By MAAJID NAWAZ
LONDON — LAST week, the man called “Jihadi John” by the world’s media was unmasked as Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born Muslim and naturalized British citizen from London. Not only that, but the Islamic State’s most notorious Western recruit was identified as a graduate in computer science from the University of Westminster.
Many were shocked that the apparent executioner in videos made by the Islamic State, or ISIS, was an educated, middle-class metropolitan. In fact, academic institutions in Britain have been infiltrated for years by dangerous theocratic fantasists. I should know: I was one of them.
The University of Westminster is well known for being a hotbed of extremist activity. The university’s Islamic Society is heavily influenced, sometimes controlled, by the radical Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir and regularly gives a platform to preachers of hate. On the very day of the Emwazi revelation, the university was to host a lecture by Haitham al-Haddad — a man accused of espousing homophobia, advocating female genital mutilation and professing that Jewish people are descended from apes and pigs. The event was suspended not by the university authorities, but by the Islamic Society, which pulled it only because of security concerns.
Islamist “entryism” — the term originally described tactics adopted by Leon Trotsky to take over a rival Communist organization in France in the early 1930s — continues to be a problem within British universities and schools. Twenty years ago, I played my part as an Islamist entryist at college.
I was born and raised in Essex, just outside London, to a financially comfortable, well-educated Pakistani family. But I came of age as the genocide against Bosnian Muslims unfolded on the other side of Europe. That horror, coupled with the violence of white racists I experienced at home, led to my becoming disconnected from mainstream society.
I had a mind inquiring enough to question world events, as well as the passion fostered by my background to care, but I lacked the emotional maturity to process these things. That made me ripe for Islamist recruitment. Into this ferment came my recruiter, himself straight out of a London medical college.
He belonged to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is Arabic for the party of liberation. An international revolutionary Islamist group founded in 1953, it was the first movement to popularize resurrecting a caliphate with a version ofShariah law. Unlike Al Qaeda, Hizb-ut-Tahrir argues for military coups, not terrorism, to achieve power.
The recruiters are adept at manipulating world events to present what I call the “Islamist narrative” — that the world is at war with Islam, and only a caliphate will protect Muslims from the crusaders. I was seduced by the ideology and drawn to its alternative subculture.
By age 16, I had adopted Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s ideas wholeheartedly. I was asked to enroll at Newham College, a state-supported continuing education institution in east London, with the aim of gaining prominence on campus and recruiting other students to the cause. Once elected as president of the student union, I exploited the naïveté of the college, registering supporters to vote for me and consolidating our control.
The poisonous atmosphere that my supporters and I created at Newham College grew so dangerous that in 1995 my self-appointed bodyguard stabbed to death a non-Muslim student on campus, to cries of “Allahu akbar!” The killer, Saeed Nur, was convicted of murder.
I was rightly expelled from the college, though my activism did not end there. I worked first in Pakistan and then in Egypt to recruit young military officers to Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s revolutionary agenda. In 2001, I was arrested by President Hosni Mubarak’s secret police. During four years in a Cairo prison, I gradually reconsidered the ideology of Islamism, and eventually abandoned it. On my release, I took up the human rights and counter-extremism work that occupies me now.
The Islamic Society at the University of Westminster, like others at universities across Britain, is still targeted by entryist radicals. While such institutions must guard free speech, they should also be vigilant to ensure that speakers are not given unchallenged platforms to promote their toxic message to a vulnerable audience.
These speakers claim to preach Islam, but they peddle a highly politicized, often violent strain of my faith. It is easier than one might think for bright, capable people like Mr. Emwazi to fall for the myopic worldview of the preachers of hate. Young people from relatively prosperous, educated backgrounds have long been overrepresented in jihadist causes.
Just last month, Britain was thrown into consternation to learn that three young women, teenagers from the Bethnal Green Academy, had slipped out of the country to join the Islamic State. Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum were all, according to their parents and peers, straight-A students.
Challenging the notion of statehood, democratic theory and Middle Eastern power politics certainly takes a degree of intellectual sophistication, but it does not make an idealistic young person less vulnerable to exploitation by skilled recruiters. Regardless of good grades, they may suffer from a crisis of identity or grievances that radicalizers can prey on.
The desire to impose any religion on society is an inherently repugnant idea, but it is not so among many British Muslims. For decades, we’ve allowed Islamist ideologues to work unfettered across our communities, to the extent that Islamism has become the default form of political expression for many young Muslims in Britain and across Europe.
The leap from being an ordinary British teenager to joining the Islamic State is huge. But it is a much smaller step for someone raised in a climate in which dreams of resurrecting a caliphate and enforcing a distorted form of Islam are normalized. Until we confront this seeming legitimacy of Islamist discourse at the grass roots, we will not stop the scourge of radicalization.
Correction: March 4, 2015
Because of an editing error, an Op-Ed article on Tuesday misstated the change the writer experienced while imprisoned in Egypt. He abandoned the ideology of Islamism — not of Islam.
Maajid Nawaz, the chairman of the think tank Quilliam, is the author of “Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism.”