The radical alternative: hardcore UK Muslim militants who came in from the cold

Feature Two former members of an organisation banned in most of the Middle East have turned their backs on extremism and taken a leading role in the debate within the British-Muslim community on the role of Islam as a religious and political force.

Two former members of an organisation banned in most of the Middle East have turned their backs on extremism and taken a leading role in the debate within the British-Muslim community on the role of Islam as a religious and political force. Hamida Ghafour reports. "Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world." Those words were spoken by Mohammad Sidique Khan, the 30-year-old mastermind of the July 7 2005 suicide bombings on London's transport network in a video broadcast two months after the atrocities. "And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters," he continued.

Khan's words renewed public anger in a country still reeling from the bombings that had killed 57 people. It wasn't just about the attacks. The mastermind wasn't an Arab holed up in some foreign mountain hideaway sending a rambling message with obscure religious justifications. Khan was a "northern lad", speaking with the bluntness typical of a northern Englishman in broad West Yorkshire inflections.

July 7 and Khan's video were perhaps more of a watershed for Britain's relationship with its Muslim population than the September 11 attacks on the US because this was closer to home. It was as if the country had suddenly discovered in its midst an angry, aggressive minority with no connection to what it meant to be British and European. Hundreds of journalists descended on the towns and cities in West Yorkshire in the north of England where Khan and the other bombers had been born or brought up. Nearly everyone closed ranks. For a generation or more, British Muslims had largely been left alone, or ignored by white, mainstream society in working-class enclaves in British cities and towns. Now they were under siege.

So-called community representatives were sought, usually from the Muslim Council of Britain. Their statements were nearly all the same: the occupation of Palestinian territories was blamed; Iraq and Afghanistan should never have been invaded. If British foreign policy changed, Londoners wouldn't be blown up on the Underground. White, mainstream society, led by conservative politicians and pundits for several of the London-based national papers, bristled. The chasm between the two seemed unbridgeable.

Then came the Quilliam Foundation. "The problem with radicals is no one understands exactly what they believe," says Ghaffar Hussain, a senior member, in Quilliam's bright, spacious offices overlooking a communal garden in central London. "And most Muslims don't know what they believe and how to counter them. A lot of religiously educated Muslims still don't have a clue, let alone mainstream society. There is very little if any expertise in this area at all."

Hussain, 32, speaks in a thoughtful, deliberate manner and yet the subject of extremism is very personal to him. Hussain and the co-founders of Quilliam, Ed Husain, 34, and Maajid Nawaz, 31, are all former hardcore Islamists who have come in from the cold in the post-July 7 period. The trio has gone from espousing the establishment of global Muslim rule as ex-members of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), which means Party of Liberation, a radical organisation that is banned in most of the Middle East and Europe, to being defenders of secular, British values.

Husain and Nawaz in particular are well-known personalities in the UK. Husain's 2007 autobiography, The Islamist, was a seminal moment in British-Muslim relations because it shed light on how a working-class East London boy made the transition to being an active member of an extremist organisation, aggressively organising rallies and condemning gays, Jews and Christians. He became famous overnight - hailed by supporters as a fresh voice denouncing the evils of political Islam. His detractors on the internet denounced him as a spy, or an apostate.

Nawaz spent 14 years as a member of HT, setting up chapter branches in Denmark and Pakistan before he was caught and arrested in Egypt - where the organisation is banned - and jailed for four years in 2002. It was in a Cairo prison, where he studied the stars through the skylight of his prison cell to keep himself sane, that his thinking underwent a profound change. He met other dissidents there, including the pro-democracy activist and secular Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour.

"We're doing it because we want to take responsibility for the ideology we propagated in the past," says Nawaz in an interview before flying to Pakistan to meet university students. "I had my law school placement, which I gave up to do what I'm doing now. Ed was finishing his PhD and he's put that on hold to do what he is doing now with me. We thought we needed to take responsibility." The profound shift in thinking by the trio in the past decade is a microcosm of the larger debate in the British-Muslim community, the vast majority of which is of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin and keeps close ties to those countries. Quilliam, which calls itself the "world's first counter-terrorism think-tank", a moniker which has earned it applause and derision, marks its second anniversary next month.

It has a coterie of high-profile advisers, including Jemima Khan, the ex-wife of Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan; the Conservative MP Michael Gove; and Lord (Paddy) Ashdown. But more than that, Quilliam is named after Shaikh William Henry Abdullah Quilliam, a 19th-century British convert who established the country's first mosque in Liverpool. The organisation wants to establish a "British Islam native to these islands, free from the bitter politics of the Arab and Muslim world".

That is probably a more salient point. The question of what it means to be British and Muslim is a heated topic of debate in a way that does not really exist in North America's better integrated, more secular Muslim minorities. In the 1980s and 1990s, British mosques became platforms for every hate-spewing cleric from the Middle East and Asia who took advantage of the laws governing free speech to incite violence and aggression. Some became tabloid favourites, in particular, the one-eyed, hook-handed Abu Hamza, an Egyptian-born firebrand who stared out from the front pages of the popular press like an Islamic bogeyman.

