Maajid Nawaz is Many Things. “Anti-Muslim Extremist” Isn’t One of Them.

Nawaz on CNN London in 2015.

Upon hearing the news last week that the Southern Poverty Law Center released a list of “anti-Muslim extremists” that included the 38-year old British activist and Liberal Democrat Maajid Nawaz, I was pleasantly surprised. Especially considering that my piece last January in the New Republic was among the first to call attention to the numerous discrepancies that comprise his rags-to-riches story, and argued that despite his suave appeal, Nawaz’s work contributes to stereotypical views of Islam by dampening their sting with a veneer of eloquence and nuance.

Yet, having reflected more on SPLC’s move, I disagree with it.

Maajid Nawaz is many things, but an “anti-Muslim extremist” is not one of them. Labeling him as such is little more than a flippant political swipe that cheapens the category of “extremist” and ignores the very distinctions and gradations that those of us who combat anti-Muslim prejudice hold as foundational to our work.

I have been quite critical of Nawaz’s inability to see that gradation within the phenomenon of Islamism, for example. For him, Islamists and violent extremists are one and the same, only differing in terms of their tactics. This parochial view was atop the list of SPLC’s reasons for labeling Nawaz an “anti-Muslim extremist.” What they failed to see however, is that in doing so, they were participating in an identical project of generalization — lumping Nawaz, by virtue of his having once attended a strip club, tweeting an offensive cartoon, and arguing that the full face veil should not be permitted in public schools — into a category of people who have not just railed against Islam, but, in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, called for its “defeat” by militaries.

Suddenly, with this list, screeching idiots like Pamela Geller, the wicked stepmother of Islamophobia in the United States, were equated with a man whose positions, while troubling in many regards, don’t come close to advocating the type of apocalyptical nonsense spewed by the former. Geller is a full-fledged extremist. Nawaz, though, is simply a neocon mouthpiece in liberal disguise.

Maajid Nawaz is many things, but an “anti-Muslim extremist” is not one of them.

That Nawaz colludes with some of Islam’s fiercest detractors is, indeed, troubling. While he defends himself by citing his 2011 debate with Hirsi Ali in which he argued, against her, that Islam is a religion of peace, the degree to which their relationship has blossomed when it comes to reforming that religion raises lots of questions. The same is true of his friendship with prominent atheist Sam Harris, a man who has deployed some of the harshest remarks about Islam under the sun.

But the onus is on SPLC to explain why Nawaz is especially deserving of this label. Some questions they might answer are: What is the criteria for being labeled an “anti-Muslim extremist?” Is it holding and expressing dangerous views about exterminating Muslims, or is it mollycoddling people who actually hold those views? Is it taking government money and toeing a government line on issues related to homeland security and terrorism? I can think of a precious many who would classify as “extremists” on that account. Is it gawking at bare-chested women during a boys night out on the town? That’s tasteless (and makes Nawaz’s claims of being a feminist absurd), but unrelated to the category at hand, as David Graham aptly noted in his piece over at The Alantic.

Had SPLC taken the pain to define the category and its qualifiers, their “field guide,” as it was called, might not have garnered such controversy. Even then, though, they would be hard pressed to explain why others with views all too similar to Nawaz’s didn’t make the cut: Richard Dawkins, the aforementioned Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Douglas Murray are but a few examples that come to mind.

As the tent grows larger, who we cast into it becomes increasingly less clear.

In the wake of this list, many people have pointed out the irony of Nawaz, having once sent the British government a list of supposed-extremists, balking at his inclusion on one now. It is a rather delicious paradox. But if we have decided that begging for government surveillance of Muslims is enough to classify one as an “anti-Muslim extremist,” it would be helpful for SPLC (and its collaborators, Rethink Media, the Center for New Community, and Media Matters) to cast its gaze towards the United States Capitol where a slew of legislators would thus qualify for the label, too.

I don’t deny the many ways in which Nawaz contributes to anti-Muslim prejudice. And my defense of him in his particular case should not be read as an indication of some new fondness for him. As I have written, it is clear that Nawaz leapt for the stars when he saw them, and it just so happened that he landed squarely in the midst of a pseudo-liberal coterie whose views of Islam align squarely with those of neoconservative hacks. Some of his positions, I maintain, are grounded in a prejudice that stems from his inability to see anything other than Western liberalism, with its attendant views about religion and politics, as desirable or acceptable. But I’m unable to conclude that Nawaz’s agenda is premised on some personal animus towards Islam or Muslims, or that he is “extremist” in the true definitional sense of that word.

It is imperative that we not allow disdain for people like Nawaz, the views that he holds, and the policies that he advocates, to blind us to nuances that exist among and between prominent critics of Islam, especially when we lambast the “other side” for not seeing nuances and complexities among Muslims.

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