Conversations with an ex-radical Islamist – Why did he change his mind?

Youth Radicalization Redefined At The 2011 Tribeca Film FestivalMaajid Nawaz (pictured above), a former radical Islamist, now a liberal counter-extremism activist, and author of his autobiographical book ‘Radical’ , held an AMA (ask me anything) over at /reddit/r/books a few days ago, here are some of the questions and answers from that session.

The Introduction to the AMA opened with this …

My name is Maajid Nawaz. Some of you may have read my book ‘Radical’ (, others may have heard of the organisation I run called Quilliam, or indeed come across some of my interviews & debates on counter-extremism. 

This is my first time doing a Reddit AMA. I am excited to read your questions and comments. We can chat about my journey into and away from Islamist ideology, my experiences with torture and prison in Egypt, my autobiography, my liberal activism now, my political campaign, current world affairs, or anything else that might be of interest to you. I’m looking forward to it.

I will be here to answer your questions today, January 20th, starting at 12 noon Eastern.

And from what follows, I’ve picked out some of the more interesting (to me) bit of that Q&A …

Q: To what extent do you think the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have exacerbated Islamic terrorism, if at all? What about their support for Israel?

I understand you have been in dialogue with Sam Harris. What is your opinion on “new” atheism (Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, etc.) and its often confrontational style? A lot of people seem to think they do more harm than good.

Finally, what for you was the turning point away from Islamic extremism? Forgive me for not yet having read your book, where this is probably answered.

Maajid: Four factors contribute to the rise of Islamist extremism: 1) Perceived grievances 2) An identity crisis 3) Charismatic recruiters 4) Islamist ideology. The ill-fated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (in particular Iraq – which I opposed from my jail cell in Egypt) have contributed in that they contributed to factor number 1. However, I am cautious of those who say it is only about grievances. If that were so, why did Gandhi (who had many grievances against British colonialism, not resort to violence?) It is clear that ideology and other factors also play a role. To tackle extremism, we must tackle all four factors. The one that is most neglected at the moment is an understanding, and a challenge of, the Islamist ideology. I elaborate all this in this Q&A here:

Q: Do you believe there is a high risk of extremist attacks such as the Charlie Hebdo one, occurring in London, or other Western cities?

Maajid: It’s almost inevitable.

Q: I saw your debate with Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Douglas Murray on IQ2. It was really interesting to watch you guys debate.

You said you started turning away from radical Islamism when you were in prison and you talked with prisoners who had been there for many years. What did they say to convince you?

Also, are you happy with the way the debate turned out? Anything you’d want to change about your argument?

Maajid: What happened to turn me away from Islamism is the subject of an entire book, read it : ) In short, what I would say is that Amnesty adopted me as a Prisoner of Conscience, and that softened my heart. It was the first time ‘my enemy’ had stuck their necks out to defend me on principle. I often say that “where the heart leads the mind can follow”.

On your second question, no, I was not happy to be constrained by a debate motion that artificially restricted the parameters of what I could say by forcing me to choose a side due to its adversarial nature. This discussion at the Richmond Forum with Ayaan, a year later, was not a debate and therefore explains my view much better:

Q: What do you believe can be done in order to prevent people from turning to extremism and do you think it is possible for it to be rejected almost entirely in the future?

Maajid: Invest in cultivating, building, and amplifying community-based resilience against the Islamist ideology per se, not just its violent aspects. IN Obama’s case, this could start by him plucking up the courage to name it. Otherwise we end up with a Voldermort-style ‘that which must not be named’ scenario, which is an incredibly paralysing rut to be stuck in.

Q: Why do you think more Muslims than any other religion turn to violent extremism?

Maajid: Because we are currently living Islam’s equivalent of the Reformation, whereby Islam is struggling with modernity, just as Christianity did (put aside that Muslims never had a clergy to break away from, the analogy stands in a general sense). Islam is 600 years younger than Christanity, and that’s why you’re seeing this struggle now. We are living it.

