Guest-post – The opinions expressed in the article below do not necessarily reflect the view of Quilliam.

If you’re interested in writing for the Quilliam blog, please email your submission to [email protected]

Recently, Nathan Lean has published through the New Republic a hit piece on Maajid Nawaz, claiming, among other things, that the former radical and now anti-extremist has “ingratiated himself in the growing union of neoconservatives and hawkish liberals” to perpetuate “western exceptionalism” and military action under the guise of fighting Islamism. The piece, which is riddled with a poor understanding of Nawaz’s arguments and points, attempts to discredit Mr. Nawaz with an assault on his character. Rather than confront his arguments or perspectives, Mr. Lean is content with simply implying insincerity on the part of Maajid Nawaz, all the while employing a flimsy guilt by association argument that is centered on the embarrassing hope that his readers will not know any of the people he is referencing and assume them all islamophobic racist neocons.

This is not the first time Maajid Nawaz has dealt with what he calls, ‘The Regressive Left’ and their distortion of his arguments, nor is this the first article written against him in such a disingenuous matter. Last August, David Shariatmadarai wrote a piece for the Guardian that many lampooned for being a ‘hatchet job’ against Maajid, and just last month while on Australia’s ABC’s The Drum, apparent human rights activist Sarah Saleh said Maajid has “gone from one extreme to the other” all the while bellowing an embarrassingly ignorant articulation of what she believes to be Maajid Nawaz’s views. She characterized his stance as one of a strict binary, and that he represents himself as expressing the ideal behavior of Muslims, despite the fact it was stated earlier in the broadcast that Maajid Speaks for himself and not all Muslims. The Intellectual abuse has not only been leveled at him in the form of misrepresentation, but also in the form of outright name-calling. Journalist and writers such CJ Werleman and Murtaza Hussain have called Maajid Nawaz a “house Muslim” and a “well coiffed talking monkey.” Even the man who wrote the most recent attack article on Maajid Nawaz, Nathan Lean, has called him a “lap dog” for collaborating and having a dialogue with writer and author Sam Harris. 

These disgusting and unflattering comments uttered by these supposed liberals and apologists illustrate the very real problem of soft bigotry, or racism of low expectations, that has permeated amongst the regressive left. However, to understand how supposed anti-racist and progressive people can utter such disgusting comments, one most understand the realm of identity politics in which these supposed liberals and Islamist apologists exist. These instances, and many others not mentioned, have all been a collective effort to silence and discredit people like Maajid Nawaz from speaking clearly and honestly about the problem of Islamism and terrorism around the world. In their worldview, Maajid is a race traitor, a native informant, and a porch monkey for the political right in order for them to claim legitimacy for their positions on Islam and foreign policy. For many of these people, racism cannot be committed by a person of color, because their definition of ‘racism’ is “prejudice plus power,” an altered definition coined in 1970 by Patricia Bidol-Padva. For adherents to identity politics, they suspect racists, ‘islamophobes’ and other unsavory people will use people of color like Maajid Nawaz who claim to adhere to what is in their mind as ‘conservative’ principles, as a front in order to avoid the charge of racism. It is under this protection that they will then advance their policies and agendas without criticism or backlash. In their mind, a person of color is only a tool to advance a racist and imperialistic agenda. This is why Nathan Lean and many other such critics , from regressives to Muslim apologists alike, despise and scorn Maajid Nawaz, and other reformers like him at every turn. Maajid simply does not fit into their narrative.

It is for this reason why so many of the disingenuous critics of Maajid Nawaz narrow mindedly focus so much on his race, religion, and his association with people across the political and religious spectrum. This is also the root of the odd alliance that many of called out between aspects of the Left and Islamism. Both sides see Maajid Nawaz as a traitor to his race and religion and seek to delegitimize his position and silence his voice. In their eyes, the best way to do this is to focus not on Maajid’s points or argument, but to play identity politics by criticizing the identity of his supporters and the people with which he participates in dialogue. Nathan Lean’s piece demonstrates this tactic perfectly by quoting Maajid’s cousin that “He has been rejected and routinely opposed by many in the community,” and “His support only exists outside of the Muslim community with the neocon/liberal establishment.”  This is also why Sarah Saleh insisted on portraying Maajid as someone who claimed to be a representative of Muslims and how they should act like him. She needed this incorrect and disingenuous portrayal of him in order to attack, not his arguments, but his legitimacy as a Muslim voice.

