A contemporary example of a status driven extremist?

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by Neil Godfrey

Unlike his inspiration Barannikov, however, Mirsky was unable to contain himself: he told everyone who would listen that he was the attempted assassin. . . . Soon [the police arrested him].

Only a few weeks later, Mirsky was already betraying his comrades from People’s Will and writing humble petitions to the czar. His loyalty to the radical movement evaporated completely; there is even evidence he was recruited to serve as an informant for the prison authorities. . . . 

Barannikov sought the thrill of adventure; Mirsky status. The two kinds of motives are often linked in experience and can be linked in theory. Gang activity is a familiar setting where certain young men seek status. In an earlier post in a series addressing factors that attract persons to extremist radical groups, Terrorists on Status Seeking Adventures, I did not discuss Mirsky. But this morning I caught up with a detailed investigation into another (ex)Islamist radical I have posted on a few times and am struck by some similarities.

The contemporary example of someone who was driven by a pursuit for social status in his involvement in an extremist Islamist group appears to be Maajid Nawaz.

Previous posts focusing on Nawaz:

harris-nawazIn at least one of those posts I did wonder why Maajid Nawaz appeared to approve of being a billed as an equal joint author (with Sam Harris) of a book in which some of Harris’s more extreme views went unchallenged and were even further promulgated through the advertising of a book whose arguments are opposed by Nawaz.

I had also heard reports that Nawaz had been responsible for falsely reporting peaceful Muslim groups to the British authorities as potential extremists. I was unable to find secure evidence in fairly quick searches to verify such claims. (Some have accused him of falsely presenting himself as a Moslem, but I have probably met more non-practising Moslems than devout ones when overseas, and see no reason to pronounce a spiritual judgement upon them and accuse them of not being Muslims at all. The identity cards of those who have them flatly state they are Muslims.)

This morning I read the following:

The Self-Invention of Maajid Nawaz: Fact and Fiction in the Life of the Counter-Terror Celebrity

The lengthy report is on Alternet; the authors are Nafeez Ahmed and Max Blumenthal. The byline reads:

Maajid Nawaz bases his credibility on a compelling personal story, but how much of it is true?


Like Mirsky, it seems that Nawaz became an informant for the police:

As soon as Nawaz and his fellow former prisoners arrived at Heathrow on their return from Egypt in early 2006, Nisbet said they were quickly spirited away for interrogation. “When we came into Heathrow we were met by Special Branch police officers,” he recalled. “We were interviewed separately about our Islamic views and each of us was asked whether we would become informants in the local mosques. We were asked whether Special Branch could come and visit us in our homes to continue the discussion. Only Maajid agreed to this, as he says he could not think of a quick response to get rid of them.”

If Nisbet’s account is correct, no sooner had Nawaz landed on British soil after his detention in Egypt than he volunteered to become an informant for Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch. (This is a unit of the British police that oversaw national security related matters, and later merged with the Anti-Terrorist Branch to form the Counter Terrorism Command.)

Another former HT member who was close to Nawaz at the time, who now also rejects the movement’s ideology, told us Nawaz was indeed a police informant, helping the Metropolitan Police identify potentially troublesome HT members at political protests and other public gatherings.

In response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the Metropolitan Police refused to confirm or deny the matter . . . .

Appeal to the higher powers

Mirsky appealed to the czar for release from prison. Nawaz had spent time in prison in Egypt and after his return to Britain and subsequent eventual abandoning of his former extremist views he also appealed to the British government:

quilliamIn April 2008, Husain and Nawaz together founded the Quilliam Foundation. Billed as the world’s “first counter-extremism think tank,” Quilliam was named after the English convert William Henry Quilliam, who opened the first mosque in England. Husain, Nawaz and their co-directors marketed themselves as leaders of a new movement for Islamic reform whose insider experiences gave them special powers of de-radicalization. Between 2008 and 2011, Quilliam received the U.S. dollar equivalent of at least $3.8 million in British government funding—about 92 percent of its total operating budget. Nawaz was, in effect, an employee of the British government, reaping a salary of about $140,000 a year. . . . 

Rizwaan Sabir, an assistant professor specializing in counter-terrorism and insurgency at Liverpool John Moores University, argues that the blacklist was evidence of Quilliam’s ulterior political agenda. “Quilliam is not there to de-radicalize, they’re there to offer a counter-narrative,” Sabir told us. “That’s why they primarily engage with people in power; they’re there to give legitimacy and justification to government power and practice.”

