Maajid Nawaz: The Repentant Radical

Maajid Nawaz
THEN: Nawaz (left photo, arm raised) wanted the creation of a vast nuclear-armed caliphate. NOW: He is the poster boy for the fight against extremism Photos: Khaled el Fiqi / EPA (left); Ivor Prickett / Panos for Newsweek

The rag that the guards tied around his eyes stank of the fear and the sweat of other prisoners, and when the Egyptian secret police took off his metal handcuffs and tied his hands behind his back with another filthy strip of cloth, Maajid Nawaz knew he was about to descend into hell:

"Official procedures, like the handcuffs, were being left at the door." Whatever happened to him would be off the books.

So began four grim years in Egyptian torture cells and a desert prison for this young British radical dedicated to the destruction of existing regimes in the Muslim world and the creation of a new global order based on a vision of Islam. As a member of the international organization called Hizb ut-Tahrir, Nawaz wanted to create a vast caliphate ruled by Muslim law. It would be armed, he hoped, with nuclear weapons. He saw the "clash of civilizations" from the other side, and from the inside, which is why it's so important to listen to him now.

Nawaz had arrived in Egypt the day before Sept. 11, 2001. He'd played no part in that. But when he heard the news of what had happened in New York and Washington, he was happy. He remembers wanting to say to the Americans, "Don't you think we've been crying too, like you are now, for years? Do you think we felt no pain as you raped and plundered our lands, and bombed our cities?" That is the way he saw things back then.

Yet, as you look at Nawaz today—34 years old with distinguished threads of gray in his hair, telegenic, urbane, and a sought-after star at international conferences—the image is hard to square with the young radical of 2002. We are having lunch in a five-star hotel in Central London, and he's taking epicurean pleasure in every bite, savoring his celeriac soup, and noting that he always enjoys the bread in this particular restaurant. ("You have a lot of Arabs and Pakistanis who come here," he confides, "and also a lot of people from the State Department.") Every so often, Nawaz texts someone on his iPhone with an expression of such delight it's obvious he's in love, although he doesn't want to reveal any details because he doesn't want to put anyone else in danger. We are a long way from the Egyptian prisons, and apparently a long way from the Maajid Nawaz that used to be. Now he is a poster boy for the fight against extremism, and always has in the back of his mind that he and those close to him could be targets for assassination by some of his former friends and fellow travelers.

Right now, Nawaz is worried that al-Qaeda is once again on a roll, despite the success the Obama administration has had blowing up the organization's leaders in Pakistan and Yemen. The attack by a group of al Qaeda wannabes on an American consulate in Libya last month that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans is just one example. "It's too early to say al-Qaeda has recovered," Nawaz told me, "but they are damn well trying." And there has been a tendency by the American administration to downplay the threat. When U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, that was President Obama's "Mission Accomplished moment," says Nawaz, and there's an understandable but dangerous reluctance to acknowledge portentous developments since.

"Al Qaeda is desperately seeking to achieve a resurgence, exploiting the security vacuum left over from the Arab uprisings," says Nawaz, drawing on information compiled by the Quilliam Foundation, the think tank he cofounded in Britain. Bin Laden's successor, the Egyptian ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the other remaining leaders of the old al-Qaeda are working with a loose collections of affiliates and new aspirants, says Nawaz, "trying to create a secure zone in the Sahel from west to east," in the desert and semidesert landscapes that stretch across northern Africa from Nigeria to Somalia, and beyond. "We believe that al-Qaeda has an official strategy of trying to relocate their bases from Pakistan to that region," says Nawaz.

In the past, al Qaeda never controlled territory. Even in Afghanistan, the Taliban were the landlords and Osama and his fighters were just guests. The same, with variations, is true in Pakistan. But now al-Qaeda affiliates "have control of physical territory they never had before," says Nawaz. They have taken over more than half of Mali, they control towns and villages in Yemen, and they are even working to set up "liberated" areas in Syria—although as of yet they are only a tiny minority among the rebels fighting the Assad regime there.

As Nawaz savors a piece of delicately steamed fish, I point out that the violence al Qaeda has been able to muster recently is still far from the kind of concerted attacks that inflicted shock and awe on Westerners early in the last decade. A militia attack on a poorly defended consulate and nearby compound is hardly 9/11 or, for that matter, Bali in 2002 or Madrid in 2004 or London in 2005, when masses of Americans and Europeans were hit where they worked, played, and traveled.

