People in the West are reluctant to discuss Islamism because they are frightened of being portrayed as racist, according to Maajid Nawaz, a British politician and former extremist who spent five years in an Egyptian jail.

Mr Nawaz, 37, whose political journey has seen him move from Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group linked to violence, to Britain's centrist Liberal Democrat party, compares debate about Islamic State to the reds-under-the-bed panic of the 1960s.

"Fifty years ago, this would have been about communism," he told The Age via telephone from London. "What I would caution is that I would say we were very comfortable being able to discuss communism, partly because communism emerged in a country that was majority white.

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