There is also the story of Nawaz’s efforts to enter politics — but I leave that one aside for now.

Gang activity

Nawaz’s pre-Islamist background was as a gang leader. Recall from above that such activity is the stage for status seeking young men. There are many episodes in Radical where Nawaz’s status-seeking is evident — in his drive to be the leader of gangs, to impress peers, to rise to leadership in the Islamist movement. Of course there are other factors in play as well (e.g. experiences of racism, torn between two cultures) and these cannot be discounted as having some part to play.


And status does appear to be the aim of the game according to Nafeez and Blumenthal’s article. What they write certainly explains several details of Nawaz’s book Radical. (I spoke of this book in The Conflict between Islamism and Islam.)

Nawaz’s decline in status in the U.K. appears to be unknown in the U.S. where he is feted by many conservative celebrities. It is perhaps instructive to compare Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s fall from grace in The Netherlands (she was exposed as having lied about her past experiences) who turned to the U.S. to face less critical admirers. It appears that Maajid Nawaz has likewise creatively embellished some of the truth of his past in his book Radical.

Like Nawaz, Hirsi Ali based her celebrity and political authority on her tale of transformation from radical Islamist to liberal atheist. And like Nawaz, Hirsi Ali’s story was filled with fabrications and half-truths. After being exposed by a Dutch television network for lying about her childhood, her family and her immigration status while serving as a member of the country’s right-wing government, Hirsi Ali fled to the U.S., where she basked in positive publicity and generous patronage. With his credibility on the wane in the UK, Nawaz seemed determined to follow her example.

It appears that Nawaz has misremembered when, how and why he turned his back on radical Islamism. It was not, as we wrote in Radical, through the admirable attitudes of Amnesty International and deep reflection on his past while in an Egyptian prison. In fact, those who knew him unanimously recall him emerging from prison more hardened and radical than ever. What appears to have eventually swung him to the “other side” was a combination of the failure of his earnest efforts to convert others to his views and seeing former his colleague, Ed Husain, attract some widespread fame with the publication of his book, The Islamist, about his experiences in the Islamist extremist movement and how he left it behind:

islamist. . . His close friend Ed Husain had just released his book, The Islamist, which catalogued his experiences inside the movement and described his path back to traditional Islam. The book rose to international bestseller status, garnering Husain a public platform as well as access to influential British counter-terror officials. A former Home Office official told Nafeez Ahmed (co-author of this article), “the draft was written by Ed [Husain] but then ‘peppered’ by government input — not explicitly, but implicitly.”

Just as Nawaz was approaching the upper echelons of HT, he suddenly resigned from the organization. Former friends of both Husain and Nawaz told us Nawaz was captivated by the stunning example of Husain’s success and eager to emulate it.  

Theological and scriptural counter-arguments appeared to have played no meaningful role in Nawaz’s decision to leave HT. Besides witnessing Husain’s rise to prominence, the main catalysts appear to have been multiple: the terrifying experience of his imprisonment due to his Islamist activism; the emotional disconnection from his wife Rabia; a growing disillusionment with his identity as an HT member and ex-prisoner; and an apparent new love interest at SOAS in the form of a more senior student.

Nawaz’s decision to become an informant for the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch upon his arrival from Egypt, described by his former fellow prisoner Ian Nisbet and an ex-HT member, also played an instrumental role in his complex evolution. In his book, Nawaz claims how in May 2006, he began to wonder where he could go next with his HT baggage. But rather than describing an inner ideological or theological crisis behind his decision to renounce HT, he outlines an emotional lack of self-esteem and realization that his path as a senior Islamist activist offered only a dead-end. 

One fellow student who was at SOAS while Nawaz was active on campus suggested to us that his failure to generate interest in HT influenced his exodus from the group. “Far from SOAS being a hotbed of radical Islamism, we basically used to laugh the HT guys— including Maajid—out of campus,” he said, echoing the same assessment as Nawaz’s former Newham classmate of the earlier experience there. “HT had no traction whatsoever at [university]. Maybe this skeptical social and intellectual environment is what really caused his conviction in Islamism to buckle.”

