Maajid Nawaz

Maajid Nawaz

Nawaz at West Hampstead, London hustings 2015
Born Maajid Usman Nawaz
(1978-11-02) November 2, 1978
Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England.[1]
Occupation Author · Founder of Quilliam · Liberal Democrat Politician
Nationality British
Ethnicity Pakistani
Education Law and Arabic (B.A 2007)
Political Theory (M.Sc. 2008)
Alma mater SOAS, University of London
London School of Economics
Genre Nonfiction
Subject Islamism · Liberalism
Notable works Radical
On Blasphemy
Islam and the Future of Tolerance
Spouse Rabia Ahmed (m. 1999–2008)
Rachel Maggart (m. 2014)
Children 1


Maajid Usman Nawaz (Urdu: ماجد نواز, [ˈmaːdʒɪd̪ naːwaːz], born 2 November 1978) is a British activist, author, columnist, radio host and politician. He was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for London's Hampstead and Kilburn constituency in the 2015 general election.[2] He is also the founding chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank that seeks to challenge the narratives of Islamist extremists.[3]

Born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex to a British Pakistani family,[1] Nawaz is a former member of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. This association led to his arrest in Egypt in December 2001, where he remained imprisoned until 2006. Reading books on human rights and interacting with Amnesty International, which adopted him as a prisoner of conscience, resulted in a change of heart. This led Nawaz to leave Hizb-ut-Tahrir in 2007, renounce his Islamist past and call for a "Secular Islam".[4]

After his turnaround, Nawaz co-founded Quilliam with former Islamists, including Ed Husain.[5] He wrote an autobiography, Radical, which was published in 2012. Since then, he has become a prominent critic of Islamism in the United Kingdom. He is a regular op-ed contributor, debater and public commenter.[6] He presented his views on radicalisation in front of US Senate Committee and UK Home Affairs Committee in their respective inquiries on the roots of radical extremism.[7][8][9]

Nawaz is proficient in three languages: English, Urdu and Arabic. He is a weekly columnist for The Daily Beast, and hosts his LBC radio show every weekend 12-3 pm.[10]

His writings have been published in various international newspapers including The New York Times, The Guardian, Financial Times, Daily Mail and The Wall Street Journal. He has made appearances on programmes including, but not limited to, Larry King Live, BBC Hard Talk, Charlie Rose, 60 Minutes, Newsnight and Real Time with Bill Maher. He has delivered lectures at LSE and University of Liverpool, and has given talks at UK Defence Academy and Marshall Center for Security Studies.[11][12][13][14][15]

In June 2014, Nawaz became an honorary associate of the National Secular Society.[16] His second book Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015), co-authored with American neuroscientist Sam Harris, was published in October 2015.[17]

What is Islamism? Islam is a religion; Islamism is the desire to impose any version of that religion on society. It's the politicisation of my own religion. What is Jihadism? The use of force to spread Islamism.

Maajid Nawaz [18]


Nawaz was born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England to parents of Pakistani origin. His mother, Abi, is described as a literature-loving liberal woman whose family moved to Southend when she was nine. His father, Mo, is an electrical engineer who had worked for the Pakistan Navy but had to leave on medical grounds after he contracted tuberculosis.[19] Mo later worked for the Dewan Group in Islamabad, Pakistan where he won a court case against his employer which had banned trade unions.[19] After moving to UK, Mo worked at an oil company in Libya, and moved between Libya and the UK until his retirement. Maajid has an elder brother and a younger sister. In his memoir, Radical, he uses the pseudonym Osman to denote his brother.[19]

Nawaz was educated at Westcliff High School for Boys, a grammar school in Westcliff-on-Sea, a suburb of Southend.[20] Later, he studied Law and Arabic at the SOAS, University of London and earned his master's degree in Political Theory from London School of Economics.[6] At the age of 21, he married Rabia Ahmed, then a fellow Hizb ut-Tahrir activist and a biology student;[21] they have a son named Ammar, named after Muhammad's companion Ammar ibn Yasir.[19][22] On Nawaz's decision to leave Hizb ut-Tahrir, they separated and divorced.[23]

