This article originally featured in The Times, authored by Lucy Bannerman.
27 August 2015
Maajid Nawaz is what you might call a charmer. But for all his charms, he admits that the trouble with being a reformed extremist is that “you make very few friends”.
The founder of the counterterrorism think tank Quilliam occupies a strange space in the endless debates around Islamist extremism. He has recanted the poisonous politics that landed him in an Egyptian prison cell for four years and reinvented himself as a lone, liberal Muslim voice; the smooth wonk in the expensive suit.
Right now he is much angrier at the “racism” of “privately educated, silver-spooned, champagne-socialist Guardian journalists” than he is at the Daily Mail for publishing pictures of him straddled by a stripper on his stag do before his second marriage. It was a minor scandal in the life of the 36-year-old former firebrand, who went from scrapping with skinheads in Southend as a teenager to joining the radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir and its campaign to create a worldwide caliphate as a student. He now advises the prime minister on how to root out the homegrown extremists.
He is in typically loquacious form over coffee in the back garden of the Quilliam offices in central London. “Who wants their stag do displayed for ever online? I don’t think anyone else you would ever meet has had a stag do that has led to an Isis death threat, a panic alarm having to be installed in their home and the deputy prime minister of a country having to intervene. Because that’s what happened. I don’t plan on having another one.”
Jail changed his mind about his militant brothers. On his return to the UK, he broke away from the radicals, becoming homeless at one point and sleeping in his Renault Clio, before setting up Quilliam, named after a Liverpudlian convert to Islam who founded Britain’s first mosque.
Today, Nawaz is reflecting on a “particularly proud moment”, having advised Downing Street on David Cameron’s keynote speech unveiling the new five-year strategy to tackle extremism. Its emphasis on stigmatizing the Islamists and calling out bigotry well before it leads to bombs was pure Quilliam.
Cameron also criticised the segregation of communities: “It cannot be right that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths. That doesn’t foster a sense of shared belonging and understanding.”
The prime minister could be talking about his own background at Eton, I suggest. Hasn’t he just described the private education of half the British establishment? Nawaz laughs, agrees and suggests pen-pal schemes as a solution.
“The Eton types must also play a role in integration. They must mix with the Bradford Muslims too. It has to work both ways. It’s amazing the level of ignorance out there among the elite. We used to have pen pal exchanges. That sort of exchange can really foster relationships. I would like to see virtual exchanges, based on that, between [boarding schools and state schools] across the country. That would help.”
Nawaz wants to see Islamist extremists treated like the BNP or English Defence League. Don’t ban them, he says, just shrink their platform by ostracising their affiliates. “Treat them like racists. Why is it you can’t be a member of BNP and be a police officer, but you can still be a schoolteacher if you’re a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?”
He is well aware of the criticisms repeated against him, often from other British Muslims: that he lacks credibility, that he is not representative. He says he has never claimed to represent anyone. The government stopped funding Quilliam in 2011. Since then, its profile has continued to rise, thanks to donations by unnamed charities and individuals. Yet so too has the number of British boys and girls leaving their bedrooms in Bethnal Green, Glasgow, Luton and Cardiff — the list goes on — to join the jihadists. At the latest estimate, 700 Britons have left to fight in the Middle East.
“We’re a small organisation of ten people trying to do what frankly should be everyone’s responsibility.” Perpetuating the problems, he argues, are the apologists on what he calls the “absurd regressive left, who are only happy when you’re attacking America”. He condemns the tone of a recent profile piece in The Guardian as “racist”.
“The expectation that the only real Muslim is a scruffy Muslim, somebody who is inarticulate and angry, that’s the racism of low expectation and it usually comes from privately schooled, Oxbridge-educated Guardian journalists. They’re talking to me, someone from a state school, who has been homeless, divorced; witnessed torture; been arrested and profiled at airports; had DNA taken from him; had every so-called angry Muslim grievance these so-called leftists are on about, yet they have the audacity to speak to me about my credibility and Muslim experience?
“They’ve never had to face the barrel of a police gun pointed at the their head because they’ve been racially profiled. They’ve never had to dodge a hammer from a neo-Nazi or be guided by a torturer’s grip as he walks you through the torture dungeons of Egypt. Yet they sit there and talk to me as if somehow my Muslim experience is somehow less credible than their silver-spoon, privately educated understanding of what a Muslim should be and the mere fact that I’m not angry is what upsets them the most.
“They would be happier if I was sitting here, saying to you: ‘Of course this country deserves to be blown up. What do you expect?’ Then they say: ‘Good Muslim.’ That’s the real good Muslim/bad Muslim game. That’s the biggest form of hypocrisy — between the champagne socialists and the shisha jihadists.” He takes a deep breath, and laughs. “That all came from having no friends, didn’t it?”
Is it lonely? “It can be. The most painful part is when people I grew up with, from my Muslim community, don’t understand what I’m trying to do. The only way you can challenge bigotry is by being consistent against it.”
This week will be his son’s 15th birthday but Nawaz hasn’t seen him for two years. He says relations with the child’s mother, whom he married when he was 21 and they were both Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters, broke down after his release from prison — “I was no longer the Islamist activist she married.” Does he worry about the interpretations of Islam his son and other teenagers are being exposed to? “Every father worries about his son and hopes he turns out to be the best person.”
It is up to his son if he wants to make contact, he says. “All I know is he’s doing very well at school. He’s very smart. He needs to know that I’m here for him. Whenever he wants to make contact, I will receive him with open arms.”
He talks about missing his son and recalls an incident when he nearly broke down in public. At that moment, a boy ran across the street, shouting his name. “It was uncanny. He said: ‘You’re Maajid Nawaz, aren’t you?’ I said yes. He said: ‘Can I take a selfie? You’re such an inspiration. You allow Muslims like me to be who we are without worrying about judgment.’”
The boy said he was 15 and his name was Younis. “He has no idea what he did for me that day. That kid saved me. Being the same age as my son, he reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing. I hope he reads this. And I hope he sends me that picture.”
Younis, you heard it here first. Unless he’s a Guardian reader.
To view the original article published by The Times, please click here.
In conversation with headteacher Ibrahim Hewitt, Quilliam Chairman Maajid Nawaz appears on BBC’s Newsnight to discuss how best we can counter extremism in schools and what should or should not be taught to children.
Click here to watch the full episode on BBC iPlayer.
Maajid Nawaz joins David Dimbleby for BBC Question Time with Theresa Villiers, Vernon Coaker, John O’ Dowd, Ian Paisley Jnr and Peter Tatchell in Belfast. Watch here
RADICAL: MY JOURNEY FROM ISLAMIST TO EXTREMIST TO A DEMOCRATIC AWAKENING
Maajid Nawaz’s critically acclaimed autobiography is now available to pre order as an Ebook. Click image to order.
Maajid Nawaz talks to CNNs Anderson cooper about missed opportunities and how we can target the signs of radicalisation.
Watch Naajid Nawaz, Chairman of the Quilliam foundation talk about the signs of radicalisation on Anderson coopers 360 here
In his newly-published autobiography, “Radical: my journey from Islamist extremism to a democratic awakening”, Maajid Nawaz, chairman of the British counter-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation, recounts his transformation from being a member of an extremist party to founding one of the world’s first counter-extremism organisations.
Nawaz began as a member and leader in Hizb ut-Tahrir — a party calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate — then abandoned his radical ideas in an Egyptian prison before returning to Britain to combat the same ideology he had previously worked to spread.
Al-Shorfa spoke to Nawaz about his personal journey and his views on al-Qaeda, the Taliban and extremism. (more…)