How Orwell's 'Animal Farm' Led A Radical Muslim To Moderation When Maajid Nawaz was 16 he joined a radical Islamist group. After four years in prison in Egypt, he decided to leave it. "I'm very, very lucky to have been able to get through it," he says.
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How Orwell's 'Animal Farm' Led A Radical Muslim To Moderation

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How Orwell's 'Animal Farm' Led A Radical Muslim To Moderation

How Orwell's 'Animal Farm' Led A Radical Muslim To Moderation

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Attacks like those in France last week lead us to wonder, why do some young Muslim men and women become extremists? My guest has some understanding of that because he used to be an extremist. Maajid Nawaz grew up in England, the son of Pakistani parents. He describes himself as a Western-born Muslim who first found his voice of rebellion through American hip-hop, graffiti and dance. At age 16, he was transformed from a disillusioned British teenager to a hardened Islamist recruiter. He joined the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir advocating the group's mission of creating a caliphate. Nawaz still went to college and as part of his studies spent a year abroad in Egypt, where he continued his recruiting and as a result, was imprisoned for four years. A year after his release at the age of 24, he left the Islamist group and its ideology. He later co-founded a think tank called Quilliam, which is dedicated to countering extremist beliefs. Maajid Nawaz is the author of the memoir "Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism." He's now running for Parliament in England as a liberal Democrat Party candidate.

Maajid Nawaz, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start by asking you how you would have interpreted the cartoons including this week's cover of Charlie Hebdo if you were a militant extremist - if you were still an extremist?

MAAJID NAWAZ: I would've believed that there's a cosmic struggle going on between Muslims and non-Muslims. And that this struggle will continue until the day of judgment. And that is that Muslims can never live as a minority or under the authority of anything but an implementation of their interpretation of Islam or Sharia, that Muslims in a minority context or in a context where they don't have authority are bound to constantly receive such battering and attacks on their religion and faith. And the only way to protect the religion is, in fact, to establish or enforce the religion over society, pretty much how ISIL are claiming to do so now in Iraq and Syria.

And so this would've been a perfect opportunity for me, as an Islamist, to spread that propaganda to try and convince ordinary, everyday Muslims that there is a war going on against Islam and Muslims and that, in fact, they have no long-term future in the West. And, therefore, the only way forward would be for Muslims to self-segregate and eventually establish their own state which we would call the caliphate.

GROSS: Would you have advocated the murder of the cartoonists?

NAWAZ: I would have - see, the organization I used to belong to remains legal across the West and in the United States of America. What we would have advocated is that the caliphate would have implemented the death sentence on those who mock the prophet, not that we as vigilantes take the law into our own hands. And so the difference between Islamists and jihadists is that Islamists are seeking to establish a state that enforces their interpretation of Islam on everyone else. Jihadists want to act now. And it's a bit like the difference between militant socialists and socialists who work with the political system as they find it. You know, Islamism has the same schisms as you found within communism in that regard.

GROSS: When you were an Islamist, what was your understanding of blasphemy? Because the jihadis who murdered the cartoonists believed that they were guilty of blasphemy.

NAWAZ: You know, it's interesting, Terry, because I've often commentated that satire, the lampooning and criticizing political thought and irony and indeed sarcasm, are concepts that are often lost on Islamists and jihadists and generally on religious fundamentalists and religious conservatives.

They insist on reading things in a vacuously literal way. When I was an Islamist, I would have seen blasphemy as anything that, on the face of it, looks like it's being disrespectful to my prophet, anything that on the face of it looks as if it's denigrating the stature of the prophet or in any way ridiculing him.

GROSS: What does the Quran have to say about blasphemy? You memorized half of the Quran when you were in prison in Egypt.

NAWAZ: Yes, there's an Arabic phrase used in the Quran. It's called (speaking Arabic) which means mocking or ridiculing the religious symbols. The Quran is very clear on the prohibition of (speaking Arabic) or on the prohibition of mocking the prophet and mocking God.

However, that's a very different conversation to the one we should be having in France because the real challenge for Muslims across the world and therefore, for wider society as well - because we all live together as we should - the real challenge is in being able to distinguish between a Muslim who holds sacred symbols to be dear to them and then, the second step, interprets a particular piece of political satire as indeed being a mockery of their sacred symbols. And then going a third step there and saying, OK, I find this offensive, but you know what? You're not a Muslim, and I cannot oblige you. I cannot force you to adhere to my definition of mockery in the religion and into my interpretation that that particular cartoon is indeed mockery.

And so I don't think the problem here is enforcing Muslims to render nothing sacred in their religion. You know, I'm not offended by these cartoons, but I know many Muslims who are my friends who are offended. And the conversation I have with them is that actually the issue here is you can be offended all you like. What you can't do is insist that others do not offend you. There is a right to be offended. There is no right to insist that other people do not offend you.

