The Self-Invention of Maajid Nawaz: Fact and Fiction in the Life of the Counter-Terror Celebrity ~ Nafeez Ahmed, Max Blumenthal, AlterNet, February 3, 2016.
Maajid Nawaz bases his credibility on a compelling personal story, but how much of it is true?
Maajid Nawaz, a native Briton of Pakistani background, tells a compelling personal story of his odyssey from extremist Islam to enlightenment. He burst onto the scene in 2008, when he began marketing himself as an expert witness on the threat of radical Islamism. Since then he has appeared with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, HBO’s Bill Maher and National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, and been given the stage at high-profile “thought leader” gatherings hosted by Aspen Ideas and Ted Talks. Nawaz has delivered speeches at the British Liberal Democratic Party’s annual conference and run as a parliamentary candidate, testified before the U.S. Senate, discussed Islam on a panel at Harvard, and even held forth at a seminar at the Tribeca Film Festival.
He founded his own think tank in London, the Quilliam Foundation, which is devoted to “deradicalizing” and received $3.8 million funding from the British government. He has been feted by a wide swath of admirers from left-wing heiress Jemima Khan to George W. Bush. An embarrassing public implosion in Britain has not drifted across the Atlantic to affect his status in the U.S., where he is acclaimed in neoconservative circles as a courageous truth-teller.
Recently, Nawaz has trained his firepower on leftists and liberals, equating them with Islamic extremists if they express opposition to Islamophobia. Branding them the “regressive left,” Nawaz asserts that by refusing to criticize the religion of Islam, progressives are doing nothing less than enabling ISIS.
“It is self-evident that ISIS have got something to do with Islam,” Nawaz told an interviewer from Australia’s 7 News. “When ISIS throws gays off the top of buildings, they are using scripture. In fact there are traditions ascribed to the prophet where it says that is exactly the punishment that should be given to gays. I’m not saying that is Islam, I am saying that is a view of Islam justified by scripture.” (Nawaz refused multiple requests to comment for this article.)
Nawaz’s authority, authenticity and appeal are rooted in the captivating details of his dramatic conversion. It is a story he told in his 2012 autobiography, Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening, which marked his emergence onto the public stage in the United States after several years of prominence in the UK.
Nawaz’s memoirs make riveting reading, and his critique of the perils of Islamist authoritarianism appears eminently sensible. Particularly after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the issues he raises of homegrown radicalization and the segregation of Muslim citizens in some Western societies are pertinent. His story revolves around his membership in the London branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), a global radical Islamist movement operational in some 50 countries. After joining the cult-like group in the mid-1990s, Nawaz rose through its ranks for over a decade. His extremist activities led to his imprisonment in Egypt under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, from December 2001 to March 2006. He has claimed this was a turning point that led him to fundamentally reassess what he called the “totalitarian” ideology of Islamism.
Nawaz’s fascinating autobiography is the basis of his identity as the pop idol of counter-terrorism. His credibility rests on his personal story. It is the foundation of his trustworthiness. So we spoke with more than a dozen people intimately familiar with the crucial facets of Maajid Nawaz’s life. They told us that many of his most important claims about his transformative journey are dubious. These accounts cross the ideological spectrum, from old friends of Nawaz who were never members of HT to members of his immediate family, from those who spent time in prison with him to activists who knew him in his militant Islamist phase. (As his public profile in the U.S. grows, Nawaz’s story is beginning to receive greater scrutiny in the media; some elements of his personal history were the subject of a recent article by Nathan Lean.)
Former associates of Nawaz describe him as an unabashed fanatic during his long stint inside HT, just as he painted himself. They claim, however, that his fanaticism continued well after he claimed to have rejected Islamism in an Egyptian prison, literally days before resigning from HT. These associates insist that his personal life story in which he blames his family for extremism and which he has retailed as intrinsic to his account is largely fabricated. These close sources state that after his release from prison and return to England, Nawaz neglected his wife and young son, whom he had not seen for four years, though not for the reasons he offered in his tell-all book. While Nawaz claimed to have separated from his wife over her refusal to disengage from Islamic radicalism, several sources, including a former cellmate from his time in prison in Egypt, corroborate that he continued to promote HT at precisely the same period he claims his wife’s ideology was suffocating him. What’s more, these sources attributed his separation to an affair they said he had with a fellow student, whom he later hired to work at the Quilliam Foundation.
During a personal spat with his brother, Kaashif, Nawaz threatened to turn him over to British security services as a dangerous Islamic extremist. Kaashif told us that Nawaz falsely painted him in his autobiography as a would-be suicide bomber, imperiling his security clearance while he was employed at a technology firm. Nawaz’s vindictive streak, which was on display when he lobbied the British Home Office to blacklist several mainstream Muslim organizations, has intimidated many of his former colleagues and estranged family members. For this reason, many of them insisted on anonymity when speaking to us.
Our sources, who include members of Nawaz’s immediate family, insist that many of the most spectacular episodes of Nawaz’s autobiography—his confrontations with neo-Nazi racists; his firsthand account of what he presented as Britain’s first HT murder; his ideological transformation from Islamist to liberal; and his portrayal of his family—are filled with half-truths, exaggerations and falsehoods. These claims raise a whole set of issues beyond the confines of the current ideological debate: the manipulation of Islamist extremism as a marketing tool and the susceptibility of an array of influential figures across the political spectrum to charming, devious and shape-shifting self-promoters.
The Suicide Bomb Threat Fantasy
Nawaz’s story of his radicalization begins during his adolescence and forms the opening of his autobiography, Radical. As the alienated son of an educated immigrant family growing up in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, he recalled racist gangs, including the notorious neo-Nazi group Combat 18 marauding through town, attacking him and his friends. In search of an identity, he became a streetwise rebel heavily influenced by the hip-hop culture from the South Bronx.
But a childhood friend of Nawaz who grew up in the same neighborhood supplied a different account. “There was no neo-Nazi right-wing movement that was so out in the open in Southend,” he recalled. “It was a great place to live and we all enjoyed it there. You would come across some racism, but not of the Islamophobic kind because no one would know what that was back in the ’90s. The whole concept of being anti-Muslim wasn’t present; it was about being anti-foreign.”
Nawaz grew up in a stately home now valued at close to $1.5 million, but according to the childhood friend, his family was forced to sell the house after their financial situation took a turn for the worse.
The home where Maajid Nawaz was raised in Southend-on-Sea, Essex.
By Nawaz’s own account, he lived “a polarized childhood.” He writes that his father went away to work for the Oasis Oil Company in Libya for months at a time, leaving him under the watch of his mother and her “more liberal outlook.” He describes his mother as “fiercely independent and free spirited, always the first to dance at weddings and last to sit down.”
According to Nawaz’s childhood friend, his parents had a rancorous divorce, followed by his father’s remarriage. Nawaz’s mother became involved with a non-Muslim man, the friend recalled, causing a stir in the local Muslim community. He said she resented the spouses of both Nawaz and his older brother for their outward displays of religiosity, deepening the tension in the family.
“There was a lot that went wrong there,” the friend said. “What happened with his parents and the effect it had on the community also helped shape him.” He emphasized that some of the factors that led to Nawaz’s radicalization were not political at all, but had their roots in his personal life, and which he has yet to publicly acknowledge.
