Why I joined the British jihad - and why I rejected it
Our correspondent's journey into zealotry ended in prison – and that is where he finally realised he was wrong
As a third generation British Muslim I was raised in an integrated and well established family; four of my mother's siblings are doctors. I had absolutely no problem making friends and was in the highest sets in school, later going on to study law at university. How did I – at the tender age of 17 – subscribe to and then devastatingly propagate radical Islamist ideas? Why was I prepared to abandon my degree for such a cause?
Not only did I join Hizb ut-Tahrir, the controversial group that believes Islam is a political ideology that must dominate the world, I also rose to the level of a leadership committee member and national speaker. I recently resigned – but my story illustrates why "ordinary" British boys get caught up in such an extraordinary movement.
As a British-Asian teenager growing up in Essex I always had a sense of being different. In fairness, this was not due to the majority of people around me, but the actions of a minority of organised racists who made life exceptionally difficult for all around me. By the age of 15 I found myself having to flee random and unprovoked knife attacks and witness friends being stabbed before my eyes. There were arrests but no charges; apparently, they had "friends" in the police.
Institutional racism was something I knew existed before the phrase itself was coined. The first time I was arrested in an armed raid was not in Egypt but on the streets of Essex. Aged 15, I had been playing pool with friends until late. As I was being driven home we were shocked at being pursued by police helicopters shining spotlights on our car. The road had been blockaded and we found ourselves staring down the barrel of machineguns. I was arrested at gunpoint for "suspicion of armed robbery".
Unknown to me, earlier in the day my friends had been innocently playing with a plastic pellet gun. A poor old lady had decided that brown children playing with plastic pellet guns could mean only one thing: they intended to rob a bank. I still remember the look on my mother's face when she came into the police station. We were kept overnight and the following afternoon we were released without charge and with a sheepish apology.
I initially dealt with such incidents by associating with a counter-culture inspired by American rap music. In the 1990s this was an underground scene that we felt provided a voice and identity to those who were not being seen or heard. This was the beginning of my politicisation and by now I was already inclined to being antiestablishment.
As time passed I became more aware of identity issues and world conflicts. The Bosnian genocide struck a chord like no other. Here were white European Muslims being identified solely as Muslims and being slaughtered for it. This genocide coincided with an emerging trend in rap music, whereby American rappers began to identify explicitly as Muslims and mixed samples of Malcolm X's speeches into their music.
It was during this period of my life that a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir from my home town, who had been recruited while studying at university in London, started explaining the Hizb's ideas to me. My premature politicised mind was ripe to receive an ideology that advocated a black and white solution to the problems I had grown up with.
As I got more involved with Hizb ut-Tahrir activities, from attending secret cell meetings to distributing leaflets that called for jihad, I conflicted with Muslims at mosques and, most worryingly, my own parents. I recall with horror being chased out of a northern town by members of the mosque congregation and their imam for distributing Hizb leaflets outside the mosque. My parents detested seeing those same leaflets in their home. But I was undeterred. For me, Muslims, including my parents, had misunderstood their ideology.
This was an ideology like no other. Religion had been merged with politics in such a way that we worshipped God through our political activities. Where our minds could not grasp a certain idea, we were coaxed through scripture. Where scripture did not bolster a certain notion, we were convinced through rational argumentation. The result was a potent mix of political and philosophical stances seemingly justified by religious scripture with the aim of liberating the Muslim nation, or ummah, whose minds had been colonised.
The result was producing young men and women who were prepared to give up everything for the sake of a political ideology and go to a religious paradise. I had finally discovered who I was. I was a sharp, ideological Muslim whose mission was to create a new world order.
I took on board this ideology as my own, propagating it through campuses and across borders until it consumed my life. Eventually my activities caught up with me in Egypt, where I was sent by my university for a year of my Arabic and law degree. For the second time in my life I was arrested at gunpoint, but this time it was not by mistake and there was no apology. I was sentenced to five years for membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir and was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.
It was during this time in prison that I began to utilise my time by studying as much as I could about the ideology that I professed to be working for. My aim was to study Islam to such a depth that once released I would be even more potent at propagandising than before.
As I studied various branches of traditional Islamic sciences, however, I grew more and more surprised. The sheer breadth of scholastic disagreement that I found, on issues I had believed were so definitive in Islam, surprised me. Where we had been willing to challenge, even overthrow, regimes on certain issues, traditional jurists of Islam had treated these as academic disagreements to be debated through books.
It slowly dawned on me that what I had been propagating was far from true Islam. I began to realise that what I had subscribed to was actually Islamism sold to me in the name of Islam. And it is with this realisation that I can now say that the more I learnt about Islam, the more tolerant I became.
Now I am involved in trying to counter the black and white mindset that I once so vehemently encouraged. Although I was young when I was recruited to Hizb ut-Tahrir, I take full responsibility for my actions. I made the decisions that I did and I am responsible for undoing them. With this in mind I hope to publish a series of papers reevaluating certain core Islamist ideas that are essential to their message.