GROSS: Last year, you tweeted a cartoon. And it wasn't your cartoon, but the cartoon depicts Jesus and Muhammad, and Jesus is saying, hey, and Muhammad is saying, how are you doing? And you wrote in your tweet, (reading) this is not offensive, and I'm sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it.

Why did you tweet it? And how did you respond to the death threats that you got after you did?

NAWAZ: Yes, it's very odd - everything that's happening now because I went through all of this last year and, as you mentioned, I received some very serious threats coming - originating in some cases from Pakistan from organized terrorist groups there. And, you know, my family was targeted as well and their addresses were published online, and it got very nasty. The reason I did this - and I want any Muslim listening to understand this especially. I did it in defense of Muslims. And when you understand the context, you'll understand how this came about.

I was on a television show on the BBC here in the United Kingdom, and the conversation was about personal freedoms. And there was a young Muslim lady who covered her face, the face veil in Arabic is known as the niqab. And the question was asked live on air whether she has a right to cover her face because, of course, in France the face veil is banned. And I intervened in her defense, though I disagree fundamentally, not only with the face veil - with the niqab, I also fundamentally disagree with women having to wear the head covering, the hijab. I don't think either are obligatory within the religion, but that's my personal opinion.

Nevertheless, I recognize people's right to follow their religion in any way they choose fit. So I intervened to defend her, and I said, this is a liberal society. You live in a free country. If you want to cover your face, that's up to you. I don't agree with you, but I will defend your right to do so. What happened next was there was a chap sitting next to her who undid his shirt and underneath he was wearing a T-shirt with the very cartoon you've just described. And he asked her whether, considering she'd just been told that she had every right to wear the face veil and people in the studio defended her, whether she would defend his right to wear that T-shirt. And she instantly turned to him and said, you have no right to wear that T-shirt. So again, I intervened and said to her, to be consistent, to be fair, the very same freedoms that allow you to cover your face are the very same freedoms that allow this man to wear that T-shirt.

Now, what happened next was that the BBC edited the close-up of the T-shirt. They didn't show the close-up image of it, and they only showed it in a long cut from a distance. And that caused a bit of a - it caused an uproar here. And many people started saying Muslims can't take any scrutiny, Muslims can't take criticism.

So you see, the first victims of this sort of approach, of this mollycoddling or pussyfooting around the debate, are Muslims themselves because at the end of the day, we're living as minorities within these societies, and so if there is going to be a backlash, we will face the brunt of it. So I decided to show that Muslims can take scrutiny, that we can be open-minded and open-chested. And so I tweeted, I'm not offended by this and I wish the BBC had shown the close-up of it. And so I tweeted it in that context.

And I just want to say one last thing, that the image, the one that I selected, is interesting because a lot of the distraction, the sidestepping around the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, a lot of the - let's say the scapegoating - is by people who are claiming that those cartoons were racist and that they're really offended because they were racist. And first of all, I don't think they were racist. But second of all, the image that you've just described of a stick figure called J saying hi to a stick figure called Mo, and the stick figure called Mo saying, how are you doing? It wasn't even in color. It had absolutely no - it played up to no racial generalization whatsoever.

GROSS: Right, and it didn't say the Prophet Muhammad. It just said Mo.

NAWAZ: It didn't. It just said Mo. So, therefore, there was no excuse of racism, of any form of negative commentary on Muslims at all because even the stick figure called Mo was simply saying, how are you doing? There was no commentary beyond that. And so that particular cartoon really teased out the issue - the real issue at hand here that this incident in France, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, was about blasphemy. We can sidestep it all we like. We can, you know, scapegoat all we like. We can blame the 12 dead cartoonists for being racist which is a very, you know, dishonorable thing to do. The real issue at hand here is about blasphemy. It is about the fact that the vast, you know, overwhelming majority of young Sunni Muslims are unfortunately intolerant of any non-Muslim depicting the Prophet Muhammad in any way whatsoever.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is this Maajid Nawaz, and he's a former Islamist. He's the former regional leader of an Islamist group - a militant extremist group. And after leaving that group, he co-founded and now chairs Quilliam which is a British think tank dedicated to countering extremism. He's also the author of an autobiography called "Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Maajid Nawaz. And he is a former Islamist who then denounced radical Islam and then cofounded a think tank, called Quilliam, in England, which is dedicated to countering extremism, including extremist beliefs about Islam. He's now also running for Parliament in the U.K. And he's written a memoir called "Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism."

