In defence of Maajid Nawaz

Is Nathan Lean calling Nawaz a closet radical or a Westernised lapdog? He can’t possibly be both.


In Saudi Arabia, the ‘mutaween’ serve as a police force ‘for the prevention of immorality and vice.’ Orwell’s 1984 had the ‘Thought Police.’ Sadly, Islamist extremists are yet unable to call on the services of a similar group to control against blasphemy, so honorary members of the Regressive Left step up to do so.

Nothing is wrong with speaking against anti-Muslim-hatred, but by tearing down moderate Muslim activists, the Regressive Left takes the wrong approach. In the name of multi-culturalism, they indirectly aid and abet the Islamist propaganda campaign by seeking to delegitimise those that stand against extremist ideology.

A most deadly form of political correctness, the Regressive Left perpetually shoots itself in the foot. 

“For many of the Regressive Left, the only authentic Muslim is a bearded Kalashnikov-wielding, grievance shouting victim. Anyone who deviates from such a stereotype is a ‘native informant’ said Amir Pasbakhsh of Unsafe Space.

In a recent apparition, pseudo-journalist Nathan Lean, a researcher at the Saudi-funded Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, launched an ad hominem attack against former Islamist and prominent anti-extremist advocate, Maajid Nawaz.

Founder of the UK’s leading counter extremism policy think tank, The Quilliam Foundation, Nawaz describes his personal, transformative journey in his best-selling autobiography, ‘Radical.’

Calling into question Nawaz’s motives for turning from radical Islam to anti-extremist research and advocacy, Lean’s piece for the New Republic makes three errors: It relies on an imbalance of incredible, pro-Islamist sources.

It employs a sneaky style of seeding suspicion through unreasonable means, then attempting to rationalise them. Finally, it faults the product of Nawaz’s work for its own strengths, such as sparking dialogue among individuals of a variety of political and religious beliefs. 

Those quoted who question Nawaz’s genuine conversion from Islamism to activism include a cast of characters with strong allegiances to Islamism – and nobody else.

Every source in the piece is or was an Islamist fundamentalist with plenty of interest in discrediting anti-jihadist activists. Lean tastelessly exploits the emotions of an Islamist older brother against the sibling who broke away – petty family drama.

Incorporating sources with controversial opinions is expected, but balancing these voices with experts from other ideological viewpoints and backgrounds is irresponsible.

Second, and reminiscent of tabloid journalism, Lean falls into a pattern of throwing out accusations, then stating his suspicions are insufficient in order to appear rational.

After a tirade with regard to Mr. Nawaz’s motivations to turn from radicalism, Lean admits that it is ‘impossible to know with certainty what compelled Nawaz to leave Hizb ut-Tahrir and espouse his current agenda’, then continues to berate his subject.

The article examines the sum of Nawaz’s associations, picks out the most glaringly offensive, name drops them shamelessly without explanation, then adds, “He’s not guilty by association.” This ploy to come off as judicious is weak. Lean might as well be arguing, “Don’t trust Tweolde Egziabher. He once used a toilet next to Donald Trump.”

Finally, the piece perverts the strengths of a successful, non-politically affiliated, secular research organisation in order to reflect poorly on its leader.

There is nothing shady about accepting funding from a government for work delivered, from paying consultancy fees to guest activists and speakers, or participating in events and debates with public figures of differing viewpoints.

Successful policy advisers, and more broadly human beings, must often work with people they do not support and allow for dialogue among individuals with diverse viewpoints.

In fact, these issues can bring disagreeing parties to the same table, as evidenced by numerous bi-partisan security legislation in the United States, when the American Congress seems to agree on nothing else. Nobody wants to see their neighbours killed in violent acts of terror, and people become willing to work together.

Lean’s argument boils down to faulting Nawaz for being charismatic, founding a successful counter extremism research think tank, and working effectively across the political spectrum. It simultaneously questions the conviction of Nawaz’s conversion from radical Islam while accusing him of being too Western, or in Lean’s Twitter feed, ‘a lapdog’.

To be clear, Mr. Lean, are you calling Nawaz a closet radical or a Westernised lapdog? He can’t possibly be both.

Curious what Maajid Nawaz really believes, or how he turned from radical Islam to found the UK’s leading counter extremism research organization? Pick up a copy of his memoir, ‘Radical.’ There are 378 pages describing Mr. Nawaz’s journey from a Pakistani minority community in the UK, to Egypt and back. 

Countering extremism is about debunking myths and discrediting radical ideology. By casting a shadow of doubt on the most compelling voices against extremist ideology, members of the Regressive Left such as Lean are allowing ISIS to play the same game.

Perhaps modern society is simply fed up with heroes. We reject stories of triumph over adversity because we are afraid to face our own demons, and modern culture no longer requires us to do so.

We would rather tear down others than risk the pain and disappointment of aiming for higher ground ourselves. But for those willing to be inspired, Nawaz’s story is the real deal.

After all, Maajid Nawaz is just like any of us — an individual ‘who yearned for a platform of empowerment’, in Lean’s own words.

Nawaz’s work has helped thousands find positive alternatives to violent extremism.

He is able to empower others because in seeking empowerment himself, he was not afraid to try, to err and, ultimately, to find his platform. 

Tala Knight is an independent researcher

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