These highlights were saved with the Kindle version of Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism by Maajid Nawaz.
Radical, as well as being a factual and candid account of my life thus far, is an act of diplomacy dressed in the disguise of storytelling.
Fusing faith with fury, I dedicated my entire youth to awakening what we called “the sleeping giant”—rousing the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims against the USA. My charge was halted only upon my 2002 incarceration in Egypt for inciting Egyptians against Hosni Mubarak’s US-allied dictatorial regime. I’d never wanted vengeance more than during those first few days following our arrest. I’d never felt more violent than those few days immediately after our torture. But mine was exactly the sort of mind, or more accurately the sort of heart, that America needs to hear from now. Radical addresses the reader in the voice of that young man, bringing the reader as close to his heart—across time and distance—as is possible through the medium of prose.
During our prison years Dr. Badee’ and I struck up a friendship. He told me that it was he who had originally smuggled Sayyid Qutb’s Islamist manifesto—Milestones—out from that very prison to the wider public in the early 1960s. Qutb was the founding father of modern-day, militant Islamism, otherwise known as Jihadism. Qutb was eventually executed by Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1966, but the Islamist ideology of Milestones outlasted the legacy of Nasser’s Pan-Arabism, going on to inspire hundreds of thousands of Islamists the world over. It directly inspired bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who used Milestones to form the philosophical foundations of al-Qaeda.
Hatred of “the other” thrives on myths and stereotypes. The sad reality is that Americans and Muslims mutually spread some of the crudest of these stereotypes, about each other and among each other. And even though the America-or-Islam juxtaposition is false, the peddlers of prejudice have no chance of gaining power unless they succeed in pushing it. It only benefits them to encourage this dichotomy.
I played my part in creating and spreading such prejudice. As an antidote of sorts I present Radical, an effort to recount the disenchantment that formed my early years and to retrace the steps I took to spread the very prejudice I claimed I was fighting. By following my voice as it develops, you will feel the pain and confusion as I grew into a committed Islamist revolutionary—in some cases you will even feel the anger. I think it’s important to feel, not merely know, why young Muslims like me—and there will be many more—choose this collision path.
Through the course of this story, the reader will find me on either side of this false juxtaposition. I have defended Islam as essentially a religion of peace in New York against Islam critic and women’s rights commentator Ayan Hirsi Ali,(Link) yet when asked to choose a side for an Oxford Union debate about the American dream, I decided to stand among a predictably anti-American European crowd in order to defend America.
Pharaohs were never defeated without blood and sacrifice, and the victories of the righteous have always extracted a heavy price.
Dallas has just launched the Presidential Center for Democracy, and I have just spoken at its inaugural conference. I was invited to discuss the role of social media in the recent uprisings in the Middle East—mass protests that set the region alight and shook decades of tyranny and repression. Naturally, the rest of the world is paying very close attention… It’s Egypt’s future that’s being deliberated; the Egyptians are advocating passionately for swift justice for the ousted dictator, Hosni Mubarak. For them, his trial and incarceration will herald a new dawn for Egypt.
“What is needed first and foremost is a constitution, followed by an election process, after which justice against Mubarak can be sought. If Egypt fails to define a constitution for itself at the outset, the first party to win an election will mold it in their own image. Justice cannot be arbitrary; it must be set in law.”
In 1947 the British decided to create two countries: India, which would have a majority of Hindus; and Pakistan—at that time West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)—in which the majority would be Muslim. This meant that vast numbers of people had to leave their homes and move across the new border to live: Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan. There was chaos and pandemonium.
Mob violence and mass murder ruled on the trains. Bloodthirsty hordes, hell-bent on revenge, were boarding the carriages and indiscriminately killing all Pakistan-bound commuters. Train after train would pull into the station in Pakistan, everyone on board dead. These were the ghost trains.
