An essay by Amir Pars
“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.”
“The Trial” by Franz Kafka 1925 (Transl. David Wyllie)
How much can someone write, without actually saying anything? Pretty much, it turns out. In fact, almost 3, 000 words, as in the case of Nathan Lean in his new piece “What does Maajid Nawaz really believe?” (New Republic, 27/01/16)
In the article, Lean attempts to carry out a character assassination on the founder and chairman of Quilliam Foundation, Maajid Nawaz. Unfortunately for the North Carolina native, Lean dreadfully misfires and under the slightest inspection, the entire essay crumbles down like a house of cards during a tsunami.
In this piece, I will do my utmost best to be generous to Nathan Lean and attribute some actual arguments he may have wanted to present, but failed in doing so, and then question whether any of these arguments stand up to further scrutiny (Spoiler alert! They don’t.)
ARE YOU NOW OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN AN ISLAMIST?
After a brief introduction of his target, Nathan Lean presents sources who are meant to put into question two aspects of Maajid Nawaz:
- The extent of his religious beliefs and commitment to the Islamists narrative promulgated by Hizb ut-Tahrir
- The authenticity of his conversion and adoption of liberal values.
Lean doesn’t seem to understand the difference between Islam and Islamism, even though his target has explained the definition and made the distinction repeatedly in media and talks. This is important, as Lean’s thesis that Nawaz wasn’t really religious is completely irrelevant, what matters is his devotion to the cause, which is the “… alleged threat posed by its foreign ism affix: ‘Islamism’”, as Lean himself says in the piece. The extent to which Lean is willing to question (deny?) the reality that there is a phenomenon in the world where some Muslims are using their religion to oppress others and strive to implement a theocratic system of governance, is quite remarkable. For him, Islamism is an “alleged” threat. For everyone else who accepts that there is such a phenomenon, the only relevant question will therefore be: To what extent was Nawaz committed to it?
Unfortunately for Lean, he doesn’t seem to realise how his own sources negate and contradict each other. To give some examples:
Ashraf Hoque, a friend from Nawaz’s college days, is more blunt.
“He is neither an Islamist nor a liberal,” he said. “Maajid is whatever he thinks he needs to be.”
Whereas Ian Nisbet says:
“There was never a moment that Maajid had anything good to say about secularism in the prison,”
So, which one is it? Was Maajid either an Islamist who was against secularism, or was he a non-committed individual who adopted whichever views that suited him best?
The piece then quotes Yasser Nabi, Maajid’s cousin:
“In prison, Maajid and I spoke about many things and what was clear at the time was that his views had changed very little,” Nabi said. “In some ways, he became more* jihadist in certain things. … Our discussions did not indicate any kind of push towards liberalism.”
So, it seems Maajid was devoted to Islamism? In fact, only one paragraph later, Lean quotes Ian Nisbet again, who says:
“He was 100 percent committed to [the group] when we left [prison], as we discussed it almost every day,”
Thus, the only logical conclusion to draw from the majority of these quotes is that Ashraf Hoque is wrong in his assessment, and that Maajid Nawaz was completely devoted to the cause of Hizb ut-Tahrir.
But there is another issue that may not be apparent for the average layman, and that is the nature of the sources themselves. Lean acknowledges that Ian Nisbet is still a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a megalomaniac organisation whose ultimate goal is to establish the Caliphate. What the author leaves out, however, is that every single source he mentions has a background in the said organisation and, bar from the now radical Leftist Ashraf Hoque, all still maintain radical Islamist views.
How’s that for motivation to slander someone who is now devoting his life to combat Islamism? Is it so strange that these people are keen to provide negative comments on a person they feel have betrayed them?
Lean tries his best, clasping at straws as he does, to present inconsistencies in Nawaz’ story about how he gave up on his convictions and adopted a liberal worldview. According to Lean, the various versions presented by Nawaz are incompatible with each other, with one narrative saying that the doubts started in Mazra Tora prison in Egypt, whereas in other places, he says that it took him about a year from being released from prison to completely abandon the ideology and Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group that had come to not just permeate but dominate every aspect of Nawaz’ life.
