British Muslim Renounces Radical Islamic Group

Hizb ut Tahrir requires its members to adhere to the strictest interpretation of Islamic law and forbids participation in Western institutions like police or army forces. Recently, a former senior member of the group in Britain publicly criticized its fundamentalist ideology.

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The British have first-hand experience with homegrown terrorists, young alienated British Muslims swayed by radical movements. And that's raised questions about one Muslim organization in the country, Hizb ut-Tahrir. The group is legal in Britain, banned in many countries. It requires members to adhere to the strictest interpretation of Islamic law and forbids participation in Western institutions; for example, no service in the police force or the army, and no voting in elections.

Critics accuse the group of encouraging terrorism, a claim Hizb ut-Tahrir denies. Recently a senior member left the group in Britain and then publicly criticized its ideology.

NPR's Rob Gifford went to meet him.

ROB GIFFORD: A pot of couscous is being stirred in the kitchen of a small house in an unremarkable corner of North London as three Muslim men prepare to break their Ramadan fast with their families.

(Soundbite of kitchen)

GIFFORD: For one of the three, this year's Ramadan has been particularly significant. For Majid Nawaz(ph), it's his first Ramadan since he left the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Nawaz was born in a commuter town just east of London, a third generation British Muslim of Pakistani origin. It was while he was still in his teens, confused about his mixed identity, watching television and seeing Muslims being killed in Bosnia that he was approached by an activist of Hizb ut-Tahrir who seem to offer black and white answers to his questions.

Mr. MAJID NAWAZ (Former Member, Hizb ut-Tahrir): If the problem is one of Muslims being slaughtered by Serbs, then what we need, as they would say, is Muslims who would defend other Muslims, and that would require a Muslim army, and that would require a Muslim state. So we need an independent Islamic state that only serves the interests of Muslims and Islam.

GIFFORD: Nawaz loved his newfound certainties and became a spokesperson and propagandist for Hizb ut-Tahrir, traveling to Pakistan and Denmark as well as all over Britain recruiting people to the cause. He rose to be one of the group's most senior members. Then in 2001 he was arrested in Egypt where Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned. It was while serving four years in an Egyptian jail during which he says he was beaten and saw other prisoners tortured that he immersed himself in the study of Islam.

Mr. NAWAZ: I came to the conclusion that Islam is not the same as this Islamist ideology that Hizb ut-Tahrir are propagating. They have superimposed political ideology upon Islam, upon my religion and are presenting as if its one in the same as religion.

(Soundbite of chanting)

GIFFORD: Nawaz leads the prayers with his friends before they sit down to eat their meal. He says he has by no means lost his faith. It was understanding true Islam that rescued him from Islamism, which he now defines as using Islamic scripture to justify totalitarian ideology. His colleagues in Hizb ut-Tahrir were shocked when he finally left the group last month, a year after his release from jail. He says he had to overturn 12 years of indoctrination by Hizb ut-Tahrir, but now says HT, as he calls it, is much more than just a cult.

Mr. NAWAZ: To describe them with the word cult perhaps underestimates the danger because it's a political party with an ideology to push, to pedal through to the world. And so I think that we have to be careful because HT are a political party that are intent on establishing a totalitarian state to implement their ideology, their man-made ideology, which is a result of modern political thinking superimposed upon Islam.

GIFFORD: Despite now opposing Hizb ut-Tahrir, Nawaz says he does not want to see the group banned because he says at present they're not encouraging violence, and he says Islamism is different from Islamic terrorism. One of his main aims now is to try to help other British Muslims often alienated by government policies at home and abroad to integrate more into British life. He's still very critical of British government policy in the Middle East, especially Iraq, and of anti-terrorism legislation in Britain, which he says targets and alienates young British Muslims.

Mr. NAWAZ: If they have and they do have issues with these policies then they should try and redress these grievances from within the institutional frameworks of our country. And that can only occur if we, first of all, psychologically identify ourselves as British and then we participate fully within these institutions as citizens; not as outsiders, but as people who have an equal stake in our own society.

GIFFORD: Hizb ut-Tahrir did not respond to NPR's requests for an interview. Nawaz says he has received abusive e-mails and phone threats from some Islamists, but he says he did so much to encourage division between Muslims and non-Muslims that he now must repair that damage. As for his safety, he says, he takes precautions but he says ultimately it is in God's hands.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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