Photo credit: Jonathan Player/Rex
By Adam Norris
In 2002, Maajid Nawaz was arrested in Egypt and served four years in the Mazra Tora Prison.
As a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist Islamist group intent on establishing a global caliphate, Nawaz had proved a model recruit: articulate and charismatic, he was adept at shepherding impressionable minds into the radical party. Yet while imprisoned, thanks to the auspices of Amnesty International, Nawaz came to renounce his extremist allegiance, committing himself to countering such groups and the narratives that give them strength. Even before this turnaround, however, the Essex-born activist knew the road ahead would be a challenge.
“Certainly a difficult and anguished road,” Nawaz recalls. “Our rhetoric was that violence would only be required after we’d established the caliphate, but we were fully aware that to get the caliphate in the first place would require a lot of sacrifice, and that sacrifice meant that in effect, we were prepared to give our lives. When I was faced with my imprisonment in Egypt, it was everything I had prepared for up until that point.
“We would train our recruits exactly in what they were getting themselves involved in, and we would tell them straight up that our quest – especially back in those days, when the Arab dictators never looked more sturdy and stolid in their position – that overthrowing these dictators would require a lot of sacrifice in the form of blood and guts. Indeed, the first martyr of Hizb ut-Tahrir was in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. His name was Abdul Aziz Badri, killed in the ’60s. We were no strangers to stories that our older members would tell us of the torture and murder that these dictators would inflict.”
It is difficult to imagine such environments when couched in the comparative freedoms and luxuries of Australia. The mainstream narratives we receive of Islam and the Middle East are often tinged with fear, uncertainty, and a certain grim hopelessness; the resulting confusion has given rise to countless suspicions and little comprehension. With his direct experience of hard-line Islamist ideologies, Nawaz is in a unique position to speak of the black-and-white assumptions many Western communities have of Christian and Muslim faith, and how this conversation can be broadened.
“One of my aims is to popularise what I call counternarratives. To empower everyday people so that they feel able and confident to have these conversations with others without having to have gone through the experience. I mean, now we can kind of articulate what’s wrong with Christianity-based theocracy without having had to have been a Christian fundamentalist. It’s embedded in the collective memory.
“So my mission is to make sure, now that Islam is native to Western society – and what I mean by the word ‘native’ is that Muslims are born and raised in the West, they are Western citizens and therefore their religion is also native to Western societies – now, these Western societies need to claim the same level of ownership over the Islam debate as they do the Christianity debate. When they feel empowered enough to do so, they’ll be able to discuss it rationally. What’s not happening at the moment, unfortunately, is a rational conversation. And that’s because both the Far Left and the Far Right don’t see it as a native thing. The Far Left fetishises the Islam debate, and thereby mollycoddle it, and the Far Right see it as The Other. The problem with both is that neither sees it as being native in their own culture. If they did, we’d be having a rational conversation about Islam, as we do with Christianity.”
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