Thomas Chatterton Williams


I met Maajid Nawaz: the radical on the path of reform

A former Islamist has started a foundation to combat extremism among Muslims - and has made a lot of enemies in the process, writes Thomas Chatterton Williams

I met Maajid Nawaz: the radical on the path of reform

I MET Maajid Nawaz on a drizzly afternoon in March, tucked in a corner of the restaurant at the central London members’ club he uses as a satellite office.

He was dabbing the chicken from his Caesar salad into a mound of yellow English mustard, which he stopped doing for long enough to load a video on his iPhone and slide it across the table. It showed the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s Heidi Beirich, speaking at Duke University about him.

“Let me just give you an example of Maajid Nawaz — our problem with him,” she says. “He believes that all mosques should be surveilled. In other words, his opinion is that all Muslims are potential terrorists.”

Mr Nawaz, a Muslim himself, bristled with frustration at the claim. In fact, he explained, he is on record making the case against collective surveillance.

A former Islamist, for the past nine years Mr Nawaz has made a name for himself as an indefatigable anti-extremist activist. These days he blends seamlessly into the sort of cosmopolitan circles that extremists decry; at his club, dressed in an olive bomber jacket over fitted workout sweats, he could have been a senior marketing exec or a music-video director.

At 39, Mr Nawaz is handsome and vaguely famous-looking in person, prematurely silver-haired, with a widow’s peak and Mephistophelean soulpatch that punctuates a politician’s easy smile.

For Nawaz’s detractors, of whom there are many, it’s this very chameleon quality, this at-homeness in disparate roles and spaces, that has earned him a reputation as something of a charlatan, a preening opportunist cashing in on his own sensational travails by means of society’s abundant anti-Muslim bias.

This uncharitable narrative has shadowed him from the outset, yet his point of view has only grown more relevant after an exceptionally violent 2016 that saw co-ordinated suicide bombings in Brussels and Istanbul; mass shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando; the ambush and execution of a police officer and his partner near Paris; a Bastille Day slaughter in Nice; axe and suicide bomb attacks in Bavaria; the throat slitting of a Catholic priest in a church in Normandy; pressure-cooker bombs in Manhattan and New Jersey; and a massacre at a Christmas market in Berlin. And on March 22 this year in London, a man mowed down pedestrians with his car near parliament before stabbing a police constable to death.

With each grisly new assault — and the spectre of Syria and IS looming beyond it — the voices of hatred and reaction in the US and throughout Britain and Europe found not only sympathetic ears but also willing hands to cast votes in the voting booths. Throughout the upheaval and backlash, Mr Nawaz has remained a constant presence in the media: on Real Time With Bill Maher, trying to draw a distinction between religion and political dogma; in his book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance (co-written with prominent ‘new atheist’ Sam Harris), insisting that Islamism does have something to do with Islam and that IS possesses a plausible if terribly ungenerous interpretation of the Koran.

But whatever role Mr Nawaz enjoys as a public intellectual is inextricable from his personal celebrity as a former fundamentalist. His work is his story, and his story is his celebrity. In order to make his case against radicalism, he finds himself in the not entirely enviable position of nonstop self-promotion. On this front, he’s as busy as ever. He is finishing a documentary based on his book with Mr Harris, but foremost on Mr Nawaz’s mind these days is the 2017 opening of the first new chapter of his anti-extremist organisation, the Quilliam Foundation, in the US.

“Lots of Muslims in America are basically liberals, but if you don’t have a visibly anti-extremist presence, then the Trumps of this world win” through fear-mongering and misrepresentation, he says.

“Our presence is needed in America to reassure the mainstream, whereas our presence is needed in Europe to stop radicalisation.”

Despite such deliberate affirmations and qualifications, there is nonetheless confusion as to where Mr Nawaz’s sympathies lie. According to Vice News, he has earned a “terrorism” designation on Thomson Reuters World-Check, a risk-assessment database. (Thomson Reuters would not confirm this.)

Last October, the Southern Poverty Law Centre took the incredible step of including him on a Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists, which it published with three other research organisations. The guide listed 15 public figures, and Mr Nawaz was the only Muslim among them. (This is why Ms Beirich brought him up at Duke.) He was visibly furious whenever the topic came up, and told me he plans to crowdfund a legal response.

