Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

An ex-Islamist wants Islam to be cool. But for millions of Muslims it already is

Maajid Nawaz wants to make it "cool to be a liberal Muslim". But, writes Faisal Al Yafai, an entire generation has already done that, while people like Nawaz have been arguing in stuffy seminar rooms
Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist, speaks during a debate in Doha. Like a middle-aged uncle who was once down with the kids, Nawaz is seeking to school a new generation of Muslims on liberal Islam. (Lauren Lancaster / The National)
Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist, speaks during a debate in Doha. Like a middle-aged uncle who was once down with the kids, Nawaz is seeking to school a new generation of Muslims on liberal Islam. (Lauren Lancaster / The National)

"Can a former Islamist make it cool to be moderate?” was how The New York Times introduced its profile last week of Maajid Nawaz, a British former Islamist turned anti-extremism analyst. That the authority on Muslim “cool” would turn out to be a think tank analyst is somewhat surprising.

Nawaz has for several years become the go-to ex-Islamist in policy circles in London and Washington. His narrative of starting as a committed member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, being jailed in Egypt for several years and then realising the error of his fundamentalist ways has given his comments on extremism a certain authority.

He is, however, widely criticised among liberals and, I think it is not too harsh to say, even despised among the British Muslim community, of which he still considers himself a part. A leading US civil rights group, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, even included him on a list of “anti-Muslim extremists”. It does appear to pain him that neither liberals nor Muslims can accept his analysis (“I consider myself a liberal and wanted to work with liberals,” he says) – but not sufficiently for him to seek to understand their criticisms.

Now Nawaz is back with a new project. He wants to “make it cool to be a liberal Muslim”. And this very statement takes us to the heart of the left’s problem with Maajid Nawaz. Because Islam is already “cool”; Nawaz just hasn’t taken the time to notice.

One of the reasons Nawaz provokes such irritation is that he acts as if he is the first to discover something that is, in fact, already common knowledge.

He did this, first, by becoming a “moderate” Muslim. After spending his teens and twenties devoted to radical political organisations, he then repented and proceeded to lecture Muslims – who had never had a radical thought in their lives, who had spent the same period building careers and raising families, who had read the same radical leaflets as the young Nawaz and seen right through them – about why they should be moderate. Little wonder that Muslims asked why they should listen to someone who came to the same conclusions they did, but a decade later.

Now Nawaz is back, lecturing a young generation about “cool” Islam, about “liberal” Islam. Yet the truth is so maddeningly plain, it’s almost impossible to believe anyone has been strung along by this fiction. Anyone who has spent time in Arab, Asian or African countries, who has interacted with Muslim communities in the West – or indeed who has access to Google – will know that “cool” Islamic culture is already flourishing.

Islamic music, fashion and art are blossoming as never before. From Indonesia to Idaho, millions of Muslims are interpreting and experiencing their faith through culture.

A simple YouTube search will bring up dozens of artists (in English; there are many more in Arabic, Urdu and all the other languages of the Muslim world) whose music videos celebrate their faith in a joyful, youthful, exciting way – and attract millions of views.

Every moment of every day, across Twitter, Facebook and all the other connected apps of modern youth, this conversation – the one Nawaz is seeking to insert himself into – is already taking place, discussing identity, culture, politics and faith. There is no need to seek a cool or liberal Islam – millions of young people are creating it at this very moment.

That Nawaz doesn’t know this must be put down to wilful ignorance, an attempt to represent a reality he did not create for personal gain. But the reason he is believed in western political and media circles points to a wider problem.

Muslims in western societies are torn between two boxes, offered to them by the political left and right.

The left, fixated by difference, desperately desires Muslims to be “authentic”, recognisably Muslim – all the better to defend them from Islamo­phobia.

On the right, which despises difference and applauds conformity, Islam is seen as just another ethnic or religious marker, to be washed away by a homogenising society.

Nawaz, then, is caught in a trap not of his own making. Unable to be an “authentic” Muslim for the left, but desperate to be a figurehead for Muslim communities, he gravitates towards the right, thereby losing Muslim and liberal allies, inexorably leaving the community he claims to want to serve.

In so doing, he breaks his connection with Muslim communities and is unable to see how Islamic culture has flourished, particularly among a younger generation who are gleefully celebrating their faith with all the colour, noise and dynamism of young people everywhere.

In western political and media circles, these tens, hundreds of millions of Muslims are invisible, so they turn to Nawaz, the middle-aged uncle who was once down with the kids, for guidance.

But Nawaz is having an entirely parallel conversation, without Muslims, young or old, one conducted entirely in the seminar rooms of Whitehall and Washington. And he wonders why no one is listening.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Updated: April 3, 2017 04:00 AM