We've been hearing about the backgrounds of poverty and the feelings of disenfranchisement that fuel a lot of militant Islamist beliefs, including perhaps the beliefs of the Kouachi brothers and Amedi Coulibaly. You were from a middle-class family. Your maternal grandparents moved to England after the partition of India. Your father emigrated to the U.K. from Pakistan. You and your mother were born in England. Your father is or was an engineer at an oil company. You grew up in a largely white, middle-class neighborhood. So you were not from that kind of poor, disenfranchised background that we're told leads to so much of the extremism. So let's talk a little bit about your background and how you got from there to Islamism. You write in your memoir that when you were - first became a teenager, you defined yourself by hip-hop, by American hip-hop. So what did you listen to, and what did it mean to you?

NAWAZ: Yes. Before I move specifically to your question, you're right. It's not as simple as saying that economic or social grievances cause Islamist radicalization because not just me, but even if we take the example of bin Laden. Bin Laden came from one of the richest families of Saudi Arabia and educationally was an engineer. The current leader of al-Qaida is a pediatrician, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He's a doctor and comes from a very well-established Egyptian family. And we can go on anecdotally like that to demonstrate actually that this - often we bring our own - whether we're left-wing or right-wing, we bring our own political biases when we come to analyze the causes for Islamist extremism. Now, to answer your question on my upbringing, yes. My mother, she wasn't born in the U.K. She was raised from a very young age - like 2 or 3, 4 or 5 - in the U.K. But I was obviously born there. And she has many siblings, my uncles and aunties, who were also born there. My father, as you currently mentioned, was an engineer. And I grew up in a very - relatively economically comfortable surroundings. And yet, despite that, I joined an Islamist revolutionary group at the age of 16. And I think the process begins - there are four main factors that lead to Islamist radicalization. But in my case, it began with a perceived sense of grievance, in particular around the racism I was facing domestically, in my home county of Essex in England, and abroad with the genocide that was unfolding in Bosnia, which, if you can imagine a genocide unfolding on the continent in which you live, it has a very, very lasting impact on one's psyche. And so in Bosnia, the case was there were white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Muslims who were being slaughtered and identified as Muslims. And that really touched me. But I really didn't grow up religious, and I didn't grow up acknowledging my Muslim identity. For me, I was a British Pakistani. And so Bosnia and domestic racism wasn't sufficient for me to turn to Islamism. But at the same time, I got into American hip-hop. And listening to American hip-hop - in fact, a bit like the Kouachi brothers - listening to heavily politicized, American rap in what's known as its golden era in the '90s, I got into groups such as Public Enemy and Chuck D who, you know, who I still - I think we follow each other on Twitter actually. And I got into N.W.A. I got into all sorts of hip-hop that was heavy on social commentary, whether N.W.A. and commentary-heavy on some of the crime and the gangs and the racism that they faced on the streets of Compton or Public Enemy, which was very heavy politically. And hip-hop in the '90s began moving towards the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters, black nationalist movements. And very much so these movements embraced a form of Islam, Malcolm X's form of Islam prior to his change. So what this music did for me is it gave me a sense of empowerment. It gave me a voice. It gave me a feeling that my identity could matter and did matter growing up as a British Pakistani who was facing racism from whiter society but also confusion about where I - where my family was from and not really fitting into either culture. And so the second stage to radicalization is you begin with a perceived sense of grievance. And then it moves on to an identity crisis. And that identity crisis begins the search for an alternative form of belonging or an identity. And the third factor is when a charismatic recruiter appears and exploits that perceived grievance and exploits the identity crisis to provide that sense of belonging. And in my case, it was a recruiter for the Islamist group that I eventually joined who was able to join the dots. He was able to get me to see, to my naive and young and angry 16-year-old mind, that it wasn't all about racism. If it was all about racism, why on Earth were Bosnian Muslims, who are white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Muslims, being slaughtered? And in fact, it was something far deeper than racism. It was the West's fundamental fear of Islam.

GROSS: How did you meet the person who introduced you to radical Islam?

NAWAZ: I actually met him through mutual friends. And they were recruiting. They weren't in the mosques because we didn't frequent the mosques. But they would go to the main street, and they would distribute flyers. And they would look for people like us to target and speak to. And one of the things we liked about these people that were recruiting us to the group is that they weren't ostensibly religious. And the key thing with Islamists, mainly the political and the revolutionary type of Islamists, is that they focus more on the political discourse, more on the identity questions, more on foreign policy than they do on religious devotion. And that's what attracted us originally because it was our very own form of revolution. Our minds were filled with a lot of the rebel discourse coming from American hip-hop. And we wanted a counterculture. And they provided that perfect counterculture for us. And that's the fourth and final factor that I want to mention in the process of radicalization. And that's the ideology. They sell what I call the Islamist narrative, that we then adopted as our counterculture. And it's that Islamist ideology that then freezes any grievance - any grievance of anyone. It freezes it. And then the entire world is then looked through the lens of the Islamist ideology.