Tora prison
“You know what we do to people like you, don’t you?” a guard told him. Nawaz spent years in Egypt’s notorious Tora prison. Roger Anis

"Yes," says Nawaz, "but what's starting again is the blowback." Young Muslims from Britain and elsewhere in Europe are being attracted to the internationalist brigades of al Qaeda in Syria much as they were once attracted to the fights in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Iraq. One kidnapping victim in Syria reported hearing South London accents among his captors. "They go to Syria, they see the atrocities, they see babies with their throats slit, they become totally desensitized to violence, and they come back with all that, and with enhanced prestige on the street because they've been to the wars." These are the fighters who really worry Western intelligence and security officials. They move easily between cultures and across borders—almost as easily as Nawaz—and few people understand them better than he does, because he lived for so long in their worlds and shared the experiences that shaped them.

On a weekday afternoon, I take the long ride on the Underground from central London to East Ham and West Ham, where Nawaz worked as a radical student agitator for the revolutionary movement Hizb ut-Tahrir in the mid 1990s. On long stretches of High Street, the only things that look English are the red bricks of the crumbling old buildings. The air carries the scent of grilled meat and curry spices. The signs are a mix of languages: the Bank of India is across the street from the restaurant "Lahore Lahore Eh." Faces pass in a kaleidoscopic rush of browns and blacks. Some old men wear beards and skullcaps and robes, affecting the dress of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Young men wear ball caps and Dr. Beat headphones. Girls cruise out of Newham College with colorful veils wrapping their faces and piled high on their heads, and dresses that mold to their bodies; or pony-tails, bare midriffs, and high-heeled boots. Transience is the norm, and the plate-glass window of a small grocery is plastered with handwritten notes offering rooms for rent by the week or to share by the month. There is always someone, it seems, looking them over, making a note.

"There were more Pakistanis in the early 1990s," says Nawaz. That was when he got himself elected as the president of the student body at Newham. That was when he helped provoke a knife fight with West Indians that ended with one man lying dead on the ground and one of Nawaz's acolytes in prison for murder.

Nawaz had not started life in such a rough environment. His hardworking Pakistani-born parents had settled in the relatively quiet, and relatively white, seaside community of Southend in Essex. But he traces the beginning of his radicalization to schoolyard humiliations there because of his dark skin. He was black, even if he was Pakistani. He was going out with white girls and he was hated by the skinheads in town, who once tried to kill him before a passing Good Samaritan intervened—and got a skinhead blade in the gut.

This Pakistani-British kid Maajid Nawaz started identifying with hip-hop groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A, moving from "F--k tha police" to "F--k all y'all," from "rebellious rap to political rap to political activism," as Nawaz puts it, and then to Islam—or, rather—Islamism. And if that sounds like an odd transition, it's not. "I am no longer—I never was—-devout," says Nawaz. The movement that attracted him was "a political revolution with religious connotations rather than a religious one with political ones." The point for many young jihadists, driven by testosterone and the hunger for a certain kind of fame, is not so much to worship Allah, but, yeah, to f--k all y'all.

The organization Nawaz joined, Hizb ut-Tahrir, has a long record of revolutionary agitation across the Muslim world. HT is doctrinally opposed to terrorism, but only because bombings are deemed to have less strategic value than military coups. Nawaz started recruiting students in Britain, then he moved on to military officers in Pakistan, and was aiming to do the same thing in Egypt.

That's when the secret police of President Hosni Mubarak picked him up in 2002. One by one, 41 fellow prisoners were pinned naked to the floor of the Egyptian state-security headquarters with crackling electric wires connected to their teeth and genitals, but not Nawaz, who was No. 42. Maybe they were saving him for some sexual abuse: there were hints of that in overheard conversations. They said he had a pretty face and it would be a shame to ruin it. "You know what we do to people like you, don't you?" a guard told him. Finally, he and four other Britons in the prison were taken out of that hellhole after a phone call that most likely relayed a message from authorities in London. But they still stood trial in Egypt. They still did years of hard time in an infamous desert prison.

Egyptian demonstrators hold up an Osama bin Laden poster during a recent anti-American protest. Amanda Mustard / MCT-Zuma-Newscom

Only in quiet conversation, or in occasional brief passages in his autobiography, Radical: My Journey From Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening, do you discover the spiritual side of Nawaz. He has had so many close calls with horror, and yet he's always been spared the worst of the worst of it. "Was Allah saving me for something else?" he asks himself in his book. And honestly, as his critics and even his friends attest, Nawaz's ego is so enormous that he does sometimes act as if he's been anointed. "So," I ask him over the phone one day, "are you on a mission from God?" "Please don't use those words," he tells me. The whole notion is too fraught and, in its way, too misleading. "When it comes to religion, you know people ascribe to religion things and events and causes they don't fully understand," he says, "and that's probably what I'm doing here. But I have no other recourse because there are so many things that should have happened to me but didn't," says Nawaz.