Growing up in the UK
New music is often popular for the very fact that earlier generations find it shocking: this was “our” music, misunderstood by others.
in 1993 Brand Nubian used the Muslim call to prayer “Allahu akbar” as a sample for one of their songs in their second album, In God We Trust. I absolutely loved it. I had little understanding at the time that most of these Black Nationalist rappers belonged to racist sects of Islam such as Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters. What mattered was that these sorts of endorsements from young, streetwise rappers made me rethink my identity. The faith I had inherited was no longer some backward village religion to be ashamed of or apologetic about. It had been re-branded as a form of resistance, as a self-affirming defiant identity. On the back of such groups, the black conversion rate to Islam was going through the roof.
I have lost count of the number of knife attacks we were subjected to by racists, many of my friends had been stabbed, but the police rarely managed to make any arrests and hardly ever pressed charges. The gangs would always boast about “contacts” in the police. I have no idea if this was true, but the bottom line is we were not protected.
Despite all the violence I’d been involved in, I had always had a justification for it in my teenage mind; it was all a form of escalating self-defense. I’d never bullied or picked a fight with a defenseless, unarmed person, and I wasn’t about to start now.
If you haven’t felt the fear and helplessness that violent, organized racism makes you feel, it’s difficult to understand. Due to the color of your skin, your entire body is a moving target. And you cannot leave your skin behind, or pretend it doesn’t exist. At any moment, hammer-wielding hooligans could use you for target practice. In such extreme circumstances, self-defense must be a sacred right; the “turn the other cheek” philosophy would have gotten our skulls crushed. The sad reality is that it’s difficult for different ethnic groups to rub along with each other.
Most young Britons of the Muslim faith were of South Asian origin, born and raised in crowded single-ethnicity British ghettos. Though tensions with non-Muslim communities did occur in these areas, part of the problem was a lack of contact with “the other.” As race began to take a backseat, and Afro-Caribbean communities began to enter the mainstream through popular music and culture, into these ghettos came war-torn Muslim North Africans, Arabs, and Somalis. A new generation of youth born in the ashes of conflict quickly found that they had one identity shared among them all: Islam.
The communities adopted a more isolationist stance, a policy of self-exclusion. For many, the nature of how they identified themselves was changing. So instead of calling themselves “British Asians” as my parents had done, this generation now defined themselves as almost exclusively Muslim. They believed that their allegiance to the global Islamic community, the ummah, prevented them from defining themselves as being part of their birth country.
Bosnia was particularly crucial in bringing about a shift in identity among Britain’s Muslims. In Bosnia, white, blond-haired, blue-eyed indigenous European Muslims were being massacred just because they were Muslim. The slaughter did the opposite of its intended effect. In reaction to these atrocities, Muslims in Europe began reasserting their religious identities even more. It was a natural defense mechanism. But it also exacerbated self-segregation and triggered the shift in our self-identity to politically Muslim.
Osman looked at me with a level of confidence in his eyes and told me what had happened: “I told him we’re Muslims and we don’t fear death. We’re like those Palestinian terrorists he sees on the television blowing up planes. We’re suicide bombers. We’ve been taught how to make bombs, and I’ve got one in my backpack. If you even try to make a move, I’ll set mine off. Trust me, I don’t give a shit. If we have to take ourselves out to take you out, then that’s what we will do.”
He looked at me and talked to me in a different way. He was no longer looking down on me. He was, in fact, scared. And that came from the assertive new identity Osman had adopted. Islamism. It had done what years of knife fights could not. It had won the psychological war and defeated our enemy. For the first time, I caught a glimpse of its power, and how it was capable of transforming my standing at a stroke… I realized Islamism could give me the respect that I’d craved since primary school.
These days I work to build an understanding of the mind-set that can make people so angry that they lose all empathy for others. I work to humanize even those who dehumanize others, so that the process of healing may begin.
It’s important to grasp how Islamism differs from Islam. Islam is a religion, and its Shari’ah can be compared to Talmudic or Canon law.
Simply defined, Islamism is the desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam over society as law. Understood in this way, Islamism is not another religious schism, but an ideological thought that seeks to develop a coherent political system that can house all these schisms, without necessarily doing away with them. Whereas disputes within Islam deal with a person’s approach to religion, Islamism seeks to deal with a person’s approach to society.