In 2014, he married Rachel Maggart, an artist and writer originally from the United States who runs an art gallery in London.[24][25]


Security and human rights

Nawaz has opposed racial profiling of Muslims, extrajudicial detention of terror suspects, torture, targeted killings and drone strikes.[26][27] Nawaz also opposed the Terrorism Act 2000, under which he was himself once detained, and called for the universal Right to Legal Representation and Right to Silence in all cases, and for all suspects.[28] In a talk given at Marshall European Center for Security Studies, he suggested a revisit of UK Government's historical approach to deal with terrorism, and called for a more nuanced response to tackling the ideology of Islamism without breaching fundamental liberties of citizens.[29] According to him, security should never debase citizens of their civil liberties.[28] Nawaz was among the 12 advisers to UK Government who, in 2009, wrote an open letter to the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown asking him to hold Israel accountable for its attacks on Gaza.[30] He also opposes Hamas which he considers a terrorist organisation.[31]

In the aftermath of 2015 San Bernardino attack, in which the debate about profiling ensued, Nawaz explained his view that racial or religious profiling is a "terrible measure" that "does not prevent terrorism".[32] He wrote:

  • If we were to start profiling people of "Middle-Eastern" or "brown" appearance, jihadists will simply recruit white Muslims from the Caucasus, like the Tsarnaev brothers who struck at the Boston Marathon. In fact, al Qaeda has been trying to use our very prejudices against us for many years, which is why Osama Bin Laden recruited a "white army of terror" from the huge number of converts that joined his cause.
  • If it is only men we profile, jihadists will train women, such as the Chechens did with their Black Widows, or this latest Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino. Astoundingly, male jihadists have even cross-dressed in burkas to avoid capture.
  • If it is any adult of fighting age that we screen for, jihadists have turned to grandmother suicide bombers and even animals laden with explosives.

There is no prototype. By telling terrorists what we are looking for, they will know what to avoid. We will make their job easier.[32]

Dealing with extremism

In an article for the Financial Times, Nawaz argues that Jihadism is no longer dependent on organisations because it has become a brand, and brands generate followers without the need for leadership.[33] He argues that just like Britain invests in early intervention campaigns in areas like drug abuse and sexual health, extremism should be challenged at a stage before it morphs into terrorism.[33] According to him, society must build a competing brand by adhering to its own values and visibly distinguishing its actions from those of the extremists. He warned against the illiberal approach of seeking new powers to intercept communications, or banning non-violent groups, and asserted that liberalism will kill totalitarianism softly, not by mimicking it.[33] He advocates a civil society push back against extremism, just like it was done against racism and homophobia, by seeding grass-roots initiatives and making extremist narratives a taboo.[33]

Islamism, radicalisation and deradicalisation

Nawaz during his TED talk A Global Culture to Fight Extremism

In Nawaz's view, society is moving from an era of Nation-States and Globalisation, where identity is defined by national allegiances and citizenship, to an "Age of Behaviour" where behaviour is shaped by transnational ideas, narratives and allegiances.[34]

Nawaz notes how all transnational social movements of today, whether European Neo-fascism or Islamism, are extremist in nature, and democracy aspirants all over the world are left behind.[34] He criticises the idea of political correctness, and the hesitation of democrats in asserting the universality of democratic norms.[34] He also points to the political failure of many states in the Muslim world as a contributing factor. According to him, there is absence of democratic choice in many Muslim-majority countries, which means that their democratic parties often find themselves competing with non-democratic parties, including theocratic and military-backed ones. The political failure of democratic parties is taken as a failure of democracy itself in the Muslim world.[34]

According to Nawaz, all social movements are made up of some basic elements, and to challenge any movement, its elements have to be replaced with better alternatives.[34] The four elements are:

