'My views were typically anti-Semitic and anti-Israel'

The British activist who went from radical Islam to staunch Israel ally

Maajid Nawaz spent 5 years in an Egyptian prison for espousing extremism. Now living in London, he educates about the dangers of radicalization in the Western world

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Maajid Nawaz speaking at a Liberal Democrat campaign event in West Hampstead, London, in 2015. (Wikimedia commons/flickr/eregis)
Maajid Nawaz speaking at a Liberal Democrat campaign event in West Hampstead, London, in 2015. (Wikimedia commons/flickr/eregis)

LONDON — In the summer of 2001 Maajid Nawaz traveled to Jerusalem for the first time to visit the Al Aqsa mosque. He journeyed via Jordan, so desperate was he not to set foot in what he considered “Israel proper.”

“I pretty much would describe my views as typically anti-Semitic and typically anti-Israel,” he recalls. “I denied the legitimacy of the State of Israel and believed that it had no right to exist and that the caliphate would one day come to… liberate the land and return it to Muslim dominion.”

Still only in his early 20s, Nawaz, the child of a middle-class British home, was a university student and rising star activist in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a revolutionary Islamist organization founded in Jerusalem in 1953.

But shortly after arriving in Alexandria to continue his studies, his activities on behalf of the group — which seeks to resurrect and recreate the caliphate in Muslim-majority countries and impose its strict interpretation of Sharia law — landed him in an Egyptian jail. Nawaz would spend five years as a political prisoner before being released and returned to the UK in 2006.

In Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s grim prisons — notorious for their widespread torture and mistreatment of inmates — Nawaz began a journey which would radically change his views and his life.

Now dubbed “Britain’s unofficial anti-extremism tsar” by the media, Nawaz is the country’s most high-profile critic of Islamism and a relentless campaigner for liberal democratic values.

His vocal opposition to anti-Semitism and sharp criticism of those who, as he sees it, have turned opposition to Israel into “the mother of all virtue-signals” has earned him a place on the shortlist for this month’s Jewish News awards.

Nawaz is one of 10 contenders in the “communal ally of the year” category, designed to reward “a non-Jewish hero who has used their voice to fight anti-Semitism or delegitimization of Israel or has simply supported the community in the media, in politics or elsewhere over the last two years.”

Nawaz’s path into the dark world of Islamist extremism was, on the surface, a surprising one. His parents were agnostic, their two sons were bright schoolboys. Young Maajid loved hip-hop, relishing the occasional opportunity to MC.

However, a combination of racism — as he recounts in his 2012 memoir, “Radical,” Nawaz and his brother were pursued on one occasion by baseball-bat wielding skinheads — and his growing upset at the unfolding genocide being committed against Muslims in Bosnia, led him into the welcoming arms of a Hizb ut-Tahrir recruiter.

He signed up to the group at the age of 16 and when later studying at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Nawaz would witness one of his fellow Islamist extremists murder an African student.

Maajid Nawaz, left, with other candidates at a campaign event in West Hampstead, London, in 2015. (Wikimedia commons/flickr/eregis)

If nothing else, Nawaz’s imprisonment gave him time to think. “I had done a lot of study, a lot of debate with the other political prisoners, but also a lot of reading,” he says.

He was also affected by campaigning undertaken on his behalf by Amnesty International, which adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. “My views had started to change by the time I was released from prison,” says Nawaz.

Back in Britain, Nawaz decided to resign from the leadership of Hizb ut-Tahrir and break with Islamism.

Joined by Ed Husain, who had similarly soured on extremism, in 2008 he founded the Quilliam Foundation, named after William Quilliam, a British convert to Islam who opened one of the country’s first mosques during the late 19th century.

Nawaz was conscious that, when he was 16, there were “no alternative voices to Islamism.” The purpose of Quilliam, which last year opened an offshoot in the US, was thus, says Nawaz, “to challenge the ideological assumptions that underpin Islamism and amplify those challenges from within, to both educate wider society about the Islamist ideology but also act as a warning for other younger Muslims not to go down this path.”

Over the past decade, Quilliam has helped shape the thinking of the British government on how to tackle extremism. Nawaz was tapped to help former prime minister David Cameron with a major speech he delivered on the subject shortly after winning re-election in 2015. Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown, was also known to value Nawaz’s opinion.

Nawaz, though, believes that the fight against Islamism – which he deems an “ideological battle” – must be measured over the longer term.

“We have to recognize it’s a generational struggle around ideas and challenge those ideas,” he suggests, “but that requires government and civil society to push back against Islamist extremism as has been done with homophobia and anti-Semitism in the past.”

Nawaz is keen to point out that most Muslims are not Islamist extremists — “obviously, I’m one Muslim who’s not an Islamist extremist” — but also warns against “denialism.”

“Islamist extremism does represent a larger than reasonable proportion of opinion coming from within Muslim communities,” he argues.

“It’s a huge problem and I say huge because often people forget what we’ve just lived through. At the end of the day, if roughly 2,000 British born-and-raised Muslims… left the comfort of their homes from the developed world to rush to a war zone and join [Islamic State], the worst terrorist group that we have witnessed in living memory, it tells you that there’s a serious problem,” he says.

Neither should we forget, he continues, that IS isn’t the sole Islamist extremist group, and failure to support it is not necessarily an indication of opposition to jihadism. “Al-Qaeda were condemning IS, too. Merely by condemning IS doesn’t make you a moderate by any means,” he says.

Nawaz is also concerned about polling which indicates significant minorities of British Muslims harbor sympathies for terror attacks.