As a political project, Islamism was inspired by the rise of European fascism. Like its European ideological counterparts, Islamism was not safe from its own schisms. Some groups wanted to bring about the “Islamic System” by working alongside the status quo; these were political Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood. Others were more revolutionary, wishing to upturn the status quo.
Islamism is a total theory that encompasses politics, economics, societal affairs, and personal spiritual ones.
Islamism demanded no less of a root-and-branch overhaul of society. But because it was cloaked in religious garb, no one quite knew what to do with it, and people were desperate not to offend. There was confusion over whether to define our activism as a cultural identity, an ideology, or a faith. To top it off, Islamism went through a decade of being embraced by both the left and right wings. The default liberal position was to embrace the movement as part of multicultural sensitivity: to tell people to stop practicing their faith was imperialism in nineties clothing, a colonial hangover bordering on racism. Instead, we were embraced as a new generation of anti-colonial politicized youth. Curiously, the default position on the right was to embrace us too, because it had been the Afghan Mujahideen, backed by the CIA, who fought the Soviet Union. This was when Hollywood films such as Stallone’s Rambo III portrayed the Afghan Mujahideen as heroes.
Hizb al-Tahrir (HT)
My own journey into Islamism resulted in me joining a revolutionary group, known as Hizb al-Tahrir (HT). Sitting between political Islamists and the militants, HT aims to unify all Muslim-majority countries under an “Islamic state,” appropriating for it the term Caliphate, or Khilafah in Arabic. They hope to attain power by means of a military coup and seek to impose one version of Islam over society.
In 2000 HT would regularly hold rallies, and I quickly became one of the key speakers at these events. We held events outside the US Embassy and in Trafalgar Square, led marches and ran speaker events in Hyde Park. The rallies would regularly attract audiences of around three thousand people.
HT’s vision was to rise to power on either side of Afghanistan, in Pakistan and Uzbekistan, after which the Taliban would act as the bridge in building the first modern, nuclear-armed Islamist superstate.
In 1999 Pakistan successfully tested its first atomic bomb, becoming a member of that small group of countries that could boast nuclear weapons capability. For Hizb al-Tahrir, this meant that if it could infiltrate the Pakistani military and successfully instigate a coup, then “the Khilafah” could start as a global heavyweight. Overnight, our dream of a Muslim superstate felt that much closer.
Contrary to crude stereotypes, Pakistan is a truly diverse, rich, and cultured country. There is no single ethnicity called “Pakistani”; rather the country is made up of various languages and ethnicities, among them Punjabis, Baloch, Sindhis, Pashtuns, and Kashmiris.
The Bengalis of East Pakistan succeeded in gaining a majority of seats in the national parliament and wished to form a government. The Punjabi-dominated West refused to accept the results. Disaster struck in the form of civil war, and the Bengalis seceded from West Pakistan in 1971 to form modern-day Bangladesh.
Nasim knew that Osman and I were already quite anti-establishment. He knew that he needed to channel our energies from hip-hop and race issues to something more serious, more global. And he had just the thing to achieve this: the Islamist narrative. This was a powerful toxin and it resonated with us. Nasim argued that the suffering we had experienced in Southend, the attacks by Combat 18 and the discrimination we felt from the police, were not isolated incidents but part of a bigger picture. And we were deluded if we thought that it was just a race thing. Yes, race was a factor, but even if we solved that, Western society would never be satisfied with us.
Look at the right angle that separates Egypt and Sudan: is that a natural, historical boundary? These are the anachronisms of empire, still visible on the maps of today. Kuwait and Iraq were artificial entities. The West intervened to uphold these boundaries to reinforce its own set of colonial rules, not ours.
Throughout the region, there were agents of the West in charge, torturing the true Muslims to keep them from power: rulers like Mubarak in Egypt, the Shah of Iran before his fall in 1979, even Saddam Hussein had been the beneficiary of Western support for many years. The West talked of democracy and yet pumped millions into propping up these brutal dictators to keep the real force from coming to power: Islam. For HT, none of these regimes had legitimacy: their political authority was based on that of their current, neocolonial masters.