Nawaz writes in Radical that he came of age during a period of heightened political awareness in the British Muslim community. The war in Bosnia spurred a wave of public talks at mosques and debates at community centers in East London. As young Muslims flocked to mosques out of concern for fellow Muslims in Bosnia, many found themselves immersed in a religious atmosphere for the first time. His former friend described Nawaz as growing interested in politically minded Islam, but not the hardcore Islamism Nawaz described. At around age 15, Nawaz was following the lead of his older brother, Kaashif, who was growing politically active and religiously involved at the time.
In Radical, Nawaz credits Kaashif with recruiting him into the Islamist fold, referring to him throughout the book as “Osman.” Determined to set the record straight, Kaashif Nawaz agreed to speak to us in order to give his version about the truth of his brother’s account.
Early on in his autobiography, Nawaz relates a story that supposedly explained how Kaashif demonstrated to him the power of Islamism. In Nawaz’s telling, Kaashif intimidated a gang of white racists in Essex by threatening to detonate a bomb he had in his rucksack. The gang had surrounded them, but instead of attacking, a gang leader named Mickey inexplicably fled the scene.
“Osman looked at me with a level of confidence in his eyes,” Nawaz wrote of his older brother, “‘I told him we’re Muslims and we don’t fear death. We’re like those Palestinian terrorists he sees on the television blowing up planes. We’re suicide bombers. We’ve been taught how to make bombs and I’ve got one in my rucksack. If you even try to make a move, I’ll set mine off. Trust me, I don’t give a shit. If we have to take ourselves out to take you out, then that’s what we will do.’”
According to Nawaz, his brother’s “bluff played on Mickey’s racism.” Claiming the gang leader “knew his Combat 18 literature,” Nawaz wrote that Combat 18 “depicted Muslims as terrorists, and suggested that we were all murderers given half the chance. So when Osman said he had a bomb in his rucksack, and that we had links to suicide bombers, it confirmed every prejudice that Mickey came to believe about us.”
The gang was so stricken with fear that they stood down, revealing to Nawaz the power of self-sacrificial Islamist violence.
But according to Kaashif Nawaz, the entire melodramatic episode was in fact a fantasy contrived by his younger brother’s exceptionally active imagination. Kaashif explained that the dispute with the white gang occurred because Maajid’s best friend had been “messing around” with Mickey’s girlfriend. Kaashif resolved the issue by convincing Mickey to find the culprit elsewhere: “I asked Mickey to leave my brother alone and gave him the green light to do what he wants to his friend.”
A cousin of Nawaz was also befuddled by Nawaz’s account. “This whole story is imaginary,” the cousin told us. “It didn’t happen. Kaashif didn’t even go around with a rucksack.” According to these two witnesses, there was not only no bomb, but no backpack.
The story contains obvious clues as to its fabrication. The idea of undertaking a terrorist attack by exploding a “rucksack bomb” only entered public consciousness after the London bombings of July 7, 2005, when four British Muslims detonated explosives concealed in rucksacks. A decade earlier, such a notion was simply unheard of.
The cultural indicators of the time are also off-kilter in Nawaz’s story. To anyone familiar with the cultural landscape of mid-1990s England, it would seem absurd for a gang of white racists to package their racism toward Asians in explicitly Islamophobic terms. English racism of the time was a strictly ethnic affair, focused on “Pakis,” “Arabs” and “niggers” and undergirded by virulent anti-Semitism. It took nearly a decade for this particular bigotry to take a religious turn.
As Nawaz’s former childhood friend told us, “I don’t think that anyone who would have attacked them at that time, like a neo-Nazi, would have known what a suicide bomber was. That was way ahead of its time, so kudos to them if they could have understood something like that back then.”
By other eyewitness accounts, Nawaz had exaggerated, or even fabricated, the story of his brother’s imaginary rucksack bomb to explain the incident that inspired his descent into Islamist extremism. “Now, here, with a defeated and retreating enemy, I finally understood what my brother had been talking about,” Nawaz wrote. “Islamism, I realized, could give me the respect that I’d craved since primary school. Here today, outnumbered, I stood my ground with Osman, and we won because we invoked Allah.”
Spinning a Gang Stabbing into ‘HT Murder’
At age 16, Nawaz said he became acquainted with a charismatic organizer for the extremist Islamist movement known as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), or the Party of Liberation. Founded in 1953 in Jerusalem by Sheikh Taqqiuddin al-Nabhani, a Palestinian Muslim cleric, the movement sought to establish a global Islamic state or caliphate, based on its rigid interpretation of Islamic law. HT leadership emphasized political subversion over violent jihad, intending to organize military coups in Muslim majority nations. For an alienated and bullied British Muslim youth like Nawaz, the group offered an easily accessible community. But few of his peers took it as seriously as he did, as several of his former HT colleagues told us.
“HT was kind of a joke, kind of a laugh,” a former movement member and friend of Nawaz said. “You go in and listen to the fiery rhetoric, then have a little munch on kebab afterward with ‘the brothers.’ It’s what you do when you’re young. But for [Nawaz], it was his life. It was everything to him, it was his whole existence.”
According to this source, who like many others, said he feared retaliation if his identity was revealed, Nawaz was determined from the beginning to win leadership of HT’s London chapter: “He can’t ever accept number two; he has to always be number one. He would have been really successful in a real job, if he had ever held one.”
During the mid-’90s, while studying at Newham College of Further Education, Nawaz spread the gospel of HT alongside his friend Ed Husain. Husain was a bit older than Nawaz, more seasoned as an organizer, and unlike Nawaz, came to political Islam with a firmer understanding of traditional Islamic scripture thanks to his upbringing in a Sufi family. He would remain a significant influence on Nawaz in the years after their break from the movement.
In his autobiography, Nawaz boasted that he and Husain mounted a lightning takeover of the Student Union at Newham, outplaying their more pious, culturally backward Salafi opponents with his “B-boy attitude” and the group’s superior political savvy. He immediately turned the union into a front for HT, he claimed, funding the extremist organization under legitimate cover.
“Such takeovers were happening across the UK,” Nawaz wrote. “Islamism was firmly on the rise.”
But according to a former classmate who was active in the Newham College Islamic Society (ISOC), a mainstream club for Muslim students, this story is mostly fiction. “Nawaz promotes himself as a grand master of jihad, but really he had no traction. They [Nawaz and HT] used to resort to paying Muslims to vote for them… They were famous for going around London putting bright orange stickers on traffic lights, that was about it. They were a nuisance, nothing more than that.”
In his autobiography, Nawaz characterized his influence at Newham as strong enough to generate the atmosphere that led to what he and Husain called “the first Islamist murder in Britain.”
The notorious incident in 1995 at Newham College in East London was a defining moment for Nawaz and Husain. It was also a startling experience for Britain, received extensive press coverage, and for the first time put HT on the map as a threat to British security. According to several sources who knew Nawaz well at the time and one who was a direct actor in the events, Nawaz invented or distorted large portions of his story.
Nawaz claimed in his book that he and his fellow HT-affiliated classmates exacerbated tensions between Nigerian students and the mostly South Asian Muslim student population. He painted a picture of an intensifying atmosphere of intimidation in which HT ideologues rampaged across the campus, distributed inflammatory literature, held impromptu speeches in the cafeteria and demanded that women wear hijab, or headscarfs. At the same time, HT encouraged the Muslim students to band together and fight back against the Nigerian student gangs who had been bullying them.