In an article for the Daily Mail, Nawaz notes how self-segregation has created Muslim communities in London where third-generation teenagers are growing up without having any non-Muslim friends, or friends from the opposite sex.[35] He notes how their lives revolve around faith schools, mosque, Islamic extracurricular activities and cultural events involving members of the Muslim community only.[35] Without any exposure to the complexities of modern life, he argues, such teens are susceptible to simplistic worldviews and dogma.[35] On an individual level, Nawaz maps a person's path to radicalisation with four key stages: grievances, identity crisis, charismatic recruiter and ideology.[36] It begins with a sense of real or perceived grievances, which leads to an identity crisis.[36] This condition is then capitalised on by a recruiter from an organisation who lays out the ideology as a solution to that individual's alienation.[36]

As a solution, Nawaz suggests building of global youth-led democratic movements that are above politics, and that build demand for democracy at the civilisational level.[34] He notes that while Islamists offer a full package to the Muslim youth, the democrats of the Muslim world offer nothing: there is nothing to dream, no democratic leaders to follow and no democratic symbolism to admire.[37] He cites Malala Yousafzai as a successful symbol of democracy and women's rights, but stresses the need for more such symbols which young Muslims can look up to.[38]

Definition of Islamism

Nawaz defines Islamism as a desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam over society. He notes that Islamism, like Communism before it, comes in different shades: organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood who want to work within democratic set up to further their agenda; groups like Hizb ut Tahrir which are revolutionary in nature and seek power through military coups; militant groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS who engage in direct violence.[37] He also differentiates Islamism from conservative Islam, with the former having political ambitions.[37]

Jihadism and the Islamic State

In an essay for Wall Street Journal, Nawaz stated that Jihadists of all types seek to create discord by "pitting Muslims against non-Muslims in the West and Sunni Muslims against Shiite Muslims in the East".[39] He argues that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is out to provoke a Clash of Civilisations, and we can avoid this clash by calling out the underlying Islamist ideology and isolating Jihadists from ordinary Muslims. He also took exception to Pope Francis's characterisation of Paris attacks as the start of "World War 3", noting that we are not facing another World War but a Global Jihadist insurgency. According to him, an insurgency is different from a conventional war in that insurgents rely on some level of support from the communities they recruit from. And since it is an insurgency, the Counter-insurgency strategy should have messaging and psychological warfare as its critical parts, with the aim of isolating insurgents from their target host communities.[39] On a physical level, he supported the idea of an international coalition against ISIL, fronted by Sunni Arab forces and backed by international special forces.[39]

Free speech and blasphemy

It's not Islamophobic to scrutinise Islam just as it's not Christianophobic to scrutinise Christianity.

Maajid Nawaz The Big Questions (BBC show)[40]

In his essay On Blasphemy, Nawaz notes that all prophets and reformers blasphemed against the existing orders of their time, and that heresy is the only guarantee of progress.[41] He lamented the revival of the atmosphere of blasphemy, and the neo-orientalist unwillingness to defend the ideals of free speech. He also criticised the term Islamophobia which, according to him, is a muzzle on free speech and deployed as a shield against genuine criticism.[41]

Nawaz criticised Ed Miliband's 2015 election campaign promise of "banning Islamophobia", deeming it to be illiberal.[42] At the Liberal Democrats Conference in Liverpool in 2015, he moved a motion in favour of free expression which was accepted by the house.[43] He published a video blog in support of jailed Saudi liberal blogger Raif Badawi who was sentenced to imprisonment and 1,000 lashes by Saudi Government.[44] Owing to his stance on free speech, Nawaz opposes a ban on Islamist organisations like Hizb ut Tahrir, and insists that their ideas should be challenged and refuted without silencing their voices.[45] He advocates a doctrine of "legal tolerance, civic intolerance" in dealing with such issues.[46]

Cultural relativism

In the same essay which he wrote for CentreForum, Nawaz criticised cultural relativism for entrenching unhealthy taboos in U.K. just to appease the community heads. He cites the 1993 attempt by London Borough of Brent to make Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) legal among African communities, just because it was "their tradition".[41] Although a local councillor, Ann John, was able to oppose this motion, the subsequent torrent of abuse and threats she received created an atmosphere of fear. In that atmosphere, victims of FGM became reluctant to come out and, as a result, Britain is yet to witness a single conviction for this crime.[41]

