Former Islamist radical Maajid Nawaz on "regressive leftism" — and why the SPLC has labeled him an "anti-Muslim extremist"

British writer Maajid Nawaz on jihad and the alt-right — and whether going to a strip club got him blacklisted

By Émile P. Torres

Contributing Writer

Published September 3, 2017 8:00AM (EDT)

Maajid Nawaz   (AP/Peter Morrison)
Maajid Nawaz (AP/Peter Morrison)

The problem of religious extremism isn’t going away. In fact, religious adherence is growing worldwide, according to a Pew study, and “conflict multipliers” like climate change will, if anything, exacerbate the threat of violent apocalyptic radicals in the coming decades.

This is one reason that I’ve been an interested follower of Maajid Nawaz’s work. Nawaz is a former Islamist extremist, syndicated columnist for the Daily Beast, host of a weekly radio show on LBC, and founder of Quilliam International, which describes itself as “the world’s first counter-extremism organisation” that stands for progressive values like “pluralism.” 

He also — and I’m apparently the first one he’s told this to — plans to emulate his “all-time literary hero,” George Orwell, in making the transition from nonfiction to fiction, focusing on extremism rather than totalitarianism.

Despite his work promoting religious moderation within the Islamic world, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently listed Nawaz as an “anti-Muslim extremist,” placing him alongside genuinely repugnant ideologues like Pam Geller and Frank Gaffney. This baffled many people, including David Graham at the Atlantic, the author and atheist Ophelia Benson and myself, since Nawaz has been, on the whole, a thoroughly reasonable voice among critics of religion. Curious for more information about Nawaz’s views of religious radicalization and the SPLC’s accusations against him, I spoke with him recently for nearly an hour as he sat in the back of a noisy taxi that was transporting him from one meeting to the next. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

First of all, I’d like to ask you how significant you believe the danger posed by Islamic extremism actually is?

Do you mean globally or locally? It’s important to say, as I do in my dialogue with Sam Harris, that Muslims in America are more liberal than in Europe, and of course definitely more liberal than they are in the Middle East. So it depends on the context.

How about globally?

In terms of world stability and security, aside from governments, the No. 1 threat is jihadist terrorism. To give a one-sentence definition of an important distinction here, Islamism is the desire to impose any version of Islam on society whereas jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism. 

When that use of force targets noncombatants, it’s called jihadist terrorism. So, terrorism of this sort is probably the most destabilizing force with respect to global security at the moment. …

Of course there’s a civil war in Yemen, as well as in Iraq and Syria, and the Saudi-Iranian regional conflict also has a role to play in this instability, but they’re both using jihadist terrorism for their interests as well. So the involvement of states doesn’t diminish the role that jihadist terrorism plays — it only exacerbates it.

What are the root causes of Islamic terrorism? Is it misguided to focus exclusively on religion or politics? Is it wrong to describe the current conflict as a “clash of civilizations”?

The latter part of your question is yes. The truth is that it’s not a clash of civilizations. It never was. [Samuel] Huntington’s theory has been critiqued to death on that. Rather, what we’re seeing is a clash between those who believe in democratic values, like human rights and secularism, and those who believe in totalitarianism. But of those who believe in totalitarianism and have dictatorships, some will use jihadist tactics to further their ends, and others will use other forms of undemocratic phenomena.

But essentially, it’s a struggle between democrats and non-democrats, secularists and non-secularists. In those dividing lines there are Muslims and non-Muslims on both sides. For example, there are non-Muslim voices out there that excuse and obfuscate the phenomenon of jihadist terrorism, focusing primarily on the U.S. being the enemy while making every excuse under the sun for theocrats. Likewise there are Muslims on the other side who will struggle against theocracy — Islamist theocracy in particular — while defending democratic values.

So it’s not really a struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims. That’s a complete and total misdiagnosis of the problem. Assuming it’s a struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims is as shallow and lacking in nuance as assuming that all Christians in the world subscribe to the same political beliefs. They simply don’t. … Political beliefs, though associated to or perhaps influenced by one’s religious beliefs, aren’t in fact determined by one’s religious beliefs, and this applies to Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other religion in the world.

You just mentioned nuance, something that I’ve advocated for a lot in my own writing about various issues, including Islamic terrorism. Unfortunately, one often finds a marked lack of nuance on this complicated topic.

Well, I said in one of my columns that nuance is a friend of truth. You asked about the root causes of radicalization and, again, it’s neither all ideology nor grievances.

There’s a New Statesman article that’s a written debate between me and Mehdi Hasan, who’s now an al-Jazeera journalist, and Hasan asks me the same question. He tends to emphasize the grievances side, being someone who, at the time, was a political editor of a left-wing magazine. And I said back in that 2012 interview that it’s neither this one nor that — the truth is that the causes of radicalization are a mixture of four factors. Those four factors usually, but not always, start with grievances. Somebody needs to feel a sense of grievance, whether it’s real or merely perceived. The second factor is an identity crisis: the grievance leads to a sense of dislocation from one’s society, and this dislocation leads to a crisis of identity — not really associating with one’s own society, not feeling American or British, but feeling something else entirely.

Then a third factor kicks in, namely, the charismatic recruiters who exploit the sense of grievance and identity crisis to provide a feeling of belonging. This leads to a fourth factor, which involves charismatic recruiters peddling an ideological narrative to solidify the identity crisis, grievances and sense of belonging into a form of dogma. Those four factors are the causes of radicalization and they can actually apply across the board, whether to Islamist radicalization or the far-right white supremacist radicalization.

