April 2, 2018 Abdul Haqq

Maajid Nawaz: From one extreme to another?

As millions of Christians around the world prepared to celebrate Easter (among the most significant events in their calendar) another controversy ignited debate around a fundamental tenet that not only applies to Christianity, but the other Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Islam as well. Pope Francis is alleged to have claimed ‘…bad souls are not punished…’ and that ‘A hell doesn’t exist.’[1]

The purpose of this article is not to discuss the theological impact of such statements. Instead, focus will be on the disturbing characteristics among a cadre of personalities who profess to have abandoned extremism, only to appear to be embracing another form. This is occuring in plain sight of governments and agencies that have raced to embrace and parade them as their respective representatives of counter extremism initiatives. However, the effects of subsequent counter narratives and newly embraced liberalism emanating from these personalities are adverse. One needn’t look further than Michael Gove’s poster boy, Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of Quilliam Foundation and LBC host, and his latest comments regarding the pope’s alleged statements.[2]

Agent Provocateur?

Nawaz weighed into the above-mentioned controversy by featuring it for discussion during his Good Friday slot on LBC.[3] What was particularly revealing for some (but confirmation for others,) was his declaration of disbelief in the religious concept of an afterlife, the associated reward or punishment and in particular, the existence of hell. As one professing to be a reformed and liberal Muslim, Nawaz expressed a view contrary to a key article of faith relating to a judgement day after which the final destination is either heaven or hell:

How can anyone in this day and age, any person of intelligence, believe in a literal burning hellfire? And so, I hope the pope did say this!”[4]

Nawaz continued:

“…and now he’s done this great thing of denying a literal burning fire of hell that goes on forever and ever… I think that’s a good step in the right direction but some conservative Catholics are outraged. They’re accusing him of heresy and saying that he should be removed.”[5]

Quoting from the Bible, Nawaz then questioned:

“What kind of eternally merciful God creates an eternal burning pit of Sulphur in which your skin is roasted alive? This hellfire business cannot be literal. So, I for one, welcome the pope’s move…”[6]

After quoting related verses from the Quran, he exclaimed, while stifling laughter:

You cannot, in all reasonableness, in this day and age, believe such stories. And so, thank you Pope Francis… It’s high time Muslims did the same thing and move from a literal definition of burning fire to a more humane, humanistic and metaphorical chastisement…”[7]

Usually, it would suffice to refer to Nawaz’s current beliefs and perspectives in order to illustrate the apparent reformation from his former life as a non-violent/violent extremist with Hizbut Tahrir (HT). However, it is important to examine these two stages – and any in between – to recognise the nuances of extremism manifesting themselves within his supposedly rehabilitated persona.

Prodigal Son?

From around 2006/7 onwards, governments and associated agencies began embracing the idea of working with ‘formers’ – former extremists who had rejected violence and disengaged from their previous beliefs and associations with extremism. Formers became the vogue due to their invaluable experiences and insights into non-violent/violent extremism. Multi-national industry giants, such as Google, even established new entities to address this ‘new’ approach:

Against Violent Extremism network – AVE:

AVE is a unique and powerful global force in the ongoing struggle to tackle violence and extremism. Former violent extremists, gang members and survivors of violence are empowered to work together with others to prevent the recruitment of ‘at risk’ youths and encourage the disengagement of those already involved. The network was founded at the Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) in 2011.[8]

I attended the Google Summit in Dublin, as did Nawaz. I was invited as a practitioner and academic while Nawaz and a host of other attendees participated as ‘formers’ or victims of extremism. By this stage, Nawaz’s gravitation from religious extremism was clear. However, the ‘pendulum swing’ across the socio-ideological spectrum was incomplete. During my PhD studies, I developed a theory charting a ‘bipolar spectrum of religious extremism among Muslims in Britain.[9] This framework illustrated the extreme polarisation of  some Muslims between a ‘fanatical, violent extreme’ and a form of ‘liberal extremism’ with the median comprising moderate perspectives. Nawaz’s gravitation or ‘swing’ is apparent in his polarisation from one side of the ideological spectrum to the other, which interestingly, the government welcomed with open arms:

‘Supporting the Govian definition is the Quilliam Foundation, an organisation which has served the government well, but not necessarily the Muslim minority of Britain.  Despite Maajid Nawaz publicly disagreeing with neoconservative philosophy, ironically much of the work conducted by Quilliam, their associations and the narratives they have pushed are in-line, and docile to their neocon paymasters.’[10]

The biblical story of the Prodigal Son is a well known one, where the younger brother decided to leave the family household, much to the distress of his father, and find his way in the world. In his absence, the older brother remained an obedient and dutiful son,  diligently completing the usual chores without complaint or redress. However, when his younger brother returned home after experiencing the hardships of life and their father readily embraced him, preparing a sacrificial animal for celebration in the process, the older brother understandably became angry.[11] The exchange between both father and older son at this point provides a poignant reminder for statutory agencies today in light of their enthusiasm to embrace and engage ‘formers’:

His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”[12]

The government can be likened to the father in the above story, while the younger, formerly wayward son, represents ‘formers’. It is relatively easy to discern that the older brother represents those entities that have consistently challenged and confronted extremism while maintaining their socio-religious values and British identity. This story, however, lacks an important insight that should not be ignored within today’s context.