Always destroy before you build.
if you try to build on top of existing corrupt concepts, one day your ideas will fall like a stack of cards. In keeping with this, the circles first focused on a thorough critique of ideas such as freedom, human rights, and democracy.
There are fires being lit all over the place. You can get a bucket and try to put one out, or you can step back and look at the root cause of all this. If we had “the Khilafah,” our armies could stop such atrocities happening. This was the Hizb al-Tahrir message: what we needed was to work efficiently to control the mind-set of the military top brass in Muslim-majority countries in order to eventually establish a state.
Hizb al-Tahrir saw “the Khilafah,” a Muslim superstate, as the answer to all the injustice meted out to the Muslim populations of the world. It would sweep across all national boundaries; HT’s version of Islam would be the ruling philosophy. Apostates, adulterers, and minorities considered abhorrent, like homosexuals, would suffer the death sentence. Criminality would be met with tough justice; thieves would have their hands cut off. Rights such as free speech would be curtailed, because “God’s law” must trump all.
The thought process involved in leaving groups such as HT begins first at questioning an individual in authority, then the tactics, then the strategy, then the methodology, and then finally by questioning the ideology itself. This was probably the first, unrecognized seed that would lead to my eventual departure from the whole cause.
The most significant change in my life was the birth of my son, Ammar, which means “the one who will build great things.” We named him after the famous companion of the Prophet, loved by the Sunni and Shia—a son to the first martyrs of Islam, Yasir and Sumayyah, who were tortured to death by their slave master.
How easy it is for a victim to construct a narrative out of half-truths and inspire thousands in the name of righteous indignation.
What 9/11 did, by precipitating the NATO occupation of Afghanistan, was destroy this dream of a Central Asian “Khilafah” in one stroke. We had always been critical of Jihadism for being the wrong way to go about bringing about an “Islamic state,” and now we had been proven right.
Having been founded next door in Palestine, HT had been operating in and out of Egypt since the late 1960s. Taking advantage of Sadat’s Islamization policy, HT managed to gain critical mass and planned a coup in Egypt as early as 1974. The failed attempt led to the loss of many lives and the virtual obliteration of HT cells in Egypt.
Imprisonment in Egypt
The ghimamah, or blindfold, answered the question that the zaabit had ignored. I knew now that I was in the hands of Aman al-Dawlah. If they had been ordinary police, I’d have been starting down the civil jurisdiction route. I’d be processed and deported, my rights as a British citizen granting me some semblance of respect. Egypt, however, was a country with two parallel judicial systems; the second, the Emergency Law track, wasn’t bound by any rules. The ghimamah told me this. You don’t blindfold someone unless you’re taking them to a place that’s off the radar.
I thought of N.W.A, and “Fuck tha Police,” and my stomach turned as it struck me that only those with the luxury to speak could afford to be so defiant, and to get rich out of being so.
Our struggle would not be achieved without shedding blood. Sacrifice was an honor bestowed on a chosen few. I am thankful to Allah for this opportunity to be tested and counted as one of His true servants, for the chance to prove the depth of my eeman, my faith. Allah will never fail me: I must not fail Him in return.
I will never forget al-Gihaz. It is the sort of place that remains etched on your memory forever. The sort of place that still, a decade later, I can recall with disturbing clarity as it wakes me up in the night, slipping insidiously into my dreams. The piling of the bodies. The heat and cold. The begging screams from the torture room at the end of the corridor. The waiting. It’s the sort of place that when you first enter, you cannot quite believe it exists. Something from a film. But it’s real all right.
We were the first British political prisoners to be held in Egypt, and no one was quite sure what the rules of engagement were. In the post-9/11 world, it was unclear what was and wasn’t permissible.
Some prisoners had been detained for years, even decades, under Egypt’s Emergency Law, without so much as a charge. These were the mu’taqaleen. At the time of my arrest, 25,000 mu’taqaleen lined Egypt’s prison system, all political detainees.
I may have only been twenty-four years old, but from now on I would forever feel forty-two.
Mubarak’s Egypt was no great friend or ally. His state was built on the opposite of what the West was meant to hold most dear.