If you study radicalization as I’ve been doing since I founded Quilliam in 2008, you’ll find generally those same factors applying in every case. Whereas the left wing tends to focus on grievances, the right wing often focuses on ideology — and even more so, the identitarian alt-right tends to focus primarily on Islam or religion per se.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently listed you as an anti-Muslim extremist. Before getting to this issue, I was wondering what you thought about SPLC prior to this incident. Were you a fan of their work? Did you respect their moral values and social justice efforts?

Let’s go back to those four factors. The grievances issue was central to my own story, as I document extensively in my autobiography, "Radical." In fact, the entire first third of the book is an account of those grievances, in particular the genocide against Muslims in Bosnia and domestic neo-Nazi racism and violence that I faced growing up in Essex (in the U.K.). So, SPLC struck a huge chord with me because they made their name fighting against the sorts of people hounding me in the streets of my own neighborhood. Up until they listed my name, I saw SPLC as the sort of institution set up to defend people like me, not to target people like me. … The entire first third of my book focuses on the sorts of grievances that the Southern Poverty Law Center made its name addressing.

That being said, why do you think that SPLC is wrong about you being an anti-Muslim extremist? And how have you responded to this incident?

The “funny” thing is that when somebody flings mud, the person in the position to have to defend themselves, unfortunately, ends up giving the impression that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It puts me in a very difficult position, because the way you’ve asked your question is, “How would I defend myself against their allegations?” The truth is, why don’t they substantiate those allegations?

In fact, the original reasons cited for me being an extremist are no longer on their website. They are now “reverse engineering” the reasons why they listed me in the first place. I’ve put out three videos so far that deconstruct SPLC’s reasons one by one (here, here and here). Let’s start with this one: When they first published their list — and like I said, you can go back into the archives to find it — they mentioned that I had a bachelor party during which my best man took me to a strip club. According to their original listing, this was justification for me being an anti-Muslim extremist. Now that incident may be many things, depending on one’s political views and social attitudes — I happen to be a sex-positive feminist. But how does it justify me being an anti-Muslim extremist?

Another reason that no longer exists on SPLC’s website is that I called for a ban of the face veil, or niqab. They cited an article of mine as evidence, but in that very article you’ll find that I explicitly state that I do not believe in a blanket ban on the face veil. And again, that reason they originally cited was removed. So the Southern Poverty Law Center is “reverse engineering” the reasons for why they listed me because none of them stack up.

[Author's note: To be clear, SPLC says that “Nawaz called for criminalizing the wearing of the veil … in many public places.” This is partly consistent, I believe, with what Nawaz argues in the cited article, although Nawaz doesn’t use the word “criminalize” and he explicitly opposes a blanket ban. He cites reasons like the following for his position: “Here’s my test: where a balaclava, motorcycle helmet or face mask would be deemed inappropriate, so should a niqab”; “the quid pro quo is that when everyone else in society is expected to identify themselves, a Muslim woman wearing a niqab should not be exempted”; “In light of recent death threats I received from the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab … these concerns are all the more relevant to me personally”; and “the ultra-conservative view stating Muslim women must cover their faces applies — even within their own medieval framework of reasoning — only when they are outdoors.” I encourage readers to examine these excerpts in context; it remains true that this originally cited reason is no longer found on the SPLC website.]

This is why I don’t really think it’s right to have me defend myself. The truth is that SPLC’s reasons speak for themselves — they are ever-changing and self-contradictory. Frankly, what I don’t understand is how an organization that has built up, historically, such a level of respect can be so amateur in its approach to evidence and so cavalier in how it treats the safety of the people it’s targeting. As I said, this organization was set up to defend people like me, not to put a target on my head.

A final question: You coined the term “regressive leftism” in "Radical." I have found this to be quite useful for denoting individuals who ignore the causal role of religious ideology by focusing more or less exclusively on political grievances — such as the West’s protracted history of genuinely ignominious meddling in Middle Eastern affairs. Yet the term has proven to be elastic, with many “classical liberal” and “new atheist” types applying it to folks who care about social justice, feminism, racial discrimination and so on. Any thoughts about this semantic drift?

I coined the term for a very specific purpose. The Wikipedia entry, for example, elaborates exactly why I coined it. But since then it has taken on a life of its own, with people especially on the alt-right using it.

Others who have asked me about this issue and I say to them, “Look, it’s just like the word ‘racism,’ which has been abused, overused, and been thrown at people wrongly, as well as the word ‘anti-Muslim extremist.’” These distortions don’t mean there’s no substance to the original sense of the term, they don’t mean that we should stop using the word “racist” wherever relevant and appropriate — and likewise with “regressive leftism.” What needs to happen is for responsible people — those who actually care about language and the meaning of words, like George Orwell did — to advise everyone else to stop using words where they are not appropriate.

By Émile P. Torres

Émile P. Torres is a philosopher and historian whose work focuses on existential threats to civilization and humanity. They have published on a wide range of topics, including machine superintelligence, emerging technologies and religious eschatology, as well as the history and ethics of human extinction. Their forthcoming book is "Human Extinction: A History of the Science and Ethics of Annihilation" (Routledge). For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter." For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter.

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