Guest post by Chris Muir: Must We Burn Maajid Nawaz?

Chris Muir reviews Maajid Nawaz’s memoir Radical.

There’s no getting around it. The Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, Maajid Nawaz, is a controversial guy. Described by Muslim crackpot Anjem Choudary as a ‘traitor to the faith’ and suggested to be a secret Islamist by Christian crackpot Glenn Beck, it’s clear he has ruffled more than a few feathers. In fact, it would take the entirety of this blog post to list the enemies he’s accrued – many of whom are a lot more dangerous than the aforementioned talking heads.

In spite of this, Nawaz has fiercely loyal supporters. Recently, after another Liberal Democrat activist, Mohammed Shafiq, spearheaded a campaign to have Nawaz deselected as the Lib Dem Hampstead and Kilburn PPC, Nawaz’ supporters launched a petition in his favour which has accumulated more than 6000 signatures at the time of writing. What bonds Nawaz’s supporters, whether they’re atheists or theists, right wing or left wing, is their belief in and defence of liberalism.

So just who is this man, capable of infuriating religious extremists and hooligans alike? Where did he come from? And why should you listen to him? Well, put simply, because he knows what he’s talking about.

In Radical, Nawaz’s recently released autobiography, he recounts the extraordinary journey which took him from being just another teenaged, rap-loving, ‘b-boy’ in sleepy Southend to a highly dedicated recruiter for the notorious Islamic extremist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, to then subsequently found the world’s first counter-extremist think-tank, Quilliam.

Radical is a fascinating autobiography, telling a truly exceptional life story. But it’s more than that. It’s a mission statement and a case study. Nawaz’s story gives us a unique insight into how a Brit, raised with Western values, can grow to deplore the country he calls home. How one can assume a supranational identity, bound not to country but to an alien ideology. Radical is Nawaz’s vow to once again separate that ideology from his religion. He wants to communicate that Islamism and Islam are not the same.

Islam is a religion of peace, he argues, but is being used to bind Muslims to a deceptive yet highly convincing meta-narrative calling for a caliphate. By conflating legitimate grievances regarding the effect Western foreign policy has had on Muslims in other countries with half-truths and propaganda, these recruiters have successfully established a siren call to the alienated and the angry. It is an ideology that has resonated with the disaffected and been enflamed by further Western military interventions, allowing a hegemony to be established.

Nawaz has a gift for communicating in prose. What really brings the book to life is his ability to paint a picture. Even knowing the dark path he’ll later take, it’s impossible not to sympathise with his young self when we read of the barbaric violence he witnesses at the hands of racist thugs, or the discriminatory way he is treated by the police just because he isn’t white. The young Nawaz is relatable, vulnerable, normal – which is why his decline into extremism is particularly striking. It’s striking because it’s clear that religion has little to do with why the young Maajid becomes entangled in jihad.

Whilst reading Radical I couldn’t help but recall Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Dawkins identified in The God Delusion that it is faith itself which allows extremism to breed. He argues that the very concept of faith – the willingness to accept instruction or explanation, no matter how irrational, as long as told in the name of God – creates a pliable mind, easily manipulated by extremists to further their own ends. After all, one is surely more likely to kamikaze into a building if they think they’ll be rewarded in the afterlife. I think this is a reasonable conclusion to reach, but It wasn’t until I read Radical that I realised it’s a reductive and simple explanation. Radical has been for me, an ‘antitheist’, what Dawkins would call a ‘consciousness raiser’.

I no longer think of the issue of extremism in black and white, in absolutes. The many shades of grey, and the many disparate components of the process of radicalisation are now visible to me. Radical feels like the breakthrough moment of a culture shift, and I wish Maajid and his movement all the success in the world.


  1. Shatterface says

    A week ago this probably wouldn’t have been on my reading list – so another own goal for the protesters.

  2. Katherine Woo says

    My respect for Nawaz reaches a natural limit with the whole ‘religion of peace’ nonsense. None of the Abrahamic faiths are peaceful, period. The more a believer views the text as inerrant, the stronger the endorsement. Islam is the worst offender, since the view of the Quran as the direct word of Allah is basically fundamental to being a Muslim, no matter how liberal. I do not think most people really grapple with the implicatiosn of that which is why these silent majority tropes thrive.

  3. says

    I naturally assume I don’t agree with Nawaz on the substantive claims of religion, but then he doesn’t seem intent on imposing them on everyone. That makes a big difference.

  4. says

    It’s striking because it’s clear that religion has little to do with why the young Maajid becomes entangled in jihad.

    This cannot be emphasized enough. There is a strong trend toward demonizing what’s going on between the US and its allies and Islam as a religious conflict – which is is, but that simplifies the actual root cause of the conflict to the point where it’s impossible to really understand it. It is impossible to understand the arab world (because the islamic world is, culturally though not demographically arabic) without taking into account colonialism, petro-conquest, the west’s support of intolerable dictators of convenience, antiarabism in the US and UK, and intermittent murderous conquests. It seems to easy to just say that the muslims are all nasty crazies who want to kill people, because that allows one to hop, skip, and jump past the possibility that they might actually think they have reasons to want to kill people. Yes, those reasons are often contextualized religiously – Sayid Qutb’s political islam being an example – because they see some of their main opponents contextualizing things religiously, and it seems to be working for them. Militant christianity and zionism are every bit as crazy, violent, and threatening. People don’t seem to understand that even if everyone in the middle east woke up tomorrow an atheist, there would still be conflict over land, water, and waves of genocide going back to pre-Roman times.

