Leaving Islamism

Narratives of British Muslims

by Farhaan Wali (Author)
©2022 Monographs XXIV, 222 Pages


Farhaan Wali offers a timely contribution to the issues and problems involved in the de-radicalisation process. Trying to generate ethnographic insight into Islamism has always presented a problem for researchers seeking to comprehend Islamism. Islamist groups operate secretly, making it difficult to penetrate their inner workings. Leaving Islamism is like no other academic analysis of Islamism and de-radicalisation. The author was given access to ex-Islamist actors, giving the book a significant advantage over other books. Therefore, in Leaving Islamism, the author has put together a comprehensive examination of the causes—political, social, cultural, and interpersonal—of why some young Muslims leave Islamism in Britain. To go beyond abstract theory, Farhaan Wali has conducted in-depth interviews with ex-members of Islamist organisations. His access to ex-members put him in the unique position of being able to gather the biographical information required to study the causes of «dropping out» of Islamism. Therefore, Leaving Islamism will be vital reading for anyone seeking to understand why some young Muslims leave Islamism.
(Dr Alhagi Manta Drammeh, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies
and visiting scholar at the University of The Gambia in politics,
international relations and diplomacy MSC programme)
Islamism continues to inspire countless young people in Britain to turn away from the bedrock principles of this country, infusing them with religious fanaticism. Events such as the Manchester bombing or the beheading of Lee Rigby seem to trigger a flood of predictable academic attention. However, these responses are still largely transfixed on the causality of Islamism. The debate needs to move forward and take stock of additional dimensions of Islamism. Although scores of young Muslims are flowing towards the spectre of Islamism, there are equal numbers flooding out from it. What is the narrative behind this exodus? Leaving Islamism explores how and why some British Muslims leave Islamism, providing a compelling new perspective from which to understand the de-radicalisation process. The author draws on first-hand accounts of ex-Islamists. By framing ex-Islamist experiences Farhaan Wali is able to identify and evaluate the reasons, methods and pathways used by ex-Islamists to leave Islamist groups and ideology through the collection of ex-Islamist narratives.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • About the author
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Figures
  • PREFACE. My Journey Out of Islamism
  • INTRODUCTION. De-radicalising Islamists
  • CHAPTER 1. Junaid’s Story: De-radicalisation from Al-Muhajiroun
  • CHAPTER 2. Arsalan’s Story: De-radicalisation from Al-Shabaab
  • CHAPTER 3. Imaad’s Story: De-radicalisation from Abu Waleed
  • CHAPTER 4. Zubair’s Story: De-radicalisation from Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jummah
  • CHAPTER 5. Hamza’s Story: De-radicalisation from Hizb ut-Tahrir
  • CHAPTER 6. Najum’s Story: De-radicalisation from the Taliban
  • CHAPTER 7. Nina’s Story: De-radicalisation from Hizb ut-Tahrir
  • CONCLUSION. Understanding the Pathways Out of Islamism
  • Bibliography
  • Index

←x | xi→

My Journey Out of Islamism

The appeal of Islamism continues to inspire some young British Muslims to reject the core principles of this country. In my early youth, I too surrendered to its idealistic appeal. However, before I delve into my own narrative, I want to discuss some preliminary thoughts about Islamism. Trying to apply and contextualise Islamism has been a challenging exercise, because it’s meaning and application is greatly contested within the academic literature. One reason why Islamism is difficult to contextualise is due to the multifaceted way it manifests across political parties, regimes and militant groups. Thus, to lump these different manifestations together into one generic ideological pot is problematic. Therefore, the term ‘Islamism’ is often conceptualised as a ‘political project inspired by Islam’ (Gaub, 2004). However, this distinction is somewhat broad, and thus needs greater clarification, which I do in later sections. However, for now, the reader may benefit from knowing how I intend to use the term within this book. I have used the term ‘Islamism’ within the Islamic revivalist context. In other words, Islamists often seek to establish the ‘totality of Islam’, fusing Islam and political governance (Esposito, 1983, p. 32). For this reason, many Ex-Islamists echo similar narratives about re-establishing the Islamic Caliphate.