Sure enough, our actions reached the world’s media—TV, radio, print, and the rising Internet. The whole world was talking about the British political prisoners who claimed they had been tortured in Mubarak’s dungeons.
One of the brothers, Ahmed, described how his wife had been stripped and tortured before his eyes in order to force him to confess. Sadly his story was far from unique.
Mazrah Tora, where we would serve out the remainder of our sentence, was no ordinary prison. Originally built by the British in the days of the protectorate in order to hold political prisoners, it stayed ever true to its purpose. Over the years Mazrah Tora has held some of Islamism’s most well-known ideologues. This was the prison where Sayyid Qutb, the ideological godfather of modern-day Jihadism, was held. It was at Mazrah Tora that Qutb wrote his seminal Ma’alim fi al-Tariq or Milestones, which led to his execution in 1966, instantly turning him into a flame that would light the sky for thousands of future Islamists.
The manuscript for Milestones was smuggled out of this prison by Mohammed al-Badei, a young devotee of Qutb’s at the time and a member of Egypt’s largest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood… After Mubarak’s removal in 2011, the new Egypt is practically ruled by his group.
Two or three prisoners had recently died before us in custody; one was Hisham, my cell-neighbor for a while. Whenever that happened, we would take to banging our cell doors all night in mourning. It was a macabre and eerie spectacle: loud metal clanging would echo throughout the prison, punctured sometimes by wailing and cries of mourning, tempered other times by the murmured sounds of desperate prayer.
These years marked the height of Bush’s War on Terror: the Iraq War was unfolding during my incarceration, and the West needed Mubarak’s support. Indeed, Prime Minister Tony Blair had accepted a succession of free holidays from Mubarak at the exclusive Sharm el-Sheikh resort while we Britons were tortured in Mubarak’s jails.
The studies, conversations, and experiences I gained in Mazrah Tora, over months and years, were crucial in overcoming my dogmatic allegiance to the Islamist ideology. Having entered prison as an extremely idealistic twenty-four-year-old, full of rage against society, and having nothing else to do but study over the course of four years, I came to reevaluate everything I stood for.
Leaving Hizb al-Tahrir (HT)
Each time, it had been me who had gone forward, sacrificed everything for the cause: in Pakistan, my degree and educational future, and in Egypt my body, yet each time there were idle hawks hounding me due to their own personal insecurities. This didn’t challenge my faith in Islam, or initially my belief in the Islamist ideology, but it did make me question the capability, tactics, and strategy of these figures. This, I believe, is the beginning of the process of leaving an ideological movement, for those brave enough to see their thinking through to its logical conclusion.
Any prisoner held solely for the nonviolent expression of their beliefs has an unconditional right to our support as a fellow human being. However, not every former prisoner should be automatically hailed as a champion of human rights and placed on platforms as a spokesperson for human-rights causes. I will campaign against anyone who would want to torture Mubarak, for he remains a human being, but I would never extend to any one of the Mubarak regime’s men a human-rights platform from which to address an impressionable crowd of students. He may have been mistreated after the uprising, but he is not now some great champion of human rights. A human-rights platform, by virtue of what it is, must necessarily have a stricter tolerance threshold.
It was the unconditional nature of Amnesty’s support that humbled me: you’re a human being, so you deserve our support. There was something very powerful and very pure about that premise. Like many ideologies, Islamism derives part of its power from its dehumanization of “the other.” It is easier to dismiss and do things to “the other” if you consider them as unworthy: the Nazis and the Jews; the jihadists and the infidels. Throughout my teenage and young adult life, I had been dehumanized by others and desensitized to violence. As I got sucked into the Islamist ideology, I in turn began to dehumanize others.
I went back to look at what Islamists held as the last true example of legitimate government: the Turkish Caliphate or Ottoman Empire. Again, history was telling me a rather different story than HT had. This Caliphate never had the sort of unitary codified legal system that HT was proposing to “implement,” with the shari’ah as law. Instead, justice was run under what was called the “Millet” system—a pluralistic legal structure where the interpretation of shari’ah was left to local community tribunals. These would hear evidence and interpret shari’ah as they saw fit. There was not even any law obliging people to go to these tribunals—it was a voluntary decision. The Ottomans offered general edicts on administrative matters, but these were different from any sort of legal system.