Transitory periods are essential when engaging formers in order to establish the extent of their reformation and whether they still require further rehabilitation. Indeed, they may not have completed their ‘journey.’ John Horgan’s seminal book, ‘Walking away from Extremism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements’ examines issues surrounding the disengagement and reform of formers, acknowledging that these processes do not automatically amount to a complete relinquishment of extremist beliefs.[13] Indeed, disengagement could be as a result of factors unrelated to belief such as relational issues etc. In Nawaz’s case he appears to have embraced a different type of extremism – that of a ‘muscular’ liberalism which mirrors his former extremist inclinations. Actually, judging by recent comments, his current beliefs (some would say disbelief) also now appear to be at odds with a fundamental pillar of the faith he claims to follow. This is disconcerting, particularly in view of his mockery and disdain while expressing them during the recent radio show.

Talk Radio or radio talk?

Nawaz’s confrontational and occasionally dismissive approach towards some callers who happen to disagree with or challenge his views are well known. In fact, some may argue these characteristics are among what contribute towards his success. Combined with his undoubted charisma, he is considered an effective talk show host who often evokes interesting discussions. However, when it comes to matters of faith; Islam in particular, the religion is regularly subjected to his ire or disparagement. One only has to review previous podcasts to witness this.[14] In contrast to the liberalism he espouses, his intolerance for any religious perspective divergent to his own is revealing:

‘Maajid Nawaz is challenging the notion of interpretations in the Islamic context within the domain of political discourse, and yet ironically, he is enforcing his own interpretation of Islam and liberalism, to the detriment of the Muslim minority at large who do not necessarily agree with his position.’[15]

Democracy enables Nawaz and all of us to hold beliefs and perspectives that are subject to criticism. His beliefs, although abhorrent to some, can be challenged in a similar manner to how other extremist narratives are. However, the concern at this juncture must be the bigotry of a minority who refuse to accept the available channels of disagreement, opting for more confrontational methods. As long as such people exist, Nawaz’s confidantes would do well to advise him to avoid, or at least reduce, his somewhat controversial approach when addressing more sensitive subjects like faith. If at all possible, he should perhaps – for his own sake – be politely dissuaded. The shocking case of outspoken talk show host, Alan Berg, more than 30 years ago is a stark reminder of how disgruntled and extreme elements can react when they feel insulted or provoked:

‘Alan Berg, a popular and controversial Denver radio talk-show host, was shot and killed here late last night in a hail of .45- caliber bullets outside his building.

The 50-year-old Mr. Berg, who in recent years angered and delighted nearly a quarter million listeners in a metropolitan area of 1.2 million people, was found…in his parked automobile…’[16]

Berg’s personality and approach were not too dissimilar to Nawaz’s:

‘“Singular says Berg dealt with divisive issues like race and religion and wasn’t afraid to confront people with different views. He could also be extremely harsh to listeners who called in.

“On the air, if certain buttons got pushed, you know he’d really go off on you,” Singular says. “He went through a period where he just hung up on everybody. You know, he just wanted to be the bad boy on radio.”’[17]

Extremism cannot be fought with another form of extremism, especially from the opposite end of the spectrum, regardless of how socially palatable one may appear over the other. Both need to be confronted at either end of the socio-ideological spectrum; the main focus being to facilitate engagement and gravitation towards the more moderate and balanced centre where the mainstream of society prevails. Only, once policy makers and governments acknowledge this, can a realisation of  an effective strategy to reduce the polarising effects of far-right and religious extremism, muscular liberalism (itself a form of extremism) and Brexit begin.

 

 

 

[1] Horowitz, J: ‘Does Hell Exist? And Did the Pope Give an Answer?’ The New York Times, 30th March 2018: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/world/europe/pope-francis-hell-scalfari.html

[2] ‘Michael Gove’s “Anti-Islam Agenda” And His New Weapon: Quilliam’, Coolnessofhind, 5th June 2014: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/world/europe/pope-francis-hell-scalfari.html

[3] Majid Nawaz, standing in for James O’Brien’s show, LBC, Friday 30th March 2018.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Google – Against Violent Extremism network: http://www.againstviolentextremism.org

[9] Baker, AH: ‘Extremists in Our Midst: Confronting Terror,’ Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, pp.16-17

[10] ‘Michael Gove’s “Anti-Islam Agenda” And His New Weapon: Quilliam’, Coolnessofhind, 5th June 2014: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/world/europe/pope-francis-hell-scalfari.html

[11] The Bible, ESV version: ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son,’ Luke, Chapter 15, 11-32: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+15%3A11-32&version=ESV

[12] Ibid.

[13] Horgan J: ‘Walking away from Extremism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements’ Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 11th May, 2009

[14] Nawaz, M: ‘We Can’t Ignore Islam’s Link to Terror’, LBC News, 31st July 2016: http://www.lbc.co.uk/radio/presenters/maajid-nawaz/maajid-nawaz-history-shows-we-cant-ignore-islams-l/

[15] ‘Michael Gove’s “Anti-Islam Agenda” And His New Weapon: Quilliam’, Coolnessofhind, 5th June 2014: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/world/europe/pope-francis-hell-scalfari.html

[16] Malcolm, A H: ‘Outspoken Talk Show Host Slain Outside Denver Home,’ The New York Times, Archives 1984: https://www.nytimes.com/1984/06/20/us/outspoken-talk-show-host-slain-outside-denver-home.html

[17] Dukakis, A: Murder of Colarado Radio Man Alan Berg Still Resonates 30 years Later,’ Colorado Matters, 18th June 2014: http://www.cpr.org/news/story/murder-colorado-radio-man-alan-berg-still-resonates-30-years-later

Share
Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , ,