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Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening

16 Apr 2014
reviewer Joseph Power
Maajid Nawaz

How does one go from being a transnational recruiter for the world’s largest Islamist organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir, to debating the use of torture with George W. Bush at a barbeque in Texas?

If Maajid Nawaz’s autobiography, Radical, is any indication: with great difficulty.

In the news recently for his tweeting of a cartoon featuring Jesus and Mohammed, for which he received death threats, Nawaz is head of the Quilliam Foundation (a prominent counter-extremism think-tank) as well as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in Great Britain.

His prose (co-written with Tom Bromley, a professional editor and ghost-writer) has a preference for punchy sentences and cinematic description over linguistic acrobatics. His use of Arabic words and phrases is frequent, but explained, and provides a sense of relation to an unimaginable situation.

Raised on the streets of Essex, Nawaz recollects his early encounters with racism both at personal and institutional levels. The prologue to the book features three experiences at different points in his life: the lead-up to a confrontation with heavily armed members of neo-Nazi group Combat18, a Texas barbeque with George W. Bush in 2011, and him being dragged, blindfolded, into Hosni Mubarak’s most infamous torture prison.

Nawaz’s political and ideological metamorphosis from quiet schoolboy to sectarian gang-member to Islamist powerhouse to Muslim liberal and parliamentary candidate is laid out in 378 pages. The book speaks volumes on British society that allowed such mass extremism to occur. Maajid recounts how Hizb ut-Tahrir laughed at the naivety of Western ‘liberals’ and alleges that recruiters for the organisation used the British Council to make a living while simultaneously trying to instigate a military coup d’état in Pakistan.

He also condemns state multiculturalism, which he declares was abused and resulted, not in multi-racialism or pluralism but in the Balkanisation of British society.

According to Nawaz, the seminal event leading to the rise of militant Western Islamism was the initial failure of the West to intervene in Bosnia during Slobodan Milosevic’s genocide. He describes the logical whirlpool of interventionism that Islamists and Western governments find themselves in, in a fiery polemic written after interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This raises the question of whether the (quite justified) unwillingness of the West to get themselves involved in the Syrian quagmire our new Bosnia moment? The unprecedented exodus of young Australian Muslims to fight in the Syrian civil war is a serious development within Australian Islamism and one that policy makers would do well to take seriously.

The book’s most powerful moments are those within one of Hosni Mubarak’s torture prisons where Nawaz becomes number ‘42’. Blindfolded, and facing the menacing, crackling electrocution device employed by Egypt’s pitiless secret police, he manages to escape torture. How? “I have nothing more to say to you. Do whatever you want,” Nawaz declares.

Nawaz is sent away for 12 hours to reflect on his impending torture, with a hint of rape thrown in for good measure. “He likes you”, his guard cackled, “you know what we do to people we like, don’t you?”

Fortunately for Nawaz and his comrades, the five foreign prisoners are transferred elsewhere, before any of this occurs.

In many respects, the book would have been far better served focusing more on this chapter in Nawaz’s story. It was by far the most gripping and fascinating part. In particular, his deep study of Arabic and the Koran in prison propelled him to reject Islamism as a political stance with quasi-religious justifications. It is a position he has fought vigorously for ever since.

Though the book is an account of a free and open society that nurtured those who wished it harm, Nawaz, upon his return from Egypt, acknowledges Britain as an antidote. He describes Britain as “head of the colonial snake that poisoned my people…yet also bastion of justice, the rule of law and fair play… I know that my boots are never safer than when resting in your green parks.’’

Westminster rumour has it that the Liberal Democrats have gone wobbly on Nawaz after the Twitter controversy. If so, shame on them. Politics, whether in the motherland or the antipodes, needs more people like Maajid Nawaz and fewer self-interested careerists.

Maajid Nawaz, Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening, first published by WH Allen, 2012

Reviewed by Joseph Power, AIIA QLD