Early in Mr Nawaz’s 2012 memoir, Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism, there’s an eyebrow-raising scene. The narrator, an irreligious, NWA-loving child, has resorted to strapping a knife under his shirt for fear of the gangs of skinheads that stalk his Essex suburb, Southend.

He is 15, and on this afternoon, he is with his older brother, Kaashif (identified by a pseudonym in the book), and a friend who has converted to Islam. Neighbourhood racists have chased the boys with baseball bats and now have them cornered and outnumbered. The skinheads’ leader steps forward and asks to talk. Kaashif gestures to the side of the road, where he and the skinhead fall into a tense and private discussion. When the two return, the skinheads begin to retreat.

Incredulous, Maajid demands to know what his brother has told them. Kaashif says he told the skinhead, “We’re Muslims, and we don’t fear death” — and, furthermore, that he was carrying a bomb in his backpack.

The anecdote, which surfaces repeatedly in Radical and ultimately swells to the dimensions of a creation myth, is quintessential Nawaz.

On one hand, it’s a distillation of his larger rhetorical project, capturing the confused and painful textures of contemporary Muslim experience that can lead to the embrace of Islamism: an initial lack of familiarity with religion; local grievance spun into a narrative of global victimisation; a tribal relation to other Muslims beyond racial and ethnic categorization; the illusion of empowerment through threat of violence.

On the other hand, it has become emblematic of the cantankerous, highly personal discourse that clings to the man himself: For a number of reasons, many of his critics have come to allege that the anecdote is pure fabrication. What’s indisputable is that soon after that day in Southend, Mr Nawaz threw himself into his new identity, falling under the sway of Nasim Ghani, a charismatic young recruiter and future leader of the British branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a multinational Islamic revolutionary organisation founded in 1953 in Jerusalem.

HT, as Mr Nawaz refers to it, advocates the imposition of Shariah law through “bloodless” coups in majority-Muslim countries first and ultimately in the West as well.

In other words, these were Islamists but not jihadists, and the distinction isn’t frivolous. Still, the line is a porous one: Two HT leaders, Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri Mohammad, would go on to lead a splinter group of a far more deadly variety.

In September 2001, after stints of organising and recruiting for HT in London and Pakistan, Mr Nawaz took his first wife and their infant son to Alexandria, Egypt, where he posed as an Arabic-language student while secretly proselytizing for the group. Though HT is legal in Britain, it is banned in many majority-Muslim countries, including Egypt.

In 2002, at 24, Mr Nawaz was forcibly removed from his home, blindfolded, and thrown in the back of a van, one more Islamist caught up in the wide and extralegal international crackdown on extremism in the wake of 9/11. He spent his next four years in Egyptian prisons, where he claims to have witnessed torture and where, in his solitude, he was able to memorise half of the Koran.

A pivotal moment in Mr Nawaz’s moral education came when news of the 7/7 attacks in London reached the inmates at Tora, Egypt’s prison notorious for holding political dissidents. Four attackers bombed a bus and three subway trains, claiming 52 lives. Mr Nawaz writes that he suddenly “felt revulsion” at the human cost of his ideas.

In 2004, Amnesty International adopted Mr Nawaz as a prisoner of conscience, and secured his return to London two years later. His was not an overnight epiphany, but within two more years, he had graduated from the School of Oriental and Afri

can Studies at the University of London, renounced Islamism and HT, and publicly reinvented himself as an advocate for liberal democracy: A media-savvy expert on preventing radicalisation.

His enemies, a long list made up of family members, ex-friends, and former HT associates, have publicly questioned his conversion narrative.

Whatever the case, that same year, alongside a college friend named Ed Husain, who had already made a name for himself with his own reverse-conversion memoir, The Islamist, Mr Nawaz co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, which they named for William Quilliam, a British convert who opened one of Britain’s first mosques in the late 1880s.

As his critics constantly stress, Mr Nawaz’s timing was convenient; the British government was then looking to finance anti-extremist organisations and provided Quilliam with early funding.

Mr Nawaz, then, is somewhat like British Petroleum when it is tasked with cleaning up a catastrophic oil spill: His main qualification to do this kind of decontamination work is precisely his experience as a contaminator.

As recently as the mid-1990s, Islamist ideology was unpopular in British Muslim communities. “We would have to convince people of something that is strange to them,” he told me of those days.