The idea of a unified, codified legal system, and of having a judiciary subservient to that legal system, and of having a constitution that frames this legal system, and a state that protects that constitution by monopolizing the use of force, all of these concepts emerged with the birth of the European nation state.
Throughout almost all of Islam’s history, a single interpretation of shari’ah was never adopted and enforced over society as a codified system of law. In fact, unlike in its English rendition “Sharia Law,” where we use shari’ah as an adjective describing the noun “law,” in original Arabic shari’ah is simply a noun. The specific “adoption” of an interpretation of shari’ah as law by a ruler was not religiously mandatory, and it didn’t happen in history.
Rather than justice—legal consistency—being derived from Islamism, Islamism relied on Western concepts of justice to get off the ground. I buried my head in my hands as I slowly realized: we Islamists were the bastard children of colonialism.
I’d only joined HT because of the fire that injustice had lit inside me. And as I started to decouple justice from Islamism in my mind, it was the beginning of the end of my belief in Islamism. If justice and Islamism were separated, then not only was it possible to have one without the other, it also meant that there were situations where the two might come into conflict.
Put aside cruelty, put aside violence, even put aside murder for a moment, and consider justice. Justice, if it means anything, must mean to adhere to your own confessed principles. If you claim to stand for the rule of law and democracy, then stick to what you claim and be judged by it. If you claim to stand for death, and violent revolution, and armed struggle, then stick to what you claim, and be judged by it.
Four years had passed since our ordeal in al-Gihaz, but Aman al-Dawlah had not changed. They were still practicing the systematic use of torture as their default interrogation device. Except this time with a sickening, macabre twist. Penetrating through wild screams of agony, we could hear the clear, distinct, rhythmic sound of the guards listening to a recorded recitation of the Qur’an as they tortured people. Such a flagrantly sacrilegious display could also be a twisted psychological trick—to say to the Islamist detainees, your faith won’t help you here. Or perhaps in some sort of sociopathic way, they thought they were doing God’s work.
I gave many talks for HT, spoke at rallies of thousands, and even shared a platform twice with “Napoleon,” a member of the Outlawz, rapper Tupac Shakur’s former group. After Tupac’s death “Napoleon” had become a hard-core Salafi, disrespectfully declaring to all that Tupac was now burning in the fires of hell.
Wives had been stripped bare, tortured in front of husbands. Children had been electrocuted. People would occasionally drop dead in our prison, succumbing to wounds from torture. Thousands of men had been interned for over fifteen years without charge. From those interned, some had in desperation doused themselves in kerosene to set themselves on fire. I witnessed this all. Yet Egypt was the second-largest recipient of American aid, and an ally.
I watched as our ideology gained acceptance and we were granted airtime as Muslim political commentators. I watched as we were ignorantly pandered to by well-meaning liberals and ideologically driven leftists. How we Islamists laughed at their naïveté.
Critique of Islam
After learning in prison that Islamism was not the religion of Islam, but rather a political ideology dressed up as Islam, I no longer felt guilty for criticizing a political system inspired by modern European constructs, justified by seventh-century norms. And despite what was holding me back, my desire for justice spurred me on. Ever since I had been a child, I had found unfairness, injustice, and oppression intolerable. I now saw how we had used these grievances as a means of perpetrating our own injustice, not only against non-Muslims but against other Muslims too.
What did the invasion and occupation of lands have to do with enforcing dress codes upon Muslims? Why should the solution to secular Arab dictators be Islamist Arab dictators? Why did foreign intervention mean that we needed to silence critical thinking and open debate by labeling it as heresy and blasphemy? In reaction to our own insecurities about our identity and position in the world, we—not anyone else but us—had become the real obstacle to progress for our own people.
Communalist identity politics, self-segregation, and groupthink are far more damaging to societies in the long run than the odd bomb going off here or there; it is such a milieu that keeps breeding bomb-makers. It’s odd that Hizb al-Tahrir in Arabic means the Liberation Party. We had hijacked the minds of the Muslim masses, and those minds needed to be liberated.
