As the co-founder and chairman of the Quilliam Foundation, the UK’s leading anti-extremism think tank, Maajid Nawaz has advised three successive British governments on how to prevent young people turning to radical Islam and terrorism. Currently the Liberal Democrat candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, Nawaz has also become a well-known advocate for secularism and free speech. So when he says that Ed Miliband’s plan to outlaw “islamophobia” is a mistake, the Labour leader should probably take notice.
Nawaz’s understanding of extremism is rooted in personal experience. As a youth, he was a prominent figure in the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and was imprisoned for five years in Egypt for his involvement with the organisation. During prison, he became disillusioned with extremism, and upon his release, he quit. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to prevent young people following the same path, and regularly speaks out against the dangers of extremism. He now fears that Ed Miliband’s plans will have a chilling effect on critics of radical Islam.
“I don’t think Ed Miliband’s idea of banning Islamophobia helpful at all”, says Nawaz, speaking at a press event in north London. “It [will] become weaponised to silence debate and critique, particularly critiques of extremism. Ever since Ed Miliband made his announcement, I’ve been very worried, and I’ve been openly criticising it.”
He points to the example of Lutfur Rahman, the disgraced former Mayor of Tower Hamlets as an example of how the allegation of Islamophobia can be used as a weapon. “The reason it took so long to convict [Rahman] is because he weaponised racism and Islamophobia against anyone who tried to critique him. And people were intimidated, because criticising him meant criticising the religion, and we all know that a perception that you are criticising the religion leads to death threats and in many cases death itself. So it’s very dangerous to weaponise Islamophobia today.”
Nawaz is no stranger to genuine death threats, of course. As a former Islamic extremist who has become one of their most formidable opponents, many existing extremists see him as a traitor. The official threat level against Nawaz was recently escalated after British-born ISIS operatives in Syria called for him to be targeted. He has since had panic alarms installed in his flat.
It isn’t hard to see why Nawaz has become a bitter foe for Islamic radicals and their apologists. His Quilliam think tank has become one of the most established forces against extremism in the UK, and Nawaz is regularly called on by the Government to advise on its national counter-extremism strategy. However, Nawaz believes that the coalition has been dragging its feet on the issue, and is keen to roll out his own program at a local level if he is elected.
“Those of us who are working in counter-extremism have been quite frustrated, because during the course of the last five years, the coalition government including my own party have promised to publish a counter-extremism strategy. [But] unfortunately, the coalition partners haven’t been able to agree on what this strategy should look like.”
Nawaz doesn’t see counter-extremism as an issue that is monopolized by any party. He highlights Labour’s Hazel Blears, the Conservatives’ Paul Goodman and the Liberal Democrats’ Paddy Ashdown as figures who understand what needs to be done to tackle extremism. But he also says the coalition government has failed to move fast enough to roll out its national strategy. “They’ve failed in producing something that’s needed more than ever” he says.
Frustrated with the Government’s slow progress, Nawaz is now planning his own counter-extremism campaign in the London borough of Camden. “We’re going to roll it out on a local, civil society level. The model would be like the anti-racism and anti-homophobia campaigns we’ve seen in our societies, [to] raise awareness around what the extremist ideology of Islamism is, what it looks like, how to distinguish itself from traditional faith practice, and how to isolate and then challenge it so that it becomes a taboo.”
Human rights gone wrong
Nawaz is extremely critical of extremists who masquerade as “human rights” advocates. The purported human rights organization CAGE made headlines earlier this year after one of its directors, Asim Qureshi, described British-born ISIS executioner Mohammed ‘Jihadi John’ Emwazi as an “extremely gentle” and “kind” and blamed his radicalization on MI5 interrogation techniques.
Nawaz is highly critical of CAGE, and of the people who see them as a credible voice on human rights. He quotes Gita Sahgal, the former head of Amnesty International’s gender unit, who resigned over Amnesty’s ties with CAGE (which have since been severed). “You can champion the human rights of people suspected of terrorism, but don’t then make them champions of human rights.”
“If you’ve got people who are being held in Guantanamo, they shouldn’t be held without charge – I’ve been very vocal about that. But that’s very different to taking people from Guantanamo, Moazzem Begg being one of them, and giving them Amnesty platforms.”
To further illustrate his point, Nawaz uses a colourful analogy. “I would condemn the torture of even Hitler – if Hitler was having his teeth pulled out, I’d condemn it. What I wouldn’t do in that scenario is then give Hitler a platform, and say ‘come and speak to everyone about the importance of human rights.”
Free speech advocate
Breitbart readers may be forgiven for thinking that the Liberal Democrats don’t care that much about free speech. One of the party’s activists caused minor furore in the blogosphere for comparing the Charlie Hebdo to the KKK just a few days after the January massacre in Paris. Lib Dem activists have also held senior positions on the team of the Block Bot, a kind of McCarthyite social exclusion machine on Twitter that is currently facing a legal challenge.
But Maajid Nawaz is proof that there still exists a different kind of Liberal Democrat, one who seeks to broaden rather than narrow the limits of free speech. He attracted death threats in 2014 for live-tweeting a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed, stating that despite being a Muslim, he did not find the picture offensive.
An online petition calling on the Liberal Democrats to suspend him quickly attracted over 20,000 signatures. Although the party ultimately rejected the protest, the fact that it was started by a Lib Dem activist, Mohammed Shafiq, led some pro-free speech commentators to raise questions about the health of the party.
This year, with the issue of free speech and the right to blaspheme very much on the agenda, Nawaz went on the offensive. At the Lib Dem party conference this March, he proposed a successful “Freedom of Expression” policy motion that explicitly defended the right to cause offence. His speech proposing the motion was one of the most-watched clips of the conference.
Nawaz is no fool, and recognizes that many who might describe themselves as left-wing or liberal might not necessarily be friends of friends of free speech. “I worry [about] what they’re calling ‘safe spaces’ in universities… We can use terms like safe spaces, but I worry that what they really mean is policed spaces.”
Unsurprisingly, Nawaz is also concerned about the National Union of Students’ recent decision to partner with CAGE, and worries about what this will mean for free speech on campus. “I don’t think CAGE is going to be very tolerant of, say, satire. This idea of safe spaces very quickly descends into policing spaces.”
Despite his determination to tackle non-violent extremism, Nawaz believes in calling out bad ideas rather than banning them. Speaking about his preferred approach to tackling extremist ideas, Nawaz says “You don’t want to criminalize thought, even if it’s bad thought. You want to challenge it.”
An unusual candidate
Nawaz is unusual for the level of support he can command across the political spectrum. His list of endorsements includes atheist author Richard Dawkins, but also Catholic Herald editor Ed West. Socialist campaigners and former special advisers to Michael Gove are also an odd couple, but both can be found among his supporters. If his election campaign is successful (unlikely, given the Lib Dems’ poll ratings), it is likely to be on the basis of cross-party support.
Nawaz’ support is drawn from pro-free speech, moderate secularists who seem increasingly adrift from the major parties. In an age where other self-proclaimed liberals and progressives embrace ‘safe spaces’, censorship and neo-blasphemy laws, Nawaz stands out as a different sort of candidate. His brand of liberalism, it seems, is still somewhat popular.
Disclosure: The author of this piece, Allum Bokhari, is a Liberal Democrat party member and election agent for Robin McGhee, the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for Kensington. Follow the author on Twitter @LibertarianBlue.