According to Nawaz’s account, “a lanky black guy” and Islamic “jihadist” named Saeed Nur mysteriously turned up at Newham College one day brandishing a knife, offering to help “defend” the Muslim students from the Nigerians. Nawaz claimed Nur’s presence played a major role in provoking the African students to clash with the Muslims. Tensions exploded, Nawaz wrote, when a confrontation in the student common room around a table tennis match resulted in Nigerian student leader Ayatonde Obanubi threatening a Muslim student with a knife, though no physical harm was done.
Nawaz wrote that he organized a “spontaneous rally” of Muslim students in the college’s courtyard the following day to protest Obanubi’s intimidation. After marching around shouting “Allah hu Akbar!” Nawaz claimed he called on the Muslim students to stage congregational prayers to menace onlookers.
“And then he arrived,” Nawaz wrote, referring to the knife-wielding Nur. “I’m not sure who had called [Nur], he’d offered his number to everyone, but he was aware of the incident in the common room and his eyes were bloodshot red.”
Nawaz claimed Obanubi suddenly pulled out two knives and attacked Nur, who stabbed Obanubi in the chest, killing him. According to Nawaz, he was standing right behind Nur and momentarily unsheathed his own knife before tucking it away. He claimed to have watched impassively as Obanubi died. In his narrative, Nawaz was charismatic enough to help inspire the climate of violence but was not involved in the crime either directly or indirectly.
However, a co-defendant accused of the murder but who was ultimately acquitted (a close friend with Nawaz at the time, though never a member of HT) tells a different story. He claims Nawaz’s story is untrue.
According to the source, Nawaz had known in advance that a fight was going to take place at the college.
“The clash that led to the killing had nothing to do with Islamism or extremism. It was a stupid disagreement over table tennis,” the co-defendant told us. “The kid who was killed was a member of a well-known Nigerian gang called the Network Boys. They used to go around hassling and bullying Asian kids. The table tennis incident where Network gang members clashed with some Asian kids happened over a week before the actual killing.”
Not only did Nawaz know the fight was going to happen, the co-defendant insisted Nawaz and his erstwhile HT associate, Husain, had colluded to provoke it. According to the co-defendant, Husain telephoned Nur the morning of the day Obanubi was killed, and then phoned Nawaz.
“Maajid [Nawaz] is on the phone, then tells me that something’s going to happen, there’s going to be a fight,” the co-defendant recalled. “So we leave together to go to the college. Maajid asks me if I’ve got my knife. I don’t have it, but he tells me he’s got his.”
The source described Nawaz’s claim to have organized a rally at the college to intimidate non-Muslim students as a straightforward lie.
“There was no rally before the killing,” Nawaz’s former friend stated flatly. “Maajid didn’t stage any sort of demonstration. That’s complete bullshit. He was with me that morning. Neither me nor Maajid, who were standing together, were right at the front of the scene, so we didn’t really see exactly what had happened.”
In this version, Nawaz’s story was invented long after the fact to burnish his former Islamist credentials while concealing his actual role in the events that culminated in Obanubi’s death.
“Maajid knew more about the whole thing than he’s let on,” claimed the former co-defendant. “Saeed Nur came down on campus because he got a call from Ed Husain from the Student Union. And it was Ed Husain that called up Maajid [Nawaz] to come to the college. That’s how Maajid knew something was going to happen. He and Husain had called Saeed down in the first place, and we all knew that Saeed and his gang carried knives.”
Although Nawaz pins the blame for Nur’s actions on HT, Nur in fact was never a member of the group, and according to the co-defendant, Nur had proudly taken responsibility for the killing on behalf of another gang from Brixton, a band of common ruffians known as the South London Posse.
Several former classmates of Nawaz with firsthand knowledge whom we interviewed confirmed that Nur was not even affiliated with that gang, but had boastfully used the murder as a sort of trophy to generate street cred. One ex-classmate told us he considered Nur to be “mentally ill.”
We asked the former co-defendant in the Obanubi case why he thought Maajid Nawaz would lie about the rally.
“Me and Maajid were like the best of friends,” he explained. “We used to hang out with each other all the time. The problem with Maajid is he was always trying to be the big man, the leader. He was so good at lying because he used to mix his lies with partial truths. I remember, Maajid used to like telling everyone that he was from the ghetto, from the street. But he wasn’t. I’m from the street. I know what it’s like. Maajid grew up in a quiet, middle-class suburb in Southend. So when he came east, he had to tell loads of stories to fit in and make out he was a gangster.”
Another source who was close to the situation and worked near Newham College corroborated this account. “After the incident, I remember three of the guys that did it were people I knew,” he told us. “They hid out at my shop and told me the full details… I was shocked because none of them regretted it. They just matter-of-factly told me that he deserved what he got. These people had nothing to do with HT. It was all about gang politics, and religion gave them a convenient excuse—they wanted to prove their balls, and used to go around claiming they were with the South London Posse. But the South London boys made clear these kids had nothing to do with them either.”
In a blog post in September 2007, Nawaz himself conceded that, “it was a gang murder, in which HT played no direct part. However, it was primarily us HT activists that provided that gang culture with a ‘Muslim’ identity…. Such an atmosphere was undoubtedly created by us HT activists.” He described himself as “the HT activist that invited Saeed Nur on campus.”
After the murder, Nawaz failed to demonstrate regret for his relationship with Saeed Nur, according to the former co-defendant. He recalled an instance in which Nawaz demanded credit for the murder. “Maajid used to not just brag about it, but took direct responsibility for the killing. I remember once when we were walking around Southend, we got into a tiff with some black guy, and then Maajid told him, ‘You think you’re a bad man? You heard about what happened in East Ham? I did that! We were the ones that fucked that guy up. So trust me, you ain’t bad.’”
As a co-defendant in the trial, the source had direct access to Nawaz’s statements to the police about Obanubi’s murder. Those police statements, the source said, contradict the account in Nawaz’s book.
“I saw the statements that Maajid gave to the police, because as a co-defendant obviously my lawyers had access to this material and it was relevant to my defense,” the co-defendant said. “Despite all his boasting and bragging about his role in orchestrating the murder, his police statements minimized his knowledge about the incident, and claimed he didn’t know people at the scene. It was all lies. I know, because I’m one of the people Maajid pretended to have never known. After I was arrested, Maajid stayed away from me, and I lost contact with him.”
The Crown Prosecution Service, which conducts criminal prosecutions in England and Wales, has declined to release the relevant police statements for the public record.
The story that HT’s ideology inspired the killing of Obanubi entered mainstream British consciousness in 2007 through the publication of Ed Husain’s autobiography, The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left. It detailed his indoctrination into HT’s extremist fold and the deprogramming that returned him to traditional Islam, and won critical plaudits and wide readership. To firm up his account of Obanubi’s murder, Husain drew heavily on input from his friend, Nawaz.
When Nawaz released his own autobiography five years later, closely modeling his story after Husain’s, he revived the narrative of the “Islamist murder” and reinforced the significance of his former life as an Islamic extremist. In the years that followed, Nawaz retold his version of the events in the Daily Mail and the New York Times, where he claimed his “self-appointed bodyguard stabbed to death a non-Muslim student on campus, to cries of ‘Allahu akbar!'” Nawaz furnished the episode as proof of his special insight into the radicalization of the infamous ISIS executioner, popularly known as Jihadi John, a British Arab killed by a drone strike in Syria.
Following his time at Newham College, from which Nawaz said he was expelled after Obanubi’s killing, he led an HT study cell out of his apartment in East London. One of his former students, who quit HT after about a year, described sessions with Nawaz as “very secretive, like living in Stalin’s Russia.”
