London- 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 Center’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 specter of Syria and ISIS 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 crowdfund 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.
Neighborhood 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.
The New York Times