Most Muslims are not Islamists; yet the organized minority dominates the discourse. Islamism had been creeping upon Muslims for over eighty years now, and little had been organized to directly challenge it.
Islamophobes and Islamists have this much in common: both groups insist that Islam is a totalitarian political ideology at odds with liberal democracy, and hence both insist that the two will inevitably clash. One extreme calls for the Qur’an to be banned, the other calls to ban everything but the Qur’an. Together, they form the negative and the positive of a bomb fuse.
I’m talking about enshrining absolute freedoms, human rights, a respect for individual liberty, women’s rights, and reconciling modern scientific facts with Islamic interpretation.
Let’s start it all with a think tank, to lay the seeds for this idea globally, and let’s call it after the Englishman who opened England’s first mosque, to make the point that Islam doesn’t always have to clash with society. His name was William Quilliam!” And so it was, in that old Renault Clio, parked somewhere on Russell Square in London, the idea for Quilliam was born.
Quilliam was to be the world’s first counter-extremism hub for activism. We would create a platform from which we could directly challenge the dominant discourse of Islamism. We would speak, debate, lobby, brief, mobilize, galvanize, write, publish, and organize in order to spread a counternarrative to Islamism, hoping to inspire the mushrooming of our cause anywhere and everywhere.
Among Muslim communities across the UK, my name was dragged through the dirt. Ed and I were both targeted in a highly personal and organized smear campaign. Where Islamist rappers had once sampled my voice on their songs, their supporters were now declaring me an apostate. Such declarations are a necessary prelude for any attempt on a Muslim’s life to be “legal.” Islamist teams of agitators toured the UK with information packs about why my colleagues and I were heretics.
David Cameron then asked what I thought should be done about Hizb al-Tahrir.
Cameron was also interested in an idea that I had been espousing about the comparison between extremism and racism. I had argued that the two should be analogous in terms of public response. Why should extremist views, which went against basic liberties, be any more acceptable than racist or homophobic ones? I told Cameron that he shouldn’t be afraid to criticize Muslims who were putting forward extremist views in the name of faith. Those views were not the same as religious piety. Finally, we spoke about the Arab world. I stressed that the old dichotomy pitting dictatorships against Islamism had to be abandoned or else extremism would be the inevitable outcome.
Since the US invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s troubles with extremism had gone from bad to worse. The Taliban had taken over vast swaths of the country in the north, suicide bombings were a daily occurrence, and the Islamist ideology was fast overtaking its rivals in gaining the attention of the country’s youth. This sad state of affairs is best exemplified by the ruthless assassination of Punjab’s governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011, followed shortly after by the killing of minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti. Thousands of people came out onto the streets in celebration of Salmaan Taseer’s murder, merely because he dared to suggest reform to the country’s colonial-era blasphemy laws. As a final crippling wound, Salmaan Taseer’s son was kidnapped by Islamist extremists seeking to exchange him for his father’s convicted assassin. The true depth of Pakistan’s problem finally began to be witnessed by all.
We founded “Khudi” Pakistan: a Muslim Brotherhood equivalent for democratic culture. I launched the idea from one of the world’s most prestigious global platforms for thought leaders, TEDGlobal in Edinburgh.
Democracy is more than just an electoral process: it’s about the culture associated with it. Without freedom of belief one cannot set up whichever party one so chooses. Without freedom of association one cannot join that party. Without freedom of speech, one cannot campaign for that party. Without human rights one cannot run opposition parties without fear of imprisonment. Democracy must, by necessity, be more than just elections. These ideas need to be embedded within any democracy for it to function properly: there needs to be a democratic culture to tie everything together.
Khudi is an Urdu word originating from Persia. Used in the poetry of the famous South Asian poet Allama Iqbal and popularized by Pakistan’s first major celebrity rock band, Junoon, the word roughly translates as self-empowerment or self-esteem. Using Islamist tactics again, I designed Khudi, ironically like al-Qaeda, to be an umbrella organization, under which existing groups and campaigners could coalesce and pool resources.