By Thomas Chatterton Williams
March 28, 2017
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.” 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 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, Nawaz is handsome and vaguely famous looking in person, prematurely silver-haired, with a widow’s peak and Mephistophelean soul patch that punctuates a politician’s easy smile. Whenever I saw him, he dapped me with one of those handclasp-half-hugs that, to anyone of a certain age, serves as shorthand for an adolescence steeped in the manners of hip-hop.
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 coordinated suicide bombings in Brussels and Istanbul; a mass shooting in a nightclub in Orlando; the ambush and execution of a police officer and his partner near Paris; a Bastille Day slaughter in Nice; ax 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 the Islamic State looming beyond it — the voices of hatred and reaction in the United States and throughout Britain and Europe found not only sympathetic ears but also willing hands to pull levers in the voting booths. Throughout the upheaval and backlash, 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 the prominent “new atheist” Sam Harris), insisting that Islamism does have something to do with Islam and that ISIS in fact possesses a plausible if terribly ungenerous interpretation of the Quran. But whatever role 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 Harris, but foremost on Nawaz’s mind these days is the 2017 opening of the first new chapter of his anti-extremist organization, the Quilliam Foundation, in the United States. “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 radicalization.”
Despite such deliberate affirmations and qualifications, there is nonetheless confusion as to where Nawaz’s sympathies actually 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.) But, last October, the Southern Poverty Law Center took the incredible step of including him on a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists,” which they published with three other research organizations. The guide listed 15 public figures, and Nawaz was the only Muslim among them. (This is why Beirich brought him up at Duke.) He was visibly furious whenever the topic came up and told me he plans to crowd fund a legal response.
Though he and his allies, and even some of his opponents, have complained to the S.P.L.C. — there is a change.org petition to remove him and the Somali-born atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which has garnered almost 12,000 signatures — the group has not wavered on its position, the costs of which have already been real for Quilliam. Nawaz claims that the listing has compromised some funding for the organization. “I consider myself a liberal and wanted to work with liberals,” he said, shaking his head.
In reality, his views on Islamic extremism are more complex than these labels allow, which is, arguably, one of the more compelling reasons to listen to him on the subject.
Early in Nawaz’s 2012 memoir, “Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism,” there’s an eyebrow-raising scene. The narrator, an irreligious, N.W.A.-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 victimization; 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 — more on which later — many of his critics have come to claim that the anecdote is pure fabrication.
What’s indisputable is that soon after that day in Southend, first following Kaashif’s example but then with a fervency that was entirely his own, 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 organization founded in 1953 in Jerusalem. H.T., as 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 H.T. 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 organizing and recruiting for H.T. in London and Pakistan, 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 H.T. is legal in Britain, it is banned in many majority-Muslim countries, including Egypt. In 2002, at 24, 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 memorize half of the Quran.
A pivotal moment in 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. Nawaz writes that he suddenly “felt revulsion” at the human cost of his ideas. A man Nawaz calls Omar, a Dagestani bomb maker, had celebrated the slaughter. Nawaz is a hero in his own telling of the ensuing exchange: He claims to have debated Omar for the entirety of the day about the legitimacy of killing British civilians, until the latter eventually conceded defeat. Nawaz writes, “I felt that I had saved many future lives.”
In 2004, Amnesty International adopted 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 African Studies at the University of London, renounced Islamism and H.T. and publicly reinvented himself as an advocate for liberal democracy: a media-savvy expert on preventing radicalization. His enemies, a long list made up of family members, ex-friends and former H.T. associates, have publicly questioned his conversion narrative. Ian Nisbet, a white convert to Islam who was jailed with Nawaz in Egypt, told a reporter from Alternet that Nawaz remained a fanatical Islamist after he was freed. Indeed, back in England, Nawaz appeared on the BBC’s “Hardtalk” program and declared that his experience in Egypt left him convinced “that there is a need to establish this caliphate as soon as possible.” In his defense, Nawaz claims that making a clean break with a former life is both difficult and genuinely confusing. He rather colorfully compares it to a breakup with a lover. (Nawaz and his first wife split up around the time of his departure from H.T.) He has also insisted that his public positions were in part strategic: He didn’t want to tip his hand to H.T. until he had his exit plans in place.
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,” 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. Quilliam’s first headquarters occupied the ground floor of a brick-and-terra-cotta row house overlooking the verdure of Russell Square, practically the same view T.S. Eliot would have had when he worked at Faber & Faber, and just a block from two of the sites of the 7/7 attacks. As his critics constantly stress, Nawaz’s timing was convenient; the British government was then looking to finance anti-extremist organizations and provided Quilliam with early funding.