GROSS: So did you start going to mosques even though you hadn't been brought up going to mosques?

NAWAZ: We mainly frequented mosques for the purpose of recruitment. The other thing with Islam is - to know - is that they look upon the traditional, conservative religious Muslim community with disdain. They see them as having secularized their religion. They see them as being socially backward. And they attempt to recruit from them. But they would only frequent their circles for the purpose of recruitment. So we would go to the mosques for the purpose of picking off people that were already religious so they could join our Islamist organization.

GROSS: Preach to me. Like, pretend like I'm a potential recruit, and you're trying to get me. This is, like, years ago, and you're trying to get me to join your group.

NAWAZ: So depending on the person and the occasion, we would use...

GROSS: I guess I'm a woman; I wouldn't probably count, right? No, maybe I would. Would I count?

NAWAZ: No, no - yeah, we recruit - yeah, we recruited lots of woman.

GROSS: OK.

NAWAZ: In fact, yeah, I mean...

GROSS: I know your wife was a member...

NAWAZ: My ex-wife, yeah. She didn't leave the group when I did. And, you know, that's why I said I'm in a very difficult position now because I've got a - you know, we've broken up. And I have a son, and it's - it's...

GROSS: Oh, you have a son from that marriage?

NAWAZ: Yes, yes, yes. It's very difficult.

GROSS: I didn't understand that. OK.

NAWAZ: Yeah, so - but, you know, depending on the person you are, we would use any given number of approaches. We would say that there's a scriptural approach. If you're a particularly religious Muslim, we would argue from scripture. So in the case of - let's take an example of Charlie Hebdo. Scripturally, we would bring all of the passages that prohibit blasphemy and mockery of religion to rile you up and to then link it to the next point, once you're riled up and sufficiently emotional about it, to say, how are you going to stop this? You know, the religion obliges you to do something to stop the insult to your prophet. Well, you can't stop it unless you have the strength and the power of a caliphate to intimidate people from taking such action. So there would be a religious approach using scripture. To stick with the Charlie Hebdo example, there's also a - what we call a political approach. And that would be to argue that democracy is effectively hypocrisy, that freedom of speech is used selectively, only to bash Muslims. In fact, you know, they don't adhere to their own principles of freedom of speech when they want to. We would say - we would put out tropes, and they are tropes, such as how, you know, Holocaust denial is illegal in France. And therefore, you know, why are the Jews protected and Muslims aren't protected? And that point there in particular fails to distinguish between criticizing a philosophy and picking on a people. That would be the political approach. And again, there's a third approach, which the intellectual approach. And here, we would - if we're speaking to somebody who's slightly more thoughtful, contemplative about things, we would have a philosophical discussion about freedom and its limits and why there's no such thing as real democracy. There's no such thing as real freedom. And philosophically, who has the right to set these parameters - and try and approach religion from a philosophical perspective. So there are different approaches we would use.

GROSS: Maajid Nawaz will be back in the second half of the show. His memoir is called "Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism." And he's the cofounder of the think tank Quilliam, which is dedicated to countering extremism. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Maajid Nawaz, a former extremist who was a recruiter in the global Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. He's British, the son of Pakistani parents. He joined the group when he was a disaffected 16-year-old and left it at the age of 24. He describes those years in his book "Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism." He's now the co-founder and chair of Quilliam, a think tank based in London, dedicated to countering extremism.

Let me ask you this. As a young man - and you were 16 when you became an Islamist - that's the age when, I mean, so many teenagers have sex on their mind a good deal of the time. When you're an Islamist, you're not supposed to be thinking about sex all the time. You're certainly not supposed to be having sex outside of marriage. If this isn't too personal, what did you do with that impulse?

NAWAZ: (Laughter) That's a good question.

GROSS: And I ask that, in part, because we read that, like, some of the 9/11 attackers were at strip clubs, you know, before the attack. I read that Amedy Coulibaly - police raided his home in 2010 and found, in addition to all the religious texts on his computer, they had - he had photos of, quote, "pedo-pornographic character," unquote.

NAWAZ: Yeah. Yeah. You know, for all their holier-than-thou attitude, Islamists are the most - of the most sexualized beings living among us. And I know I was one. And, you know, likewise, I was very sexualized. And, you know, that's really that, deep down, when you say that a woman's face arouses me and therefore she should cover it and that's what God wants - or her hair or any other part of her body. And some of them insist that women must wear gloves. What it's really saying is that they can't take the fact that these things arouse them.