Like other entry-level members of HT, Nawaz’s students pored over a tract titled Systems of Islam. The book’s author, HT founder Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, presented ideological conflict as the central path to societal transformation and emphasized the complete incompatibility of secular Western and Islamic thought.
“Maajid was very good at articulating political Islam,” his former childhood friend remembered. “He was charismatic and could explain himself really well. But even then, you could see that with all the attention he was getting, he was enjoying it too much. He just enjoyed people looking up to him.”
Using his little apartment in East London as a base, Nawaz struck out for Pakistan and Denmark to establish new cell groups. In 2001, during a study year in Egypt as an Arabic student at London’s School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS), security forces of President Hosni Mubarak arrested Nawaz and several other HT members. For five years, Nawaz languished in Cairo’s Mazrah Tora prison alongside a motley band of Islamic radicals and political dissidents.
The saga of Nawaz’s imprisonment forms the heart of his inspiring coming-out story. But like many other chapters he has written about his life, this one is filled with apparent distortions and is challenged by claims from former close associates who describe his account as essentially false.
According to Nawaz, his years of detention until his release in 2006 opened his eyes to the horrors of Islamist ideology. Since then, he has pointed to a shifting number of reasons for his transformation. In a 2015 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, he credited it to reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “I began to join the dots and think, my God, if these guys that I’m here with ever came to power, they would be the Islamist equivalent of Animal Farm,” he explained. In a 2012 interview with the Quilliam Foundation, Nawaz claimed it was Amnesty International’s campaigning for his release as a prisoner of conscience that “enabled me to be emotionally prepared to question my deeply held prejudices.”
In his autobiography, Nawaz attributed his deprogramming to debates and study with his cellmates. “For me, with its rich mix of prisoners, from the assassins of [former Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat all the way through to the liberals and even homosexuals, Mazrah Tora became a political and social education par excellence,” he wrote. “The studies, conversations and experiences I gained in Mazrah Tora, over months and years, were crucial in overcoming my dogmatic allegiance to the Islamist ideology.
But according to former associates familiar with Nawaz before, during and after his prison experience, his account conceals crucial facts and lays out a false chronology of his deradicalization.
Ian Malcolm Nisbet was one of the Britons arrested and detained with Nawaz in Egypt. Born a Christian, he eventually converted to Islam, and his desire to read Islamic texts firsthand led him to take up a course in Arabic in Egypt, he said. Like Nawaz, Nisbet was also adopted as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. He told us in an interview that much of Nawaz’s narrative about the circumstances of his prison “conversion” is untrue.
“Once we were moved out of the torture cells and into the normal prison, we spent almost all of our free time together,” Nisbet said. “Other prisoners were members of various jihadist groups, disgraced businessmen or politicians, and Muslim Brotherhood activists. Maajid was exactly the opposite of what he’d described in his book. Rather than displaying doubts and questioning Islamist doctrines, Maajid was at the forefront of trying to convert everyone to HT ideology.”
Yasser Nabi, Maajid’s first cousin, who had traveled to Egypt regularly to visit him in prison, corroborated Nisbet’s account. Nabi had studied with HT early on along with Nawaz, but never became a member of the group. He told us that Nawaz spoke frequently, and proudly, during the visits about his efforts to convince his fellow inmates of HT’s position.
“He [Maajid] said he wanted to go and study under an HT scholar in Palestine after his release. No sign at all of any doubts about HT,” Nabi told us.
“To be honest, Maajid was quite antagonistic,” said Nisbet. “He had a burning need to always be right. He was often so aggressive in arguing with other prisoners in support of HT that they would usually beg me to try and rein him in.”
Nisbet said Nawaz showed no signs of rejecting HT. Nor could he recall any indications that Nawaz intended to leave the organization.
“I remember even on the plane back from Egypt, we were all talking about how our experience in prison had reinforced our conviction and dedication to the party,” Nisbet said.
Nabi confirmed Nisbet’s account. “I remember during one visit in the last year Maajid was in prison, he told me he believed that Shar’iah rulings on slave girls could be applied in the West to have sexual relations with non-Muslim women outside of marriage. He quoted Egyptian jihadists to justify this idea, and he even made out that this was what he intended to do once he got back to the UK.”
Recruited as an Informant
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, on the following grounds:
“To confirm or deny whether we hold any information, would allow interested parties to gain an upper hand and awareness of policing decisions used to safeguard national security. As you may be aware, disclosure under FOIA is a release to the public at large. Therefore, to confirm or deny that we hold any information concerning meetings between Special Branch officers and Maajid Nawaz could potentially be misused proving detrimental to national security.”
Back to the Movement
Nawaz claims in his book that he met Ed Husain for the first time since his imprisonment in Egypt after announcing his rejection of HT at his university. The encounter occurred, he wrote, “That year, before graduation… When I left HT, I also left my friends behind…. Just at the time when all my HT friends were viciously turning on me—Traitor! Sell-out! Agent!”
In a subsequent interview with the Austrian newspaper, Die Press, Nawaz stated, “During the time of graduation, I decided to leave Hizb ut-Tahrir; I was 29 years old and it was 2006.”
Nawaz indeed graduated from SOAS with his BA in Arabic and law in 2007. However, he announced his resignation from HT several months later in May 2007.
In fact, Nawaz had redoubled his commitment to HT as soon as he returned from Egypt, advancing the organization with renewed fervor, according to multiple former associates.
“On his return,” Husain wrote of Nawaz, “the Hizb [HT] promoted him at events up and down Britain and gladly fielded him for media interviews.”
Far from displaying doubts about HT or playing a low profile, as might be expected if he had rejected HT, after his return to England Nawaz publicly and repeatedly declared that his imprisonment had hardened his conviction of the significance of HT’s ideology and mission.
As Husain has acknowledged, instead of retreating from HT, Nawaz voluntarily increased his activities on behalf of the group. This led him to join HT’s national executive committee. Nawaz gladly accepted his new authority within the group and threw himself into promoting HT’s vision of an Islamic state.
That Nawaz’s prison experience increased his Islamist zeal was corroborated by a member of Nawaz’s immediate family who told us that when Nawaz returned to England, despite having been away from his family for nearly five years, he virtually disappeared from the family home.
“He had a wife and small son, but she would complain that he was never at home,” Nawaz’s relative said. “You’d think someone who’d been imprisoned for so long would relish spending time with their family. Not Maajid. He couldn’t wait to throw himself into promoting HT.”
According to Nawaz’s family member—who has never been a member of HT—it was Nawaz himself who had insisted on touring the UK on behalf of the extremist group. This assertion is confirmed by several SOAS students who told us of their encounters with Nawaz when he enrolled at the university in 2006.
“As soon as he got back, Maajid was everywhere doing so-called dawah (propagation) for HT,” one of his former classmates, a liberal Muslim who has always been opposed to HT, told us. “He was doing sermons, trying to convert people, starting discussions with other Muslims. He was doing this constantly until the last minute. Literally just days before he left HT, he had been giving a pro-HT sermon at SOAS.”
Another former classmate of Nawaz’s who belonged to HT but later left the group, told us, “[Nawaz] was energetically involved in calling people to HT’s caliphate after prison; he seemed just as influenced by HT than ever before. Other [HT] members told me clearly after he came out of prison he was more convinced than HT than ever before. I could see it in the way he was preaching.”
In April 2006, Nawaz told Sarah Montague on BBC’s Hardtalk that his detention in Egypt had “convinced [him] even more… that there is a need to establish this caliphate as soon as possible.”