He also blamed misguided multicultural policies of the 90s for creating "monocultural ghettos". According to him, those policies allowed unelected community leaders to speak for the rest of the community, shutting out the voices of what he calls minorities-within-minorities (LGBT Muslims, Feminist Muslims, ExMuslims, dissenting sects and denominations etc.). Liberalism, he wrote, should seek out the individual, not the stereotype of the community he belongs to.[41] In one of his columns, columnist Nick Cohen quoted Nawaz's candidly-worded critique of the far-left's role in silencing the voices of minorities-within-minorities:[47]

Ok far-lefty fellow-travellers of Islamism, I'm a state-school, brown, stabbed-at-by-neo-Nazis, falsely arrested at gunpoint by Essex police, Muslim, divorced, estranged from his child, ex-Islamist, tortured ex-prisoner who's been mandatorily profiled & DNA'd under schedule 7 at Heathrow airport & blacklisted from countries. I am every grievance you harp on about. And yet your first-world bourgeois brains malfunction because I'm not spewing hate & fitting in your little angry Muslim box. Are you feeling slightly privileged yet?

He also coined the term Regressive left to denote the section of the western left which, for the sake of political correctness and respect for other cultures, excuses, overlooks and sometimes passively encourages illiberal and bigoted ideas emerging from minority communities.[48]

Nationalism and far-right movements

According to Nawaz, nationalism hinders the fight against Islamist extremism, and democratic states must adopt a transnational outlook to combat this challenge.[49] He also termed nationalism a corrosive ideology that led to two World Wars, and advocates a citizenship model for states which is based on allegiance, instead of race or religion.[49] Nawaz is also a critic of far-right movements that have emerged in Europe, and accuses them of harbouring disdain for ordinary Muslims.[50] According to him, far-right xenophobes and Islamists agree upon one thing: the impossibility of Muslim and non-Muslim cohabitation in Europe.[50] As a solution, he proposes the assertion of liberalism which can shine through the fogs of these extremes.[41]

In a CNN interview, he condemned Donald Trump's remarks about banning Muslims from entering the United States.[51] He explained that when leaders pump up their followers by promising them utopian visions, and then fail to deliver on those promises, followers take action into their own hands. He expressed his concern that disappointed followers of Trump will "end up joining fascist or far-right groups" and take matters into their own hands against the eight million Muslims in the United States".[52]

Islamist activism

Association with Hizb ut-Tahrir

Nawaz cites racism whilst growing up, whether from classmates, C18 gangs or the police, and feeling divided between his Pakistani and British identities as important factors in his struggle to find his own identity.[5][21][53]

His elder brother, fictitiously named as Osman, was recruited into Hizb ut-Tahrir by Nasim Ghani, who would later become the UK leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Osman subsequently persuaded Nawaz to attend HT meetings held in Southend homes.[54] At those meetings, recruits were shown videos that depicted Bosnian Muslims being massacred.[55] With his identity crisis lurking in the background, these videos became the catalyst for Nawaz's formal recruitment in the HT.[21]

While a student at Newham College, and then at SOAS, Nawaz quickly rose through the ranks. By the age of 17, he was recruiting students from Cambridge University, and by 19, he was on the national leadership of HT in the United Kingdom.[34] He became a national speaker and an international recruiter for Hizb ut-Tahrir, travelling to Pakistan and Denmark to further the party's ideology and set up organisational cells.[21]

Imprisonment in Egypt

As part of his bachelor's degree in Law and Arabic, Nawaz spent a compulsory year abroad in Egypt, arriving just one day before the 9/11 attacks took place.[37][56] Since political Islamist organisations like Hizb ut-Tahrir were banned in Egypt, Nawaz was arrested and interrogated in Alexandria by the Egyptian security agency Aman al-Dawlah. Like most foreign prisoners, he was not subjected to torture, but faced the threat of torture during interrogation and witnessed other prisoners being tortured.[21][57] He was then transferred with fellow foreign prisoners, including Ian Nisbet and Reza Pankhurst, to Mazrah Tora prison.[21][56][57] There, he was put on trial and was sentenced to five years imprisonment.[58] During the trial, he was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.[21][59][60]

