Given that he’d managed to draw the largest crowd CSLD had seen since Vince Cable came to Cambridge over a year ago, Maajid Nawaz’s speech certainly had high expectations to live up to. Fortunately, he more than surpassed them: at the end of the evening, the consensus was that he had delivered a powerful message about the failures of the war on terror, while teaching everyone a great deal about the practicalities of combating extremism.
Unquestionably, Maajid has led a more interesting life than most speakers who come to Cambridge. As a teenager, he was recruited to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group that calls for the creation of a unified Islamic caliphate governed by Sharia law. He quickly rose through the ranks of the organisation, becoming one of its most talented recruiters and serving on its governing body in the UK. As a result of his membership, he was arrested while in Egypt. Ultimately, he would spend over four years in an Egyptian prison; for much of that time, he was an Amnesty International-adopted prisoner of conscience.
While answering questions from the audience, Mr Nawaz spoke at great length about the conversations he had with Islamic scholars and activists while in prison. These conversations ultimately led him to leave Hizb ut-Tahrir, as he realised that such organisations were ‘abusing’ the true teachings of Islam.
After leaving prison, he founded the world’s first counter-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation. During his speech, he described how he was unconvinced both by the illiberal neo-conservative approach that Bush-era governments had taken with extremist groups, and by the hands-off approach advocated by many left-wing politicians, whom he described as ‘afraid’ of criticising the ideas and the narratives that underpin such groups. By founding Quilliam, he hoped to develop a third way of combating extremism: a community-driven approach that respected individual rights while also not being afraid to call people out on their bigotry and to challenge their narratives of hatred.
His work has certainly had a huge impact on the way we think about extremism: Mr Nawaz is currently running for the Parliamentary seat of Hampstead and Kilburn and, as he mentioned in his talk, were he to win it he would be the first Bush-era political prisoner to win public office anywhere in the Western world. However, there is also certainly still a lot left to do: Al Qaeda has only grown in influence since the death of Bin Laden, and Obama launches more drone strikes every year – and kills more civilians – than Bush ever did.
It seems that the governments of the world and the citizens of this country still need to learn from Maajid’s experiences; and certainly, anyone there on Thursday has a great head start.
The UK has a lot of important choices to make over the next few years: we need to decide whether to remain a single country; we need to work out who’ll be running that country (or countries); and we’ll have to decide whether we want to remain a part of one of the most influential (for better or worse) multinational organisations that the world has ever seen. With every major party now talking about an in/out referendum, it’s no longer a question of if, but when, we’ll have to make that choice.
As such, Chris Davies MEP was a particularly relevant speaker to be addressing Cambridge students this term. Mr Davies is himself a former member of CSLD, and had kindly agreed to make the trek back to Cambridge for the evening to share some personal anecdotes about life as an MEP – and his reasons for why the UK should stay in the EU.
Judging from the questions they asked afterwards, most of the audience seemed fairly familiar with the theoretical aspects of the EU, but I’m sure everyone would agree that hearing first-hand accounts such as Chris’ really helps to contextualise said theories. For instance, I certainly knew, in a broad sense, what measures the EU could take to ensure compliance with its directives, but I hadn’t considered, until Mr Davies regaled us with his personal experiences of such matters, that informal compliance mechanisms could be just as powerful: as he pointed out, the mere threat of financial penalties is often enough to bring errant states to the negotiating table, where compromises can be reached in a way that respects the sovereignty of all nations involved.
Another fascinating aspect of his talk was his account of the changing attitudes towards Britain within the rest of the EU. As the former leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the European Parliament, Mr Davies was able to share personal stories about his dealings with party leaders from across the continent. Given the recent rise of UKIP and the current wave of anti-EU feeling that they’ve been riding, he seemed remarkably optimistic about our future relationship with our European neighbours: as he put it, an in/out referendum could be a chance for us to make a commitment that reaffirms to the rest of Europe that we share the same interests and the same aims, and would enable us to work more closely with them than we have been able to for the past decade.
Certainly, there is no denying the import of the decision the UK will have to make. Nor could one argue that it won’t be an uphill struggle to win any such referendum. However, with people like Chris Davies campaigning tirelessly to make the case for Europe, we can at least rest assured that we have a fighting chance.