In October 2006, Nawaz delivered a fiery sermon at the annual al-Quds rally, a global, Islamic-oriented demonstration of solidarity with Palestinians. He demanded the establishment of an Islamic state on the ashes of Israel: “This state that existed in history, it brought a golden era to Spain, it brought a golden era to Baghdad. This is the Islamic state!”
Three months later, Nawaz appeared at the forefront of an HT rally at the U.S. embassy in London, protesting U.S. military operations in Iraq and Somalia. He delivered a rousing speech demanding an end to “colonial intervention in the Muslim world,” and the establishment of “khilafah” to put an end to Western-backed dictators in the region.
These episodes, however, went unmentioned by Nawaz in his autobiography. Instead, the book’s description claims, “Maajid went into prison preaching to them about the Islamist cause, but the lessons ended up going the other way. He came out of prison four years later completely changed, convinced that his entire belief system had been wrong, and determined to do something about it.”
But these events occurred during the same period he claims he could not stand to spend time in his own home with his wife because of her fervent pro-HT world view. Once again, his former friends and others who remain close to his ex-wife accuse him of playing fast and loose with the facts.
Toward Divorce, and More Distortions
In Radical, Nawaz claims that the antipathy he supposedly developed toward HT was responsible for the growing gulf between him and his wife, Rabia, and that her combination of clinginess and militancy was the cause of their estrangement. “Every time she asked me to spend more time indoors,” he wrote, “I felt suffocated as I tried to remove myself from everything associated with HT and their ideology.”
In a 2013 interview with NPR’s Ted Show host Guy Raz, Nawaz claimed that Rabia was still a hardcore HT cadre when he emerged from prison and that she “felt very let down because she’d waited all those years for her hero, her Islamist-resistance hero to return only to—for him to come and say well, it was all wrong.”
Yet it was Rabia who had perhaps done the most to campaign for Nawaz’s release from Mubarak’s prison. And she did so in explicit violation of HT principles, which expressly prohibit political participation in any pre-existing democratic system.
According to a close friend of Rabia’s who helped her lobby senior Labour politicians, Rabia had been “a force of nature” though she was “really distraught about the whole thing, as you’d expect. But she wouldn’t stop,” the friend explained. “Every day, she would be lobbying politicians, the media, anyone who could help. If anyone should take credit for getting Maajid released, it’s her.”
This description of Rabia contradicts Nawaz’s portrayal of her in his autobiography as an immovably bigoted HT ideologue. After HT effectively washed its hands of Nawaz and his fellow HT members during their detention in Egypt, Rabia relentlessly campaigned to raise awareness of Nawaz’s plight, hoping to pressure the British government into action.
“Despite everything she did for him, Maajid basically left her alone after he was back in the UK,” Rabia’s friend said.
Instead of removing himself from “everything associated with HT and their ideology,” as he claimed, Nawaz distanced himself from his wife—not to separate himself from HT but instead to escalate his work on its behalf.
A Convenient Deradicalization
By May 2007, Nawaz was rising through HT ranks. 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.”
However, even though he resigned from HT, he continued to identify with Islamist beliefs in private. According to his first cousin Yasser Nabi, in a meeting a few weeks after his resignation from HT in May, Nawaz said he still respected and believed in HT’s founder, Sheikh Taqiuddin al-Nabhani.
“I remember, Maajid said to me, if Sheikh al-Nabhabi was still alive today, he’d be saying what I’m saying,” Nabi told us. “He continued to justify his position under a veneer of Islamism. For instance, when he was accused by HT members of promoting homosexuality, he used to get angry and make clear he believed homosexuality is a grave sin and should be punished under Islamic laws. This was months after he publicly announced he’d left the organization.”
The Birth of Quilliam
In 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.
In the years after the 2005 terrorist attacks of 7/7, in which Islamic extremists carried out a series of suicide bombings across London targeting morning commuters, the narrow focus of former HT ideologues on the threat of nonviolent extremism appealed to the British government.
Among Nawaz’s principal achievements at Quilliam was helping design the Preventing Violent Extremism program, which was popularly known as Prevent. A leaked 2010 briefing paper Quilliam sent to Charles Farr, the director general of the UK Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), highlighted the most troubling aspects of the Prevent strategy. “The ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists; they disagree only on tactics,” the document read. The paper, which drew heavily on Nawaz and Husain’s theories, urged the British government to reject partnerships with nonviolent organizations and individuals who supposedly shared Islamist ideals.
Muslim community leaders widely objected to Quilliam’s memo. It seemed to them to be a blacklist of nonviolent British Muslim groups and activists that accused them of providing the ideological fuel for violent extremism. Groups named in Quilliam’s blacklist included the Muslim Safety Forum, which coordinated directly with the police on community relations, and the Muslim Welfare House that drove radical cleric Abu Hamza from the Finsbury Park mosque. A Scotland Yard anti-terror group called the Muslim Contact Unit somehow made it into the Quilliam blacklist as well, befuddling British counter-terror officials.
“We believe the Prevent program isn’t working as effectively as it could and want a strategy that is effective and properly focused—that is why we are reviewing it,” a Home Office spokesman told the Guardian at the time.
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.”
Nawaz’s account of his divorce from Rabia fit his developing storyline of sacrificing everything to break free from Islamist chains. While he blamed the split on his inability to reconcile his transition to liberalism with her HT membership, one close friend of the family of Nawaz’s ex-wife told us a different story.
According to Rabia’s friend, the main cause of the breakdown in Nawaz’s marriage was an extramarital affair with Fatima Mullick, a fellow student at SOAS, the London-based university where he was continuing to pursue his studies in law and Arabic after his return from imprisonment in Egypt.
A friend of Nawaz during this period of his life echoed this account, describing the two as being deeply romantically involved. Mullick denied the allegation, however, telling us, “The information you have cited is untrue. While I did get to know Maajid and considered him a friend while we both attended SOAS (like many others at university), that was the extent of it. In any case, I now have nothing to do with the man.”
In his book, Nawaz describes Mullick in sensual terms: “Proudly Pakistani, proudly female, her answer to the face veil was to wear her beauty brazenly, her answer to stoning the adulterers was to cite Rumi’s ‘Let the lover be.’ She embraced life in all its splendour where I had come to embrace the afterlife in all its austerity.”
Radical does not acknowledge an affair, but credits Mullick with inspiring Nawaz to leave HT. His book notes that after his divorce from Rabia in 2008, Nawaz fought with his “best friend Fatima over her plans to return to Pakistan.” He wrote, “in utter frustration I found my fist slamming against my bedroom wall… I knew instantly that I had broken the bones in my hand. Fatima began trying to soothe the pain with cold water and ice, and kindly laid me down and put me to sleep.”
Rabia came to believe Nawaz was having an affair with Mullick in 2006, while he was still a member of HT, and informed family members she had discovered email correspondence between the two proving the relationship. Yet Rabia remained loyal to her husband and tried to get his brother and cousins to intervene to help resolve their problems.
At first, her family refused to believe her, and warned her not to spread what they felt was serious slander about Nawaz. Eventually, she showed them the emails. By then, however, it was too late to stage a family intervention.
“We didn’t believe her at first,” one family member said, regretfully. “We should have.”
Nawaz separated from Rabia in 2007, shortly after she accused him of having an affair with Fatima Mullick. Within months of securing his divorce in 2008, according to several family sources, Nawaz openly admitted he and Mullick were engaged.
