Former Islamist extremists address the global war on terrorism


On Tuesday September 16, the National Security Law Association gave Harvard students the unique opportunity to peer into the minds of former Islamic extremists. Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain spoke about their distinct journeys, from growing up in England to serving as leaders of Hizb ut-Tahrir and, finally, to heading up Britain’s first counter-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, or the Liberation Party, is an international anti-nationalist party, focused on establishing a united Islamic state under the rule of Sharia law. After overthrowing all Muslim governments, Hizb ut-Tahrir would replace leaders with a worldwide caliphate.

By contrast, the Quilliam Foundation, named for Abdullah William Quilliam, an English convert to Islam who founded Britain’s first mosque, upholds Islam as “a pluralistic, diverse tradition that can heal the pathology of Islamist extremism,” rejecting Jihadism and extremism as deviant readings of Islamic tradition. The Foundation consults with international leaders and policy-makers to heighten the understanding what contributes to extremism and how to fully integrate Muslims into society, countering the separatism and separation of Islamists.

After introducing himself, Husain and the Quilliam Foundation, Nawaz described his reaction to visiting Ground Zero in New York earlier this week. When the Twin Towers originally fell, Nawaz felt indifferent to the tragedy. “I wasn’t overjoyed,” he said. “But I was unable to feel any sympathy for those I thought had hurt my people.”

With the passage of time and his first trip to New York, however, Nawaz’s attitudes towards 9/11 changed. “I went to pay tribute to those innocent lives lost,” he explained. “Being there reminded me of who I was in the past. My feelings at Ground Zero were completely opposite that of a few years ago.”

Growing up in Essex, England, Nawaz faced violent racism from an early age. He described attacks by members of Combat 18, a British neo-Nazi group. “My non-Muslim white friends were stabbed just for being associated with me,” he recalled.

A false arrest at gunpoint at age 15 compounded his sense of frustration. Held overnight with his 16-year old brother, Nawaz was later told by police that he and his brother had done nothing wrong. Such experiences, coupled with the on-going massacre of Bosnian Muslims, left him feeling lost, unable to relate to either his peers or to the community’s religious leaders who came from small villages in Pakistan and barely spoke English.

“I had a crisis of both identity and faith. Was I British? Pakistani? Muslim? Something else entirely?”

Wondering where to turn, Nawaz met a medical student who had returned from London with radical ideas and introduced Hizb ut-Tahrir. Nawaz quickly joined, finding direction in the movement.

“We weren’t English. We weren’t Pakistani, which was just a product of colonialism. We were instructed to shed false identities and hold allegiance to no one other than Muslims. I lapped this up and adopted this identity.”

At Newham College Nawaz first met fellow student, Ed Husain, and together they took over the Students’ Union, bringing it under the control of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The murder of a non-Muslim student resulted in the expulsion of the entire Students’ Union. While these events prompted Husain to renounce Hizb ut-Tahrir, Nawaz continued his work with fervor. After stints spreading the organization to Pakistan and Denmark, he wound up in an Egyptian prison. There he was exposed to non-Muslims and to non-extremist Muslims, and adopted as a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International, and he began questioning his affiliation. After his release, Nawaz learned that he would be promoted to leader of the UK branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir. After thirteen years, that news finally prompted Nawaz to resign.

While shorter, Husain’s membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir was no less intense. Born in London, Husain wrote The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left, for which he was short-listed for the Orwell Prize, Britain’s major political writing award. Describing his youth, Husain pointed to the causes of his own radicalization.

“Our hearts were not with mainstream Britain,” he said. “We were born and raised in multi-cultural ghettos.”

Referring the July 7, 2005, London bombings, Husain continued, “The events of 7/7 woke us up, and white England also woke up. There was a knee-jerk response to what needed to be done.”

Husain worries that agendas are divided along lines of political correctness, divisions that he sees as impeding open dialogue. “These are issues of global importance,” he said. “I am an academic, but the situation in England is so dire, we can’t just sit in our libraries looking at footnotes.” Husain worries that there still has not been a strong Muslim response to counter extremist conceptions of taqfir and ummah.

Taking audience questions, the two explained the practical impact of the way in which Western countries treat terrorism offenses in an exceptional way, including tactics such as profiling and detention without cause. “We need effective laws that do not effect our hard term liberties,” Nawaz said. “Civil society needs to be trained in what radicalization means.”

Asked how the success of their efforts might be measured, Husain explained, “If the dark side was not upset with us, we’d been doing something wrong.”

Nawaz and Husain delineated the differences between European and American societies which heighten radicalization in the former and lessen it in the latter. Noting factors that make it easier Muslims to integrate into American society, Husain pointed to differences in secularism. “Muslims feel at ease in a society where God isn’t shoved under the carpet.”

In closing, Nawaz warned against measures may increase U.S. extremism. “The rule of law is vital,” he said. “Gitmo and other measures that have been taken must be looked at critically. Somehow that chapter needs to be closed so people feel that everyone is equal before the law.”

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