Tuesday, 4 August 2015
The Curious Case of Maajid Nawaz
Most people who follow Islam in Britain are aware of Maajid Nawaz. A former member of the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, he renounced "extremism" after a stint in jail in Egypt and has since devoted his time to combatting said "extremism", founding an organisation called the Quilliam Foundation, and gallivanting about calling himself an Islamic "reformer".
Normally, I'm right behind Islamic reformers, but I have never been Nawaz's biggest fan, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, of course, there is the name of his organisation: The Quilliam Foundation, so named after a nineteenth-century Englishman with the stellar name of William Quilliam, who famously converted to Islam and started calling himself Abdullah. Quilliam is known, among other things, as the man responsible for having the first ever mosque built in this country.
He is also on record as denouncing British government efforts to quell the jihadist insurgency in Sudan, on the basis that it was "contrary to the sharia", and advocating the reimplementation of the Caliphate - the same totalitarian system of governance championed today by ISIS.
Why would Nawaz name his "peaceful" organisation after a man like this? It makes no sense. It would be like a German Nazi renouncing Nazism, coming to Britain, forming an organisation to combat Nazism, and calling it the Eichmann Foundation.
So I have remained dubious about Nawaz, even as plenty of outspoken Islamo-realists who I respect, such as Pat Condell and Douglas Murray, sing his praises.
But one of the key problems I have with him is that, no matter how often he says the things we want to hear, the fact remains that most Muslims in Britain just don't like him. He is seen as a tool of the "neocons" and "Islamophobes" that run our media and government agencies, and considered a hypocrite and "fake" Muslim by the majority of his own community.
This was brought home in a recent interview with him at the Guardian. Yes, as Douglas Murray has pointed out today, the article is unremittingly hostile to this self-professed "moderate Muslim", even as the newspaper lavishes praise on extremist groups, but the piece does, I believe, capture the predominant mindset among Nawaz's fellow Muslims.
This lack of trust among ordinary Muslims comes up again and again. Sadakat Kadri, a barrister and expert on sharia law, thinks Nawaz is “a very personable character”, but says “the problem with Quilliam is that it just doesn’t have any credibility. Cameron and Gove want to deal with Quilliam because they’re people they can do business with. But it isn’t an intermediary to anyone within the Muslim community.” And a former acquaintance of Nawaz, who asked for anonymity, points to something more personal: “If you talk to people who went to school with him, they all say the same thing: they say it’s not about the mission or the cause, it’s about the man. I don’t think Maajid believes anything. I think he’s basically a man who says: what is my cause and what is going to get me the most attention, the most publicity?”
Nawaz describes himself as a "non-devout Muslim", which leads me to wonder how anyone expects that he will convince devout Muslims - i.e. the ones who really need convincing - that Islam needs reform. Being on the telly a lot and posting Muhammad cartoons on Twitter really isn't going to cut it. In short, there is nothing to suggest that we should pin our hopes on this man to bring about change for the better within Islam.
But there is another aspect of the Guardian piece that fills me with concern: the revelation that Nawaz and his organisation were directly involved in the construction of David Cameron's recent counter-terrorism speech in Birmingham, which I discussed here. As I noted at the time, the Prime Minister's speech shows absolutely no signs of being written in consultation with someone who understands the need for a grass-roots, mea culpa based reform of Islam. To the contrary, he goes out of his way to distance Islam from jihad terrorism, and make up silly nonsensical causes for it.
If this is Nawaz's influence, then it is not the kind we need from an Islamic "reformer".