Shiraz Maher

Memoir of an Islamist

Memoir of an Islamist
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It was a surreal experience to meet Maajid Nawaz for the first time. I had known of him for years and admired his bombast. He was a hero — not just my hero — but a hero to hundreds of young Islamist radicals. 'Woah, this is the brother in Egypt, isn’t it?' said an erstwhile comrade, listening to a cassette in my badly beaten Peugeot 106 as we drove through Bradford. That brother was Nawaz and it explained why neither of us had met him at that time.

In late 2001 Nawaz had travelled to Egypt to learn Arabic as part of an undergraduate degree at SOAS but was now being detained in one of Mubarak’s notoriously brutal political prisons. Like me, Nawaz was a member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut Tahrir (whose name means ‘party of liberation’) which is outlawed in Egypt — but legal in Britain — and campaigns for the creation of a global Caliphate. Ultimately, it wants to subjugate the entire world to Islam.

When we eventually met in 2007 the circumstances were wildly different. Nawaz had been deported to Britain after serving four years of his sentence and was in the process of resigning his membership in Hizb ut Tahrir. I had left the group two years earlier and Nawaz was keen to reach out to former members. Ed Husain had just published his own memoir The Islamist, and we all met — along with others — for coffee at the Brunswick Centre. It was obvious, even then, that this was a significant step for Nawaz to be taking because Hizb ut Tahrir bans its current members from speaking to those who have left. He resigned days later.

Nawaz has now published an autobiography which provides a synthetic account of the three phases of his life that define him entirely: his childhood, radicalisation, and recantation.

The filmic finesse of Radical is immediately evident from the prologue which, in the space of eleven pages, zips readers through all three phases — Southend, Cairo, Texas. This is the cinematic trailer before the blockbuster. The book was co-written with Tom Bromley, a professional ghostwriter and editor, who produced the first manuscript which Maajid then built on. It shows. The book brims with pace, punch, and saccharine sentiment. As with almost all publishing of this type, the narrative is compressed into linear and teleological form, making it read like a Whig history..

It is unfair to characterise the entire book this way. There are moments of genuine human interest which capture the occasional innocence of those who embrace millenarian zeal. ‘It was fantastic to be in the thick of the action, surrounded by ‘brothers’. I loved it,’ Nawaz explains after moving to London from Southend to live with other extremists.

Elsewhere he acknowledges the lingering insecurities and constant need for a cause to consume him. ‘I am nothing if I cannot strive for something,’ he says. ‘Only time will tell what, if anything, my vanity will produce.’ Quite. This is laced with moments, albeit fleeting ones, of real introspection where he acknowledges an obsession with the ‘romanticism of struggle’. When he speaks like this Nawaz is at his best, revealing the psyche that has driven his life into chaos and calm in equal measure.

Nawaz’s account of his detention is particularly affecting. One can only imagine how a young man from Essex feels after being forcibly seized from home at night, blindfolded, led through a labyrinthine web of subterranean torture chambers, and then barked at in a language he has only just begun to learn. Nawaz is still angry with Hizb ut Tahrir for leading him there.

After throwing him to the slaughter, it effectively abandoned him. As a middle manager for the group in northern England at the time, this lack of support was something I saw first-hand. Very little was done to campaign for Nawaz’s release and his young family were largely left to fend for themselves. He writes about this with evident resentment. ‘While the HT [Hizb ut Tahrir] member is under orders not to disown the group, the group would practically disown the HT member,’ he recalls.

Why had Nawaz been willing to expose himself to the dangers of arrest in Egypt? Well, this is the way of the believer; sacrifice and struggle like the Prophets; Allah only tests those whom he loves; the best of his servants. Back in the safety of secular London, the group’s leadership had not entirely forgotten about Nawaz or his plight. His trial was about to start and Jalaluddin Patel, who led the group in Britain, wanted to send Nawaz a message. When it finally came the command was to ‘be more defiant’, an easy diktat for Patel to order from the comfort of his semi-detached home in Redbridge.

Much like the callous indifference displayed to infantrymen during the Great War, Patel epitomised the donkey who somehow found himself leading lions. Isolated and incarcerated on the Islamist equivalent of the Western Front, Nawaz contemplated the inequity.

Since 9/11 the media and commentators have obsessed over what makes someone an Islamist. The journey into its fanatical embrace has been forensically explored. The process of leaving Islamist networks has not been well explored. Indeed, little has been written of the intensely difficult personal and emotional costs associated with such decisions, often resulting in the collapse of many important relationships. The mercurial effect of this process is permanent in many ways, forever changing to differing degrees those who experience it.

In Nawaz’s case, his marriage broke down because his wife was also a committed member of Hizb ut Tahrir. She had waited with the stoicism of a believer — if Allah was testing her husband with incarceration, then he was testing her with separation — until his release. When Nawaz eventually emerged, he was no longer the robed rascal who was snatched from her in Alexandria.

This begins to open up perhaps one of the most febrile and engaging parts of Nawaz’s entire account. He describes the accelerated decline of their union and encapsulates the mental quagmire afflicting those who leave enveloping parties.

After all, cults appeal because they make sense, offer certainty, and order an otherwise confusing world. Leaving means embracing reason with all its associated scepticism and doubt. This is a massive step change. ‘In many ways I think I was a nicer person then,’ Nawaz says, reflecting on his time as an extremist. ‘Now I felt like a horrible person, full of guilt for what I could see was happening to my marriage.’

There should have been more of this — much more of this — but Nawaz is sometimes too tinselly for his own good. Instead, beautifully empurpled prose gives way to indulgence as Nawaz clumsily publishes his rolodex.

This gives moment for pause, to contemplate what the real triumph of this book is. The most remarkable feature of Nawaz’s tale is its unremarkability. Those searching for grand answers to the question of Islamist radicalisation will find only familiarity; growing pains mixed with racial undertones and an identity crisis, suburbia, sex, failed relationships, a year abroad gone wrong (in this case, horribly so).

For Afro-Caribbean readers growing up in Brixton during the late 1970s, or Irish Catholics coming of age during the troubles much of this will seem trite. To consider this in context, one need only compare the earlier passages of Radical with Sean O’Callaghan’s account of his experiences in the IRA, as detailed in The Informer.

Yet, for every Maajid Nawaz there are five absurd Inayat Bunglawalas dominating Muslim communal politics. This is where he comes into his own, capitalising on his strengths as a showman. What distinguishes this from being an otherwise pedestrian account of second-generation growing pains in modern Britain is Nawaz’s Egyptian experience.

That should have been the focus of this book, because this is where Nawaz has something genuinely interesting and new to say. The film noire tone of Radical detracts from those moments. If this account represents a thespian version of his life which Nawaz would have us accept, then he is breaking with the five act structure beloved by all good dramatists. Nawaz know this and hints there is more to come, though few sequels live up to the original.