Leaving Islamism: My Journey

On 13 August 1995, at the age of 16, I attended the ‘Rally for Islam’, a national rally organised by Hizb ut-Tahrir (The Liberation Party). At the start, the confrontational ideas presented triggered my curiosity; they challenged the audience to discard all aspects of Western ideology. As I interacted with the considerable crowds, I discovered the religious ←xi | xii→fervour they expressed for Islam challenging to comprehend, especially as I had a secular upbringing. Until this encounter, I believed myself to be an assimilated member of British society. This apparent divergence provoked my interest in understanding the message of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), the organisers of the rally.

After attending the Rally for Islam, I began to feel disconnected from the social world around me. Above all, I struggled to form a stable identity during this period, which coincided with the natural challenges of adolescence. I sought to acquire a position that would relate my teenage life to what I had encountered before in an effort to gain meaning. As I previously revealed, I had a secular upbringing; in fact, religiosity was not stressed in any way. As I matured, I could not develop a unified understanding of all the varied facets of my life. Religion and ethnicity were detached from my social identity, inhibiting me from forming a cohesive identity.

Furthermore, I found it challenging to construct a meaningful connection to my ethnicity, mainly since I lived in a predominantly White area. In spite of rejecting my ethnicity, I still experienced social alienation from the White working class friends I had made at secondary school. There were two explanations for this feeling of exclusion. Firstly, I grew up in a middle-class household, which generated conflict with my White working class school friends, especially as I struggled to relate to their social world. Secondly, regardless of gaining some degree of acceptance amongst my White friends, I could not wholly surmount their negative view of belonging to a distinct ethnic group. This subsequently strengthened within me the feeling that my identity was artificial.

When I enrolled at Hammersmith College, I fell upon a multicultural setting for the first time in my life. This experience pushed me to reconsider my negative perceptions about race and ethnicity. This new social environment enabled me to discover a dormant side of my identity. Initially, I felt socially insecure, so I went in search of the familiar. According to Bukowski et al. (2018), similarly structured peer groups present individuals with secure social surroundings, drawing people who often share similar social characteristics such as age, gender, ethnicity and religion.

At college, I encountered HT recruiters, some of whom I had previously met at the rally. They encouraged me to attend HT talks at the ←xii | xiii→college, which introduced me to the clandestine world of Islamism. More significantly, I never felt attached to a global Muslim community, but after attending HT events, this dramatically changed. I developed a strong sense of connection to the perceived global suffering of Muslims. When I developed this emotional connectivity to Muslim plight, I inadvertently became more vulnerable to the rhetoric of HT ideology. HT pushed me to direct the anger I started to feel at the global situation towards the alleged ineptness of Muslim governments. In this respect, HT sees itself as ideological vanguards, who are the educators of the Muslim masses. They are overtly anti-western in their ideological disposition, framing the conflict with the West as a religious clash. As I submerged myself in HT ideology, I gradually started to think about them and us. At this moment, my identity was struggling to bend because the new ideas offered to me were impossible to work into a smooth and consistent whole. HT rhetoric projected a homogenous identity – one is Muslim and not British or Pakistani. However, I considered my identity evenly distributed. It was a mix of positions, but this caused immense internal conflict.

I formally enlisted with HT in 1997, after quite a few years of grappling with my contradictions and conflicts. However, upon reflection, I realised joining HT was not an autonomous choice; instead, substantial emotional pressure was used to compel me to enlist. Even though no physical cogency was employed against me, the psychological strong-arming I experienced influenced my choice to join. If I did not enrol, I thought I would be sinful, and God would condemn me to the pits of hell for eternity. The lack of knowledge about basic Islamic principles I had enabled HT recruiters to manipulate my religious fragility. After a lengthy postponement, I was placed into a Halaqa (private study circle) with six other novices. A Mushrif (Teacher) was assigned to radicalise us with the Islamist ideology of HT. This is deemed a vital phase and a contributory fragment of HT radicalisation process. Coerce intellectual pressure is employed throughout this period, compelling the novice to surrender their individuality to the group. In particular, the Mushrif was very eager to cultivate a shared construction of reality to construct a new cognitive viewpoint. The Halaqa provided a conceptual map with which connections to our own social experiences had to be made. To remove extreme individual ←xiii | xiv→differences and independent thought, the Mushrif compelled us to agree with and carry the ideas presented in Halaqa. In my Halaqa group, I remember that most of the novices conformed to the Mushrif’s judgements not to appear combative and different. Although creating this alignment of ideas is intentional, it does signify the acknowledgement of influence.