And so I joined at 16. Before that, you know, I had a liberal upbringing, and I had very, you know, many (laughter) - I say many girlfriends, you know. I had my fair share of relationships. And when I joined at 16, all of that had to stop. And that's actually one of the reasons I married young. I married my ex-wife at roughly 21. And, you know, we had a kid a year later. And that's probably why I did that because I found it extremely difficult, especially as somebody who was in my early teens, late teens and then in my early 20s to resist that impulse, as you said. And those who don't have the opportunity that I did to get married they - I, you know, I genuinely believe having - remembering what it was like, you know.

So I, as an 18-year-old, wasn't having sex, knowing what it was like because, prior to 16, I was sexually active. So I knew what I was missing. And so I can say this with a level of certainty, that those who don't immediately get married in the way that I did, early, which has its own challenges - those that don't, do often end up developing very, very severe sexual perversions. It's no surprise to me that they find pornography on the hard drives of - and not just any - I'm not arguing here that pornography is perverted, because that's a different discussion - but the very perverted type of pornography that you referred to that involves children and what have you. And also because those who take scripture vacuously go back to medieval interpretations of religion, and they find that, in Muslim medieval times, we didn't have this understanding that women were too young at 16 or too young at 15 or too young at 13 to consent to sex. And so they take that and literally apply it today.

And as we see with ISIL, you know, it's an abomination in itself that they're enslaving woman. But then, beyond that, they've issued guidance to their followers that their slaves don't have an age limit. They can, you know, they can rape a 21-year-old slave, a 50-year-old slave, and they could rape, God forbid, a 12-year-old slave. And that's the issue here, that when you can go back to medieval interpretations of religion where the standards we've become accustomed to for good, moral reasons didn't apply. And then, on top of that, you're highly sexually frustrated. You will rail against the West for their sexual promiscuity, for the way in which women are treated like meat because they're wearing miniskirts and the pornographic industry and what not have you. At yet, at the same time, you're enslaving women or you're justifying the enslavement of women, or you're justifying, likewise, treating women like meat by insisting they must cover up. And you don't see the irony there. You really don't see that you are actually a product of everything you're complaining about.

GROSS: You spent - was it five years in prison in Egypt?

NAWAZ: I was sentenced to five years, and I served my full sentence, which ended up being roughly four years.

GROSS: What were you imprisoned for?

NAWAZ: The initial charges, and these are the charges that led to Amnesty International adopting us as prisoners of conscience, they were propagating, by speech and writing, the ideas of a banned organization.

GROSS: So, while you were in prison, you got to meet some pretty powerful Islamist leaders. Just give us a sense of who you had communication with inside.

NAWAZ: Yes. I was in prison with pretty much the who's who of the jihadist and Islamist scene of Egypt at the time. And Egypt was the cradle of Islamism for the world. It's where it began and where jihadism began as well. I was imprisoned with the assassins of the former president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, who was killed in 1981. Those who weren't executed in that case were given life sentences, and two of those were with me in prison.

I was in prison with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. He's known as the Murshid al-'Am - the general guide. His name is Dr. Mohammed al-Badie. I was in prison with the leader of Hezb ut-Tahir, my own group. I was in also in prison with some other jihadists who were professional bomb makers and others, some affiliated to al-Qaeda and some affiliated to jihad and other such Egyptian groups.

But also, interestingly, I had liberal political prisoners with me in Egypt. And, beyond that, there was a group known as the Queen's Boat Case, who were gay Egyptians who'd been imprisoned for being gay. And then there were Christians who'd converted to Islam, and there were Muslims who'd converted to Christianity. So we had a running joke in prison under Hosni Mubarak and that was that, in Egypt, if you change your mind from anything to anything, you get put in prison.

GROSS: (Laughter) It sounds like it was very multicultural inside.

NAWAZ: Indeed. You can imagine the sorts of conversations that the gay guys would be having with the assassins of Sadat. And so, in a sense, you know, it was a very, very thorough education - a political education for me over the course of those four years.

GROSS: Was it humanizing in a way to be in close quarters with people who you disagreed with, whether it was because they were liberal or whether because they were gay?

NAWAZ: Absolutely. And what I did is, see, I took to being a law student and a languages student. You know, I was quite studious, and I wanted to carry on with my studies. So I took the opportunity to read, to study and to discuss with everyone. And I began reading a lot of George Orwell. Now, if your listeners have read George Orwell's "Animal Farm," George Orwell parodies the Soviet communist state - the USSR - and takes the example of a farm to kind of parody what happens in - when somebody tries to create a utopia. Now, when reading that, I began to join the dots and think, my God, if these guys that I'm here with in prison ever came to power, they would be the Islamist equivalent of "Animal Farm." You know, if they declared their caliphate, you know, they would do all the things that Orwell warns of in "Animal Farm," but in the name of God instead.

