The road to Damascus

Maajid Nawaz & Timothy Zaal

Two reformed extremists, Maajid Nawaz and Timothy Zaal, talk to Global about their journeys from radicalisation to redemption. Witnessing violent attacks at a young age helped make them susceptible to recruitment – to a fundamentalist Islamic party and racist skinhead groups respectively. Their experiences shed light on the process of radicalisation, the attractions of such lifestyles and the immense courage it takes to renounce them.

Maajid Nawaz is a former member of the leadership of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the United Kingdom, a radical Islamic party. He was imprisoned in Egypt for four years for his recruitment activities in the country. His experience in jail eventually led him to leave the organisation and co-found the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank, of which he is now chairman.

“Closed societies will encourage closed minds. So we have to keep our societies open”

I was born and raised in Essex, in Southend-on-Sea. In my teenage years, I experienced a lot of violent racism, with knife attacks mainly against my white English friends. They would stab my friends to make an example out of them for associating with me. Things have improved since those days. The way different communities come together in the UK is a lot different to what it used to be, but this was in the early 1990s and tensions were running high.

Coupling that with what I saw going on in Bosnia, I developed, early on, confusion about my own identity and my place in British society. I started seeking out a sub-culture – an alternative belonging. That’s when I came across Hizb ut-Tahrir. The man who later became head of the group in the UK was from my home town and he recruited me. He was young, smart, articulate, a medical student and educated. All of that impressed me really, at a young, difficult age. So I joined the group.

I started off just as a recruit, and I went through the ranks. I eventually ended up being on the leadership in the UK, co-founding groups in Pakistan and Denmark and attempting to revive Hizb ut Tahrir in Egypt, heading up the Alexandria chapter. That’s where I was eventually arrested and convicted for my membership of the group.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is legal across the West still, even in the US, and that’s because it’s not a terrorist organisation. It’s an extremist organisation. The difference between the two is like racism and violent racism. Extremism is a reprehensible thing to believe in, but it’s not necessarily [the case] that an extremist is a violent extremist. This organisation sought to overthrow Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority regimes and replace them with their version of an ‘Islamic’ state, enforcing an interpretation of Sharia as law.

I think the main problem with Hizb ut-Tahrir is its methodology. It would attempt to recruit people from the military and engage in conspiracy, encouraging them to overthrow those regimes via a military coup. I personally did help to recruit people from the Pakistani military who came here to study at Sandhurst. And the cell that I was involved in helping to recruit was discovered by General Musharaf in 2003, in an army purge. They were arrested and sentenced for conspiracy inside the military.

I was working in Egypt, recruiting people, to attempt to revive the group, which had been wiped out after the failure of a coup attempt in 1974. I was arrested on 1 April 2002, accused of being a leading member of the group in Egypt. In prison, I initially went to the torture dungeons. People were tortured in front of me, and I was forced to answer questions and they were then tortured off the back of my answers, and vice versa. I was put in solitary confinement for three months. It was a very difficult period.

Initially, due to those experiences, I was on the verge of becoming even more extreme. I flirted with the idea of moving over to a violent group, to take revenge. But a lot of that was the imagination of a man locked in solitary confinement, with nothing else to think about apart from bitterness and anger.

Eventually, when the prison system opened up, and we were allowed to start mixing with the other political prisoners, I literally had four years of solid debates and discussions with the leaders of Egypt’s political scene – the current head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr Mohammed Badie, was my cell mate. The group that assassinated [President Anwar] Sadat were in the prison with me, as well as liberal political prisoners, like Ayman Nour, who took second place in the 2005 general elections ([former President] Mubarak sentenced him to seven years in prison as a reward). And Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a famous liberal activist in Egypt, was also imprisoned for writing against Mubarak. So I had the entire political spectrum of views while in prison.

I was imprisoned at the age of 24, so from 24 to 28, my political speaking and understanding really matured. It changed. Although I didn’t leave the group until roughly ten months after leaving prison, my views had changed, and I was no longer the same person as I was when I went into prison.

When I came back to England, I rejoined the leadership here. After about ten months, I realised that I no longer belonged to this group. I no longer agreed with their dogmatic ideology, and their politicisation of my faith. So I unilaterally offered my resignation from the group, and not only left the group but publicly declared on the BBC’s Newsnight that I’d abandoned the ideology of Islamism, while remaining a Muslim. Just to make clear, Islamism, as distinct from Islam, is the desire to impose your interpretation of Islam as state law.

Because Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a terrorist organisation, there was no risk to my safety. But there was, of course, a huge stigma, a character assassination campaign against me. Personally, it affected me. My marriage fell apart, because my then wife was still a member of the group. I lost all of my friends, my entire social circle. All I’d known for 13 years were people that I’d met through Islamism, and not just inside Hizb ut-Tahrir, but generally. So I had to start again at the age of 29. It was very difficult.