In response to further queries about these allegations, Mullick said, “I can’t comment on what Maajid has claimed or what his ex-wife believed.”
Breaking Hearts and Influencing People
Following Nawaz’s divorce, a court ruled that he was forbidden contact with his son. To be enforced, “denial of access,” as it is called in Britain, requires a court-issued Contact Order, taking into account the child’s wishes, emotional and educational needs, any risk of harm to the child, and the capacity to meet the child’s needs during contact.
In a Facebook post in April, in response to a London Daily Mail expose of Nawaz’s visit to a strip club, he claimed his loss of access to his son was due to his quixotic battle against Islamism: “The article mentions my son from a previous marriage, the truth is I have been denied contact with him for three years now for very similar reasons. Challenging the Muslim status quo today is mercilessly punishing business.”
But Nawaz’s charge was baseless. The judge in the case was not Muslim, nor has anyone accused English family courts of serving as enforcement mechanisms of a supposed “Muslim status quo.”
A close family member insisted to us that Nawaz’s loss of access to his son was utterly unrelated to the bold stand against Islamism he describes in his book. “He would pick up Ammar [his son] from Rabia’s house, then drop him off at his family home with his brother and sister, before going upstairs and collapsing into bed,” the family member said. “After that he’d literally sleep for most of the day, because he’d not had any sleep the previous night. He used to come to town the night before and spend the whole night clubbing.”
A second family member told us Nawaz refused to pay maintenance support for his ex-wife and son, who live in a small council flat in Harlesden. The boy’s favorite toys were purchased by Nawaz’s brother, Kaashif, said the other member of his family.
In the midst of his family drama, Nawaz hired Mullick at the Quilliam Foundation as Pakistan project manager. She was eventually promoted to the position of executive director of the Quilliam-founded NGO subsidiary, Khudi Pakistan.
During Nawaz’s alleged affair with Fatima Mullick, he grew close to a senior U.S. government official, Farah Pandith, according to a London-based former consultant to the U.S. State Department. Pandith, who previously served as Middle East director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, was in 2007 appointed senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, where she worked on countering extremism in Europe’s Muslim communities.
At this time, Pandith was a key liaison with the U.S. embassy in London, involved in a series of high-level engagements, panels and roundtables, several of which she chaired alongside State Department officials. Pandith was later promoted to the post of U.S. special representative to Muslim communities in June 2009, reporting directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The State Department consultant who had worked closely with Pandith in facilitating the embassy’s programs in London claimed she had grown personally close to Nawaz, and the two were often seen together at conferences abroad. Pandith told the consultant that by this point, she had granted Nawaz access to her major contacts in Washington DC and New York, helping to arrange his and Ed Husain’s U.S. speaking tour, and facilitating high-level meetings.
But Nawaz suddenly vacated Pandith’s life, the consultant said: “She’d told me that all of Maajid’s American contacts had come through her. Literally all of them. She’d felt used.” (Farah Pandith did not respond to our requests for comment.)
Among the contacts Nawaz made through Pandith was the Gen Next Foundation, a philanthropic network closely aligned with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, which helped set up Quilliam’s American branch. Since 2011, the Quilliam Foundation’s American offices have been physically shared with Gen Next. Gen Next executive members include senior Bush administration officials and Tea Party activists such as Adam Stryker, vice-president of Americans for Prosperity, the fundraising super PAC that functions as the main political arm of the billionaire Koch brothers.
Not His Brother’s Keeper
Nawaz’s biography, Radical, was the centerpiece of his public relations strategy that would introduce him to Americans as the new face of Islamic reform. With the publication of the book in 2012, he zeroed in on retailing the story of his brother’s apparently imaginary rucksack bomb as the turning point of his radicalization.
The story Nawaz has recounted time and again has had a dramatic impact on his brother’s life, according to close family members. A senior IT consultant, Kaashif Nawaz has high-level security clearance and worked as a government contractor. But as a result of Nawaz’s story about Kaashif as Britain’s first aspiring Islamist suicide bomber, his career has suffered.
“Kaashif has been blocked from getting certain types of projects and contracts,” a member of the Nawaz family told us. “To pass clearance, you need to have your name run through a preliminary risk assessment based on cross-checking through open sources and public databases. Once you get through that, you get to the main stage of the security check using confidential databases drawing on sensitive information guarded by intelligence agencies. What’s really silly is that Kaashif isn’t getting through stage one now because he’s been linked with Maajid’s false suicide bombing story.”
Kaashif said his brother’s rucksack bomb tale was motivated by “revenge” for an email he had sent to Maajid, friends and family, blasting Ed Husain for his support of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in the early stages of the revolt. In the email, Kaashif had pasted a copy of an article in NOW Lebanon by Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington DC, attacking Husain—then a U.S. director of Quilliam—and noting his admitted consultancy on behalf of Assad’s secret police.
In a fit of rage, Maajid Nawaz lashed out at his brother, threatening in an email to “destroy” Kaashif if he did not issue an apology for the email. The transcript of the exchange was obtained from Maajid’s cousin, Yasser Nabi, who had received a copy of the conversation from Kaashif in April 2012.
Maajid Nawaz wrote his brother: “It’s very very easy for me to slander you to pieces in my book, thus ruin not just your personal but professional standing… If you think I’m being harsh now, thank your Islamist god that I’m not speaking against you in public, because trust me, if I was half as ignorant and idiotic as you, I could destroy your career in a second. And that’s not a threat, it’s to show you how stupid you’re being by writing such one sided crap… And my megaphone is far louder than your petty ignorant one-sided emails against my work….”
Kaashif Nawaz replied: “I have had nothing to do with HT or their ideology for longer than you. So stop shooting at straw men and threatening me….”
Maajid Nawaz fired back: “In some security circles, unattached Islamists like you (working in secure environments) are considered more of a threat than open HT members. Lucky for you, I actually have a sense of what it means to be a brother, don’t erode that. Instead of throwing one-worded crap at me like ‘binary’ decide what you want to do… At least my anger is directed at you in private and not against you in public. Now either clarify what I’ve asked you in wording I’m happy with (as you are legally and Islamically obliged to do) or face the consequences. Simple.”
Kaashif Nawaz: “What are the consequences?”
Maajid Nawaz: “… You work out the consequences, or you’ll see them for yourself. Decide what you want to do.”
Maajid then attempted to dictate the wording of an apology he wanted Kaashif to write, before warning: “If you slander your brother, it has consequences. And that’s the wording I insist on, or you’ll see what happens.”
Since Maajid Nawaz has released his claims about his brother in his book, the two have broken off contact. Before that, the brothers had been in touch regularly.
Yet in a Facebook post wishing his brother happy birthday in July 2015, Nawaz made the curious claim that his brother and cousins “refuse to see” him because they “all wholeheartedly disagree with my views now.”
Nawaz had, in reality, maintained regular contact with them long after departing from HT and founding Quilliam.
“The rucksack story in Maajid’s book was what broke things off,” a family member closely related to Nawaz told us. “Otherwise Kaashif and Maajid had kept in touch with each other.”
Ideological issues had little, if anything, to do with the fractures that emerged in the Nawaz family in the years since Maajid Nawaz’s departure from HT. Nawaz would, for instance, frequently take his cousins out clubbing and drinking, without causing his more devout brother to cut off contact. Half his family, including his sister, are non-devout Muslims.
“Kaashif is a practicing Muslim, but he didn’t break off with Maajid because of his religious or ideological views, or because Maajid used to drink,” said Nawaz’s relative. “It was just because Maajid was so self-serving he had no problem lying about his brother to sex up his life story.”
