Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist who was swayed from his radical ideology while in prison, believes Ireland can learn from Britain's mistakes in dealing with extremism, writes Mary Fitzgerald.
IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT at the Shia mosque in Dublin and evening prayers have just finished. As children start to run around the deeply carpeted floor of the main hall, the imam, Iraqi-born Ali al-Saleh, steps forward to introduce a special guest.
A hush falls among the men and women present as Maajid Nawaz begins to speak. The story he tells is his own, that of a disaffected Muslim teenager from Essex who fell under the spell of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) - Party of Liberation in Arabic - a radical Islamist group that seeks to unite all Muslim countries into a single sharia-ruled state known as a caliphate.
So committed was Maajid that he quickly moved up the ranks of HT, recruiting members not just in Britain but also as far afield as Pakistan, and later sitting on its secret leadership committee. His credentials were further burnished when he was convicted of spreading HT ideology while studying in Egypt - the organisation, though legal in Britain, is banned in most Arab countries.
The way Maajid tells it, four years in a Cairo jail was more than enough time to reflect on the true meaning of his faith. Released in 2006, he defected from HT more than a year later, explaining that the scholars he met in prison had convinced him that the ideology he had fervently believed in for 12 years had little to do with Islam.
Fast forward to today and 30-year-old Maajid is the sharp-suited director of the Quilliam Foundation, a think-tank launched with much fanfare last month in Britain.
Named after Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam, an English lawyer who founded Britain's first mosque after converting to Islam at the close of the 19th century, the institute describes itself as a "counter-extremism" think tank. Many of its members are former radicals like Maajid, including his deputy Ed Husain, who last year published The Islamist, an autobiographical account of a youth spent drifting among groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Several heavyweight religious scholars have put their names to the project, as have clerics such as Ali al-Saleh of Dublin's Shia mosque. Calling for "new thinking for our new times", the foundation does not mince its words in setting out its agenda.
"Western Muslims should be free from the cultural baggage of the Indian subcontinent, or the political burdens of the Arab world," its website declares. "We were born and raised in a milieu that is different from the Muslim East. As such, our future and progeny belong here." The foundation rejects what it calls the "foreign ideologies of Islamism and jihadism" as "aberrant" readings of the Islamic tradition and therefore "irrelevant and defunct". Instead it upholds Islam as a pluralistic, diverse tradition that can heal what it calls "the pathology of Islamist extremism".
When Maajid finishes his talk at the mosque on Saturday night, there are many questions from the floor. People want to know how HT operates, how they recruit, and how such extremist ideologies can be challenged. Maajid later tells The Irish Times that the perfect potential recruit for a group such as HT is someone who was born and raised in the West. "We always targeted the second generation. They are more willing to discuss new ideas and are also not as keen as their parents to please what the first generation would consider their host society. These Muslims don't feel like guests who have no right to complain."
Hizb ut-Tahrir has always publicly insisted that it is non-violent, bristling at suggestions it may act as a gateway to terrorism. While hostile to western democracy, it maintains it employs lawful means alone to disseminate its ideology. Maajid, however, says the organisation engages in doublespeak, hiding its true agenda, which he claims does not exclude the use of violence to achieve its goals. While he does not side with calls to ban HT, he accuses it, along with other Islamist groups, of propagating a separatist "Muslim-centric" ideology that breeds intolerance and ultimately justifies violence in the name of Islam.
He believes the British government was misguided and naive in the way it dealt with Muslim communities in the past, treating groups with links to Islamist movements in the Middle East and south Asia as somehow representative of the population as a whole.
"Britain has been very accommodating to Muslims, but problems arose because the government made the classic mistake of thinking that Islamists are moderates, so it institutionalised Islamism in the form of different organisations that ended up with a monopoly of recognition in the community. While this has been corrected of late, it had already done a lot of damage."
Engaging with such groups is futile and in the end destructive, he argues, because their world view has no room for democracy, based as it is on the notion that divine sovereignty should always take precedent.
He believes Ireland, with its relatively young but rapidly growing Muslim communities, can learn from Britain's experience so as not to repeat the same mistakes.
"My advice is: do not to get into bed with Islamists. Do not shy away from asserting liberal values in the name of multiculturalism. Do not be afraid to tell first-generation immigrants they should accept the norms that are established here in Ireland," he says.
"Also be wary of foreign political ideologies and conflicts interpreted through those ideologies being brought to Ireland. And remember that just because someone will shake your hand, dress in a western way and appear moderate, it doesn't mean he is not extreme politically. It's important to recognise that difference. Many people have been fooled by moderate social practices only to realise that politically these guys are committed to extreme ideas of how a state should be run."
Such opinions have not endeared Maajid to his former associates. He and other members of the Quilliam Foundation have received death threats. Web forums buzz with criticism of Maajid and his new project, accusing the former HT leader of being a traitor, government stooge or worse. In one smear attempt, photographs of him in a nightclub and with a former girlfriend were posted online. The accompanying text slated Maajid for engaging in "un-Islamic" behaviour.
But there are others who are uneasy with this latest addition to Muslim discourse in Britain for very different reasons.
Some have questioned the foundation's motives, pointing to the involvement of Tory MP Michael Gove as evidence of a "neocon" agenda. Some have wondered about its source of funding (Maajid says it does not receive government funding and is financed instead by private donors from countries including Egypt and Kuwait). Other critics argue that Muslims who have never flirted with violent ideology resent being lectured by those who once embraced it. One complained that the lionising of former extremists such as Maajid confirms "the basic tabloid prejudice that violence is a natural part of being a Muslim".
Given such criticisms, how can the Quilliam Foundation ensure it reaches those vulnerable to radicalisation or that its message resonates with the wider community? Maajid counters that it is exactly because of the personal narratives of its members as former radicals that the institute can succeed where other groups have failed. He says at least 10 people have been persuaded to leave HT in Britain and he is talking with "many more" leaning in that direction. Approaches have also been made to acquaintances serving time in Belmarsh prison for terrorism offences.
"Surely if this ideology is to be refuted and criticised then you need to understand the ideology in order to do that. Our critics clearly don't - they left it alone for years and watched it grow among their ranks," he says.
"When someone like me leaves that world, of course he will lose some credibility with those he wants to turn away from extremism. But it's still better to hear it from a former member than someone who was never involved. I can sit in front of these people and say I believed what you believe in, I know all your arguments, indeed I might have taught you all your arguments. Now you should listen to me tell you why they are wrong."