How to Think Critically About Islam Without Denigrating Its Practitioners
"No idea is above scrutiny and no people are beneath dignity," says activist Maajid Nawaz. We should interrogate the intellectual justification of all ideas and preserve the dignity of all people.
Maajid Usman Nawaz is a British activist, author, columnist and politician. He was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for London's Hampstead and Kilburn constituency in the 2015 General Election. He is also the co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank that seeks to challenge the narratives of Islamist extremists.
Nawaz is a former member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. This association led to his arrest in Egypt in December 2001, where he remained imprisoned until 2006. Reading books on human rights and interacting with Amnesty International, which adopted him as a prisoner of conscience, resulted in a change of heart. This led Nawaz to leave Hizb-ut-Tahrir in 2007, renounce his Islamist past and call for a "Secular Islam."
After his turnaround, Nawaz co-founded Quilliam with former radical Islamists, including Ed Husain. He documented his life story in his Amazon bestselling autobiography Radical (2012). Since then, he has risen to become a prominent critic of Islamism in the United Kingdom. He is a regular op-ed contributor, debater and public commenter, and has spoken from various international platforms including the TED conference. He presented his views on radicalisation in front of US Senate Committee and UK Home Affairs Committee in their respective inquiries on the roots of radical extremism.
Nawaz is proficient in three languages: English, Urdu and Arabic. He is a weekly columnist for The Daily Beast, and had his writings published in various international newspapers including New York Times, The Guardian, Financial Times, Daily Mail and Wall Street Journal. He has made appearances on programmes including, but not limited to, Larry King Live, BBC Hard Talk, Charlie Rose, 60 Minutes, Newsnight and Real Time with Bill Maher. He has delivered lectures at LSE and University of Liverpool, and has given talks at UK Defence Academy and Marshall Center for Security Studies.
In June 2014, Nawaz became an honorary associate of the National Secular Society which was founded in 1866. His second book Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015), co-authored with American neuroscientist Sam Harris, was published in October 2015.
Maajid Nawaz: No idea is above scrutiny and no people are beneath dignity. And what I mean by that is that no idea in Islam, like any other religion and any other philosophy and political thought and creed, is an idea. An idea is, by definition, adopted voluntary and therefore should be subject to scrutiny. And so I don’t subscribe to any form of blasphemy or censorship when it comes to an intellectual and rigorous debate around any idea. On the other hand, no people are beneath dignity. So no idea is above scrutiny; no people are beneath dignity. And what I mean by that is, it’s very easy when understanding it in this way to recognize, and you can recognize it in your gut, the difference between somebody who is saying I don’t like the religion of Islam. Let me scrutinize it, you know. I think this whole thing about the literal word of God doesn’t sit comfortable with me. That’s very different to someone saying all Muslims are terrorists and they are a disease in America we must expel them. Your gut can recognize the difference between those two. I think Muslims as a people deserve every dignity like any other human being. But every single idea — Charlie Hebdo is a case in point. People have the right, the absolute right to scrutinize and satirize. And so I think my ideas around this were crystalized in my conversation with Sam. And, you know, I think there’s an analogy I use in the dialogue which I took from another ex-Muslim that we refer to by name in the book; Ali Rizvi is a Canadian ex-Muslim who says that it’s like saying smoking is bad and that doesn’t imply smokers are bad people, you know. To say smoking is bad doesn’t mean I’m saying all smokers are bad people. So if Sam Harris is saying he doesn’t agree with Islam, it doesn’t mean he’s saying all Muslims are bad people. And I think that’s an example that comes from this maxim: No idea is above scrutiny; no people are beneath dignity. And that’s one of the things I took away from this dialogue. And even though the phrasing of that is something which I put in the book the concept, the idea is something I took from people like Sam and I’m very happy that my own thoughts have developed in all these lines when it comes to that.