In the comments on Nawaz’s Facebook birthday post about his brother, one of Maajid Nawaz’s cousins, Faisal Saleemi, rebuked Nawaz: “The fact is, you are fully aware that our lack of contact with you has little to do with your views per se. And I think I speak for your brother and the other cousin in the photo, when I say this… You may recall at another cousin’s wedding a few years ago, we had a civil and social chat, despite disagreeing with your ideas. And I even got my son to give you salaam—if I had ostracised you because of your views, then why would I have done this? This was shortly before your book was released.”
Saleemi blamed the “contents” of Nawaz’s book as the main trigger for ceasing contact: “It took something major to create the circumstances that led to it. The fact that you are looking to push the idea of you being the victim due to just a difference of opinion, further goes to prove our point!”
Nawaz responded: “Can we at least be honest here and accept that we all joined Hizb ut-Tahrir together?”
But in the same thread, Nawaz’s claim was contradicted by several of his own avowedly secular family members, his cousin Naz Nabi and his sister, Sorraiya Yasmin Nawaz, who posted: “He [Kaashif] was never an actual member of HT (unlike Maajid), simply studied with them and was involved during that period of his life. He has not had anything to do with them for years… He also stopped any involvement before Maajid and encouraged them to do the same.”
“I’m not an attached or ‘unattached Islamist,’” Kaashif Nawaz said.
This statement did not prevent Maajid Nawaz from publicly claiming the opposite. In another Facebook comment, one follower asked Maajid about his brother. “Is he still HuT?” they asked. Nawaz replied, “yes, he’s fully pro-Islamism.”
‘I Was Using Them, They Were Using Me’
By 2010, Nawaz’s Quilliam Foundation was in a state of crisis, bleeding funds and refusing to provide journalists with an annual report that detailed its budget. “There is only one copy and it’s gone missing,” a Quilliam spokesperson told the Guardian at the time.
In September of that year, Quilliam formally announced that Nawaz’s longtime friend and former HT comrade, Ed Husain, would move to the U.S. to join the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC as a senior fellow. Nawaz replaced him as executive director. As part of that shift, Husain became a U.S. director of Quilliam’s U.S.-based nonprofit in 2011, which shared an office with the Koch brothers-affiliated Gen Next.
Quilliam’s shift to the U.S. was directly linked with the think-tank losing the confidence of the British government. Despite Quilliam’s continued influence in Whitehall, including on Prime Minister David Cameron’s national security policies, government officials increasingly recognized that Quilliam had no real rapport with the Muslim communities they were supposed to be working with in countering extremism. By mid-2011, Cameron’s government decided to end all funding for Nawaz’s outfit.
According to documents we have acquired (here and here), Nawaz registered a private consulting firm on June 15, 2011 in Britain. Without any apparent irony, the company was named Propagandaworks Limited. But the venture never materialized, and its status is now listed as “dissolved.”
Meanwhile, after being cut off by the British government, Nawaz moved ahead with a strategy to rehabilitate his image and the ailing organization he now led. His plan hinged heavily on promoting his role in supposedly de-radicalizing Tommy Robinson, the longtime firebrand leader of the white supremacist, anti-Muslim English Defense League. Again, there was a massive gulf between the story Nawaz told the public and the apparent reality.
Maajid Nawaz and former English Defense League leader Tommy Robinson, who was taking payments under the table from Nawaz’s Quilliam Foundation.
Nawaz announced Robinson’s supposed departure from right-wing extremism at a heavily publicized October 2013 London press conference. Seated between Robinson and a fellow EDL leader, Kevin Carroll, Nawaz opened by detailing his own de-radicalization, repeating some of the dubious and discredited claims featured in his autobiography: “My own departure from Hizb ut-Tahrir happened when Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience.”
He then declared, “I would be a very bad man if I did not extend the chance to [Robinson] that Amnesty extended to me.“
Finally, Nawaz stated in a tone brimming with confidence, “Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll have made it very clear to me: They do not hate Muslims.”
Some of the British press was already skeptical of Nawaz’s operations. The Guardian headline of his press conference with Robinson read: “Tommy Robinson link with Quilliam Foundation raises questions.” Nawaz was described as “smooth and slick,” and the newspaper called his latest move “a high-stakes gamble that has raised serious questions about the motivations of an organisation that has played a particularly controversial role. If the latest accounts—for the financial year up to March 2012—filed by the Quilliam Foundation are anything to go by, the high-profile injection of publicity also comes at a time when it may be facing challenging financial circumstances.”
In the introduction to Quilliam’s 2012-2013 Progress Report, board member Iqbal Wahhab described one of the foundation’s most notable achievement as “convincing the former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson of the hugely negative impact he has had in building hate against Muslims, often violently so.” The report showered praise on his “rehabilitation to a more respectful position of pluralism….”
Yet all along, Robinson was planning to rebrand his anti-Muslim organizing under the banner of a new organization. And this was not even a secret. Professional Islamophobic extremists Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer revealed Robinson’s plans in a blog post, writing at the time, “Tommy is planning to start a new organization that is as free from Quilliam as it is from the EDL, and in that… we wholeheartedly and unhesitatingly support him.”
While conveniently ignoring the obvious warning signs, Quilliam was secretly paying Robinson 2000 pounds a months in a deal arranged so the group could take credit for his supposed deradicalization. In his autobiography published this year, Enemy of the State, Robinson revealed that Quilliam supported him after he was jailed for mortgage fraud, writing that it covered his “wife’s rent and help with basic bills, in return Tommy Robinson would be their poster boy.”
“I was using them, they were using me, but the bottom line from what I witnessed was that nothing truly productive was going to come out of it,” the anti-Muslim ringleader reflected.
Robinson poured contempt on his former patron, Nawaz, describing him as a “government stooge” heading a group “with little influence” on Muslims.
“The evidence of my eyes was that they were an organization that was useful for the government to throw money at,” Robinson said of Quilliam. “It helped the politicians and establishment feel good about themselves and it fed the idea, the illusion, that they were making some kind of difference. I didn’t see it, if they were.”
In 2014, documents disclosed through a Freedom of Information Request revealed that Nawaz unsuccessfully pleaded for government funding from the British Minister for Faith specifically to continue under-the-table payments to Robinson—“a direct contribution,” Nawaz wrote.
Despite his fundraising troubles, Nawaz modeled for a September 2014 Sunday Times fashion spread that cast him as one of “five men at the top of their game.” He sported a colorful ensemble that included Dunhill corduroy trousers (priced at 400 pounds) and a Paul Smith black velvet blazer (675 pounds). “My day can include being in the Newsnight studio or with friends or at Downing Street, so dressing is tricky,” Nawaz was quoted. “My clothes have to be versatile and smart.”
A year later, Nawaz’s pet reclamation project to transform the racist thug Tommy Robinson into a model example of liberal tolerance completely backfired.
The veteran hooligan announced he was the leader of a new anti-Muslim gang called Pegida UK, named after the German anti-Muslim far-right group. The organization continued the EDL’s old crusades against mosque construction and Muslim immigration. Two days after declaring he would organize a mass march across Europe against Islam, Robinson was arrested on assault charges.
By now, Nawaz was mired in damage control—not over the Robinson fiasco, but over yet another bungled attempt to grab headlines.