After several weeks of intense indoctrination within the Halaqa, I started to propagate the ideology of HT. I fully adopted the ideological aim of HT. HT seeks to re-launch the Dawlah Islamiya (Islamic State), an idealised utopia that has not been present since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. According to HT, Islam is an intellectual fusion between the religious and political, within which authority resides exclusively with God. This means human beings do not have the power to govern, making non-divine ideological systems invalid. When I attended College, I began to contribute to HT activism. Initially, despite some doubts, I felt like an activist. As an HT activist, I wanted to change British society, as I thought the foundation of British law emanated from a corrupt source. This gave me a somewhat combative disposition, as I felt ideologically superior to the other because I seemingly thought I acquired access to a higher form of knowledge. Consequently, HT began to skew my social identity and interactions, distorting my opinion of the other.

According to HT, once the recruit instigates activism effectively, making the thoughts of HT his own, then he or she is ready for membership. Yet, before obtaining membership, the recruit must yearn for membership by impressing the leadership committee. When I joined HT, I recall this period with vivid detail. In particular, novices competed with each other to gain the recognition of members. Senior members would often encourage this type of competition amongst young recruits. This melodramatic rivalry provoked some controversy among the recruits, as they questioned the morality of such internal policy. Within the group, senior members considered it a social norm for novices to compete for good deeds. However, this created a negative ambience, as recruits tried to outdo others, but for the leadership, it exhibited dependency on HT and a desire for membership.

In terms of becoming a member, I remember getting a call to attend a very early meeting on a Sunday morning without any explanation. I arrived ←xiv | xv→at the venue to find several members already present. Among them was the Naqib (area leader) and Masool (local leader). They informed me that I had been considered for membership into HT, which I hesitantly accepted. At the time, the Naqib of West London explained to become a member of HT required the declaring of al-Qasm (the oath). The swearing of the pledge is a prerequisite for all prospective members to be sure of their devotion. After a few weeks, I soon grasped the full ramifications of the oath, which in reality meant I belonged to HT. Yet, upon reflection, I do not believe my disposition gave wholly to the group-mind. For instance, I tended to resist the social pressure of the group. I realised in public situations; I conformed to HT. While, privately I disagreed with the group’s ideology, tactics and methods.

At university, I began to immerse myself in the philosophical works of western intellectual thinkers, which helped me question the nature of HT ideology. The exposure I received to alternative modes of thinking during the first year of my politics and philosophy degree gave me the confidence to challenge Islamist ideology. In essence, I lost my initial fascination with HT ideology. I began to view HT ideology within the combative and divisive context in which it formed. As the founder, Al-Nabhani (1953a, p. 4), declared: ‘The Western culture was the dagger drawn by the West in the face of the Islamic State and by which it fatally stabbed her.’ The dogmatic undercurrents of HT ideology cannot escape the narrative of confrontation. Al-Nabhani identified the West as the source of conflict because he saw it as a battle between good and evil, with Islam representing the forces of good.

I quickly began to loath the hostile interaction my fellow HT members had with non-Muslims. When I joined HT, it allowed me to relocate my negative social experiences onto those I perceived as rejecting me. The appeal of HT in my early youth started to erode once I overcame my identity struggles. This is why I initially was attracted to Islamist ideology; it created a ‘we’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy. Therefore, HT was appealing as it offered a sense of recognition, security and identity. On reflection, I joined HT because I failed to attain a sense of identity from society, which caused me to develop a deep psychological need for belonging.


XXIV, 222
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (June)
Islamism De-Radicalisation and Radicalisation British Muslims Leaving Islamism Farhaan Wali
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XXIV, 222 pp., 3 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Farhaan Wali (Author)

Farhaan Wali, PhD, is a religious studies expert with a specialisation in the study of Islam and Muslims in Britain. He has spent several years engaging in field research, and case study analysis, working intimately with religious communities in the UK and the Muslim world. Currently, he is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History, Law and Social Science at Bangor University.


Title: Leaving Islamism