Disenchantment and exit from Hizb ut-Tahrir

While imprisoned in Mazrah Tora, Nawaz came across a wide spectrum of Muslims with varying ideological leanings: Jihadists, Islamists, Islamic Scholars and liberal Muslims.[61]

Among the Jihadists were the members of the terrorist organisation al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, and the assassins of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.[61] Among the Islamists, he met with Dr Essam el-Erian, the spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood.[62] He also held discussions with Mohammed Badie, who in his youth had smuggled the manuscripts of Syed Qutb's famous Islamist manual book Milestones out of prison, and made sure that it got published.[53][61] Among the Islamic Scholars, Nawaz continued his studies sitting with graduates of Cairo's Al-Azhar University and Dar al-'Ulum.[63] He specialised in the Arabic language whilst studying historical Muslim scholastics, sources of Islamic jurisprudence, Hadith historiography and the art of Qur'an recitation. He also committed half of the Qur'an to memory.[64] On the liberal end of the spectrum, he befriended author and sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. He also benefited from the company of imprisoned Egyptian politician Ayman Nour who was the head of the centre-liberal Tomorrow Party and a runner-up to the 2005 Presidential Elections.[65][66]

His departure from Hizb ut-Tahrir's world view came slowly and gradually. One of the reasons, as he describes, was the realisation that he was abusing his faith, Islam, for a mere political project, Islamism. And once the distinction between faith and ideology was clear, he no longer felt guilty for criticising a Political system inspired by medieval norms.[67] In an interview with American broadcaster National Public Radio, Nawaz explained how, other than the interactions in prison, George Orwell's novel Animal Farm played a major role in his turnaround.[53]

Counter-extremist activism

After completing his prison term in Egypt, Nawaz returned to the UK in 2006. In 2007, he resigned from Hizb-ut-Tahrir and resumed his bachelors degree at SOAS.[68][69]

After leaving Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Nawaz founded and has remained involved with the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank.[70] As Director of Quilliam, Nawaz regularly attends events and conferences organised by government and security departments, other think tanks, media houses, non-governmental organisations and academia.

Among events by government or security departments, Nawaz addressed the US Senate's Homeland Security Committee on the subject of Islamist extremism.[71] He also spoke at the "Sovereign Challenge" conference organised by United States Special Operations Command where he advocated the need to move beyond hard power, and look at new counter-radicalisation strategies.[72]

In Radio, Nawaz presented the Lent Talks on BBC Radio 4 in March 2010.[73] On TV, he has appeared in several The Big Questions debates on human rights, religious rights and tolerance.[74][75] In politics, Nawaz has held meetings with various heads of state including George W. Bush and Tony Blair.[76]

Nawaz played a major role in Tommy Robinson's exit from the far-right English Defence League (EDL), of which Robinson was the founder. He met Robinson in 2013 during the filming of a BBC documentary When Tommy met Mo, and subsequently met the EDL's co-leader, Kevin Carroll. Nawaz's personal story of turning back from Islamist extremism, and his counter-extremism work at Quilliam Foundation encouraged Robinson and Carroll to quit the EDL.[77][78][79] Later, Robinson also apologised to Muslims for the fear caused by his EDL activism.[80] The move was hailed by Quilliam as "a huge success in community relations in the United Kingdom", and a continuation of combating all kinds of extremism, including Islamism and Neo-Nazism.[81] However, the move proved to be futile as Robinson returned to the far-right in late 2015, joining the German-based organisation Pegida. In his autobiography, Robinson claimed that Quilliam had paid him £2,000 per month in order to take credit for his resignation. A Quilliam spokesperson responded by saying that Robinson was never on the organisation's payroll.[82]

In 2011, Nawaz was approached by the publishing director of Ebury Publishing after a TED Talk.[83] This resulted in the publication in July 2012 of his autobiography Radical by Ebury's imprint W.H. Allen. The US version, Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism, was published by Lyons Press in October 2013 with a preface for U.S. readers and an updated epilogue.

