Our world view was horribly bipolar. We didn't distinguish on the basis of colour but on creed
FOR almost four years I was on the front line of British Islamism, serving as a regional officer in northeast England for Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist group committed to the creation of a puritanical caliphate.
Since leaving the group in 2005, I've been concerned at just how easy it was for me to join a radical Islamist movement and why there was hardly any support available when I decided to leave. Hizb was a large family in many ways, a group offering social support, comradeship, a sense of purpose and validation.
At 21, it was intoxicating for me. I embraced my new Islamist identity and family with eagerness. Islamism transcends cultural norms, so it not only prompted me to reject my British identity but also my ethnic South Asian background. I was neither Eastern nor Western; I was a Muslim, a part of the global ummah, or community, where identity is defined through the fraternity of faith.
Islamists insist this identity is not racist because Islam welcomes people of all colours, ethnicities and backgrounds. That was true, but our world view was still horribly bipolar. We didn't distinguish on the basis of colour but on creed.
The world was simply divided into believers and non-believers. It was a reality that came back to haunt me last month when I realised that Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed, the two men linked with the alleged plot to attack London and Glasgow, were among my closest friends when I studied at Cambridge University.
My time in Cambridge was a turning point. I was studying for a doctorate, researching the development of Islamic political thought in late colonial India, which proved to be my saviour. My research caused me to find marked points of rupture in the historical and theological narrative of what the Hizb was having me believe. Previous generations had failed, the Hizb told me, to apply Islam to the reality of a changed and changing world in the early 20th century. What I found could not have been further from this.
Throughout my thesis I was able to survey a wide range of Muslim opinion across the Indian subcontinent, among whom Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was a leading figure. He explained how Islam obliged Muslims to create a harmonious society. He was adept at offering lucid explanations from the texts of the Koran to show a secular state was validated through Islam. Failing to accommodate diversity showed a neglect of the Koran's opening chapter, al-Fatiha, which emphasises tolerance and mercy. Focusing on division rather than common humanity violated God's unity, said Azad, who insisted in The Tarjuman al-Qur'an that "the unity of man is the primary aim of religion".
When independence came in 1947, Azad resisted the creation of Pakistan. Forming an exclusionary political identity in this way was against the essence of Islam.
My findings suffocated me. Far from being emancipated by my discovery, I fell into a spiral of confusion. I had sacrificed all my friends and family for a cause. Had it all been in vain? I felt overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness. And herein lies the problem. There was nowhere for me to turn.
I didn't want to take my concerns to the Hizb because I knew what its response would be. If I weren't bullied back into action, I'd be made to feel guilty for leaving. I knew the protocol. When I embraced Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamist way of life there was an established network offering social support and validation. Shedding my old life was easy because I was absorbed by an alternative and more self-assured culture.
By the start of 2005, I was mentally no longer an Islamist. But there was no denying that emotionally I didn't have the courage to leave the Hizb. Then my nightmare was realised. I watched as London came under attack on July 7, 2005, by four British Muslims who claimed 52 innocent lives. This was the cauldron of Islamist hate boiling over.
When I resigned from Hizb ut-Tahrir, the social network that had once so warmly embraced me turned bitterly cold and confrontational. The inward love was replaced by the external hate. At 24, I had to rebuild my life, almost entirely from scratch. Traditionally, it is at university that you forge your most enduring and meaningful friendships. Overnight, mine disappeared.
Then came hope. During recent months I have spoken at length with Ed Husain, author of The Islamist, who was also once in the ranks of the Hizb (and whose book extracts were reprinted in these pages last month). It was the revelation I was waiting for. When I met him, Husain's first words, breaking their way through a beaming smile, were: "It feels like I've known you for years."
Immediately our stories resonated with remarkable familiarity. We had both experienced the same feelings of isolation and desperation before we plucked up the courage to leave. Finally, I was not alone. Like old war veterans we shared stories, discussed what made us leave and what the future held.
Having been a senior member in the Hizb, I know there are scores of others with similar concerns. Some of them have also left and are coming together to form a united front against Islamism. They are not irreligious sell-outs, agents or part of some Judeo-Christian cult committed to the downfall of Islam, as groups such as the Hizb would like to suggest. They are simply former Islamists who have rejected a particular political ideology while remaining committed to their Muslim faith.
The significance of this should not be underestimated. When I first left, I emphasised that the challenges of Islamist extremism could never be overcome until the Muslim community formulated its own response. Since meeting Husain and becoming aware of the emerging network of other former members, many of them also holding a senior rank at one time, I was reassured. An influential figure who is still within the movement but close to leaving recently told me and Husain, "Don't worry, your message is being heard."
The landscape in the Muslim community is changing. Just as the divisive message of political Islam has been spread by young men across Britain, there is a growing number of former activists leading the charge against the ideas that we once helped to promote. I only hope that our testimonies will encourage those still within Islamist movements to find the moral courage to leave.
Shiraz Maher was a British pointman for Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist terrorist group. This is reprinted from The Sunday Times in Britain.