Maajid Nawaaz
Maajid Nawaaz

He had just walked off the stage after delivering a rather moving keynote address in a session on Peace and Security at the One Young World 2015 Bangkok summit, when I caught Maajid Nawaaz for some quick questions. He excused himself for a few minutes with the promise to sit down for a chat a bit later.

When he returned, a couple of other journalists were also waiting with me, interested in listening to what he has to say as regards the session that had just concluded. Certainly, the need for peace and security in the world is foremost in everyone’s mind with the tragedies of Paris, Mali and Californa still fresh in one’s mind.

Improving interfaith dialogue and collaboration, curbing intolerance and addressing extremism are the needs of the hour and Maajid Nawaaz seems like a man who is well-placed to address these needs.


A one on one with an ex-member of Hizbut Tahrir who renounced his links and is now addressing the challenges of extremism in the UK


A British of Pakistani roots (his father hails from Gujrat), Nawaaz is an activist, author, columnist and politician. An ex-member of Hizbut Tahrir, he was arrested in Egypt in 2002 and after his release four years later, Nawaaz renounced his links and turned to working towards challenging extremism in the UK.

With Ed Husain, a former radical like himself, Nawaaz co-founded Quilliam, a globally active think tank “focusing on matters of integration, citizenship and identity, religious freedom, extremism and immigration.” He then went on to write his autobiography Radical, and his second book Islam and the Future of Tolerance, co-authored with American neuroscientist Sam Harris, was published this October.

Nawaaz stresses that to address growing radicalisation and extremism, there is a need for them to be talked about and understood first.

“Radicalisation happens due to a combination of factors. You have real and perceived grievances that people feel. I say real and perceived because it is a matter of perspectives. People feel grieved and angry, and this is the first stage of radicalisation,” Nawaaz explains his theory.

Elaborating further, he discloses, “This then leads to an identity crisis, the second stage of radicalisation. In Europe, the identity crisis in European Muslim comes out in the form that they don’t feel they are European or British or French. They say ‘I am not British, I am not French, I am a Muslim’.”

Taking his explanation further, Nawaaz comes to the third factor that leads to radicalisation, “With grievances and identity crisis, people start looking for an alternative sense of belonging because they don’t belong where they are from. That brings in the third factor, which is charismatic recruiters who are preaching to these people by providing that sense of belonging. It’s a bit like a gang membership.

“And the fourth factor that kicks in after that is ideology. It is often the most neglected because we are comfortable speaking about economic challenges and unemployment, but we are not comfortable speaking about ideology because it means having uncomfortable conversations about ideas.


“With grievances and identity crisis, people start looking for an alternative sense of belonging because they don’t belong where they are from. That brings in the third factor, which is charismatic recruiters who are preaching to these people by providing that sense of belonging. It’s a bit like a gang membership.


“Ideology, or what I call ‘Islamism’, is the desire to impose my version of the religion over everyone else. All these groups, whichever name you call them, Taliban, Al-Qaida or ISIS, they all share a similar goal — to enforce their own version of religion on society. So I call it ‘Islamism’ rather than the religion of Islam.”

He firmly believes that an understanding of these four factors can help in reversing them through policy responses. To address people’s grievances, the legitimate and perceived grievances need to be identified and, according to Nawaaz, “where they are real, the government needs to respond to them. And where they are perceived, the government needs to improve its communication strategy. I’d say in every conflict, there are probably some real grievances and some perceived ones.

“Identity crisis also needs a broader conversation about an identity in belonging in a globalised context that also provides a sense of patriotism and reduces a sense of nationalism. So that should mean patriotism to Pakistan and reducing the ethnic nationalism that is pulling the country apart.”

Coming to the third factor, of the charismatic recruiters, Nawaaz, having firsthand experience of their appeal, urges the need to undermine their appeal and expose them for who they really are.

“Most of them are frauds,” the activist stresses. “Most have dubious backgrounds, we need to be able to critique them. And we need to provide alternate leaders who are able to appeal to these young people instead.”

To address ideology, the final factor leading to radicalisation, Nawaaz opines offering counter narratives that challenge the ideology that is exploiting the religion of Islam for political purposes.

“And we need to not only have counter-narratives but also alternative narratives. That would be for me, I believe, a pluralistic, democratic, human rights grounded vision which people would be able to live by to be ambassadors for that vision,” he concludes.

After this hard talk about a contentious topic, we move to a lighter one, politics in the UK. Nawaaz had been a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for London constituency in the 2015 general election and had lost. But he is happy with the progress people with Pakistani background have made in British politics.

“If you had told me when I was 15 years old that there would be a Pakistani woman serving in a Conservative cabinet in the UK, I wouldn’t have believed it. But this has happened within one’s lifetime and it is the real testimony to the progress that has been made in the integration debate and the place that British-Pakistanis feel they have in society.”

And with Sadiq Khan standing as a Labour Party candidate for the Mayor of London in the 2016 mayoral election, Nawaaz feels optimistic, irrespective of the election result.

I ask if this change is because the British-Pakistanis are making an effort to be more British today or is it because the British are more accepting for this integration.

“Both,” Nawaaz replies, “You see extremism has forced everyone to realise the need to have better conversations with each other. Traditionally, the Conservative wasn’t the party of minorities, but David Cameron has made a lot of effort to be inclusive. He appointed the first Pakistani-origin woman in the cabinet. The communities have also taken steps as they have realised that if we don’t go out and make our voices heard and interact more in mainstream society, then we can’t blame people if they stereotype or judge us. Familiarity breeds a kind of mutual respect that is needed for integration.”

With this, he took leave to expound his theories elsewhere.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 13th, 2015

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