By David Shariatmadari
2 August 2015
Maajid Nawaz: ‘I wouldn’t blow my own trumpet’ Photograph: Linda Nylind/Guardian
On 10 September 2001, a young British man stepped off a plane in Egypt for a year abroad studying Arabic. When news of the most spectacular terrorist attack in history reached Maajid Nawaz the next day, he sensed it might play badly for the Islamist group of which he was part. By April 2002, he had been picked up by the security services for membership of Hizb-ut-Tahrir – the “Party of Liberation” – and ended up spending four years in an Egyptian jail. Since returning to Britain in 2006, though, Nawaz’s career has taken an improbable turn: he has set himself up as an expert on how to prevent radicalisation, and has even advised prime ministers and presidents, including David Cameron and George W Bush.
Nawaz likes to do things in style. In 2007, after dramatically leaving Hizb-ut-Tahrir, he decided to create an anti-extremism think-tank with his friend Ed Husain, another former Islamist. A snazzy agency was hired to design a “brand identity” for the Quilliam Foundation, named after the man who opened England’s first mosque. The logo they chose was a delicate, wispy “Q”, a calligraphic link between east and west. They picked the British Museum as a venue for its launch party; Jemima Goldsmith was among the attendees. All the more impressive given that the whole idea was hatched in the back of a clapped-out Renault Clio that had been doubling as Nawaz’s bedroom while he finally finished his degree. It’s testament to his chutzpah, but also his ability to persuade and convince, an ability that he’s been honing since he was a teenage radical, spreading Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s message.
True to form, he schedules our interview for the Hospital Club, a buzzy private members’ club in Covent Garden. I find him in the second-floor bar, crisply turned out, ready with an engaging smile, sipping a skinny flat white. It’s now a cliche to say Nawaz has come a long way. Born in 1978 in Southend, to Pakistani parents, he spent his early adolescence listening to hip-hop and graffiting walls with his tag “Slammer”. It wasn’t long, however, before he fell under the influence of the charismatic Nasim Ghani, who fired up some young British Muslims with news of the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, northern India, by Hindus, and the Bosnian genocide. Nawaz became a model recruit. Within a few years, he was reading Arabic at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. It was as part of this course that he travelled to Egypt. But during his incarceration there, Nawaz says he began to question Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s ideology. His sense of unease grew after his release, culminating in a public renunciation of his membership. Now he is more at home giving Ted talks and hob-nobbing with senior officials. He even stood for parliament as a Liberal Democrat at the 2015 election, losing the Hampstead and Kilburn seat to Labour’s Tulip Siddiq. We meet a few days after the prime minister gave a major speech on countering extremism. Claiming credit on Twitter, Nawaz said: “I’m proud to have helped with UK PM Cameron’s speech that names and isolates Islamism. Our work is taking root.”
That work is premised on the notion that it’s important to tackle conservative opinion among Muslims. Cameron summarised it thus: “You don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish … Ideas – like those of the despicable far right – which privilege one identity to the detriment of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Cameron’s speech, prompted in part by the rise of Islamic State, seemed to be about politics and culture as much as about terrorism – an emphasis for which the Quilliam Foundation has consistently lobbied. And the analogy with far-right racism is one that Nawaz makes over and over again. It’s a comparison with particular personal resonance for a man whose formative years saw frequent clashes with Essex skinheads.
The reaction to the speech has been mixed. In a column for the Spectator, Douglas Murray argued that it showed a “deeper and broader understanding of the problem than any other speech recently given by a western leader”. The Muslim Council of Britain, in contrast, worried “these latest suggestions will set new litmus tests which may brand us all as extremists”.
If much of Quilliam’s – and now Cameron’s – positioning reflects Nawaz’s own journey, it’s reasonable to ask how representative his experience has been. Hizb-ut Tahrir, which does not advocate violence, sees the creation of a new caliphate as the solution to the Muslim world’s problems. Estimates of its membership are hard to come by, but a 2007 report based on the testimony of a former member suggested it was about 8,500 in the UK, out of a total Muslim population of around 2.7 million.
Despite being recruited young, Nawaz quickly built a reputation within the organisation. “I was fast-tracked,” he tells me. What was it he was so good at? “They want somebody who can express themselves and explain themselves. Expressing myself through language was always something that I had had to learn to do, more so than others.” It was the “aggro” in Southend that forced him to be silver-tongued. His outlet then was provided by hip-hop. “I used to MC a bit when I was young, 14 or 15 years old. Don’t ask me to try it now.”
Nawaz’s powers of verbal persuasion are something even his detractors concede. There’s a strong line to take in every answer. But equally, there’s very little sense of being open to persuasion himself. Perhaps this is the Hizb-ut-Tahrir training at work, a training he says involved sitting in meetings “concocting rebuttals as defensive mechanisms”.
That’s the impression I get when I challenge him on one of the central tenets of the Cameron speech: that non-violent extremism creates the “mood music” for violent jihad. This has been labelled the “conveyor belt” theory of radicalisation – and it’s the subject of a good deal of controversy in academic circles. Several recent studies have shown that support for Islamist politics does not predict support for terrorism. In 2010, a leaked government report stated: “It is sometimes argued that violent extremists have progressed to terrorism by way of a passing commitment to non-violent Islamist extremism, for example of a kind associated with al-Muhajiroun or Hizb-ut-Tahrir ... We do not believe that it is accurate to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence.”
