The Story of Maajid Nawaz

November 24, 2009

Maajid Nawaz is a British citizen of Pakistani descent who became involved in his youth with the radical Islamic Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami), undertaking missions for the party in Pakistan and Egypt. Hizb al-Tahrir is an international movement that campaigns for the reestablishment of the caliphate in Muslim lands.

In April 2002 Nawaz was detained by the Egyptian authorities along with three other British members of the party. He was interrogated for twelve weeks in Cairo’s State Security Intelligence building, and then sent for pre-trial detention. He was written off by Hizb al-Tahrir as “a fallen solder.”

Hizb at-Tahrir is banned from participating in political activity in Egypt and Amnesty International took up Nawaz’s case as a freedom of speech issue. In the fall of 2002 an Amnesty delegation visited Egypt and sought access to him in prison.  Abandoned by his former colleagues, Nawaz was stunned to learn that an international human rights group had been taken up his case:

“I was just amazed, we’d always seen Amnesty as the soft power tools of colonialism. So, when Amnesty, despite knowing that we hated them, adopted us, I felt – maybe these democratic values aren’t always hypocritical. Maybe some people take them seriously … it was the beginning of my serious doubts.”

In March 2004 Nawaz was formally adopted as a “Prisoner of Conscience” by Amnesty and finally, after four years of incarceration, he was released by the Egyptian authorities.

Nawaz’s rejection of extremism was cemented by his conversations with two fellow inmates, Omar Bayoumi and Dr Tauriq al Sawah, who had been convicted for their part in the plot to murder Anwar Sadat. Both men had turned away from the violence of their youth and encouraged younger inmates to pursue a more compassionate interpretation of Islam.

Unlike the nebulous claims made for the national security imperative of embracing the ‘dark side’, here is a case based on actual facts; a case in which a commitment to human rights for all trumped fear-mongering and prejudice, with an end result that has struck a major blow against violent extremism.

Maajid Nawaz went on to found the Quilliam Foundation that promotes cross-cultural understanding and aims to counter extremism and radicalization in the Muslim community. The Quilliam Foundation has become an influential actor on the European stage.

It is a lesson worth noting that Nawaz credits the open hand rather than the closed fist for his conversion:

“Before someone can change his ideas, he has to open his heart. I was filled with hate and anger. But during my trial, something decisive happened: Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience, and it was an unbelievable feeling to know that there is someone fighting for you on the outside. Amnesty’s “soft” approach made me seriously consider alternatives to revenge.”