“It led me to the thought that there are good non-Muslims…”

Sometimes what it takes to open the heart of an Islamic extremist is simply to reach out and show you care.

Yes, I know. this sounds hopelessly naive, soft-headed, New Age-y and (shudder) liberal. But in at least one case, it seems to have played a big part.

Maajid Nawaz, a former leader of Britain’s radical Hizb-ut-Tahrir, recently spoke to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He said that he faced discrimination, harassment and even false arrest in his native Essex as a youth, despite being a third-generation British citizen. “I didn’t feel like I belonged and it lead to a crisis in my identity.”

But it was only once he was connected with Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s program and ideological indoctrination that he became radicalized, in turn traveling the world to indoctrinate others. He served as a long-time member of the British leadership committee of the group, which is an international Islamist political party.

Nawaz’s travels took him to Egypt, where he was arrested in 2002 because of his participation in the organization. It was there that he first began to question what he himself had been preaching.

What first “opened [his] heart,” Nawaz said, were the dogged efforts of an Amnesty International worker who was pushing for his release since he hadn’t been involved in any violent acts.

Nawaz initially rejected his help because he was “the enemy,” a Westerner, but still the Amnesty worker persisted in sending him letters every week and supporting him.

“It led me to the thought that there are good non-Muslims out there,” he explained. “That led me to question the ideology.”

With that opening, he was more receptive to the ideas of Western-oriented reformers and democracy advocates who were also imprisoned with him. And he had time to read the classical texts of Islam and see where they differ from what the Islamic extremist groups were teaching.

Nawaz said that this extremist view of Islam “in which governments can be overthrown and civilians killed in pursuit of worldwide Islamic domination” is a modern ideology rather than a traditional religious teaching. “It’s an abuse of theology for political ends,” he told the Washington Institute.

Nawaz has now joined with others who have left Hizb-ut-Tahrir to form the Quilliam Foundation, “Britain’s first Muslim counter-extremism think tank,” as it describes itself.

And yes, I know it won’t work with everyone.

Don’t miss this excellent Newsnight report on the Quilliam Foundation, followed by a highly revealing debate between Maajid Nawaz and Hamas spokesman Azzam Tamimi, whose attitude (“Neocons!… Zionists!”) is even more jaw-droppingly mad than usual.

(It seems Catherine Fieschi works with the Quilliam Foundation. I wish she had insisted on the participation of Nawaz or other foundation members in the IslamExpo panels as a condition of Demos taking part.)

Where are the reasonable and thoughtful Muslims willing to challenge the extremists on their own turf? Among other places, they’re here, folks.

(Hat tip: Tim)

Further update: Here’s a Newsnight report on Maajid Nawaz, in which he discusses his involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, his torture and imprisonment in Egypt, and his break with the organization.

(Hat tip: modernity)

Additional update: Seumas Milne asserts that the UK government is funding the Quilliam Foundation. The foundation specifically denies this. Its criticism of Sheikh Qaradawi caused it to lose funding from Gulf states.

When is The Guardian going to put Milne out of his journalistic misery?

Another update: In the comments to his piece, Milne writes: “In fact, only yesterday, Maajid Nawaz, who is a co-director with Ed Husain, gave a briefing at the Guardian and stated that the [Quilliam] foundation is now taking government funding.”