Q: Are you afraid you may have boarded a sinking ship by standing for the Lib Dems, who are expected to be the big losers of the GE? What is it about the likes of Tories, Labour, Greens that made you decide against standing for them?

Maajid: I stood for the Liberal Democrats on principle, not because I want power. I had previously briefed Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and then David Cameron. I really didn’t lack access to any of the other parties, and both asked me to join. However, I like to do these things on principle, just like I used to be an Islamist based on principles. I used to believe in ideas that even got me sent to prison. So I joined the Liberal Democrats on principle, whether I win or lose is a second order questions for me.

As someone has already noted on here, my counter-extremism work must continue either way. The reason I did join the Liberal Democrats is because I am not a conservative, and I am not a socialist. I am a liberal.

Q: Hey Maajid, big fan and thanks for doing this AMA. Has Mehdi Hasan formerly apologised to you after he went on newsnight not to talk about the cartoon you tweeted but to argue about the fact Quilliam called the Muslim Council of Britain an extremist organisation? After all you were right as the MCB think muslim schools teaching their pupils not to integrate with society are just teaching “conservative Islamic principles”. Also what are your views on the Eric Pickles letter? Have you spoken to any offended Bradford imams about it yet?

Maajid: No he has not. My door is always open, and I’ve reached out to him on twitter and text a few times to try and request that we move forward together. He could be an important voice for change if he had the courage to move beyond some of his firmly held dogma. Alas, it is not yet to be.

My view on Eric Pickles’ letter is articulated here in 2 mins:

Q: How has the Quilliam foundation succeeded? What tangible results does your work have to show?

Maajid: Quilliam is a counter-messaging organisation, working on the preventative side of counter-extremism. Our job is to make the Islamist ideology as unattractive, and as unappealing as Stalin-style Soviet Communism has become today. In that sense, we are best compared to anti-racism campaigns such as the US civil rights movement. Our effectiveness can therefore only be gauged by raising in awareness around what the Islamist ideology is, what causes it, how to tackle it and what can replace it. This is why we rely heavily on media narratives, working with policy makers and building resilience among all communities against extremist narratives. This is hard work to gauge, but I do believe that there is a nascent counter-extremism and pro-democracy culture emerging among communities. There has also been solid changes in policy – such as a trend against the heavy handed “more law and more war” approach of the last decade, that has come about through our direct work with consecutive British Prime-Ministers. There has also been a noticeable change in media narratives and public awareness. Truly though, we will only really see this after we look back 50 years from now and think “did people really call for a return of theocracy during our lifetimes?” Pretty much how we look at racism or homophobia now (though there is still a lot more to do in both these areas).

Q: How do you feel about Europe’s new right-leaning anti-islamism/anti-mass-immigration movements, such as the Danish People’s Party and (more controversially) Pegida? To me, they seem mostly – with some notable exceptions especially in Eastern and Southern Europe – pretty moderate and inclusive (in the sense of, say, gay-friendliness and racial tolerance) compared to the “traditional” far-right. What do you make of them, and do you feel that the media has generally been fair in its portrayal of them? Do you think their concerns of the consequences of large-scale immigration have justification? Or do you see it as simply alarmism, hysteria, prejudice? How should decision-makers react to such concerns?

Maajid: These movements have emerged because many left-wingers and liberals have left a gaping big fat big hole in the centre-ground, allowing extremism to grow without challenging it, from fear of being perceived as non-inclusive. Europe’s populist movements have regrettably capitalised on the righteous frustration that has emerged from this. The solution here is not to dismiss the rising frustration with Islamist and far-right polarisation in our countries, but to address this head on and carve out an assertive liberal centre that reinforces democratic culture.

Q: Maajid, thank you so much for what you are doing!

I am not a believer, although I come from a muslim family. I really agree with you that there are blasphemy taboos within the muslim world and communities. Even my very secular father has issues with the Rushdies and the Vilks.

