CHESTERTOWN ——Shiraz Maher went to the mosque in search of answers.
Why, he wanted to know, had 15 young men from Saudi Arabia, the country where he spent most of his childhood, just crashed jetliners into prominent U.S. buildings?
The men who gave him clarity wore fashionably tailored suits and spoke as easily of Shakespeare and Hegel as they did of the Quran. The 20-year-old Briton found these Muslims — as urbane as they were devout — completely alluring.
By the time U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan three weeks later, Maher was a recruit of Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, an organization devoted to creating a pan-Islamic state ruled by religious law.
"America, in my mind, had gone to war with Islam," says Maher, now 30, from a sunny patio on the campus of Washington College. "I looked at [President George W.] Bush bombarding the poorest country in the world and I thought, 'If I can't be with you, screw you, I'll be with these guys.'"
The story of Maher's last decade speaks to a question that has perplexed Americans since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Why do some young Muslim men, even well-educated ones from the middle class, come to see us as the enemy? It's an issue to which Maher, teaching at Washington College this semester, brings firsthand perspective.
Washington College President Mitchell Reiss was visiting London for a debate on terrorism when he heard Maher's story of entering and ultimately leaving Hizb ut-Tahrir. It was a tale Reiss wanted his students to hear.
"It's not only a compelling personal narrative," Reiss says. "It demonstrates how a highly intelligent, well-educated individual can be seduced to go down an incredibly dangerous path."
As a result of their meeting, the former jihadist has spent this spring living and teaching in the hushed environs of Chestertown on the Eastern Shore. He has led a class on Middle Eastern politics and recently delivered a lecture on his personal story to a rapt audience of students and townspeople.
"When I heard Shiraz had been part of a jihadist group in his past, I was undoubtedly intrigued," says Oliver O'Connor, a sophomore from Wyoming. "Hearing this early on in the semester actually provided me with more of an interest in the subject matter."
Maher is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London. He has also reported on the Middle East — witnessing the uprisings in Egypt, embedding with the Pakistani army and visiting a deradicalization center in Saudi Arabia — for British publications and television networks.
Students got to see just how connected he is in the region when he linked them, via Skype, to a Syrian rebel camped in the building where two foreign journalists had just been killed by government shelling in the city of Homs. The conversation was punctuated by the steady thump of explosions in the background.
"I would have expected that live contact with a Syrian revolutionary would be unheard of in a classroom environment," says Richard Niroumand, a junior from Twickenham, England. "But the fact that Shiraz made this happen is testament to his extraordinary abilities as a teacher and an expert in the field."
Maher was born in Birmingham, England, to a family of Pakistani origin. When Maher was a few months old, the family moved to Saudi Arabia, where his father worked as an accountant for a member of the royal family.
Maher grew up in a large expatriate compound where every house had a swimming pool and children played well into the evening on lighted tennis and basketball courts. His father was a secular Muslim in a country where all activity stopped for daily prayers and families went on pilgrimage to Mecca every few months. But he never felt stifled.
"The image people got of Saudi Arabia after 9/11, as some kind of Taliban state, just isn't correct," Maher says. "I had a great childhood."
He returned to England as a teen to live with his grandparents and study history. He would have described himself as an atheist or agnostic at the time. "I quite liked the idea of saying I didn't believe in God," he recalls.
He fancied girls and was much more apt to stay out drinking until the wee hours than to rise at dawn for prayers.