And so I kind of began to see the humanization combined with the understanding that it's impossible to create a utopia, especially when - if this is the vanguard. And I'm living up-close and seeing their everyday habits and lifestyle. I thought, my God, you know, I wouldn't trust these guys in power because, you know, when I called it back then and said - if this caliphate - this theocratic caliphate was ever established, it would be a nightmare on earth. And now, when we see what ISIL is doing in the name of this theocratic caliphate, I believe I've been vindicated that these guys - any of them - if they ever got to power, they would be committing mass atrocities.

GROSS: You memorized half of the Quran while you were in prison, and I guess you had ample time to do it over the years that you were in prison. Reading it carefully and committing it to memory, did it give you a different interpretation of what you thought the Quran said when you were preaching extremism?

NAWAZ: Yes. I think one of the things I learnt is - because not only was I attempting to memorize it, but I was attempting to understand it. And because I became fluent in the Arabic language, I was able to go right down into the meanings of the words. And what I learnt was, in fact, that subject matters or topics that we as Islamists were prepared to overthrow governments for, the traditional Islamic scholars had just as fierce as debates as we were having. But instead of overthrowing governments, they were writing books about them. They were disagreeing with each other over books and then refuting each other in books that would respond. So it was all done in, as scholars would do, in writing. And they were splitting hairs over issues that we would be prepared to kill people over. But they were then, you know, sitting down together and talking as normal.

So I began to appreciate the difference between how Islam had been traditionally interpreted and practiced and, of course, of course, there are lots of things in the medieval interpretation of Islam that, today, we would find repugnant. But that's because it was - it came in the context of the medieval age. It needs updating. It needs - you know, the interpretation needs to reform to fit with our time today. And that's another struggle. That's another challenge. But relative for the time then, it was - they were relatively open people. I mean, you know, the Middle East had a golden era under sort of, you know - we hear of the tales of the 1001 nights and Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad, and we hear of the stories. And so I began to appreciate that, actually, Islamism was an entirely modern construct that had more in common with post-World War I European fascism imposed on religion and ideas of a super-state and a super-people than it did with any historical version of Islam.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Maajid Nawaz. He's a former Islamist who is now the chair and co-founder of a British think tank called Quilliam dedicated to countering extremism. And he's written an autobiography called "Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Maajid Nawaz, who's a former Islamist. He was the regional head of an Islamist group called Hizb ut-Tahrir, and he was in an Egyptian prison for four years. He's written an autobiography called "Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism." He's now the chair and co-founder of Quilliam, which is a British think tank dedicated to countering extremism.

What do you say now to people who argue that Islam is inherently a violent form of religion?

NAWAZ: The conclusion that I have come to is that actually, no religion, whether it's Islam, Christianity or any idea based on scripture or texts, is a religion of anything, really. It's - you know, Islam is a religion. It will be what Muslims make of it. And it is the sum total of the interpretation that Muslims give to it. So it's not a religion of war. It's not a religion of peace. It happens to be that the majority of Muslims today interpret Islam to disagree with al-Qaida. The vast majority do not belong to jihadist groups. I can say with a level of confidence that Islam is not a religion of war, only because the majority of Muslims don't subscribe to that perspective, not because there's something inherent in the text that tells me it's a religion of peace.

Likewise, on the flipside, I do acknowledge - and we must, I think, as Muslims acknowledge - that there are serious scriptural challenges for us. The Quran does not prohibit slavery. It regulates it, and there's a huge distinction there. And in its regulation of slavery, it refers to it in the Arabic as (speaking Arabic), or what the right hand possesses. In its regulation of slavery or in its endorsement of lashing people as punishment or in amputating the hand for theft, the Quran is explicit in all of these issues. And so our challenge, really, as Muslims, is, yes, fine, the majority of us disagree with al-Qaida, but as I said to you earlier, I shouldn't be thanked for saying I don't want to kill anyone. You know, that should be the baseline, the default. The real challenge for us as Muslims is to go beyond that and have those very difficult conversations about reinterpreting scripture, given the social and political norms that have developed today, and reinterpreting it within a human rights framework.

GROSS: As we mentioned before, prison - when you were in prison in Egypt, it actually had a moderating effect on you because you read a lot. You studied a lot. You ended up having conversations with liberal Muslims who were in prison for their liberal points of view. Then you got out of prison, returned to England, but you didn't leave the radical organization you were a part of - Hizb ut-Tahrir - until about a year later. Was there, like, a turning point for you that made you think it's time to get out?