On to my question. Many of my muslim friends are hard core anti-blasphemy crusaders. I understand that you were one yourself some time ago. What was your breaking point? I know it is difficult to explain reasons of ones thoughts and behavior, but was there an idea that made it impossible to continue being an islamist? Something that all of us could use in this war of ideas?

Maajid: Animal Farm. The idea that there is no such thing as a utopia, the way in which missionaries will end up becoming the very oppressors they claim to fight… ergo ISIL. Look at blasphemy, even the conservative religious preacher Junaid Jamshed in Pakistan was not spared, and he was merely quoting a hadith. Blasphemy is in the eye of the beholder, and that means that he who has power, will use the charge merely to silence critics. We must win this argument by pointing to real examples.

Q: Does moderate Islam actually exist?

Those ‘moderate’ Muslims I have met hold a cultural attachment to Islam but hold no real belief in god or the tenets of the quran.

What are your beliefs? What kind of Muslim are you?

Maajid: There is no real Islam. Everyone has their own interpretation of every religion. This is the golden nugget against extremism, because if extremists realise that theirs is merely one interpretation among many, they must come to accept that they have no moral or political right to impose their view on anyone else. This is why I resist requests to define “moderate Islam”. Insisting that I have the “real” Islam – extremist or moderate – is what got us into this mess in the first place.

Q: Hi Maajid, I am no Muslim but I have listened to you talk many times and I think you are a genuine, reflective and decent man. Recently I watched your debate on intelligence squared and the BBC’s big question. I have many questions, but I will narrow it down to two rather expansive ones.

How did you flip Tommy Robinson? In your opinion is he a good person who had been misled? Are there any parallels between himself and the many young British Muslims who turn to extremism?

And, If you really want to spread a more progressive form of Islam ( which i think you do) wouldn’t you have greater influence if you joined the Muslim Council of Britain? Do you think that the MCB is constructive in force in assimilating alienated young Muslims? or do yo think they are the opposite?

Sorry for the big questions I hope you find them interesting, and keep doing what your doing you are a force of decency and reason in the world!

Maajid: 1) Tommy is a bloke who wanted to challenge Islamism and tried to do it as best he could. He still is on his journey. I’ll be keen to see how he progresses on that journey. Yes, the grievances he felt are similar to grievances others feel, and such grievances if unaddressed can lead to frustration, which can lead to joining groups that are unhealthy for society.

2) I take the view that the MCB and its communal, tribal approach to society is part of the problem. I don’t endorse the “community leader” model. See:

Q: I am all for prosecuting a war of ideas against radical Islam–winning a war of ideas would be the best case scenario because no one would have to die; however, it seems at this moment that most Muslims aren’t even willing to start talking. Criticism is almost always construed as bigotry, hypocrisy, and/or racism. Considering this barrier, and given the expansion rate of ISIS and the mounting number of failed states in the middle east, do you think we can win a war of ideas before the west embraces more dramatic military measures, including all out war?

Maajid: Indeed. This is what makes my work so damn hard, and so frustrating at times. We must keep on until Islamism is as unattractive an idea as Soviet Communism has become today. In the long term, it’s the only way.


The above is just my personal selection from the Q&A, you will find the complete conversation here.

2 thoughts on “Conversations with an ex-radical Islamist – Why did he change his mind?”

  1. This guy seemed far too friendly with known criminal politicians. Add to the mix the corny use of reading Orwells Animal Farm (an often used cliche) for the reason he “converted” to the west, I let my internet search engine seek out the real Maajid. This guy is indeed reeking of fish odours. (Link removed by Admin – contained malware)

    • Your link goes to a page that contained malware, the link has been removed. What is truly fishy here is your rather blatant attempt to entrap others – sorry, not playing. Attempt that again and I’ll lodge a formal complaint with the Australian Broadcasting Commission.


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