    Anyhow, I don’t need to go into the full lecture about it – the point is that we should fully support and encourage people like Nawaz, who are helping break down the oversimplification of the religious narrative.

  5. Katherine Woo says

    Just to be clear I do realize that religious liberals have their heart in the right place and I bear them no malice. In fact they can be very fine people to know. My dad is that way about Christianity (mom and brother not so much). They have to see the fundamentalists and ‘hijacking’ the faith, as Nawaz said the other day, in order to maintain their worldview. If they saw that as wishful thinking, they would just leave the religion.

  6. Katherine Woo says

    I see Marcus returns with another dose of his tired paternalism. The Ottomans ruled parts of the region for centuries, but when he rattles of the problems they merit no specific mention. That omission encapsulates his bias and limits to his analysis in a nut shell.

    Islam is a root problem — not the sole problem before you attack that strawman — of the Muslim world because its lofty claims of divine origin gives the impression that Muslims should be on top of the civilizational order. In that context blaming other people is the only way to avoid looking at the religion when the Muslim world finds itself near the bottom.

    Leftists with a reflexive opposition to America/Western foreign policy endorse that view and thus help perpetuate the problem. I also find it amazing how credulous they are when it comes to Nawaz’s views. Of course he is not going to blame Islam directly since he remains a devout Muslim. People like Muir are just turning of their basic critical faculties when they swallow such shallow excuses. Seriously would you buy such a flmisy narrative from a white Christian? No way.

    By the way South Korea experienced colonialism (but not the white European kind Marcus favors), constant dictatorships of convenience, a belligerent neighbor, etc. and managed to turn itself from an illiterate, war-ravaged, post-colonial society into a first world nation in fifty years. many other natiosn have similarly overcome great adversity while the Arab world has wallowed in self-pity and

  7. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    South Korea …managed to turn itself from an illiterate, war-ravaged, post-colonial society into a first world nation in fifty years.

    Not quite. South Korea benefitted from enormous US investment and expenditure, especially during the Vietnam war.

  8. says

    Isn’t that part of colonialism?

    I don’t say that as a gotcha. Colonialism can have some benefits along with the domination. But the US had self-interested reasons for investing and spending, I’m pretty sure.

    As it has self-interested reasons for investing and spending in Pakistan, but it doesn’t seem to be working out all that well…

  9. Katherine Woo says


    You need to check out foreign aid to Middle East nations. I recall hearing the number two all-time recipient of aide behind Israel is Egypt.

    Also your response completely ignores the massive oil wealth of some Muslim states. Even oil-rich Malaysia, far from the Middle East, has entrenched Islamic fundamentalism and tense relations with its large non-Muslim minority. That wealth has not led to broad liberalization or secularization anywhere in the Muslim world.

    I am disgusted beyond words by our relationship with the House of Saud, but the U.S. hardly ‘props it up’ by simply being on friendly terms with it. Peoples are responsible for their own fate. The Iranian Revolution proved the limits of American control, but paternalistic leftist keep blaming our foreign policy. The failure of the Arab Spring relates largely to the fact people in the region are sympathetic to some form of politicized Islam.

    Again I am not happy with our foreign policy, but that in no way excuses this strange dismissal of islam’s role in the Muslim world’s problems by atheist leftists. The non sequitur mention by at least three people of teh Iraq Warin the recent hijab debate shows how much that issue colors leftwing responses to islam.

  10. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    I was questioning Katherine Woo’s statement that “South Korea …managed to turn itself into a first world nation in fifty years.” In fact, US assistance was in many ways a kind of unintentional and very expensive Keynesianism. South Korea was a base and recreation centre for US troops and South Korea supplied- and were paid for- thousands of soldiers in Vietnam. Enormous amounts of money went into South Korea and provided the boost to industry and infrastructure, but the money was under local control; not conventional colonialism or neo-colonialism.
    This wasn’t the only difference- there has always been enormous respect for literacy and education in Korea and strong nationalistic determinism- the latter the result of Chinese and Japanese threats to Korea’s cultural existence- which are very different to some muslim cultures’ claims to universalism and emphasis on memory and rote learning.

  11. Katherine Woo says

    Ophelia, I would call dictatorship period (Rhee to Roh), as one of the ROK being a client state of the U.S. That is a step up from colony, in the sense there was no deliberate exploitation, but certainly not free to pursue its own course, like say India in the same period.

    Japan, Germany, and Taiwan are great success stories of that model. I think if liberal democratic capitalism resonates in a society U.S. intervention/aid works, if not, it fails hard. The neocons were too hubristic about this reality in thinking they could simply impose democracy on Iraq.