A lot of the motivation the people have for not wanting to have this conversation is political correctness. They don’t want to be seen as racist. And unfortunately the regressive left today have become incredibly trigger happy at throwing this label at people. I’ve been called a racist and an Islamaphobe and many other things. A native informant and a porch monkey. Sam Harris’ porch monkey for example is a racist slur. Simply for having this conversation, you know, you’d have thought the people would recognize that a Muslim speaking to perhaps one of the leading atheist Islam critics today — those two having a dialogue with each other would be a good thing. But instead, you know, both Sam and I have been — have faced a barrage of criticisms that are ad hominem and that are not substantive. And a lot of that is motivated by those who have a concern again for political correctness. Who have good intentions, but this is a classic example of where literally the road to hell is paved with those good intentions because you cannot justify calling somebody like me who, you know, I’ve fought Neo-Nazis throughout my teenage years. I’ve been jailed because of my previous convictions, religious convictions. And you’re going to call me a racist and an Islamophobe. And even worse a porch monkey. And that’s meant to be someone on the liberal side of this debate. So people that on the one hand want to preserve political correctness, I find that they become incredibly aggressive and use and hurl pejoratives at those engaging in this debate and yet from the other side of their mouths, they’re insisting that it’s not politically correct to scrutinize Islam. No, you know, I’ve got a view and I think Islamism must be intellectually terminated and Islam should be reformed. Islam today, you know, our view of Islam today needs reform. And because I distinguish between Islamism and Islam, I can say that. I mean Islamism is a theocracy. It’s a desire to impose a version of Islam over society. Theocracy has absolutely no place in the modern world. It needs to be intellectually terminated as an idea and that means through rigorous debate and scrutiny. But on top of that, Islam itself — it’s not politically incorrect to recognize that Islam’s heyday and the jurisprudence that developed around Islam peaked in the medieval era and a lot of it isn’t suitable or compatible to the standards that we’ve come to adopt today and the scientific advances, but also the moral standards and values in society. That also requires some scrutiny by theologians and by thinkers. And, you know, if political correctness is going to obstruct that process, then it’s going to tolerate a great deal of bigotry and prejudice in the process. And so it’s not really politically correct to take that stand at all.
We know that the neo-conservative years led to the War on Terror decade, War on Terror laws and Guantanamo and invasion of countries. And people, the regressive left especially, have a knee-jerk reaction. It’s almost a zero sum game for them. If you criticize Islamism you must be a Neo Conzionist, Indian agent, stooge, MI6, you know, all these other conspiracies that get tacked on to the end and a porch monkey. So it’s a zero sum game for them. And how to defend oneself against this to say look, I’m a liberal. I opposed the Iraq war from my jail cell in Egypt. I’ve been a liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in the United Kingdom. I’ve ran for Parliament, for office as a liberal Democrat, you know. I’m a bona fide liberal. Every single War on Terror law that violated human rights principles as I’ve understood them I have opposed them publicly. Whether it’s the schedule 7 in the UK that denies the right to silence and denies, it forcibly takes your DNA at ports of entry and exit, airports, what have you. Arbitrary detention, Guantanamo. I’ve always been opposed to Guantanamo and its existence. I’ve been opposed to the invasion of Iraq. No matter how much I clarify that, there are people for whom as I said this is a zero sum game debate. If you’re critical of Islamistic extremism, you must automatically be a Neocon and a racist. And as I said, you know, I’ve experienced Neo-Nazi racism and it’s absurd to me for anyone to hurl that accusation. Actually it’s incredibly privilege for them. To hurl those accusations at me because there are invariably people who have never had to dodge a machete attack from a Neo-Nazi skinhead or a hammer attack. They’ve never had to witness torture in an Egyptian jail yet they’re the ones that are accusing me of being the racist. So how do I deal with that? It’s an open jury to be honest. Do I respond every single time on social media to clarify, to send out links to say, "No I didn’t say that"? Or do I rise above it and say, "You guys are just petty. I’m not going to lower myself to your level because if you wrestle in the mud with the pigs you end up getting dirty." So what do you do? I don’t think there’s an answer to that question. And I don’t know how to go about it. I think one of the things I do do is I always leave the door open. If somebody comes back to me and says, "Look, I misunderstood you. I’m sorry," I’m happy to forget and let bygones be bygones. I’m not going to hold a grudge. I understand how misunderstandings could happen because, of course, for 13 years I was on the leadership of an Islamist organization and I changed my mind. I’m always happy to allow people to change their minds, but how to get them to that stage and see you as a human being that has a holistic story behind them and isn’t just one thing or another, you know, I don’t know. I’ll keep trying, I suppose.
Taking a rational approach to religious doctrine is precisely what accounts for the moral and scientific advances of the last several hundred years. Without these advances, we would not have the liberal, rights-based society we currently enjoy, says Maajid Nawaz. So continuing to critically examine the principles on which religion operates is essential. It's equally essential to understand the difference between a religious theocracy and individuals who practice Islam. Nawaz affirms that Muslim people deserve dignity and respect, and that the voice of rational dialogue deserves similar tolerance.
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