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. “They’re transferable skills” is how he once put it to me. What 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 gang starap 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.”
And that may be harder than it seems. While the vast majority of British Muslims today are certainly not flocking to join groups like H.T. — and many who have never been attracted to the ideology justifiably find it irritating to be lectured by a man who was — a sobering number nonetheless have expressed views that would be very much at home in even more extreme precincts. An online poll done 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. One incredible Gallup report from 2009 found that 0 percent of British Muslims viewed homosexual acts as morally acceptable. Though it is not at all clear what pushes any given individual to cross the line into violence, attitudes like these are what 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 S.P.L.C. complaint against Nawaz, along with the disclosure that, in 2010, Quilliam provided a list of nonviolent “Islamist” organizations to a British counterterrorism official. But 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.”
Before Quilliam moved late last year to an undisclosed location for security reasons, I visited Nawaz on several occasions. The organization hummed with the energy and sense of mission of a tech start-up. On one side were doors leading into a large and crowded room where 20-odd analysts, academics and imams were doing the intellectual grunt work that the foundation demands. On the other was the modest office Nawaz used for himself. Though he is the face of the organization, he is hardly the only employee with an exotic résumé. On my first visit, my eyes fixed on a small prayer rug draped neatly over the arm of a desk chair. “Oh, that’s for him!” Nawaz quickly clarified, referring to his officemate, Noman Benotman, the current president of the organization and a former jihadist who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, tried to violently depose Muammar Gaddafi in the 1990s and later worked with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in Sudan.
Back across the hall there was also Dr. Usama Hasan, the head of Islamic studies at the organization. The son of a conservative and influential Salafi sheikh, Hasan used a break from his studies at Cambridge to engage in jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan (on a scale of one-to-ISIS, he told me, “our group maybe got up to about five”). And yet, in 2011, after waging holy war in the east and after 25 years of service at his father’s London mosque, that kind of effort didn’t count for very much when he came under attack by hard-liners. He was forced to stop delivering Friday prayers when 50 Muslim protesters stormed his lecture and openly called for his execution. His offense had been to venture that Islam could be compatible with modern theories of evolution and that Muslim women should be allowed to uncover their hair in public.
Aside from the life experience of some of its members and the issuance of the occasional counter-fatwa, Quilliam is a standard left-of-centre think tank: a body of experts conducting research and providing advice and ideas on specific political or social problems in support of liberal democracy. The group works to shape public opinion from the top down, making frequent media appearances, publishing reports that aim for the highest levels of government (such as a critical 2009 investigation into the ways British prisons incubate extremism) and periodically advising government ministers and heads of state on matters of terrorism. But they also engage ordinary Muslims and non-Muslims alike through outreach work, organizing debate and training programs in Europe and the Middle East.
All of this ought to make Quilliam a natural ally of progressives and of institutions like the Southern Poverty Law Centre, whose mission, after all, is to advocate for the vulnerable. Yet that has not been the case. Nawaz’s layered arguments and concessions — his insistence, for example, that Islam does have something to do with Islamism — provoke a visceral suspicion among those who are concerned with fighting Islamophobia above all. A term that you will hear with frequency from Nawaz is “the regressive left,” as in purportedly progressive institutions like the S.P.L.C. that, often starting from a legitimate concern that Muslims en masse not be persecuted for the actions of a few, nonetheless embody a perplexingly backward mind-set when it comes to Islam. “It’s an Orientalist fetish,” Nawaz says, “a deeply socially conservative Muslim who is medieval in their outlook is a ‘real’ Muslim, and anyone who’s challenging that status quo is a sell-out.” The left has, in Nawaz’s view, forfeited what’s best about the liberal project, entirely conceding the right to speak in moral absolutes and about universal values. “The problem is you can’t draw a line with that reasoning: Why is what ISIS is doing bad, then?”
A core idea Quilliam espouses is that space must be claimed for secular identities within Islam; the measure of Muslim authenticity would then be a matter of individual imagination and will, not a test to pass or fail. In other words, he would like to see many more Muslims thinking, speaking and acting like him. Which is a big part of the reason it’s impossible to think of Quilliam independent of the outsize figure cut by its co-founder, and why so much debate about the validity of the organization’s ideas comes down to a question of being for or against Nawaz.
