tearing through the cloth.

But of course, if anyone was well placed to make the Islamist ideologically as unfashionable as Soviet communism has become today, which is the task ahead of us, you know, young Muslims need to see Islamism as much as yesterday's news as Soviet communism. Now to do that, to achieve that, you needed a voice like mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

NAWAZ: And what I believe is missing is genuine grassroots activism, advocating for the Democratic culture itself. What we'll have in the end is this ideal that people should vote in an existing democracy not for a democracy. How does that happen? Well, Egypt is a good starting point. The Arab uprisings have demonstrated that this is already beginning. But what happened in the Arab uprisings and what happened in Egypt was particularly cathartic for me.

What happened there was a political coalition gathered together for a political goal and that was to remove the leader. We need to move one step beyond that now. We need to see how we can help those societies move from political coalitions to civilizational coalitions that are working for the ideals and narratives of the democratic culture on the ground, 'cause it's not enough to remove a leader or ruler or a dictator.

There is a chance that Democratic culture can start in the region and spread across to the rest of the countries that are surrounding that. And we've made a start for that in Pakistan with a movement called Khudi, where we are working on the ground to encourage the youth, to create genuine buy-in for the Democratic culture.

RAZ: When you look at the course of your life, do you think, man, I've led two lives, two different lives?

NAWAZ: Three. I was a hip-hop b-boy, let's not forget that. If you catch me walking today, sometimes you can still catch the b-boy bounce in my step, which is quite annoying because it's quite embarrassing.

RAZ: So how do you define yourself now?

NAWAZ: I define myself as a liberal, as a Muslim, as a Democrat, as a Briton, as a Pakistani, as a global citizen. In fact, the antidote to the identity crisis that I experienced when joining the Islamist group I did at 16, the antidote is to say, there is indeed no conflict between any of these identities, they're all perfectly compatible. And it's in embracing those multiple identities that I'm able to have a holistic personality.

RAZ: Is a part of you grateful for the experience that you had as a radical? I mean, how do you reconcile with who Maajid Nawaz is now?

NAWAZ: I am everything I am today because of my past. And I've done some things that I am very regretful for, but everything that I have done and that builds up to me being who I am now is essential to have the Maajid Nawaz that you have in front of you. So it would be very difficult of me to say that I wish I was a different person.

RAZ: You had to be that person?

NAWAZ: Indeed. It seems to be the case for good or for bad.

RAZ: That's Maajid Nawaz. He's the cofounder of the pro-democracy group Quilliam, it's based in London. His new book about his life is called "Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening." You can hear his entire talk at TED.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.