As a matter of chronology, it was only after Nawaz returned to his studies at a major London university, surrounded by leading scholars and bright students of the Middle East and Islamic history—and where he was able to recognize more publicly acceptable opportunities to advance his career and personal life through the example of Ed Husain’s success—that he finally began to become “deradicalized.”

With Ayaan Hirsi Ali

ayaanAnother indicator of Nawaz’s motives for change are found in a turning point debate with Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

Nawaz and Hirsi Ali first met at a 2010 debate hosted by Intelligence Squared, a nationally televised debating forum sponsored by the neoconservative Rosenkranz Foundation. They were on opposite sides of the debate question, “Islam is a religion of peace.” Nawaz was still intent on portraying himself as a liberal Muslim, while Hirsi Ali had called for Islam to be “defeated.” “Once it’s defeated,” she said in 2007, “it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now… There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.”

Her debating partner, Douglas Murray, then-director of the London based Center for Social Cohesion and author of Neoconservatism: Why We Need It, was a right-wing anti-immigrant activist . . . . 

Prior to the debate, audience members were asked to register their opinion of the question. A majority stated their support for the statement that Islam was a religion of peace. By the end of the debate, however, the crowd had shifted decisively in the other direction, with nearly all undecided voters rejecting the statement.

Nawaz appeared overwhelmed by the arguments put forward by Hirsi Ali and Douglas Murray. His attempts to place Islamic scripture in historical and theological context fell on deaf ears while his opponents electrified the crowd with unequivocal arguments casting the whole of Islam as poisoned. The humiliating defeat seemed to have a powerful impact on him.

With Sam Harris

harrisThe status seeking motive might likewise explain Nawaz’s affiliation with Sam Harris:

Recently, Nawaz joined forces with Sam Harris, the self-styled “new atheist” who has declared, “It is time we admitted that we are not at war with ‘terrorism.’ We are at war with Islam.” An avid supporter of torturing Muslim terror suspects and racially profiling “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,” Harris is also a New Age transcendental meditation enthusiast who has suggested that babbling infants might be speaking ancient languages. As Nawaz embraced the fervently anti-Muslim movement of self-proclaimed new atheists, he received a $20,000 donation from Harris to Quilliam in 2014.

In 2015, Harris and Nawaz published Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, a book framed as a high-minded demonstration of “how two people with very different views can find common ground.” Hirsi Ali offered effusive praise: “We must all read it and follow in [Harris and Nawaz’s] footsteps.”

When Harris and Nawaz took their show on the road, they scrapped any pretense of debate and acted as a tag team. Their most high-profile event occurred last September at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

After opening the discussion by emphasizing the need to “destroy intellectually” what he saw as the troubling tenets of Islam, Harris offered a hypothetical scenario to explain the religion’s “uniquely problematic” tenets. “If I take out a pen and draw a stick figure of Muhammad, it’s not implausible to think that the rest of my life will be this deranged attempt not to be killed by a religious maniac who thinks I have crossed a line there. There’s only one religion on the planet today that is doing that to people, and this is not based on U.S. foreign policy, it’s not based on anything but specific religious ideas.”

Nawaz never challenged Harris. Instead, he unleashed a tirade against non-Muslims who had criticized his partnership with Harris. Tossing back the language of left-wing campus identity politics, Nawaz accused his “non-Muslim, white, middle-class American male” critics of “colonial patronage; a reverse form of racism,” indignantly instructing them to “check their privilege.”

“The day that you have had to dodge neo-Nazi knife attacks on the streets of Essex…is the day you get to talk to me about Islamophobia,” Nawaz declared, portraying the affluent seaside area where he was raised as a hardscrabble ghetto besieged by violent thugs. Then he pointed to Hirsi Ali, now a Belfer Center fellow, seated in the front row of the audience, to vindicate her of any and all charges of Islamophobia. Next, to rebut detractors of Harris, Nawaz offered an anecdote about an encounter earlier that day in the gym:  

“I’m in the middle of training and Sam pulls his headphones out and says, ‘You can tell them that I’m listening to [Pakistani Sufi devotional singer] Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan…’ The reason I mention that is, here’s Sam Harris, who’s often accused of anti-Muslim bigotry… listening to Sufi music. That’s because he understands the difference between scrutinizing an idea and harboring anti-Muslim bigotry as a person. And if he did not understand that idea he would not be listening to one of the great Sufi mystics and musicians that Pakistan ever had.”

