Maajid Nawaz was in thrall to extremist group Hizb al-Tahrir, a path that led to torture in an Egyptian jail. In this extract from his forthcoming book, Radical, he describes how he was recruited to the Islamist cause
HIDEOUS HINDUS Massacre Muslims’ was the rather offensive title of the leaflet. I still remember that title. That one leaflet has changed the course of my life in ways probably unthinkable for its anonymous author. It laid bare the behaviour of the Hindu extremists in what was a shocking and deeply inflammatory episode. At this point in his life, Osman, spurred on by the likes of Public Enemy’s Professor Griff, had taken an interest in politics. He followed the ‘Intifada’ that had been going on against the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and the role of Yasser Arafat’s PLO. This struggle for Palestinian liberation, and the crushing Israeli response, complete with tacit American support, had long been a running sore in international relations. In the context of my story and so many others, it was undoubtedly a factor that justified the Islamist narrative of victimhood. The conflict, and the accompanying Western insouciance, came across as manifestly wrong. Identifying with the resistance movement was an easy thing to do. It reinforced what we were experiencing on the streets of Southend: it was Muslims who were on the receiving end of things, and the state didn’t care. It was another element in pushing my identity away from being British or Pakistani, and toward defining myself as exclusively politically Muslim. The Intifada had been going on since 1987, so by the early 1990s it wasn’t anything new. Like the regular racist attacks, the stories on the news from Gaza and the West Bank were just part of the status quo: this was how it was. The reason it caught Osman’s attention was the first Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and combined United Nations forces removed him. Saddam Hussein, albeit a brutal tyrant, was a champion of the Palestinian cause and his provocation of Israel (the threat of launching Scud missiles at Israeli towns) kept the issue in the news, and grabbed Osman’s attention.
But the Babri Mosque incident in India was something different. The direct assault on and destruction of an ancient Muslim place of worship felt particularly shocking. The number of people killed in the subsequent violence was horrific. It strongly reinforced the message that Nasim with his leaflet and Hizb al-Tahrir in general were pushing. Southend, Gaza, Bosnia, Iraq, India: wherever you went in the world, the story was the same — Muslims were unprotected and under attack, and now was the time to do something about it. After all, we didn’t believe in turning the other cheek.
Nasim was everything the mosque imam in Southend was not. Here was someone who was young, slick, articulate and successful, and he didn’t have a beard. He was studying and living in London, which for us surviving on the edge of Essex felt like a glamorous, exciting lifestyle. When he handed Osman that leaflet, he was exactly the right person, in the right place, at the right time. Osman was receptive to such a message, and when Nasim suggested he came to a talk, to discuss the idea further, Osman agreed.
It is worth mentioning here that Nasim would turn out to be not just any pamphleteer. He was, in fact, on the path to becoming the leader of HT in the UK, and the founder of the organisation in Bangladesh. As someone who has gone on to co-found movements myself and has met numerous political leaders of all stripes, I can tell you that Nasim is one of the most committed recruiters I have come across. He is not especially handsome, uniquely intelligent, particularly well dressed, deeply devout, or exceptionally articulate, yet he combines just that right level of all these traits to give him a sort of safe, friendly, dependable-leader quality. I have rarely encountered anyone with such a skill to say the right thing at the right time, in order to convince a person to follow him. He’s not someone who leads through sheer force of his personality, or authoritarianism. He is pragmatic, rather than dogmatic. An ordinary guy, but extraordinarily good at being so, if that makes sense.
‘Wherever you went, the story was the same — Muslims were unprotected and under attack, and now was the time to do something’
Nasim would go on to play a huge part in my life. In the years that followed, as he rose up the ranks, I became a kind of protégé. It seems, looking back, a remarkable coincidence that he came from the same background as me. Perhaps that’s partly why we connected. If Nasim hadn’t been on a break from university and decided to leaflet Southend, then perhaps my life might have turned out differently. But he stopped Osman, got talking, and the first link in the next stage of my life was in place.
Osman started going with Nasim to his talks and study circles, and pretty soon became a changed person. Everything we’d been doing together — going to clubs, chasing women — was now anathema to him. To begin with, I thought he was crazy. “What’s wrong with you, man?” I’d ask. I’d mock him and laugh at him, but to my surprise he’d just take it. He stopped going out with our group of friends, told women to stop calling for him at our house. Generally he just retreated.
As much as Osman’s change surprised me, it pleased my dad. For many years at home, it had felt as though my brother and I had sided more with our mother — taken advantage of her more liberal views. For the first time, one of my father’s sons had taken a serious interest in Islam. At this point, my father didn’t understand what Islamism really meant. What he saw was his son taking an interest in religion and behaving more like the traditional Muslim he had always wanted us to become. He approved of that and encouraged it, and that led, inevitably, to a change of mood in the household: the balance of power, as it were, had started to shift. You could see it in Abi’s reaction. She didn’t know how to react or respond to Osman’s criticisms of her behaviour. Later on, when I joined him, she would become even more isolated.
At this point, my impression of practising Islam was still based on my early teenage experience of visiting the mosque. Osman’s conversion felt not only as if it had come out of nowhere, it also felt like a retrograde step. To go back to that, to spurn all the girls and partying just didn’t make any sense.
Osman, though, was nothing if not persistent, in trying to get me to go along with him. During that year he worked on those friends he thought would be most receptive, Moe, Nas and myself. We all eventually converted. Although I would dismiss what he said at first, there was no denying the inner confidence or self-belief when he spoke. As he continued to talk to me I realised one of the fundamental points about Islamism that so many people fail to understand. The way Osman was speaking wasn’t in the orthodox, religious way of the imam with a stick; he was talking about politics, and about events that were happening now. That’s crucial to understanding what Islamism is all about: it isn’t a religious movement with political consequences, it is a political movement with religious consequences.
Follow the author on Twitter @maajidnawaz