NAWAZ: Yes, because I didn't leave, as you rightly said, for roughly 10, 11 months. And the reason is I'd arrived at certain conclusions in prison that I wanted to test among my fellow members of my organization, and I immediately rejoined on their leadership in the United Kingdom and began testing out my new ideas to see if I could change them from within. And of course, remember I was married, literally married, to the organization. My wife was a member of the organization, and my entire friendship circle were Islamists.

And when I realized within, you know, the course of the 10 months that there was no way that I could change this organization from within, that's when I took the step to leave the organization. But it is very, very difficult to pull oneself out of that atmosphere at risk of losing all of your friends and, you know, your marriage falling apart, which is eventually what happened. It's a very difficult thing to do, but I realized that I had to do it.

GROSS: But your identity probably falls apart, too, especially - I mean, you had just served four years in prison for believing what you believed and for advocating what you believed. And now you're going to turn your back on that and say well, I don't even believe it anymore. So that means you spent four years in prison for something you no longer believe, that - I mean, you're challenging your former self when you leave. That's...

NAWAZ: Everything, everything...

GROSS: ...A profound thing to do.

NAWAZ: ...Everything falls apart. I lost all my friends. You know, there are members - very, very close and dear members - of my family, I'm talking like, you know, immediate family, who simply don't speak to me anymore and haven't done so for years. You know, my marriage fell apart. I suffered my second identity crisis. And I'm very, very lucky to have been able to get through it.

There were people who had sampled my voice from speeches when I was an Islamist and made them the chorus of, you know, pro-Islamist rap songs, who then began talking about me as an apostate. Everything turned on its head, and I had to rebuild my life. I had to finish my degree because, of course, I still had one year left in my university. And I had to find a job. And the challenge, of course, was also that people didn't want to employ someone who had been a political prisoner in the war on terror.

So everything had to be changed and turned around and picked up and - the thing is, though, that there are - sometimes these things come down to the type of personality one could maybe be born with. You know, you can either see the glass half-full or the glass half-empty. And I've always been an optimist. And I've always wanted to see change. And so the way I got through this is I sought continuity. I looked back, and I thought, who am I? What am I really motivated by? And I took myself back, all the way back to when I was 15, facing the racism in the streets of - and I'm talking armed racism - attacks with hammers and knives and machetes and - you know, the genocide in Bosnia. And I saw that what I was really incensed by was the injustice of it all. And I thought, well, it's OK because now, I've come to realize that the Islamists are as much part of the problem as what I originally was inspired by - the injustice of the racists and the genocide in Bosnia because Islamists would also commit a genocide. And again, lo and behold, that's what we see with ISIL in Iraq against the Yazidi community.

So I sought that continuity and said what I stand for and what I've always stood for, what makes me know, actually, know inside myself that I'm still the same person, is, in fact, I'm inspired by - to seek justice, by a sense of right and wrong. What's changed is the vehicle through which I express that. Today, I use liberalism, and I always will. But, you know, for a while, a brief period of my life, I had adopted the Islamist ideology, thinking that that was the antidote to the injustice that I saw around me.

GROSS: So the new you - the post-radical you - co-founded a think tank in England called Quilliam, and the goal of Quilliam is to counter extremism, including Islamism and jihadis. And you're trying to create counter-narratives so that the stories that feed the extremism can be countered with stories that have other explanations for the ills in the world that the extremists are trying to correct. So what are some of the kind of counter-narratives that you tell people who are extremists who you're trying to talk out of their ideology?

NAWAZ: Yeah, absolutely, you've hit the nail on the head as to exactly why we set Quilliam up. And we founded Quilliam during the peak of the Bush and Blair war on terror era, and we felt that the approach to terrorism, which I summarize as an approach of law and war, was insufficient. We cannot legislate our way out of this problem. And we cannot fight our way out of this problem.

If indeed our analysis was correct, which I believe has come to been proven that it is correct, and that's that this is we're dealing with a global ideology that has reached insurgency levels. We're dealing with the spread of ideas that have come to inspire entirely new generations of the young Muslims to join up - that no matter how many people we kill and no matter how many people we imprison, more and more Islamists and more and more jihadists are coming forward. You know, we killed bin Laden. You know, we dealt with al-Qaida as a structural - as an organization, and ISIL emerged. And so if we recognize that we're dealing with a new global brand, then the challenge, really, is to make the Islamist brand, today, as unattractive, as unappealing as Soviet communism has become for young people. We don't see angry, young teenagers today in America or in Britain or in Europe joining Stalin-style communist movements because it's simply just not appealing. It's not attractive anymore. And that's what we need to achieve with the Islamist ideology, and that requires counter-narratives. And so challenging the propaganda head-on of the Islamist is one of the things we do. We work with media. We do lots of public debates and speaking. We do work with Muslim communities as well.