I hope that I am not insulting any reader’s intelligence by stating the obvious, but nothing in the above narratives are contradictory to each other. If anything, they are complimentary.
Nathan Lean refers to Nawaz’ autobiography “Radical” and quotes excerpts from it, making the assumption that he has read the book quite feasible. In it, Nawaz explains the trajectory of his abandonment of Islamist ideologies, and the difficulties he would have to face, the most brutal being losing his wife and son, and the arc of the journey which began in a prison cell in Egypt and came full circle with the establishment of Quilliam Foundation.
Similar stories are not rare. Countless books, films, articles, news reports and stories have told of the personal hardships and risks for individuals who no longer could find themselves in line with their tribe and its ideals. From parents murdering their own children, to people attending religious ceremonies and places of worship for years, despite having given up on their faith, to one’s entire circle of friends not only rejecting or disowning them, but actively renouncing them, the step to give up on one’s entire worldview, shared by the entire inner circle, is not to be taken lightly. For Maajid Nawaz, this step entailed losing members of his own family, including his son, and being a target for the rest of his life by former comrades.
For Nathan Lean, it’s ammunition to score cheap points against a man whom he personally dislikes.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
Lean makes a big deal of the funding Quilliam has received over the years, and, again, implies foulness in Maajid Nawaz by pointing out who the contributors have been. This is a cheap trick often employed by tabloids to sensationalise completely benign facts.
Interestingly though, Lean doesn’t make much of an attempt to explain why some of the contributors should be viewed sceptically. Instead, he gives out names, misrepresents quotes and links to another article, written by 9/11 truther Nafeez Ahmed. In that article, Ahmed thinks he has uncovered a huge conspiracy, by finding out that one of the institutions funding Quilliam is John Templeton Foundation, a supposedly right-wing, neo-con, ultra-Christian group who supposedly only fund projects that are in line with their own ideologies.
Although it is true that the JTF has a history of funding pseudo-science and Christian movements, Ahmed conveniently leaves out the fact that they also fund multiple Islamic organisations, or that their Templeton Prize in 2012 was awarded to the Dalai Lama. Maybe most interestingly, the JTF was the major contributor to the most comprehensive scientific study that has ever been conducted on the efficacy of prayer, which showed that prayers do not work! Despite the outcome of the study being an unwelcomed one, JTF still helped the research being published.
The foundation also established a grant specifically for Muslim scholars to engage in research on science within the religion of Islam, which begs the question of the extent of their supposed “anti-Muslim bigotry”.
Earl Whipple, Vice President of communications at John Templeton Foundation, had this to say:
“We’re not a religious organisation, we are a philanthropic organisation. Our grants are international in nature, and we fund projects and organisation regardless of whether they are conducted by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists or atheists.”
Quilliam relies on donations to carry on their work, as does countless other foundations. These donations come from a large variety of sources, from Muslims to Christians to atheists. From private people to businesses to public sector. Lean conveniently leaves out the fact that people like Hilary Benn, the brilliant Labour politician and socialist, is a great friend of Quilliam.
Quilliam also reject offers from a multitude of sources, such as the Saudi Arabian municipality. The rejections are mostly because of incompatibilities with Quilliam’s stated mission on one or several issues. (Ironically, the Saudi Arabian municipality are the principal employers of Nathan Lean.)
NOT TO MENTION HIS NEIGHBOUR’S DOG KEEPER’S HUSBAND’S BOSS!
Despite the length of the piece, one would struggle to find a cogent argument against Maajid Nawaz or Quilliam Foundation. Instead, Lean does his best to convict Nawaz through guilt by association, even though the most questionable associates of Mr. Nawaz figure as sources, to add credibility, to Lean’s accusations!
Lean fully expects this criticism, which is why he attempts (and fails miserably) to deflect it A priori, when he writes:
“That Nawaz enjoys the company of such a galère isn’t the problem. He’s not guilty by association. He’s guilty of giving life to their extreme ideas. “
But, if this statement is to be taken seriously, the reader should practically discard the entire text! As it’s not guilt by association, it doesn’t matter that The Templeton Foundation has donated money to Quilliam. Since Lean really, really doesn’t want you to look at Maajid Nawaz negatively because of who the former Islamist may be affiliated with, you can just go ahead and ignore his relations with Sam Harris, Aayan Hirsi Ali or Bill Maher.
