Around the Institute

Former Islamist Extremist on How to Deal with Fundamentalism

December 8, 2015  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

*This article was originally published on the Aspen Ideas Festival website.

The Paris terrorist attacks, carried out by several European Union citizens, and the mass shooting in San Bernardino have once again placed sharp focus on the issue of Western-bred jihadists. Maajid Nawaz, author of “Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism,” shed some light on the problem when he shared his own personal radicalization story at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival.

Born and raised in Essex, England, Nawaz said he was, like many of his peers, the victim of “Paki-bashing” since he was a young boy. By age 15, he had seen friends stabbed and been falsely arrested more than once. But he did not begin to identify as a Muslim until he learned about the genocide of Bosnian Muslims, and a friend convinced him there was a global war against Muslims.

“This simplistic black and white world view suited a young, angry 16-year-old teenager faced with very black and white problems, who saw genocide across the continent and who was being hunted on the streets of his own hometown,” Nawaz told the Aspen audience. 

Nawaz joined an extremist Islamist group whose mission was to popularize the idea of a Muslim caliphate. He moved to London for college, where he recruited and radicalized young Muslims, then, after being expelled for his connection to a Muslim student who killed a non-Muslim student, was urged to go to Pakistan to establish a chapter there (and learned Urdu for the first time). He founded another extremist chapter in Denmark before being sent to Egypt, where his recruitment activities eventually landed him in jail. Threatened with torture and rape, he was placed in solitary confinement for four months, during which time he resolved to join a jihadi organization — meaning that after years of spreading Islamist ideology, he was prepared to turn to violence.

“Solitary confinement can do many things to one’s mind, and it’s not helpful when you’re having violent thoughts,” he said.

But during the course of his five-year prison sentence, while he was living among “the golden hall of fame of jihadists,” as he called them, Nawaz also chose to enrich his mind, studying his religion from the original Arabic texts, studying English literature, even reading all the Harry Potter books to try to understand the world. Meanwhile, Amnesty International was lobbying for his and his fellow prisoners’ release, arguing that they were prisoners of conscience. While it didn’t work — the group served their full sentences — it was the first time Nawaz had experienced anything other than violence, “and it had an impact on my heart.” 

Upon his release, Nawaz decided “to give life another chance,” he said. He reconciled with his family, his social circle, and his conscience. Realizing that if an Islamic caliphate ever became a reality, it would be “hell on earth,” he formally quit the Islamist group and has dedicated his energies from 2007 onward to challenge the concept of a theocratic caliphate as any kind of solution.

With that in mind, he and other former Islamists founded Quilliam, a think tank that “began the civil society pushback to Islamist ideology,” he said. And while Nawaz has thoughts on how US and UK policies need to change to better address homegrown extremism, the role of civil society cannot be underestimated.

In the same way you don’t have to be African American to challenge racism or gay to challenge homophobia, “with the rise of theocratic fascism, everyone has a role, whether it’s the media or politicians or military personnel,” said Nawaz. “When civil society struggles, there needs to be a full-spectrum response. All of us have a role in challenging these [extremist] ideas, and of course we must also challenge Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred.”

In this excerpt from his talk, Nawaz explains further his thoughts on how to deal with Islamic fundamentalism.

View the full session here. Listen to Nawaz’s talk on the Aspen Ideas To Go podcast on iTunes or on SoundCloud.