I co-founded Quilliam with Ed Husain who is author of The Islamist. And the idea here was to work with Western governments to help correct how they engage with what I call “The Muslim Question” – issues beyond terrorism: identity, extremism, freedom of religion, citizenship, immigration and integration. We’ve done work with the Americans, the EU, the UK, Australia, helping them devise policies in each one of those six areas.

We were set up in the year of Bush’s neo-conservative experiment. We felt that so much was going wrong and that the model was upside-down. Bush went into [Afghanistan and Iraq] to try and impose democracy at the barrel of a gun, when there wasn’t necessarily a demand in the Middle East asking for that to happen. So we felt we needed to reverse that. Quilliam would try and lobby and advocate for better government policy and at the same time we set up Khudi in Pakistan, as a social movement to try and create the demand for democratic culture. I think the events of the Arab uprising have proven us correct, in hindsight.

In the short term, [in the Middle East] we are inevitably going to experience the rise of the theo-political parties and I think that it was an inevitability, because the despots of the Arab world deliberately promoted the rise of conservative Salafism, in an attempt to check political Islamism. And I know there is a lot of jargon in that sentence, but what I mean essentially is they promoted the austere, dogmatic, rigid, conservative, almost reactionary fundamentalist approach to Islam, in an attempt to put in check those who were trying to politicise Islam – the Muslim Brotherhood and others. Mubarak was tolerating the rise of the fundamentalist form of Islam, in order to stem the rise of political Islam, because they are rivals.

These Arab despots are playing these two groups off against each other, and playing the West off against them as well. So the only way, in the long term, to solve this problem, is to open our societies. If you think about it, it’s stating the obvious to say that closed societies will encourage closed minds. So we have to keep our societies open. That may mean, in the short term, we won’t have the results, but in the long term it will encourage open minds.

I would tell young people considering joining radical Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir – feeling that the West is at war against Islam, and that Islam needs to be implemented as state law and that there is only one interpretation of Islam – that there are people like me, both in Egypt and the UK, and in other countries, that have been through that journey, and have learned the hard way, through years and years and years of sweat, blood and toil. We’ve been through torture for this cause. I would say to them that they should give us the space and the time to consider what we’re saying – and that we’re saying that this is not the right path.


Timothy Zaal is a former racist and white supremacist. He became involved in organised skinhead groups in America during his late teens and was convicted of a violent hate crime in the early 1990s. He eventually left the movement and currently works as a consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles.

“When I was involved in violence, when I was putting somebody down, at that particular moment I had power, I had the control”

I was involved in the hardcore punk rock scene in Los Angeles back in the late 70s and early 80s. The group that I identified with were called nazi-Punks and we weren’t organised to a level of what you might see today or like the skinhead groups in the UK in the early 80s. We weren’t reading Mein Kampf, we didn’t subscribe to any specific organisational structure. It was pretty much a social thing, done for shock-value.

During those days, the punk scene in Los Angeles was very violent. Most of us were kids from the suburbs, and we would converge on Hollywood late at night and we felt that we ran the street. There, the punk rockers, the police and the gay community would clash. We would see what was happening around the world where there were riots on the streets and Molotov cocktails and it was a fantasy for us mostly middle-class kids who really didn’t have a whole lot to complain about. For me it was cool. I fantasized about rioting against the police and the establishment. Although we were involved with confrontations with the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department] it was nothing compared to the riots in the UK and Europe.

It wasn’t until my late teens that I started to get involved with organised skinhead groups. Most of my punk rock friends were growing up, getting jobs, going to university, getting married and having kids. But I was still seeking that rush. Initially it was the violence and the lifestyle, but once I started to recognise that there was this sub-group of racist ideology, that was a natural progression for me.

You have to understand where the anger comes from. When I was very young, my older brother was shot by an African-American. He didn’t die, he still has the bullet in him as it was too close to his spinal cord to be removed. I believe that was the main catalyst that led to my racist mindset. Whenever I thought of different ethnic groups, especially African-Americans, I thought of guns. It was just natural for me to believe that I was going to get them before they got me. I think it was fear-based but it was also based in ignorance.

The common belief is that people who have been involved with these kinds of extremist groups are uneducated or come from broken homes, but the majority of people I associated with were middle class. The commonality is that something happened in their lives that was negative while dealing with someone from a different ethnic group. I’ve even met Hispanics and African-Americans that have had a similar experience.

When I was in my early twenties, people such as Tom Metzger [founder of the White Aryan Resistance (WAR)] were beginning to attempt to organise some of the skinhead groups. The idea was forget the ballot, vote with the bullet and white revolution is the only solution. I was attempting to get more involved. Nobody coerced me or twisted my arm-I recruited myself. I had ordered newsletters from Metzger’s organisation. I had seen him on TV several times and I actually took it upon myself to travel 150–200 miles to where he lived. I opened up the phonebook and called his number and told him that I was interested in doing something for my race. He sent an individual to check me out at a bar. I guess I fit the bill – I didn’t look like a snitch or some sort of agent provocateur from the FBI. Within a month or so, I was introduced to a group of skinheads close to where I lived.