Many were shadowy and little known. But they radicalised a generation with graphic videos smuggled in from the horrors of Chechnya and Bosnia, of Muslim women being brutalised, and children being massacred. No politician or leader cared very much about what was happening in the mosques and community centres until after September 11, 2001. Following the London bombings four years later, the debate became focused. Many of the clerics were deported or jailed, including Abu Hamza, who was imprisoned for inciting hatred.

Ghaffar Hussain remembers being moved to action at the age of 15 by these videos shown by HT members who visited his hometown of Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire and held meetings in the mosque. "They said forget charity, the solution is to establish a global caliphate which will raise its army of Muslims to fight the infidels. So slowly I was seduced into this Islamist world view," says Hussain, who calls the group a cult.

He was never a leader in HT, he says, but attended rallies and believed that all non-Muslims were infidels. It was after he moved to London in the post-September 11 period that he was exposed to a range of left-wing thinkers and writers, including Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali, and he began to question his beliefs. "Ultimately, what I realised was the people I was with were narrow-minded. They weren't able to appreciate diversity in theology or political perspective. This was a turn-off for someone who considers himself creative."

The normal angst and identity issues experienced by children of immigrants in suburbia were manipulated and they were caught up in the deadly politics of the Middle East, led on by dangerous figures who were products of a repressive, volatile region. HT, for example, was founded in 1953 in Jerusalem five years after the creation of Israel. It is this background and history that Hussain teaches in a course prepared for British police and local councils - as well as the US department of homeland security - who want advice on how to approach potential extremists in their communities without being accused of racism.

"What we give them is a broad background information," says Ghaffar Hussain. "We're not telling them how to do it or 'you should look at this group and that group'. It's a knowledge gap and who's who." Nawaz, for his part, cut his ties with HT in 2007, met Ed Husain and the two decided to launch Quilliam, which last year received £1million(Dh5.5million) from the British government. Ghaffar Hussain got involved after reading Ed Husain's autobiography and e-mailing the organisation to express his support.

Nawaz travels back and forth to Pakistan, the country of origin of most British Muslims, and has spoken to 6,000 university students in major cities including Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi to challenge the Islamist world view. The July 7 bombers were recruited and trained in Pakistan. The real struggle, he says, is not in the madrasas but among the middle and upper middle classes who shape public opinion and act as leaders of violent organisations and recruit from university campuses.

"They are the ones recruiting the cannon fodder. You can't go into a madrasa and speak to an illiterate villager who is more driven by a sense of economic inequality," he says. "We mustn't underestimate and think these are illiterate people who don't know how to think. Bin Laden was an engineer and al Zawahiri is a doctor. They appeal to people who can have discussions on the flaws of capitalism. You can't have those sorts of discussions with a madrasa student."

Some of the recruitment methods are crudely funny. There was one campus in Lahore where students gathered for a disco; basically a room of young men and women chatting together over plates of samosas while in a corner a radio played pop music. When some Islamists at the university heard about this, they gathered in the room next door and started blaring verses from the Quran from a CD player. Those methods are reflected on British campuses as well. Nawaz and Husain have spoken at Oxford University and the universities of Bradford and London, among others.

But Ghaffar Hussain says that, over the past decade, many young Muslims have drifted away from Islamist organisations. "I see a lot of people do what I did 10 years ago which is start questioning and see something is not right, which is encouraging." Nawaz questions the argument that western foreign policy is to blame for all terrorist attacks by pointing out that political Islam and extremism are historical movements. It is all very intellectual, but Nawaz says no modern terrorist attack can be understood otherwise.

"What we're saying is grievances are enough to make someone angry but not every angry person becomes an extremist. There's got to be another factor that kicks in. This would have been unorthodox to say two years ago but I don't think it is any more." Nawaz, who studied law and Arabic at university, says most of the students don't see the difference between Islam as a religion and a political force. "So what we do is say, 'Look, a conservative Muslim who grows his beard and dresses in a certain way and prays five times a day isn't necessarily an Islamist'.That's what we want to do - recast the debate to say you can have a very religious conservative Muslim but he's not an Islamist. What do we mean? He is not someone who wants to impose his version of conservative Islam through state legislation on to society. Islam doesn't require Muslims to adopt one interpretation of Sharia and force it on everyone else as state law."

Quilliam has many detractors. Within days of its glamorous launch at the British Museum in April 2008, it was under attack. Some have called the founders stooges of the government, spies or even apostates who should be put to death. "Just because you have been an inmate of a mental hospital does not mean you are an expert in clinical psychology," wrote Ziauddin Sardar, a journalist. The foundation is also frequently dismissed as lacking any popular support.

One of its most vocal critics is Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group for local organisations that claims to speak on behalf of the estimated 1.6 million Muslims in Britain. "It has very little credibility among British Muslims," he wrote in The Times. To Nawaz and Ed Husain that criticism is a red herring. "Quilliam is not a mass movement," Nawaz says. "We're not looking to do that at all. We question that paradigm of Muslim representation. We think in the West our representatives are elected leaders. To have one body that claims to speak on behalf of all Muslims in the UK is an outmoded colonial model."

There are few sacred cows. Ghaffar Hussain says political correctness is also partly to blame for allowing a generation of young Muslims to adopt extremist ideas. "You see it a lot in mainstream white society. It is as if they don't have any expectations of Muslims. "They think OK, they are Muslim, they must be extremist and radical."