Of course, that’s not what Lean wants you to do, regardless of his protestations otherwise. His tactic is comically reminiscent of how a certain Donald Trump recently responded to the fact that his competitor for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz, was born in Canada and may therefore not be eligible for the post, as shown in this humorous clip from The Daily Show.
“He’s wheedled Western politicos who advocate draconian policies that target Muslims, and he indulges the worst offenders when it comes to anti-Muslim prejudice.
He’s friendly with hawkish heads of state: David Cameron tapped him as an adviser on combatting extremism, Tony Blair gushed admiration in a front-cover book blurb, and George W. Bush picked his brain about torture at a backyard barbeque in Dallas. Nawaz has also surrounded himself with a motley crew of illiberal ideologues. Quilliam has received more than a million dollars from a group with close ties to Tea Party conservatives; Ted Cruz’s campaign chairman, Chad Sweet, who advises a domestic spying program of the FBI, sat on Quilliam’s board until 2013; former Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who adamantly opposes Palestinian statehood, shared the stage with Nawaz at an event in Toronto last October; and clearinghouses like the Clarion Project and the Gatestone Institute, which finance anti-Muslim activists, are habitually chummy with Nawaz and his comrades.”
Isn’t it interesting that someone who wishes to help implement policies which defeat Islamism, Jihadism and extremism, someone who wants to prevent young people to end up like Mohammed Emwazi, someone who has been there and seen the damage and destruction these movements do to friends, families and society, meets up with political leaders?
In the article, Lean hints that Nawaz’ claim of an approach based on dialogue is “at odds with his actions”. Apparently, a dialogue is only acceptable when Lean approves of the people with whom Nawaz conducts the dialogue, otherwise the ex-Islamist is being a liar.
Tony Blair liked Nawaz’ autobiography, George W. Bush had a barbeque with him, David Cameron has asked for advise on how to defeat Jihadism But Lean never explains why any of these facts reflect negatively on Nawaz! He just states neutral facts and hopes that his readers are ignorant enough to draw negative conclusions from them.
If Tony Blair likes “Don Quixote”, then I guess Cervantes was an evil man? If George W. Bush had dinner Nelson Mandela, it must mean the late anti-apartheid champion was a hypocrite? If Maajid Nawaz shared stage with Feisal Abdul Rauf, there is no other conclusion to draw other than the Imam being an anti-Muslim bigot! This is the ludicrous conclusion of Lean’s corrupted logic.
Lean uses terms such as “friendly with hawkish heads of state” (are there any other kinds?) and “habitually chummy” to deflect from the fact that he has zero arguments to make on the actual data. Isn’t it is to that it’s to Nawaz’ great credit that he engages in dialogues with people who hold views in contrast to his own, rather than shutting down all channels for conversation? What would Lean have him do, turn down talks with people who can make a difference? Give them the silent treatment? Is that how change is achieved?
And then, there are the atheists… If you want a bulletproof example of people you can misrepresent, lie about and use for scaremongering, always turn to atheists! From his farcical representation of Dawkins’ “To hell with their culture!” comment (which the biologist said in relation to subjugation of women being part of a culture) and Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s “Real Talk” saying that there should be thousands of Nawazes, as a response to Maajid changing the mind of a jihadist who had expressed ambitions to bomb London (I guess that’s something Lean wishes hadn’t happened), to his book with Sam Harris, entitled “Islam and the future of tolerance” in which the two lay out their differences, and Nawaz fights to provide Harris with a positive image of Islam (Harris has later said that as a direct result of his conversation with Nawaz, he has altered his views and now focus on Islamism as opposed to Islam), Lean does his best to paint a false picture of how Nawaz fans the flame of anti-Muslim bigotry…
Except that none of these people, including the Somali author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are anti-Muslim or bigots. They have various degrees of objections against Islam as an ideology, and Muslims who wish to impose their interpretations of Islam upon the rest of society. But none of them have ever expressed any form of prejudice against anyone just because he/she happens to be a Muslim.
