How Did Maajid Nawaz End Up on a List of 'Anti-Muslim Extremists'?

“They put a target on my head.”

Maajid Nawaz (Colin McPherson / Getty)

When earlier this week, the Southern Poverty Law Center and three other groups released a list of 15 “anti-Muslim extremists,” many of the names came as no surprise. They included Pam Geller, who led the fight against the misleadingly nicknamed Ground Zero mosque, and her ally Frank Gaffney, who has called Barack Obama a crypto-Muslim and assailed Grover Norquist as a Islamist agent. Others were more controversial, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is beloved by some as a truthteller and reviled by others as a bigot.

But one name in particular stuck out: Maajid Nawaz, a British activist who runs the Quilliam Foundation, which calls itself “the world’s first counter-extremism think tank.” (It’s named for Abdullah (né William) Quilliam, a British convert who opened the U.K.’s first mosque in 1889.)

Nawaz is a star in certain anti-terror circles, thanks to a compelling personal narrative: A self-described former extremist who spent four years in an Egyptian prison, he has changed approaches and now argues for a pluralistic and peaceful vision of Islam. He stood for Parliament as a Liberal Democrat in 2015, and advised Prime Ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron.

Nawaz’s work has earned him detractors—critics claim he has embellished or neatened his narrative, some attack him for opportunism, and others question his liberal bona fides—but calling him an “anti-Muslim extremist” is a surprise. Unlike the likes of Gaffney and Geller, he doesn’t espouse the view that Islam itself is a problem; unlike Ali, who now describes herself as an atheist, Nawaz identifies as a Muslim.

When I spoke to Nawaz on Thursday, he was both baffled and furious.

“They put a target on my head. The kind of work that I do, if you tell the wrong kind of Muslims that I’m an extremist, then that means I’m an target,” he said. “They don’t have to deal with any of this. I don’t have any protection. I don’t have any state protection. These people are putting me on what I believe is a hit list.”

Not that he took well to his inclusion on its merits, either.

“I’m the one who’s a Muslim in this!” he said. I’m listed there with people such as Pam Geller? It’s unbelievable.” He pointed out that he does things like appear in an Intelligence Squared debate arguing for the proposition—against Ali, in fact—that Islam is a religion of peace. (“I lost the vote,” he said, with a tinge of bitterness.) He has also won praise for battling Islamophobes in the press.

The report cited several counts against Nawaz. One is that he tweeted a cartoon of Muhammad—an intentionally provocative act, given that many Sunnis find it blasphemous to depict the prophet, but one that doesn’t fit neatly into the “anti-Islam” category. (Most Shiites don’t object at all, but in any case, is simply committing a blasphemous act anti-Islam?) A second is that Nawaz visited a strip club in London during a bachelor party, which is true, tasteless, and seemingly irrelevant to the matter at hand.

Third is a Daily Mail op-ed about the niqab, or face veil. The report states that he “called for criminalizing the wearing of the veil, or niqab, in many public places.” Nawaz counters that he only called it inappropriate. But he did write that there should be a “policy” barring the niqab in certain spaces: “Let me make this clear: it is our duty to adopt a policy barring the wearing of niqabs in these public buildings. Here’s my test: where a balaclava, motorcycle helmet or face mask would be deemed inappropriate, so should a niqab.”

The most interesting is the fourth point, because it highlights a peculiar dynamic: The SPLC and Nawaz are each accusing the other of McCarthyism. The report states:

In the list sent to a top British security official in 2010, headlined “Preventing Terrorism: Where Next for Britain?” Quilliam wrote, “The ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists; they disagree only on tactics.” An official with Scotland Yard’s Muslim Contact Unit told The Guardian that “[t]he list demonises a whole range of groups that in my experience have made valuable contributions to counter-terrorism.”

Nawaz disputes the claim. Quilliam says the list in question was an appendix to a larger report, and simply a list of British Muslim organizations; in fact, he says, the point was to say that such groups should be legal, even if they were extremist, so long as they were not violent. “It wasn’t a terror list,” Nawaz said. “We were saying, don’t ban these groups. We’ve gone through the looking glass. It’s the direct opposite of my life’s work.” He pointed to an exchange on the floor of Parliament, in which then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown cited him in defense of the notion that Islamist parties such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, with which Nawaz was affiliated in his radical days, ought not to be illegal:

Even many of those who have left the groups and feel that they should be exposed are of the view that exposing them is not the same as banning them altogether. Maajid Nawaz, who talked about the matter on “Newsnight,” said: “My ideal scenario would be not to ban the party but it would be that through the … power of discussion and persuasion that eventually the party would fizzle out in this country.”

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at SPLC who wrote the report (and has a long resume of similar work on extremists), told me that Quilliam’s list of groups was the linchpin of the case for Nawaz as an anti-Muslim extremist. (Potok also noted that the list was compiled in collaboration with Media Matters for America, the Center for New Community, and ReThink Media.)

Nawaz, meanwhile, accused SPLC of “McCarthyism” for compiling the guide. “Who compiles lists of individuals these days?” he said. “Even if someone was an anti-Muslim bigot, there shouldn’t be lists of names of individuals.”

Potok rejected the argument out of hand. “If criticizing any number of people is McCarthyism, then I guess the only answer to never criticize anyone. One can disagree or agree with a particular listing that we’ve made. … In some sense, to make a statement like that is to say that we shouldn’t criticize.” He noted that SPLC was careful never to list addresses or contact information for those it labeled extremists. “Our point is not to make these people targets for violence, Potok said. “The point is to tamp down the really baseless targeting.” While Nawaz demanded a correction, retraction, and apology, Potok said none was coming.

One thing that seemed to particularly irk Nawaz was the fact that the report came from SPLC. While the group is controversial—and particularly loathed on the American right—Nawaz’s objection was that he has known and respected their work for years. “It lends the wingnuts a level of credibility,” he said.

Yet Potok surely has a point about lists, even if one rejects Nawaz’s inclusion on this particular one. If naming and shaming the likes of Geller and Gaffney is beyond the pale, how should one combat Islamophobia, which is a real and growing problem? Nawaz endorsed the work of Tell MAMA UK, an organization that tracks attacks on Muslims and other incidents of Islamophobia.

There are legitimate disagreements about the most effective way of fighting Islamophobia. There are also grounds to argue about whether what Quilliam is doing is truly making much difference. But what makes Nawaz’s appearance on the list so peculiar is that he and SPLC share the goal of fighting back against unfair targeting of Muslims. If even natural-seeming allies are preoccupied fighting each other about tactics, what hope is there prevailing in the fight against real bigots?