What started to turn Nawaz away from the path of jihad was not the punishment of incarceration, but the education he found at the hands of other prisoners in Egypt who were older, wiser, worldlier men. Ayman Nour, jailed after he ran against Mubarak for the Egyptian presidency in 2005, told Nawaz that he, too, once sympathized with HT. Nawaz says that when he asked Nour why he had changed, Nour answered, "I grew up."

There was also the accumulated kindness of strangers, which the young firebrand found hard to compute, especially the Amnesty International campaign to win his release along with the other Britons imprisoned in Egypt, which was led by an octogenarian in England whom Nawaz had never met.

Nawaz's own reading of the Quran and of history taught him that the Islamists' core argument about the need to impose Islamic law far and wide in a revival of the caliphate, last seen under the decrepit rule of the Ottomans more than a century ago, was essentially specious: a grafting of 1920s fascism onto a romanticized, even fantasized vision of a distant past. "The idea that an interpretation of Islam must be imposed as state law now seemed to me un-Islamic, counterproductive, and anathema to what was fundamentally just," he writes. "This stifling, totalitarian victimhood ideology had taken the responsibility for reform away from our people, by simply finding satisfaction in blaming everyone else for their ills."

After Nawaz was released from prison in Egypt, his ideological guilt spilled over into his personal life. He had married another member of HT, who had stood by him—and whose urgent call to a British diplomat the night of Nawaz's arrest may well have spared him from torture. She had raised their son alone while he was in jail. But after he was free he found that his wife was still in the embrace of the dogma that had brought them together, and he just didn't buy it anymore.

Then, while studying seriously at last to get his degree in London, Nawaz met a graduate student, a woman who was "proudly Pakistani, proudly female," and who called his bluff when he tried to impress her with his old Quranic exegeses. "I may not be able to argue with you or respond to your points," she said, "but I know what you are saying is simply bulls--t. And you know what, Maajid? So do you!"

"And that was it," he remembers. The jihadist blindfold that he had put on himself long before he entered the Egyptian prison was removed at last.

Nawaz's long path through the shadows of Islamic radicalism suggests that many others may yet be persuaded to abandon their belief in violent jihad. It is not a matter of faith. At the heart of the process is reason. Many of the brightest and most dangerous jihadis are perfectly rational. De-radicalization begins by understanding the logic they think is unassailable, then breaking it down until they have to start rethinking what they are fighting for and why. But that's hard to do when there is so much righteous intolerance to be had on every side of the debate.

Today, Nawaz speaks out about a wide range of subjects, and not just the various al Qaeda conspiracies. He criticizes both Islamists and Islamophobes, who are feeding off each other's hateful clichés in a relentless, bloody-minded, and sometimes bloody frenzy. At a time when revolutions and counterrevolutions are convulsing the Arab world, when Islamic radicalism and crypto-fascist bigotry are competing plagues in Europe, and when anti-Muslim paranoia still colors the political debate in the United States, Nawaz has staked out a vital but treacherous middle ground. He wants to lead a radical movement for democratic values.

In Pakistan, one of the most troubled countries in the world of Islam, Nawaz is organizing an uphill battle to promote the radical idea of real democracy through an organization called Khudi.

And because Nawaz's message, or parts of it, fit what various politicians want to hear, he sometimes finds himself in strange company. He was arrested in Egypt 10 years ago during George W. Bush's Global War on Terror. And he was a victim, without question, of America's brutal collaboration with the Egyptian dictator Mubarak. But just last year, Bush invited Nawaz to a lunch in Texas to talk about the Arab Spring that had brought Mubarak down.

British officials floated the idea of hiring Nawaz as an adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron. And the Quilliam think tank Nawaz cofounded in 2008 survived for a time on funds arranged by Britain's Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. (It now receives no government funding, he says.) Nawaz is an active member of the British Liberal Democratic Party, and it wouldn't be surprising if he were to run for a seat in Parliament in the next few years. Perhaps some day he'll be called the Right Honorable Mr. Nawaz.

In his life, stranger things have happened.