Sliding Down the Polls
In the runup to the UK’s 2015 General Elections, Nawaz joined the Liberal Democrat Party, which at that time shared power as part of Cameron’s Tory-led coalition government. He was to stand as a prospective parliamentary candidate in the 2015 elections for the North London constituency, Hampstead and Kilburn.
Nawaz’s entry into the LibDems was, however, a last resort. Both a longstanding Labour member of parliament (MP) and a former Conservative minister confirmed to us that Nawaz had first approached their parties with the intention to stand as a parliamentary candidate.
The Labour MP said that Tony Blair initially backed the idea, but it encountered opposition especially from Muslim Labour MPs, who believed the untrustworthy Nawaz would be a “liability” for the party.
According to the former Tory minister, after the Labour Party rebuffed Nawaz he came to the Conservatives, hoping to springboard his political ambition off his connections with David Cameron, who liked his ideas. Senior Tory figures, also mistrusting him, resisted Nawaz’s overture.
Rejected by the two major parties, Nawaz joined the Liberal Democrat Party with the support of former party leader Paddy Ashdown, who had been an advisor to Nawaz’s Quilliam Foundation during its launch phase in 2008.
Nawaz’s campaign for a seat in the Parliament was an unmitigated disaster. Shortly before the election, the Daily Mail, a Tory tabloid, splashed a front-page story showcasing Nawaz’s visit to a strip club in East London, where he cavorted in a private room with a lap dancer, as his “Drunken Night of Temptation.” The paper reported that Nawaz “had been pestering the girl all night,” was “repeatedly trying to make contact,” and “bouncers threatened to throw him out several times.” The club owner, Abdul Malik, was quoted: “He’s always talking about religion on TV and I thought, what a hypocrite.” “He claimed ‘arrogant’ Nawaz acts like a ‘spokesman for Islam’—but visited the club during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.” Photos of Nawaz pawing the lap dancer accompanied the article.
Although Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg, then Deputy Prime Minister, stood by Nawaz, the story was a factor in Nawaz’s spectacular failure at the polls. Of the three candidates, he finished last with a paltry 3,039 votes compared to the 23,977 votes for the victor, newly elected Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, a Muslim feminist, and 22,839 for the Conservative candidate.
But there was more to the trainwreck of Nawaz’s political campaign than the Daily Mail story. After his loss, a senior political official in the Liberal Democrat party accused Nawaz of exploiting his campaign entirely for his personal publicity purposes.
“The problem with Maajid was that he saw the political campaign as a vehicle to promote his credentials as a counter-extremist, rather than as a politician,” the LibDem official said. “He offered very little in the way of anything tangible for British voters. At speech after speech, he’d focus on his personal story as a reformist. And then as the elections neared, Maajid became increasingly distant from the party. He simply didn’t campaign. It was very disappointing.”
The Liberal Democrats invested large sums of money in Nawaz’s campaign in the hopes that he stood a strong chance. But it soon became clear that rather than running a serious campaign for his seat, he was engaged in provocative stunts like posting cartoons of Muhammad on social media. His antics became so problematic that several months before the election, the party pulled the plug on his campaign.
“Months before the elections, we knew he had no chance of winning,” said the veteran Liberal Democrat politician. “So we pulled the money out.”
After the strip club scandal, many LibDem MPs and officials demanded Nawaz to be suspended from the party. Even Nick Clegg was fed up. But it was too late to take his name off the ballot.
According to the LibDem official: “Contrary to public perceptions, Nick privately disliked Maajid. He disagreed with his ideas about counter extremism, tolerating him largely under pressure from Paddy Ashdown, who still holds significant influence in the party. Paddy was the main force responsible for Nawaz joining the party in the first place. After the strip club revelations, Nick told me that if he could have suspended Maajid he would have, especially as he wasn’t really campaigning properly.”
Nawaz blamed the Daily Mail’s expose on “a pre-planned regressive-Muslim campaign.”
“So what could possibly explain all this?” he wrote on his Facebook page. “Followers of my counter-extremism work will be aware that for years liberal Muslim voices like mine have been subjected to sustained personal attack….”
Nawaz defended his hijinks as “sex-positive” feminism, claiming, “My feminism, as intended by me, extends to empowering women to make legal choices, not to judge the legal choices they make.”
Ironically, Nawaz had campaigned on a proposal to impose criminal punishments on women who wear the face veil in public places such as schools, banks and airports. “Legally speaking,” Nawaz wrote, “there is no basis for any exception to be made, but the sad fact is exceptions are being made because we have become too spineless to do anything about it.” (He dedicated the proposed ban to his “Muslim mother.”) Nawaz explained that his strip club adventure was just a “stag night” to celebrate his impending wedding to his new wife, the American artist and writer Rachel Maggart.
Soon after the scandal erupted, Nawaz published a glamorous photo of Maggart on Twitter. He captioned the photo, “Don’t ya wish your wifey. was. hot. like. mine? …. Don’t ya? … Don’t ya?
From One Extreme to Another
More than a few guests at the April 2014 wedding of Maajid Nawaz and Rachel Maggart noticed that something was terribly amiss. According to invitees, the program listed Nawaz’s best man as Ed Husain, his former HT comrade, longtime friend and Quilliam co-founder. But Husain was nowhere to be found when it was his turn to deliver a toast. He had stayed home, leaving many to wonder if he and Nawaz had finally fallen out. (Husain refused our requests to comment for this article.)
Nawaz appeared unfazed, delivering a gracious tribute to one of his newest friends, the anti-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Standing before the assembled guests, he toasted Hirsi Ali for introducing him to his new wife.
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.
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 who has fretted that “white British people” are “losing their country” to dark-skinned immigrants. In a more recent column, he lamented “the startling rise in Muslim infants.” He has also invited readers to post demeaning “Irish jokes” on his blog, resulting in “a flood of crass and offensive contributions,” according to the Irish Independent newspaper.
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.
The debate was pivotal in another way for Nawaz. It was there he met his future wife, Rachel Maggart, a writer and artist from a wealthy family in Knoxville, Tennessee. According to a former friend of Nawaz, Maggart was an ardent fan of Hirsi Ali. As Nawaz antagonized friends and family alike, Maggart would offer crucial support, helping Nawaz develop his latest new identity and regain the sense of mission he had lost back in the UK.
By the start of 2015, Nawaz appeared on British television debating alongside Murray against a British Muslim critic of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Following the ISIS-inspired terror attacks in Paris later in the year, the two were back on camera together, with Murray complimenting Nawaz’s points throughout a televised panel. Having failed to beat Murray, Nawaz now joined him.
With his political dreams shattered and the British government no longer serving as his source of funding, Nawaz searched for a new source of money. He found it in the U.S., where neoconservative foundations and think tanks treated him like a celebrity. His embarrassing scandals and fundraising imbroglios in London were overlooked in New York and Washington.
As he followed the money, Nawaz drifted further into the reaches of the neoconservative infrastructure. He was hailed by the neoconservative Gatestone Institute, whose senior fellows are a gallery of Islamophobes from John Bolton, George W. Bush’s United Nations ambassador, to Douglas Murray. Gatestone issued a report claiming Nawaz had been subjected to “death threats” in Britain and asserted that these “add to a growing number of cases in which Islamists are using intimidation tactics to restrict the free speech rights of fellow Muslims in Europe.”
The Bradley Foundation, one of the right-wing organizations identified by the Center for American Progress as a top sponsor of America’s burgeoning Islamophobia industry, gave Nawaz’s Quilliam Foundation $75,000. (See a PDF of Bradley’s 2013 990 form.)
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.