Maajid Nawaz’s shoes clack against the hardwood floor as he ambles up and down the center aisle of the Oxford Union’s hallowed debating chamber. It’s January 2013 and the British activist, sporting a slick black tuxedo and a gelled coiffure, urges the House to accept the motion that the American Dream is a noble ethos to which all people should aspire.
By his account, he should be on the other side of the aisle. “For 13 years of my life, I considered America my enemy,” he says, rehashing the events that marked his discipleship with Hizb ut-Tahrir, or “The Liberation Party,” a pan-Islamic political organization that aims to establish a global caliphate through non-violent means.
The self-described former “radical” joined the group’s British chapter when he was 16. It was during his four-year stint in the bowels of an Egyptian prison last decade, he says, that he began to reject the dogma of religious extremism that landed him there, and came to embrace the values of liberalism that now define his public profile.
Today, instead of supporting the cause of Quran-thumping diehards, he’s ingratiated himself in the growing union of neoconservatives and hawkish liberals who believe in Western exceptionalism and the efficacy of power, especially military power, to expand its influence and protect its interests. He has found in them an opportunity to expand his platform, and they, in him, a veneer that deflects accusations of Islamophobia and Western triumphalism by fixating not on Islam per se but on the alleged threat posed by its foreign “ism” affix: Islamism.
Against the backdrop of ISIS beheadings, Syria’s downward spiral, and rising fears of domestic terrorism, Nawaz’s story has made him a go-to commentator in American print and television media. Following the Paris attacks in November, he strolled through the streets of the French capital with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, explainingthe need to confront the religious species in the genus terrorism. On Fox News’s The Kelly File, Nawaz warned of a “global jihadist insurgency,” and, to the delight of network devotees, lambasted Obama’s strategy to defeat the Islamic State as one of obfuscation, denial, and inaction. Nawaz is also a contributor to The Daily Beast and the author, with neuroscientist-cum-atheist-celebrity Sam Harris, of the book Islam and the Future of Tolerance, published last fall by Harvard University Press.
The 38-year-old Liberal Democrat has worked his way into the world of think tanks and national security circles, too, mingling with thought leaders and politicians who believe that his journey from fundamentalism to freedom gives him the authority to opine on a broad range of topics related to religion and violence. Nawaz jet-sets from Ivy League lecture halls to annual gabfestsin the Colorado mountains; from the stages of TED talks to awards galas; and from the backrooms of British officialdom to Senate hearings in Washington, recounting at each juncture along the way the narrative that undergirds his rise to fame: a foot soldier of a Western enemy whose march toward an Islamic caliphate was interrupted by a Damascene conversion.
Buried beneath the adulation, though, are the sighs of those who have long maintained that Nawaz’s dramatic tale of redemption isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Interviews with his friends and relatives suggest that his account is riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies—indications, they say, of a turncoat who cares more about being a well-compensated hero than he does about the cause he champions.
“Most in my family who witnessed his life outside home, religious or irreligious, find his story at least exaggerated or embellished for his agenda, if not absolutely false,” Nawaz’s elder brother, Kaashif, said.
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.”
Read more at The New Republic.