And Lean knows this perfectly well, which is why he is so ambiguous in his article, and takes quotes out of context to make it seem that a sentiment that is non-existent is hinted at.
Fun fact: Maajid Nawaz has appeared on stage twice with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, both times as opponents. Care to take a guess what they were debating?
Lean desperately tries to make a case for how Nawaz is more aligned with anti-Muslim movements than with people of his own faith. This would be a stupid proposal for anyone to make, but when it comes from someone who has a history of making racist remarks, including calling Nawaz a “Native informant”, “Lapdog” and “Muslim validator” for collaborating with Sam Harris, it’s beyond ignorance, it’s true bigotry.
In Lean’s world, a Muslim must be a bearded, Kalashnikov wielding, hate preaching victim, and anyone who deviates from this stereotype or says that change is needed in certain Muslim circles, is not acceptable to the white American.
“On Twitter, Nawaz has posted controversial caricatures of Muhammad, urged veiled women to take off their hijabs, and questioned the state of mind of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old “clock boy”—all while trading “solidarity” hashtags with militant secularists and ignoring prejudice that faces his own religious group. Such is Nawaz’s playbook for achieving fame: court controversy by baiting religious believers (usually Muslims) and hitching his wagon to the provocateurs of the secular pundit circuit.”
Why, one has to ask, is it a problem that Nawaz posts cartoons of Muhammad on Twitter? Surely Lean doesn’t wish to imply that all Muslims are so against freedom of expression that, for them, such an act would be an insult?
And who are these “militant secularists” Lean refers to? People who argue for secularism as the most tolerant and fair model of governance? Is the American constitution a “militant secularist document”?
But, most interestingly, who are “Muslims”? Lean assumes that he, and he alone, has the authority to decide this, and he has decided that all Muslims belong to a monolithic, homogenous group. There can be no deviations from this prejudice, and although thousands of Muslims support Quilliam Foundation, and the fact that they have members such as the great Islamic scholar Dr. Usama Hasan the Muslim scholar Farhana Mayer or Muslim reformist (and former extremist) Adam Deen, doesn’t make any difference. They don’t fit the narrow-minded view of Muslims Lean has, and thus, they must be opposed.
You will have noticed that nowhere in the entire article does Lean even make an attempt to confront Nawaz’ arguments or Quilliam’s policies. Instead, he perpetuates lies that have long been debunked, such as the false story of Quilliam sending a “McCarthy-esque list of Muslim groups that the government should be wary of lest their non-violent views morph into violent ones” to the state. This fabrication had already been answered, but Lean decided to run with it anyway. Truth cannot come in the way of propaganda, apparently.
Lean is preaching to the choir. No one who isn’t already convinced of Nawaz being a malignant force would ever be as ignorant as to be persuaded otherwise by Lean’s dreadful article. The piece, full of lies and smears, have been shared by people who openly refer to themselves as enemies of Maajid Nawaz, such as Murtaza Hussain (who contributed with his own racist remark by calling Nawaz a “porch monkey”), Mehdi Hasan and Mo Ansar (who probably still hold grudges for how Nawaz exposed their hypocrisy on national television) or Asghar “One shoe” Bukhari, a man who never saw an accident without being certain that the Jews were behind it.
These people are all part of the soldiers of the war of identity politics. They know that they can’t present any rational arguments against a person and therefore succumb to cheap, personal attacks. I repeat, in Lean’s almost 3, 000 word article, there isn’t a single attempt to confront an actual argument of Nawaz’. Instead, the entire piece is an attempt at discrediting the person, by pointing out who he has ever shaken hands with, shared a stage with or smiled at.
But, most tellingly, Lean used Maajid’s own family against him. I trust the moral understanding of my readers well enough not to have to point out what a vile and despicable act that is. And that’s something Lean will have to have on his conscience
“Amir is a freelance writer. He is not and nor has he ever been affiliated with Quilliam or on their payroll”