GROSS: I think a lot of jihadis think that they are God's warriors and they will be rewarded in heaven, so therefore, it's OK to die for their cause- it's OK to be a suicide bomber and take others with you when you die. In fact, it's a good thing, and you will be rewarded for it. How do you counter that?

NAWAZ: Yes, that is what they believe, and one of the things we are pushing for is wider exposure given to counter-narratives. So let's take Iraq as an example. Jihadist suicide-bombing culture is built upon this idea, as you rightly said, that for the purpose of achieving the war objectives, to elevate the word of Islam, as they believe, to make the word of Islam the highest and to establish the authority of Islam, you're allowed to sacrifice your own life in killing the so-called infidel.

But if you look at, as inevitably happened - likewise with Soviet communism, you know, where Stalin was rumored to eventually have killed Trotsky - as happens, is that they start fighting each other because - pretty much like the "Life Of Brian," that Monty Python satirical film, they start arguing over whether they are the Judean People's Front or the People's Front of Judea. Who really represents God's word? Because you have to have that level of certainty if you're going to kill yourself and others in the name of God. You know, you really seek certainty because you need to know you're doing the right thing for the right reasons.

But that causes schisms. That search for certainty, that desire to be absolutely right is what causes the schisms. So in Iraq right now, you have al-Qaida, who we thought were the worst of the worst, fighting and killing ISIL and vice versa. They're killing each other. And this is part of the counter-narrative. When we put out there this information to say, these groups are killing each other first and foremost, before even killing Assad, who is the dictator of Syria. And if you go out there to join this jihad, you'll be killing each other because that's the nature of any form of dogma and in particular, dogma in the name of God, is that it will turn in on itself.

GROSS: My guest is Maajid Nawaz. His memoir is called "Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism." He's the co-founder and chair of the British think tank Quilliam, which is dedicated to countering extremism. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Maajid Nawaz, and he is a former radical Islamist who was the regional head of an Islamist organization. He left that after about 13 years and after being in prison in Egypt. He has written a memoir called "Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism." He's the co-founder and chair of Quilliam, which is a British think tank dedicated to countering extremism, and he's now running for parliament in the Liberal Democratic Party in England.

Something that is just so confounding to me and many people is, why is it that extremist Muslims feel justified in killing individuals for drawing a cartoon or walking into a kosher market? And yet, ISIS is slaughtering Muslims. Boko Haram is kidnapping and killing Muslims. And you don't see Muslims around the world rising up against these extremist movements. But after the Danish cartoons, you saw riots in Muslim countries.

NAWAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: And it just seems, like, so confounding. Maybe you could talk about that a little bit, and I also make the assumption that, as a think tank trying to counter extremism, that you've been trying to organize moderate Muslims into asserting themselves and asserting their version of the religion over the extremist one.

NAWAZ: Yes. The reason for this is primarily because of them-and-us narrative, that the Islamists - as I tried to explain at the beginning of this interview - have a vested interest in peddling. If the Islamists can succeed in saying there's a them and an us, that this is a clash of civilizations - Islamic civilization on the one end and Democratic civilization on the other - which is false by the way. But if they can succeed in peddling that narrative, they create the divide over them and us, and they leave only one option left to Muslims, which is you'll only ever be safe in this so-called theocratic caliphate, so help us establish it.

Now the them-and-us narrative has gained some ground, unfortunately. So even among non-Islamist Muslims, they tend to see the world - many of them tend to see the world through a tribal lens. And of course, when the debate deteriorates to a tribal level, when you are arguing to defend your own tribe, you tend to ignore the mistakes of your tribe and focus only on the mistakes of others. And that's the nature of a tribal-style debate.

Of course, the truth is there is no clash of Islamic civilization versus Democratic civilization. The real clash - and there is certainly a clash, and it's certainly an ideological clash. But the real clash is within Muslim peoples and within the rest of the world between those who subscribe to Democratic values, Muslim and non-Muslim, and those who subscribe to a form of fascism, whether it be theocratic fascism as is the form with the theocracy of Iran or the ISIL Star caliphate, or any other form of fascism, such as North Korea that is an ally with Iran. That is the real clash that's going on in the world at the moment. And on both sides of that debate, you'll find Muslims and non-Muslims on either side. And that more complex, richer picture is what Islamists don't want people to understand, and it's why it suits them whenever the debate deteriorates into a them-and-us, being Muslims versus the rest.

GROSS: Maajid Nawaz, thank you so much for talking with us. I wish you well. Be well and good luck to you.

NAWAZ: Thank you very much. It was an absolute pleasure.

GROSS: Maajid Nawaz is the co-founder and chair of Quilliam, a think tank dedicated to countering extremism. His memoir is called "Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism."

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