“We had to really hone our argumentative skills and our ability to convince and influence people as that vanguard of the Islamist movement in the West.”

He insists his background as an Islamist is what allows him and others at Quilliam today not only to pinpoint Islamism’s weaknesses but also to employ the very same tenacious ability to communicate ideas and influence people for the purpose now of advocating liberal values.

What Mr Nawaz seems to understand better than any of the other critics of Islam he’s so often lumped with is that Islamism is cool — and it is cool in some of the same ways that punk rock and gangsta rap and macho rebellion in general, whether symbolic or real, are perennially seductive.

As a result, countering it will have to mean finding ways to, as he puts it, “make it cool to be a liberal Muslim”.

While the vast majority of British Muslims are certainly not flocking to join groups like HT, a sobering number have expressed views that would be very much at home in even more extreme precincts.

A poll in Britain following the 7/7 bombings, for example, showed that more than a fifth of British Muslims felt some sympathy for the bombers’ feelings and motives; more than half said they could understand the bombers’ behaviour; and nearly a third agreed that “Western society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to bring it to an end” by nonviolent means.

Though it is not at all clear what pushes any given individual to cross the line into violence, attitudes like these are what Mr Nawaz and Quilliam have controversially described as the “mood music” to terrorist acts.

It is this last contention that seems to be the crux of the Southern Poverty Law Centre complaint against Mr Nawaz, along with the disclosure that, in 2010, Quilliam provided a list of nonviolent “Islamist” organisations to a British counterterrorism official.

Mr Nawaz justifies the move by arguing that the distinction between violent and nonviolent Islamism is far less rigid than many liberals would like to think.

“Now when these guys are joining ISIS, the arguments have been made,” he told me. “What they’re doing is just putting that last piece in the jigsaw: ‘I’m going to go and fight for this cause.’ But the ideology’s already been established. The surveys and the polls tell you that.”

I saw Mr Nawaz in New York in September, while he was in town fundraising for Quilliam’s US chapter. We had made plans to meet at a Soho hotel for a drink, but he was running late. When I asked after him, the concierge either didn’t know his real name or pretended not to. Both Mr Nawaz and Noman Benotman — the current president of the organisation — have been targeted by al Qaeda and IS affiliates, and he travels under an alias.

When he finally arrived, we went down to the bar, and he was in wonderful spirits. He’s been criticised in the British press for drinking and receiving a lapdance at a strip club, but in situations like this, it’s strange to think of Mr Nawaz as having been anything like a humourless extremist.

Yet the bind he has made for himself is a real one: He has to prove that liberal, moderate Islam can be “cool”. while not coming off as too hip to convince the left of his Muslim authenticity. He runs the very real risk of satisfying no-one.

Without having planned to, I found myself opening up to Mr Nawaz about a recent train ride my wife and I made in France. I watched an agitated young Arab man and his wife, in full abaya, shut themselves inside the bathroom along with all of their luggage.

When they opened the door, the hair on my neck stood up, and I braced myself for a fusillade that never came. Even as I chastised myself for overreacting, I was convinced that the man continued to behave strangely. My shame increased with each moment nothing happened.

Mr Nawaz listened intently to my story, but his eyes showed he’d long since arrived at his answer. “You’re caught in a classically Catch-22 situation,” he said.

“You’ve got two competing forces, which are entirely legitimate. One is not wanting to racially profile, and the other is not wanting to be the neighbour of the San Bernardino shooter who didn’t want to profile and, as a result, people lose their lives.

“Or, more urgently, [you] just don’t want to be the first person to catch a bullet. On a human level, that is a perfectly natural reaction. The fact that you’re having these doubts is a good thing.”

Though he meant this defence of human prejudice to reassure me, it did not. I almost wish he had accused me of Islamophobia — at least then the conversation might have achieved a certain black-and-white clarity.

But Mr Nawaz, the consummate in-between thinker, then took care to add several shades of grey to the conversation.

“I literally just tweeted, five minutes before coming to see you, a picture of a blond ISIS child — a child with blond hair — helping to execute people,” he said, producing on his phone a shocking image of a very young, Eastern European-looking boy holding a gun in the desert.

“I said, ‘Trump, how you gonna profile this?’”

Thomas Chatterton Williams is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. Adapted from an article that originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

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