When Maajid Nawaz was growing up in Essex, England, in the 1990s, the son of Pakistani parents, he first found his voice of rebellion through American hip-hop.
“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,” Nawaz tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “but also confusion about where my family was from and not really fitting into either culture.”
At age 16, Nawaz was transformed from a disaffected British teenager to an Islamist recruiter when he joined the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Nawaz continued his college studies and spent a year abroad in Egypt, where he continued his recruiting. As a result, he was imprisoned for four years, starting in 2002.
It was while in prison, surrounded by several prominent jihadist leaders, that Nawaz realized he wanted to take a different path. He was reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm and came to a new understanding of “what happens when somebody tries to create a utopia.”
“I began to join the dots and think, ‘My God, if these guys that I’m here with ever came to power, they would be the Islamist equivalent of Animal Farm,” Nawaz says.
He says he began to see that it’s “impossible to create a utopia.”“I’m living up close and seeing [the radicals’] everyday habits and lifestyle, I thought, 'My God, I wouldn’t trust these guys in power,’ because when I called it, back then, and said, 'If this caliphate, this theocratic caliphate, was ever established, it would be a nightmare on earth,’ ” Nawaz says.
A year after his release, at the age of 24, Nawaz left the Islamist group and its ideology. He later co-founded the think tank Quilliam, which is dedicated to countering extremist beliefs.
“Now, when we see what ISIL [the self-proclaimed Islamic State] is doing in the name of this theocratic caliphate, I believe I have been vindicated that these guys, any of them, if they ever got to power, they would be committing mass atrocities,” Nawaz says.
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.