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.