In his recent interview with Australia’s News 7, Nawaz compared his battles against Islam—not extreme Islamism, not radical Islam, not jihadism, but Islam—to noble fights against the scourges of racism and sexism. “You don’t need to be black to challenge racism, you don’t need to be gay to challenge homophobia,” he said, “and you don’t need to be a Muslim to challenge Islam.”

The metamorphosis of Maajid Nawaz continues to unfold. Whatever his latest identity, he demands that his ever-changing story be taken at face value. He presents himself as one of the world’s leading experts in understanding the radicalization of Muslims in Western societies because of his own hard-wrought experience. But upon closer and more objective examination, Nawaz’s career appears to be more a case study in public relations. His family and former friends are left to wonder who he will be next, and how he will sell it.

How much of Radical is true?

radicalThe article exposes a few moments in Radical that I had found frustratingly vague when it came to critical explanatory details. The moment of Nawaz’s sudden falling head over heals in love with the power of the Islamist movement according to his own account was when his elder brother was able use his Islamist identity to hold in check a gang of neo-Nazi thugs about to attack him. He had threatened to blow them all sky high and himself along with them by exploding a bomb he had in his backpack. The thugs melted away, leaving Nawaz in awe. So the story goes. Ahmed and Blumenthal cite eye-witness evidence that claims the altercation was over a girl and Nawaz’s brother had merely persuaded them to look elsewhere for the guilty party. The reason Nawaz might want to associate his older brother with radicalized Islamism is not very savoury.

(In addition to the alternative accounts of the encounter the authors point to anachronisms in Nawaz’s account that undermine its credibility. Gangs fought race wars in the 1990s, not anti-Islamic ones; the notion of bombs in backpacks of would-be suicide bombers entered public consciousness after 2001 or rather after the 2005 7/7 Underground attacks in London.)

Nawaz’s account of a murder on campus is also a little too dissimilar from Ed Husain’s story of the same event. The murder is presented by Nawaz as an Islamist attack and Nawaz was himself involved near the front line, but again the truth appears to have been different: it was all about gang politics and Nawaz was a distant spectator.

Other disappointing details also emerge about Nawaz’s reasons for the breakup of his first marriage. Nawaz complains that on his release from prison his wife was “suffocatingly” extremist in her views. It seems that the opposite was the case. His wife had even been very active in working for his release only to be ignored by Nawaz afterwards.

I had not been able to understand why Maajid Nawaz failed to challenge Sam Harris when it was so clear that he must have disagreed strongly with some of Harris’s statement in Islam and the Future of Tolerance (link is to my blog post.) I started to follow Nawaz’s Twitter account to see if I was missing anything, but no. As Ahmed and Blumenthal demonstrate convincingly in my opinion, Nawaz used an Islamist extremist group to further his status ambitions and has since left it for what appear to be much the same reasons.

It is unpleasant to write these things about a contemporary, but two reasons have led me to do so. Firstly, as I indicated at the opening of this post, we see here a fresh illustration of one of the factors known to draw certain persons to terrorism or any extremist movement, including Islamist radicals; secondly, a couple of details that have emerged from the article have left an unpleasant taste in my mouth.


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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “A contemporary example of a status driven extremist?”

  1. Interesting article, Neil.
    People’s motives are complex. Obviously people join political movements because they believe it will help others and help themselves in some way. My support for Bernie Sanders for President, for example, is based on the fact that I believe his policies will be best for the vast majority of people in the United States and the world However, I also have the entirely selfish reason that he has proposed tuition free public colleges in the United States and I currently have serious financial problems helping my daughter obtain a college education. Of cause, if you ask me why I am supporting Bernie Sanders, I am going to say that it is because he will help keep the world at peace and increase economic prosperity for the vast majority. I am not going to say that it is because he is going to save me $50-100,000 if his policies go through.
    In the same way, it is good to acknowledge selfish motives of others, but not to discount that they may have other motives as well.

    1. Actually I think that Guardian article was one I found but I was unable to verify the various claims made in it. I do see Islamism (both non-violent and violent strands) as an enemy of secular democratic systems and I don’t know enough about the groups mentioned in the article beyond the respective claims found there about them. It’s not a bad thing in itself, of course, if any group alerts accountable authorities to threats of violence, no question. But there are other concerns I have about anyone embracing even strategically and tactically peaceful Islamist ideology. Thanks for the links.

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