When I put this to Nawaz, he immediately says “No, no”, going on to describe the whole conveyor-belt theory as “a red herring”. But, confusingly, he then appears to restate it. “There is a link. What we cannot deny is that there’s an association between exclusion, segregation, non-violent extremist thinking and Jihadism.”
It’s important to be clear about the evidence base for this kind of position, because the stakes are high. If people’s non-violent opinions are to be the subject of state intervention, the implications for freedom of thought and speech are huge. But I can’t help feeling that unwillingness to concede a point is Nawaz’s overriding concern. It’s as though he has made up his mind and the facts must form an orderly queue behind him.
Politically, Nawaz plants himself in the centre-ground, a supporter of “liberal democratic, civil liberties and human rights values”. For the time being, he says, the LibDems most closely reflect that positioning, though he says: “I don’t think Tim Farron is going to be prime minister in five years’ time, I don’t think that’s going to happen.” That’s why, as far as counter-extremism is concerned: “I have to work with the two main parties – because they’re the ones running the country.” He continues: “I’m delighted actually that Quilliam has managed to successfully have that audience with the Labour party when they were in government, and now with the Conservatives.” This ability to influence, he says, is one of the ways his time recruiting for Hizb-ut-Tahrir still proves useful to him.
It’s clear, however, that his powers of persuasion are not universally felt. In Hampstead and Kilburn, he won only 3,039 votes. Nawaz tells me his result “was in line, entirely proportionate to what happened across the country”. On closer inspection, that turns out not to be true. Nationally, the change for the party from 2010 was -15.2%, but in Nawaz’s seat it was -25.6%.
I am taken aback by the anger with which one senior LibDem, who asked to remain anonymous, railed against Nawaz and Quilliam’s high profile. “They’re not effective. I don’t know quite who they’re influencing – certainly not people in the Muslim community. The problem is the connections they have – with [rightwing think-tank] the Henry Jackson Society and [former leader of the English Defence League] Tommy Robinson. I think you should be looking at organisations and people that are doing the hard graft on the ground, trying to steer kids away from being groomed. That isn’t a think-tank based in an expensive property in Bloomsbury, frankly.”
In 2013, Nawaz made much of his role in orchestrating the EDL leader’s departure from the far-right group he had founded. This association, controversial at the time, has been cast in an even worse light by continued anti-Muslim invective on a Twitter account bearing Robinson’s name. “What I’ve never claimed,” says Nawaz, “is that Tommy has changed his views.” Which raises the question of what purpose the exercise actually served.
But it is the lack of trust among ordinary Muslims that 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.”
What is it about Nawaz and Quilliam that people find so objectionable? A vivid example of his estrangement was provided this year, when the Muslim owner of a strip-club that Nawaz visited on his stag night leaked footage of him to the Daily Mail. Abdul Malik said he felt justified in exposing him because “he’s always talking about religion on TV and I thought, what a hypocrite”.
Then there is his closeness to the law-making elite, which unsurprisingly creates suspicion among those most likely to be the targets of ever-widening surveillance. Quilliam was initially lavished with government money, receiving more than £1.25m from the Home Office. According to its website, however, it has been “independent of public funds” since mid-2011. It is now sustained by “private individual donations, private philanthropic foundations and trust grants”.
I get the sense, though, that there is something about the man that puts people off. Partly, it is what made his story so eye-catching in the first place. As one Muslim woman tells me: “People who’ve never been attracted by that ideology don’t need to be lectured by someone who was.” This view is echoed by Sunder Katwala, director of integration thinktank British Future. “Quilliam has a very polarising reputation. Part of the problem has been with the media – it’s as though only the ex-extremist voice is sexy enough to carry an anti-extremist narrative. The people who’ve never been extremists in the first place struggle to get their voices heard as a result – and that has caused resentment.”
A former acquaintance of Nawaz, who also 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?”
But there are voices of praise too. Paul Goodman, editor of Conservative Home, admires how “Nawaz has plugged away with great determination and immense loquacity and cunning and intelligence to keep Quilliam from folding and to keep it moving. I do think that, like Star Trek, they’ve boldly gone where no one has gone before.” And, says Goodman, they do have access to the highest level of government. They were consulted in detail on Cameron’s 2011 Munich speech on extremism, as well the one he gave this month in Birmingham.
For his part, Nawaz sees the blowback as a predictable response to confronting Muslims with uncomfortable facts. When I ask him about Quilliam’s credibility gap, he turns the question around. “What’s my audience? British society. Am I received relatively well? Yes. Is there within that ... if you break it down, challenges with Muslim communities? Of course there are. But that’s like saying men weren’t upset when the suffragettes emerged. Of course they were.”
That last flourish is typical of someone whose speech is peppered with references to meetings at Chequers and dialogue with senior ministers. But comparing yourself to one of the great political movements of the 20th century may be a step too far, even for his supporters. “I wouldn’t blow my own trumpet,” he tells me. “But obviously I’m sitting here with you, everything I’ve discovered about the prime minister’s speech is the advice I gave him really. I don’t know if that’s influence. Judge for yourself.”