Former Islamic radical Maajid Nawaz is fighting to end the scourge of identity politicsMaajid Nawaz
(News.com) – Sitting in a prison cell in Egypt, a young English-born Islamic radical, Maajid Nawaz, was able to think long and hard about his extremist values.
“My heart softened,” he said of the four years he spent as a political prisoner in the country he described as the birthplace of modern day jihadism.
“Not everyone reacted that way to the brutal conditions we were held in, but it did kind of lead to my own maturity so that by the time I was released, I found that I could no longer subscribe to the ideology,” he says.
A former member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, he and his fellow members sought the establishment of an Islamic caliphate by inciting military-led coups in Muslim nations.
He once travelled to Pakistan on a recruiting drive where he went looking to inspire other disenfranchised Muslims to join the cause. He remembers the aspirations of the Pakistani leaders of his group to create a nuclear caliphate — an idea he now refers to as “nonsense”.
Nearly a decade after his release, his work couldn’t be more different to his previous life.
Mr Nawaz now works as a counter-extremist — an old head who can help others avoid the path he once chose.
In his latest effort to do so, he co-authored what he’s calling a “dialogue” with neuroscientist and prominent atheist, Sam Harris. Published in October, Islam and the Future of Tolerance is an effort to promote reform and rational thought among those operating under the dogma of Islamic extremism.
For someone who has personally traversed the contours of the issue, he believes a quality debate is more important than ever.
“We are living in an incredibly polarised era. Political arguments are no longer about what makes sense, but more about defending one’s own position and defending one’s tribe’s position,” he tells news.com.au.
“In that atmosphere I think it’s tremendously important for a Muslim of my background to speak to one of the world’s best known atheists, Sam Harris, to try and build bridges. To try and demonstrate that a dialogue based on a desire for truth (that is) grounded in fact but couched in respect for the other person’s humanity is possible.
“It can be done, it must be done,” he says.
THE MAKING OF AN ISLAMIC RADICAL
Growing up in Essex, England, Nawaz faced countless instances of institutional racism in what he calls the “bad old days” of racism in the UK.
“I grew up facing really violent forms of racism … when I say violent I’m talking about stuff a 13-year-old should never have to witness. I’m talking about screwdriver attacks, machete attacks, hammer attacks to the head. My friends were held back before my eyes and stabbed just for being friends with me,” he recalls.
The prejudice and disenfranchisement he experienced at home one was on thing, but coupled with the Bosnian genocide — where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed and thousands of others expelled in Europe, it was enough to leave him looking for an alternative solution.
“Into that quagmire came extremist Islamist groups who were really able to pluck the low hanging fruit because by that stage we were already disenfranchised and disengaged from society,” he says. “We were angry, we wanted solutions, we really didn’t connect with mainstream society.”
It’s not just the grievances felt by those marginalised that create the conditions for extremism. “Three’s also the identity crisis that is borne of the grievances, then there’s the ideological narrative,” he says.
He believes there are four ingredients that go into the making of a radical: The personal grievances, the ensuing identity crisis, a charismatic recruiter who provides a sense of belonging and the ideological narrative to give the belief system a framework.
For Nawaz, each one played its part.
“As a naive and angry 16-year-old looking for black and white solutions to what were effectively black and white problems,” he says. A radical interpretation of Islam “really was a tempting narrative and I subscribed to it whole heartedly.”
Membership to the Hizb ut-Tahrir group was not illegal in the UK but it was outlawed in Egypt. At 24, Nawaz found himself snapped up by Egyptian authorities and sentenced to five years in prison for his political membership.
During the four years he spent imprisoned, he undertook what he likened to a second degree in Islamic culture. He debated topics of religion, politics and Islamic teachings with “the who’s who of Egypt’s jihadist scene.”
Through this process (which was aided by Amnesty International adopting his case as a prisoner of consciousness), his ideological disposition began a fundamental shift.
A FIGHT AGAINST IDENTITY POLITICS
Maajid Nawaz has a new fight on his hands. It’s a fight against the rising tide of identity politics: A rigid subscription to a political group, and corresponding position, that is informed by one’s race, gender or religious creed.
Much has been written about the current wave of identity politics that has washed over public debate. It’s the in-group/out-group bias created by identity politics which is most damaging to genuine progress and both the left and right are guilty, Nawaz says.
He views the relationship between the far right, the far left, and groups such as ISIS as a symbiotic one.
“They’re able to point to each other as evidence of their own paranoia,” Nawaz says. “That symbiosis leads to a downward spiral of identity politics.”
The 37-year-old is largely credited with coining the term “regressive left” which he labels as a faction most easily identified as the very far left that display a “suspension of progressive values due to the fetishisation of minority communities.”
“They suspend all judgment when it comes to Muslim communities because for ideological reasons they prioritise anti-racism over the progressive struggle within minority communities,” he says.
For him, it’s the same level of racism shown by far right actors who call for indiscriminate action against Muslims.
Like the regressive left, the rise of the populist far-right in Europe and its American embodiment in Donald Trump are equally damaging to the quality of public debate, he says.
What Trump has done by calling for a ban on Muslims is to “provide ammunition to extremists recruiters because that is exactly their narrative”.
“They are arguing that Muslims don’t have a home in the West which is why we need our own home in the caliphate,” Nawaz says.
“So when Trump says something that sounds like Muslims don’t have a home in the West it’s music to ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other extremist group’s ears because that’s exactly what they’re saying.”
In Australia, the call might not be as loud, but it’s certainly there. It only takes a quick google search to see hate pages online.
“I think it’s harmful. It is an attempt under which bigots and xenophobes can gather,” Sam Harris told news.com.au in October.
But he admits that a completely justifiable concern of what’s going on in the Muslim world can be “very difficult to separate from genuine bigotry.”
Which is part of the reason why Harris wanted to write his latest book with Nawaz.
“The problem is there’s only a handful of reasonable voices from the Muslim world I can point to who are making rational points,” Harris said. “Maajid is unique and indispensable. We need 10,000 more like him to speak honestly about the faith.”
Like Nawaz, Harris seeks to appeal to people’s shared humanity.
“When we start looking at each other in that way we’re able to connect to each other as human beings and have a human conversation. And that’s the way forward,” Nawaz says.
Maajid Nawaz will be speaking in Melbourne on January 29 and Sydney on January 30. He will also be appearing with Sam Harris in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in shows running from January 22-24.