Khudi foundation for Pakistan

He has co-founded an activist group in Pakistan, Khudi, using his knowledge of recruitment tactics in order to combat extremism.[84] The described aim of Khudi is to reach out to Muslims and challenge the Islamist narrative, which is: the West and non-Muslim states are out to crush Islam and Muslims will only be safe in a Caliphate. In January 2014, he stepped down from Khudi because his candidacy for UK Parliament was "incompatible with vision and objectives of Khudi".[85]

In 2009, with a BBC Newsnight crew and security team, Nawaz embarked on a counter-extremism tour, speaking at over 22 universities and recruiting students all over Pakistan.[86][87] In 2010, he wrote a series of articles for the Pakistani English daily The Express Tribune as part of this campaign.[88]

Political career

Nawaz (left) with other candidates of the Hampstead and Kilburn constituency

Liberal Democrat candidate

Nawaz was selected in July 2013 to stand as the Liberal Democrat candidate for the marginal north London constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, in which he came third.[89]

With the delegation of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (of which Maajid is not a member) he visited both sides of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.[90] In September 2013, Nawaz and his Camden District team was given the Dadabhai Naoroji Award for support and promotion of BAME (Black, Asian Minority Ethnic groups) party members.[91] The award was presented by party MP Tim Farron. In the same year, he was included in The Daily Telegraph's list of 50 most influential Liberal Democrats.[92] In July 2015, Nawaz moderated the LibDem hustings between contenders Tim Farron and Norman Lamb on the topic "Liberalism, Free speech and Extremism".[93]


In 2014 Nawaz received death threats after tweeting a Jesus and Mo cartoon alluding to the prophet Muhammed.[94] Nawaz decided to tweet the cartoon after a BBC programme censored two audience member's shirts displaying innocuous cartoons of the prophet Muhammed.[95] Respect Party politician George Galloway called on Muslims, via a tweet, not to vote for the Liberal Democrats while Nawaz is one of their candidates.[94][96] By 24 January, a petition to the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg demanding that Nawaz should be removed as the party's parliamentary candidate had received 20,000 signatures.[95] Petition organisers denied a connection to its alleged originator, Liberal Democrat member Mohammed Shafiq, and condemned the incitement to murder.[97] On 26 January, Clegg defended Nawaz's right to free expression and said that the death threats were "unacceptable".[97] The Southern Poverty Law Center has accused Nawaz of being an "anti-Muslim extremist",[98] a label vigorously disputed by Nawaz and various prominent newspapers.[99][100][101][102][103][104] The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice has written a public letter to the SPLC to retract the listing.[105]



Literary works


Essays and Contributions

See also


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  5. 1 2 "I was radicalised. So I understand how extremists exploit grievances". Guardian.
  6. 1 2 "Lib Dem Profile of Maajid Nawaz".(subscription required)
  7. "UK Home Affairs Select Committee".
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  15. "Marshall Center [PDF]" (PDF).
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  25. For the date, see "1:40 PM". Twitter. 19 Oct 2014.
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  45. "From Finding Radical Islam to Losing an Ideology".
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  48. Maajid Nawaz (18 November 2015). "Je Suis Muslim: How Universal Secular Rights Protect Muslim Communities the Most". Big Think. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
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  50. 1 2 "Protection is not enough. We need the courage to tackle this evil in our midst".
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  56. 1 2 Casciani, Dominic (2006-03-03). "UK | Freed Britons attack government". BBC News. Retrieved 2012-03-18.
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  60. "Amnesty International - Library - Egypt: Opening of trial of three Britons and 23 Egyptians raises unfair trial and torture concerns". Retrieved 2012-03-18.
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