To further their claim that Maajid is not a legitimate voice, they will apply identity politics to his supporters and colleagues as actual evidence that he is not authentic. Criticism such as Nathan Lean’s recent piece repeatedly focus on the fact that a number of Maajid Nawaz’s supporters are secularist or atheist and that many of the people Maajid will enter dialogue with are on the right or are apostates, such as Douglas Murray and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. They wish to portray that these people are the bulk of Maajid’s support and that he has no standing in the Muslim communities.

Click Here to Receive Your FREE Copy of “The Children of Islamic State”

Why does this all matter? To the regressive left and the Islamist, this is the core of their argument. On one side we have the regressive left who uses identity politic’s logic and charges of racism to make Maajid’s opinions wrong by definition. In their eyes, if it is demonstrated that he supports the capitalist racist west, and is just a cover for the right-wing, then they can just dismiss him, his supporters, and his arguments without addressing a single point he has made. On the other side, we have the Islamist extremist and their apologist, who threaten the charge of takfir or apostate and encourage other Muslims from listening and engaging with his ideas. They use this to not only take away his voice from Muslim audiences who might be persuaded by his opinions, but to also maintain their own interpretation of Islam and protect it from criticism. However, in the case of the Islamist extremist and apologist, this threat comes with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) threat of violence. That is what makes the delegitimizing Maajid Nawaz’s and other reformers so dangerous. To label what Maajid and others at Qilliam have to say as not legitimate, ‘puppet voice for the West,’ or blasphemy and otherwise not Islamic, invites the wrath and violence of the Jihadist elements of the Islamist movements. This is what makes the regressive left’s part in attempting to delegitimize his voice so deplorable.

Maajid Nawaz and others in the reformist movement are providing a middle way that both the regressive left and Islamist right do not want to acknowledge exists. The left wants to label him as not progressive enough, while the Islamist want to label him as not Islamic enough. That is why both sides cannot get over or stop talking about the white, western, and secular components of some of Maajid’s supporters. For them this is the ultimate proof of his insincerity and betrayal. The logic of “where there is smoke there is fire” is at the center of the never ending barrage of false labels and epithets hurled at Maajid and others in the hopes that their voices can be silenced.

 However, I would propose, that even within their own lens and priorities, Maajid’s detractors have poorly interpreted the western secular support for Maajid.  What they have seemed to miss is just how incredible the work Maajid Nawaz has done with some of the harshest critics of Islam. Just stop and think, Maajid has gotten some of the most vocal critics of the doctrine of Islam such as Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and tens of thousands of other atheists to redirect their criticism and actually support Muslims. That is right, to support Muslims. Especially since the terror attacks of September 11th, anti-Muslim bigotry has grown across the world, and fear of Islam’s spread has lead to the demagoguery of Trump wanting to ban all Muslims. However, it is in this highly hostile and cynical environment that Maajid convinced tens of thousands of secular westerners to support Muslims across the world, and to convince them that Islam itself was not the entirety of the problem of Islamist extremism. He provided a lexicon that rejected anti-muslim bigotry that permeates throughout the world, all the while holding Islamist supporters accountable for their opinions. Maajid has provided a lexicon to protect Muslims, even highly conservative Muslims, from unfair and misplaced attack and hate, all the while focusing on the real causes of extremism and radicalization. Maajid spoke openly and honestly about Islam with Sam Harris and got him to change his views. To put it simply, Maajid has gotten one of the intellectually harsh and relentless demographics to change their mind, and actually help insure Islam has a place in the 21st century. The future survival and health of Islam in the modern world and in the west depends upon people like Maajid.

I would like to invite either the regressive or the apologist to rethink the next time they hear a western atheist proclaim support of Maajid and the reformers. Instead of seeing it as proof of some identity politics filled conspiracy theory, just appreciate he got thousands of secularist, who are like herding cats, to back and support Muslims.

Stewart Carl Bova is a History Student at Virginia Commonwealth University, 

To read more articles on our blog, please click here.

Twitter: @QuilliamF

Facebook: Quilliam Foundation

YouTube: QuilliamFoundation