Maajid Nawaz is a British Muslim, an author, commentator and the founding chairman of the Quilliam foundation, a counter-extremist organization. Understanding his story is key to understanding the fight going on between moderates, conservatives and extremists in the Muslim world.
Nawaz is currently fighting a civil war of ideas in the Muslim world against Islamists who intend to plague Islam as inherently extremist and necessarily political. He is a steadfast liberal trying to make being a moderate cool among a generation of young Muslims who are more prone to radicalization than ever before.
Nawaz is one of the world’s most qualified and knowledgable educators on the subject of Islamic radicalization. He’s advised former British Prime Minister David Cameron on the subject and held meetings with Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Nawaz’s insight comes from his own past working as a recruiter for Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, a position that would eventually land him in an Egyptian prison. Nawaz has since reformed and made it his life’s mission to promote de-radicalization and secular, liberal and democratic interpretations of Islam.
Nawaz sees his role as twofold: criticizing fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and eradicating biases and stereotypes directed towards the Muslim community. Nawaz not only tries to drag Muslims to the left, but he tries to do the same to far-right, anti-Islamic ideologues. Nawaz understands the power of conversation, which is why he engaged far-right activist Tommy Robinson and was temporarily successful in toning down Robinson’s anti-Islam comments. Nawaz supported Muslim Sadiq Khan in his successful bid for the Mayorship of London. Khan was Nawaz’s lawyer when he was serving prison time in Egypt. Nawaz also supported Muslim Keith Ellison’s candidacy for head of the Democratic National Committee. Placing liberal Muslims in well-known positions of power, Nawaz argues, will counteract the rising tide of Islamophobia and bigotry directed towards Muslims.
As an educator on the subject, Nawaz has tried to add nuance to the debate going on in academic circles surrounding the causes of radicalization.
In ‘Islam: The Future of Tolerance’, a book he cowrote with Sam Harris, Nawaz said:“I believe that four elements exist in all forms of ideological recruitment: a grievance narrative, whether real or perceived; an identity crisis; a charismatic recruiter; and ideological dogma.”
He has also tried to outline and define clear terms of the ‘Islam conversation.’ He makes the distinction between Islamism and Islam, Islamism being the valid fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Militant Islamists are essentially jihadists; they use military force and terrorist tactics to spread their ideology. Political Islamists work within existing political systems and seek to enforce their ideology through conversation and infiltration. Conservative Muslims make up the vast majority of the Muslim population. “We’re currently faced with two entirely different challenges — facing down Islamism and jihadism on the one hand, and advancing human rights and democratic culture on the other,” Nawaz claims. “Conservative muslims may be our allies for the former but not the latter.” Then there are moderate Muslims, who make up the majority of the Muslim population in the West.
Nawaz doesn’t shy away from calling fundamentalists and jihadists genuine Muslims. He sees it as theologically accurate and the only way to empower reformist voices in the Muslim world to stand up and defeat theocracy and intolerance.
Reformers committed to the task of promoting this secular, liberal and democratic interpretation of Islam are engaging in a project that appears seemingly insurmountable. But that doesn’t stop figures like Nawaz, Raheel Raza and Ayaan Hirsi Ali from trying.
The task has forced reformers to address the deeply concerning prevalence of theological, conservative, undemocratic and intolerant views within the Muslim world. Pew Research recently conducted surveys of Muslims all around the world that found widespread support of polygamy and discrimination against homosexuals and women. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, 93% of those surveyed said that a wife must always obey her husband. Only 32% of Indonesian Muslims said that wives should have the right to divorce their husband. Only 1% of Indonesian Muslims thought homosexuality to be morally acceptable.
Even in Nawaz’s home country of Britain, he faces challenges in trying to promote secularism and liberalism within Muslim communities. Polls conducted by the BBC show 27% of British Muslims have sympathy for the terrorists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices. More than half of British Muslims think homosexuality should be illegal and 39% think wives should always obey their husband. In ‘Islam: The Future of Tolerance’, Nawaz called these figures “extremely troubling.”
Ironically, Nawaz has faced fierce opposition from many liberals in the West for his liberal views. Nawaz argues that a contingent of progressives have become so ideologically committed to the well-meaning progressive cause of protecting Muslims, that they have become regressive in failing to condemn Islamic theology for promoting potentially barbaric, undemocratic and intolerant beliefs. He calls these people: “the regressive left,” a term that has gained significant traction in both liberal and conservative circles.
Nawaz is usually criticized for openly challenging a range of widely-held Islamic beliefs, a project he thinks the regressive left conflates with being bigoted towards Muslims. His critics try to paint Islam as inherently and wholly peaceful, with any criticism of it equating to outright bigotry or even racism. Nawaz takes a more nuanced position, believing that, “Islam is, after all, an idea; we cannot expect its merits or demerits to be accepted if we cannot openly debate it.” In having complex and nuanced conversations about the link between Islam, jihadism and intolerance towards homosexuals, women and transgender people, Nawaz is often conflated with people like Robert Spencer, Tommy Robinson and Pamela Geller.
The Southern Poverty Law Center named Nawaz an “anti-Muslim extremist” along with the above individuals. The Center even went so far as to claim that, “Nawaz is far more interested in self-promotion and money than in any particular ideological dispute.” The Center’s Heidi Beirich justified the smear of Nawaz’s character by lying, claiming he supports the surveillance of all Mosques. A Muslim himself, Nawaz has taken a strong stance against unnecessary surveillance.
Nawaz’s solution to the problem of Islamism is to have honest, intellectual discussions about the nature of Islam and the potentially harmful beliefs Islam espouses.
In ‘Islam: The Future of Tolerance’ he says, “We must name the ideology behind the Islamic State so that we can refute it. It is crucial to name Islamism so that Muslims like me are confronted with a stark choice. Either we reclaim our religion and its narrative or allow thugs and demagogues to speak in its name and impose it on others. Merely calling it extremism is too relative and vague, and sidesteps the responsibility to counter its scriptural justification.”
If the Left refuses to criticize Islam where necessary, Nawaz claims that voters will continue to look to Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the alt-right for answers. The Left must reclaim the conversation and drag it to the centre, instead of allowing it to be dominated by far-right ideologues. Like Nawaz has said, “no idea is above scrutiny. No idea whatsoever. To criticize, to scrutinize and to satirize my own religion is not Islamophobia.”
There’s wisdom for both the Left and the Right in Nawaz’s saying: “no idea is above scrutiny, no people are beneath dignity.
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