I was unemployed. I was a drunk. I couldn’t find a job to save my life. There was a lot of propaganda about illegal aliens stealing the white man’s jobs and ‘affirmative action’ for African-Americans and it validated my anger and resentment. It also gave me an excuse to carry on doing what I was doing. Rather than looking in the mirror, combing my hair and taking the safety pins out of my cheek, it was easier to point the finger at someone else, blame the African-Americans or immigration.

I became more seriously involved with the politics: not necessarily national socialism, but racial socialism and pan-aryanism became the new catch phrase. In the late 80s, it began to move more in that direction and it started to get away from the big groups, going(moving more ) towards lone-wolfism. I did belong to several groups but after a while I started working on my own. I was involved in recruitment to a certain degree.

In the early 90s, I was convicted of a hate crime. Most people who find themselves facing time in prison usually start to step back and assess things, but because of the level of indoctrination – I was what they called a “true believer” – I was in a delusional mindset. I was led to believe that I was the victim. I wasn’t on trial because of the violence I was arrested for. I was on trial because I was a racially conscious white man.

I got involved with a group called the Western Hammerskins. Back then it was a fairly small group but today it’s a massive global organization, called Hammerskin Nation, with chapters in Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia and South America. They too were starting to preach lone-wolfism and what they called leaderless resistance existence – a Timothy McVeigh [Oklahoma City, 1995] or Anders Breivik [Norway, 2011] type situation was becoming more the norm. It is optimum to have a small group or cell consisting of one person, two, maybe three at the most. And the reason for that is because big groups are much easier to monitor and infiltrate by law enforcement. It’s similar to al Qaeda with small cells that are basically autonomous, do-it-yourself groups, no one is really held accountable and there is no truly detectible central command.

How did I manage to leave? I think the common thread is that family usually has something to do with it. Other former violent extremists –racialists, jihadists, IRA or loyalists – I have met, most of them will tell you that it was a process and many of them will explain that their change of heart took some time. It wasn’t like I woke up one day and said, “Oh! I’m not going to do this anymore”. It was about a three-to-five year process for me. Although I knew that I wasn’t ready, I knew that I was on my way out. I started to look at things, pay more attention, disagree more with certain aspects of what was going on.

In the early 90s, we started seeing another generation of skinheads who, because of the hate crime laws, were doing some pretty heavy-duty sentences and were getting involved with the Aryan Brotherhood and some of the biker groups. Some of these guys would go to jail for robbery or methamphetamine production and distribution – just plain old crime – and yet they were held in high esteem as prisoners of war and honourable soldiers who were doing time because of their beliefs, but to me they were nothing but common criminals. The people who I originally associated with were anti-drugs.

I began to recognise that this younger generation of skinheads had no respect for themselves, let alone the older generation. I also started to recognise that the older generation, what I refer to as Klu Klux Klan types – looked upon us skinheads as expendable, dumb puppets who they could push around and tell what to do. There was no respect from either side.

Also, I was getting into my 30s, I had a child and I do think that parenthood played a major role in my departure from the skinhead lifestyle. In the groups I was involved with you are expected to raise your children to be racially conscious little warriors. My son was about two and a half years old, we were in the grocery store and we saw a rather large African-American man and my son said, “Look daddy, there’s a… ” and he blurted out the N-word. It wasn’t the first time he did it but it was the first time that this action had penetrated my macho facade. My son had been taught from birth that black people are bad, that the police are bad. I realised that this kid didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. What sort of future does he have?

However, I didn’t go out that day and quit. There was still a pay-off to being involved in that sort of lifestyle. I had to attempt to get out of that situation and learn about different cultures on my own.

When you think about extremists – the skinhead or whatever – more often than not it’s not the action that needs to be dealt with, that’s secondary. It’s the cause. I believe that my deeper issue was my brother getting shot, number one. And number two, I never felt like I lived up to the expectations of my father (or society) – another common thread I have found in other former violent extremists. For me, when I was involved in violence, when I was putting somebody down, at that particular moment I had the power, I had the control. Whereas in my home life I didn’t have any control. Today I accept things that I have no control over, which, along with working with at risk youth through the Museum of Tolerance, helps me to make peace with myself and my violent past.

This article originally appeared in issue 9 of Global: The International Briefing. At the author’s request, the e-version contains a number of revisions.

About the author:

Maajid Nawaz is a former member of the leadership of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the United Kingdom, a radical Islamic party. He was imprisoned in Egypt for four years for his recruitment activities in the country. His experience in jail eventually led him to leave the organisation and co-found the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank, of which he is now chairman.

Timothy Zaal is a former racist and white supremacist. He became involved in organised skinhead groups in America during his late teens and was convicted of a violent hate crime in the early 1990s. He eventually left the movement and currently works as a consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles.


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