“Survey after survey has projected worrying results,” he suggests, citing polls which indicated 50 percent of British Muslims wanted homosexuality to be illegal.

“That’s not banning gay marriage,” says Nawaz who publicly endorsed marriage equality legislation. “They were talking about criminalizing being gay. And of course we know in fundamentalist interpretations of sharia [Islamic religious law] what the punishment for criminalized homosexuality is.”

One major barrier to tackling the problem, believes Nawaz, are the attitudes of what he terms the “regressive left” — “those who adopt a culturally relativist approach when it comes to regressive practices that emerge from minority communities in the West” — who have attempted to shut down all debate around the subject.

Nawaz finds such attitudes hypocritical, deeply offensive and dangerous. The double-standards rankle him. The regressive left will rightly condemn racism and far-right attitudes in the white community, he says, but their voice is muted when it comes to illiberalism that emerges from minority communities.

He is blunt in his assessment. “Believing that apostates, homosexuals and other forms of ‘deviants’ from within Muslim communities deserve death, and working to create a state that implements that death sentence for homosexuals, apostates and those deemed as deviants, is worse than simply holding a prejudiced view towards people of a different color.”

Such views are evidence of “a bigotry of low expectations.”

“They don’t expect minority communities to be able to be liberal,” says Nawaz. “It’s a colonial form of racism, truthfully, in the name of anti-racism.”

The failure to confront Islamist extremism has, he believes, contributed greatly to the rise of the far right in Europe, the relationship between the two being “symbiotic.”

“Our discomfort in recognizing bigotry coming from minority communities for fear of aiding the far-right narrative … [has] ironically contributed to the rise of the far right. It has contributed to the very thing that we feared and out of which we were remaining silent,” Nawaz says.

For Nawaz, it is clear that Europe faces a “triple threat” — from the far left, far right and Islamist extremism — and that the principal losers have been the continent’s Jews. “The one thing they all agree on,” he notes, “is their hatred of the Jews.”

Nawaz, who ran for parliament as a candidate of the centrist Liberal Democrat party in the 2015 general election, is unsurprised by the rise of anti-Semitism on the political left.

“When you start championing Islamists from among Muslim communities then, by definition, you’re going to start vilifying who they vilify,” he says.

He is also “dismayed” at the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour party. “I think Corbyn pretty much epitomizes this attitude of the regressive left,” Nawaz says.

Nawaz has had the ear of both Labour and Conservative governments — Cameron is reported to have described him, half in jest given that the party were his coalition partners for five years, as “the best Liberal Democrat I’ve ever come cross” — but believes a Corbyn-led administration will shun him.

This file photo taken on July 11, 2016 shows British Prime Minister David Cameron address the media outside 10 Downing Street in London, after announcing that Theresa May would be Britain’s new leader. (AFP PHOTO / CHRIS J RATCLIFFE)

“Their track record demonstrates that they would embark upon an attempted intellectual purge of voices like mine because they have been [engaging], and would probably engage, with the Islamists, and the Islamists would see me as an existential threat to their ideas,” he says.

Nawaz, however, is undeterred. He believes Quilliam’s work can help to combat rising anti-Semitism in Britain.

“By challenging Islamist extremism, we are simultaneously — and it’s pretty much inseparable, anti-Semitism and Islamism — challenging anti-Semitism,” he says.

By confronting, debating and ridiculing Islamism, he hopes, “we can put this ugly anti-Semitism that’s been on the rise back into retreat like it had been before the rise of Islamism and the rise of far right extremism across Europe.”

Nawaz’s break with Islamist extremism allowed him to reconsider his attitude towards Israel. He first returned with a parliamentary delegation led by Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, and has visited on a number of occasions since.

“The combination of having an open mind and actually trying to see both sides of the debate has led me to shift my view on the state of Israel,” he says.

In 2012, he met with Arnold Roth, whose 15-year-old daughter Malki was killed in a suicide bombing at Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem in August 2001. The meeting was an important one for Nawaz.

While Hizb ut-Tahrir did not condone terrorism, he remembers, “condemning terrorism wasn’t really our forte.” Suicide bombings inside Israel were, moreover, generally viewed as somehow legitimate.

Israeli soldiers checking for explosives at Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem after a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 15 people, August 9, 2001. (Courtney Kealy/Getty Images/JTA)

“Meeting with survivors of terrorist acts really did humanize for me those victims and forced me to confront the fact that remaining ambivalent — which is probably the best word to describe Hizb ut-Tahrir’s position — simply wasn’t good enough, and it was a human rights imperative to openly condemn terrorism wherever it occurred, including inside Israel,” he says.

Nawaz has, though, moved far beyond simply condemning terrorist attacks in Israel.

He uses his regular column in the Jewish News and his weekly radio show on London’s LBC radio to defend the state of Israel. He is a fierce critic of the BDS movement, attacking the “lazy analogy” with apartheid-era South Africa which he believes underlies it.

Nawaz’s denunciation of the world’s disproportionate focus on Israel — “Enough with this double standard … constantly singling out Israel as somehow being an illegitimate state. I’m tired of it” — was probably one of the most passionate defenses of the Jewish state heard on the British media last year.

And last month, he attacked his former champions at Amnesty International after they decided not to host an event organized with the Jewish Leadership Council because one of the speakers had defended settlements.

What would Nawaz have said when he joined Hizb ut-Tahrir if he had been told he would now be regarded by many British Jews as a friend and ally?

“If you’d told me when I was 15 years old that we’d live in a time when there’d be a black president of America and that the legalization of gay marriage would be introduced by a Conservative prime minister,” he responds, “I would have said to you the world has turned upside down… I have changed and the world has changed.”

read more: