Maajid Nawaz’s interview with Brag Magazine

Jan 23, 2016

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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10 comments on “Maajid Nawaz’s interview with Brag Magazine

  • An interesting man, and a valuable intermediary in what could become one of the major sociopolitical debates of this century, global weirding notwithstanding.

    One thing which I think needs to be kept in the forefront of our minds is that in conflicts of this nature, the majority are rendered irrelevant; as was the case with twentieth century fascism, when the vast majority of Germans were not Nazis, so it is that a tiny number of Muslims are Islamists, and I submit that they are making life very difficult indeed for all the others.

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  • 2
    NearlyNakedApe says:


    … it is that a tiny number of Muslims are Islamists, and I submit that they are making life very difficult indeed for all the others.

    Actually, the number of Islamists and Jihadists is a tiny percentage of the entire Muslim world population which is estimated at approximately 1.4 billion. But even only 1% of 1.4 billion is still 14 million people.

    I strongly recommend reading the book “Islam and the future of tolerance” written by Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris. Maajid explains in clear terms the intricate layering of Muslim society and culture. Westerners and non-Muslims make the common mistake of thinking that there is a clear demarcation line between only two distinct groups in the Muslim world: extremists and moderates. But it’s actually way more complex than that.

    And so, there are many Muslims in the world who are against women’s rights or gay rights or freedom of religion or even freedom of expression and who are neither Jihadis or Islamists. Not being an Islamist or a Jihadi doesn’t necessarily entail being a liberal or progressive or holding values usually associated with liberalism.

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  • If there were 14 million then the war would surely be on with the west?

    The rest I agree with you on. This is the distinction (with more accuracy) we should be making. The many believe in the wrong things through culture and religion but the few want to comit violence. The most backward will commit honour killings but only the most progressive will stop their sons being circumcised.

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  • 4
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    If there were 14 million then the war would surely be on with the west?

    Fair enough. I concede that it wasn’t a very smart way to put it…

    I didn’t mean that there are actually 14 million Jihadis in the world, although the actual number is probably impossible to evaluate accurately. What I really wanted to convey is that even a small percentage of 1.4 billion is likely to be a frightening large number.

    Even by the most conservative of estimates, ten thousand or a hundred thousand men willing to kill and die for their beliefs is not a small number. Then there are Islamists who are not willing to fight and die but will happily provide support in the form of money, indoctrination, logistics, etc.. who probably number in the tens or hundreds of thousands or maybe more.

    Then there are Islamists who don’t get involved in any way but are simply sympathisers to the cause. Those could conceivably number in the millions.

    So the claim that “extremists” are just a “tiny number” or a “handful” of individuals makes me cringe. It is a dangerous and unrealistic belief based more on wishful thinking than actual numbers.

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  • 5
    Pinball1970 says:

    I agree Gary, if you have watched any of his interviews you will note how important he is regarding a move towards progressive modern Islam- three words you would not necessarily put together.
    If we lose people like him we have lost the war.

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  • 6
    Pinball1970 says:

    I didn’t mean that there are actually 14 million Jihadis in the world, although the actual number is probably impossible to evaluate accurately

    It is much worse than that, perhaps there is a only a very small number that are prepared to commit acts of terror but what percentage would but support them? Against the west or Israel? Support Sharia including some of the more archaic rules on homosexuals and women? Support a global Islamic state (via non violent means) Reject evolution and the teaching of evolution to youngsters?

    I do not know what Maajid Nazwazs view is on the Hadith evolution homosexuals and the validity on koranic scripture is but he would be prepared to discuss it.

    He may be prepared to throw out the more archaic verses regarding unbelievers jews and women possibly.

    It took Christianity a good while to jettison the medieval tribal nature of the bible in Europe (some christians at least) if we are going to sanitize Islam and make it more cultural rather than religious this is the guy who could do it.

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  • Let’s face it. Anyone with an ‘imaginary friend’ who tells them how to lead their life is not right in the head. All religion is fundamentally dishonest if not actually evil.

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  • and what I mean by the word ‘native’ is that Muslims are born and raised in the West …

    Nobody is born a muslim. People are born as human beings, with a clean slate. Muslims are created, raised, indoctrinated, molded, anything. They are not born muslims, just because their parents adhere to some religion and pronounced the shahada at some point in their lives. Although I do think religion in general and islam in particular is a very serious mental disorder and almost virulant disease, I am also quite certain that it isn’t genetic. It is a hereditary disease only through education and upbringing.

    That should be the starting point of any conversation, and as long as it isn’t or can’t be, and as long as that fact is denied, and some people insist that people are being born adhering to some religion or another, there is no conversation, but a demand for submission and a dictate form the holy party to the infidel party. We’ve had this battle with the christian sects already. There’s no need to repeat it with the sect of the moongod and the meteorite worshippers. Not on my watch.

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  • 10
    Pinball1970 says:

    Let’s face it. Anyone with an ‘imaginary friend’ who tells them how to lead their life is not right in the head

    Not necessarily, I used to think I was eating jesus dead flesh when I had communion and that the devil was taking every opportunity to tempt me in order to capture my soul.

    I was deluded not delusional, if the facts keep hitting you in the face regarding the absurdities about ones religion then you have to be a darn good liar (to yourself) to ignore them.

    A reasonable discussion regarding religious texts and the contradiction and absurdities contained within will ultimately lead to a dilution of the value of them just as they did with Christianity I am sure.

    We have to have faith!

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