Attack pieces about Nawaz have practically become their own literary genre. In the summer of 2015, The Guardian ran a deeply critical story about him, which questioned the integrity of Nawaz’s work with the Cameron administration and took him to task for, among other misdeeds, “sipping a skinny flat white” coffee in front of the reporter. This was followed, in January 2016, by a hard takedown at The New Republic, whose writer, Nathan Lean, had earlier referred on Twitter to Nawaz as Sam Harris’s “lap dog.” Roughly a week after that piece came a longer, even more personal attack at Alternet, which stood out in its attempt to debunk, scene by scene, the events in “Radical.” The authors revisited the subject of the bomb in the backpack and quoted Nawaz’s older brother as well as an anonymous cousin, who called the story “imaginary.” (Many of the sources in the Alternet article seem concerned that Kaashif’s ruse in the anecdote might be taken literally.) When I asked him about it, Nawaz was dismissive. “You go to a deeply wounded brother that loved me all of his life, and I turn out to be not who he aspires for me to be,” he said. “As a journalist, you can exploit that.” He shrugged soberly.
It is undeniable that one advantage, and shortcoming, of memoir as a form lies in its ability to dominate the reader through an empirical imbalance that can never be resolved in its entirety. Arguments, when unsound, can be negated, but who can negate another person’s lived experience? It is a rhetorical tactic that is, in fact, most at home on the left, where personal stories of grievance and oppression are typically set in opposition to the status quo in the wider society. Perhaps, then, this is why so much attention has been paid to Nawaz’s biography. If his life story can be shown to be contrived, the deeper message, however compelling, can be pre-emptively dismissed: Not only is the messenger’s life not a genuine Muslim life, when seen from this angle, it may even prove to be an anti-Muslim life.
I saw Nawaz in New York in September, while he was in town fund-raising for Quilliam’s American 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. Nawaz and Benotman have been targeted by Al Qaeda and ISIS 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 criticized in the British press for drinking and receiving a lap dance at a strip club, but in situations like this, it’s strange to think of 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.
It reminded me of an observation that had been running through my head since the previous winter, when Quilliam opened an art exhibit in London called “The Unbreakable Rope.” Billed as “an exploration of sexuality in Islam,” the show was co-curated by Nawaz’s second wife, Rachel Maggart (the couple had their first child in January), a lanky 32-year-old brunette from Tennessee by way of N.Y.U. In addition to the regular Quilliam bodyguards, there were plainclothes counterterrorism officers monitoring the site. Inside the venue, a shirtless, tattooed Kuwaiti performance artist did preparatory stretches with his assistant and a crystal ball. He would eventually be tied up in a corset and left on the floor for guests to contemplate. The crowd sipped wine and soft drinks and milled about the sparsely hung, mildly provocative artwork, which was in fact beside the point. The point, of course, was that they were even daring to do this in the first place.
I fell into conversation with Nawaz’s mother and little sister and lost track of time as the space filled up all around us. There were whites, blacks, Persians, Arabs; people looked devout and non-devout, gay, straight, young and old. Standing next to me was a man with the voluminous beard of a cleric, turned out in an ankle-length djellaba, ironed as crisply as a bedsheet at the Ritz, a pair of Nike Air Force 1s and a flat-brimmed New Era cap printed with a four-letter expletive. He looked like a cross between the leader of Hezbollah and the Bay Area rapper Lil B. The room darkened and quieted, and Nawaz, brimming with life, stepped into the middle of the crowd, whose diversity he lauded, and thanked them all for coming. Like the B-boy he once aspired to be, he thrills to the sound of his own voice flowing through the microphone. “The first thing they do is try to silence us, and the first to suffer are the creators!” he told the room to enthusiastic applause. “But while you throw gays off the rooftops, we who are Muslims want to respond like this!”
As I watched Nawaz bask in the applause of his most earnest admirers and glanced back at the walls adorned with such unbearably unhip art, the enormity of his task pressed itself upon me. After all, Islamism, like good art, is innately subversive; it captures diffuse feelings of alienation in a way that is difficult to fabricate. And therein lies the biggest challenge confronting Quilliam in Europe and, as it seeks to expand, in America: Though Nawaz himself is a star, there is something both noble and perilously square about this kind of eat-your-peas forced secularism.
Yet I’m convinced that Nawaz really does have his finger on the pulse of one of the most urgent problems of the contemporary era, a problem that is far too often mishandled or greeted with flat-out denial, through ignorance, hatred and fear, certainly, but also as a result of the very best of intentions. Without having planned to, I found myself at the hotel bar in New York opening up to 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.
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 Nawaz, the consummate in-between thinker, then took care to layer on several more shades of gray. “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 magazine. He last wrote about the novelist John Edgar Wideman.