    By the way my father ironically came here because of political ‘troubles’ with the U.S.-backed Park regime.

  12. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    You need to check out foreign aid to Middle East nations. I recall hearing the number two all-time recipient of aide behind Israel is Egypt.

    Very likely. However, what is the purpose of US aid to Egypt?
    The thing about US expenditure in South Korea was that it was not aid but conventional financial transactions and much of the money did not go to the government but to individual Koreans, from from industrialists down to private soldiers and bar-girls who used the money in their own interests.

  13. Katherine Woo says


    I never meant to imply South Korea sprang up out of nothing, but the fact is the Muslim world has lots of wealth pass through it hands one way or another during the same period.

    You hit the nail on the head in the second paragraph. But that is what sparked my comment, the shallow denial of Islam’s role in both the original article and Marsus’ comment.

  14. Katherine Woo says

    Your question about Egypt is really one to be posed to the Egyptian ruling class. This gets back to my point about paternalism. Ultimately the Egyptians are responsible for squandering the aide they received. If they ask the U.S. for military aide, instead of general economic aide, who is really to blame? The U.S. just wants a given end. It is up to a people to shape their own fate.

  15. freemage says

    Katherine Woo: The point sc_ is making is that Egypt isn’t being offered the same sort of aid that pulled South Korea free from the post-colonial mindset. We direct our money solely to the government in power, and not to private citizens, aid organizations or the like. This is our general model in the Middle East–even humanitarian aid usually goes through the local government. I think sc_ is suggesting that we might see a better return on investment if we treated the nations in question as partners, rather than as states to be dominated.

  16. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    The problem with US aid to Egypt- and other countries- is that it is usually aid to governments- weapons which help US arms manufacturers or food which helps US farmers and harms indigenous farmers. Would the USA have any interest in supplying other aid or the Egyptian government be interested in receiving it? As South Korean military dictators learned, when other people make money independently they also have independent power. In Korea, as well as military aid there were actual dollars to be used in their own interests for their own purposes by the people who got the money. US and Japanese invetments were also beneficial, but South Korea benefitted from the way people used their own money, which came from US involvement in South Korea. How far did business relations between US forces in South Korea and the local people working with them encourage Korean individualistic business attitudes?
    However, cultural differences are undoubtedly important; traditional muslim economic ideas emphasise trade, agriculture, workmanship, land-ownership, rather than expansive industrialisation, but that may change.

  17. says

    not the white European kind Marcus favors

    What in the flaming blue hells are you talking about??? I am not advocating colonialism at all!!

    And was I being paternalistic? If so I am genuinely sorry and would appreciate having it explained to me.

    Yes, you are correct that islam has a doctrine that the muslims will conquer the world, and no doubt their conspicuous failure to do so lately has to be as puzzling and frustrating for them as it has been since, well, every other setback they’ve suffered historically. But, seriously, that’s a silly argument – that their attitude is dramatically influenced by the presumed divine promise. The same could be said of all the christians and jews but perhaps it has more to do with god being on the side of the bigger armies and better trained troops as usual. Which is my point: they are perfectly reasonably pissed off because of political reasons. That doesn’t dismiss the religious aspect of it, but simply offering the religious narrative is far far too simplistic. No matter how much you bug your eyes out and hammer on the table about it.

  18. says

    Leftists with a reflexive opposition to America/Western foreign policy endorse that view and thus help perpetuate the problem.

    Perhaps over-simplified straw-man “leftists” do; I’ll let you flail away merrily at them and perhaps you can do some damage there.

    I’m certainly not denying that islam is an issue, but I think it’s naive to try to hang the whole problem on islam; the problem with the islamic world is not simply that they believe a bunch of absurdisms. Every religion does. Messianic religions flourish among the politically disempowered because they offer the promise that god’s gonna come along and sort everything out Real Soon Now(tm) – except history shows that what sorts a people’s problems out is those people. Perhaps islam may be a hindrance but it’s hard to say whether the US’ suppression of “islamist” governments might also be a bit of a hindrance. Politicized islam (via Sayyid Qutb) is an internal islamic movement that tries to answer exactly that question – where is our caliphate? Why does the west keep mashing us flat in battle? (Well, ask the mongols!) The islamic brotherhood and the wahhabists are both trying to answer that question but you cannot escape the obvious fact that they are choosing political means not prayer or, whatever. Bin Laden’s fatwas are specifically political documents and directly reference things like the Israeli land-grab and occupation and its support by the US. That’s not a “waaah waaah god is being mean to us!” religious reaction – it’s a political reaction shaped by the political reality on the ground in the parts of the world that historically the arabs have seen as theirs (which is funny because it’s not true unless history begins for you with they Ummayads but that is another story)…

    I’m accused of being paternalistic (I’m still trying to figure that one out) but what’s not paternalistic about trying to hang the islamic world’s problems on their religion? Poor benighted muslims just need to get over it? And, of course, that’s absurd – the islamic world has problems that have nothing to do with religion that it can’t “get over” because there’s a great big empire and its satraps sitting in their lap trying to manipulate the situation for its own interests. That seems to me to be something that anyone from “the left” would be looking at askance.

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