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Radical

Jonathan Fryer

Jonathan Fryer

The radicalisation of Muslim youth has been a prime concern of Western governments and security agencies ever since 9/11. But it is sobering to realise that the path to militancy — with its intolerance and, in extreme cases, its contempt for human life — is not necessarily only one way. Readers of Ed Husain’s 2007 book The Islamist (Penguin, £9.99) will be aware of that, but it is useful to have the message reinforced by the record of another SOAS alumnus’s journey to Islamism and back, Maajid Nawaz’s Radical (W H Allen, £8.99). Born in Southend, Essex, in what white neighbours would doubtless have considered to be a “well integrated” Pakistani-origin family (his mother was positively liberal), Maajid experienced not just casual racism as a child but also the violence of white skinheads. He learnt to stand up for himself, carrying a knife around with him for years. But it was at college in Newham, East London, that he came under the influence of Islamist radicals, notably from Hizb ut-Tahrir. After witnessing a fatal stabbing there he was recalled by his family to Southend, enabling him to get the grades necessary to go to SOAS to read Law and Arabic. He met a similarly radical young woman, married and fathered a baby boy, moving with them to Egypt to work on his Arabic, following a prolonged stay in Pakistan where he worked to further Hizb ut-Tahrir’s cause. He hoped to do the same in Egypt, but the omnipresent Mubarak security forces had him under surveillance and before long he was taken away in the middle of the night from his apartment in Alexandria and entered the hell of the regime’s torture chambers, where every inmate was electrocuted on a rota system, the screams of their agony resonating through the dark dungeon hour after hour. Maajid was fortunate himself to narrowly escape the electrodes, instead being knocked about and threatened with rape, and eventually he was put on trial and transferred to a political prison, whose inmates included Ayman Nour, the Egyptian Liberal who had dared to stand against Hosni Mubarak in a presidential election and was incarcerated on trumped up charges for that impertinence. By this time Maajid was getting regular consular visits a well as some contact with his family, but his release was as sudden as his arrest and maybe partly because Amnesty International had adopted him as a prisoner of conscience, putting pressure on both the Egyptian and British governments. SOAS let him resume his studies, but his marriage had broken down and he had become disillusioned with the ideology that had driven him for several years. He met up with Ed Husain, who had defected to rationality well before, and made his own great leap away from Islamism; together they established Quilliam, a foundation dedicated to countering Islamist extremism (and also Islamophobia) and won open access to both the last Labour government and its Coalition successor. Indeed, so far did Maajid’s conversion go that he joined the Liberal Democrats and is now the Party’s candidate for the three-way marginal London constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn. I read Radical at one sitting, over eight hours on a plane back from Beijing on Thursday. It was literally a book I could not put down, passionate and at times chilling, but ultimately cathartic. Highly recommended.

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