Interview with Maajid Nawaz

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Maajid Nawaz is an advocate for democracy and justice, especially in Muslim communities in the West. A former Islamist who spent years in prison, he now speaks and writes in defense of liberal values, and runs Quilliam International, a counter-extremism think tank. For more information about Quilliam’s work in the U.S., read “Anti-Radical” in the Spring 2020 issue of this magazine.

Philanthropy: How do you describe your work today?

Nawaz: I’m a counter-extremism activist, a supporter of liberal democracy. Not liberalism as in a political party, but as a set of freedoms. 

For a long time, I opposed everything that liberal, secular democracy stood for. I had to think hard about these values and what they mean for the world, and for Muslim communities. In prison I reflected on the relative prosperity of Muslim communities in the West (despite their problems), compared to communities in Muslim-majority societies, and what enabled that.

Philanthropy: Does the liberalism of human freedom need to be defended today?

Nawaz: Liberalism is under threat from all sides. In Hungary, a member of the E.U., their leader has used the covid-19 emergency to basically usurp all power. Or look at Turkey, which is a member of NATO. Both nations have succumbed to the strongman syndrome, like Putin in Russia. President Xi is now president for life in China. The populists in Germany form the second largest bloc in parliament, and the form of nativism they are promoting is collectivist thinking that rejects individual liberty. Left activists marginalize individuals for the sake of group dynamics. Both nativism and multiculturalism stifle the rights of individuals.

Philanthropy: In the U.S. there’s been a lot of talk about how racism is worse than ever. That we’ve made no progress. 

Nawaz: That’s not true. When I was growing up in Britain, racism was very bad. As a 14-year-old I couldn’t leave the house without wondering if I was going to come home, because we were literally being knifed on the streets in Essex.

There are still many problems. I know them very well and intimately. But we need to recognize what has been done right, and what’s progressed so that we can bank those as a success and build on them. Citizens worked hard for many years before we were even born to get us to where we are today. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants who have allowed us the privilege of speaking freely. We’ve got to acknowledge that things have improved.

Philanthropy: What do you think of the concept of language as violence? 

Nawaz: I know what violence is. I’ve been bashed around the head and watched people die from torture in an Egyptian prison, and I think it’s very disrespectful to survivors of violence to appropriate that word in that way. Words may hurt your feelings, but I don’t think it’s right to call that “violence.” If someone is violent you have a right to fight back with violence. But violence means you’ve physically assaulted me by touching me in a way that causes pain and genuine threat to life and limb. The minute we start blurring those lines is how you end up with groups like Antifa thinking it’s okay to smash things up. 

We have to be very careful here. Otherwise nothing means anything. And in a world where nothing means anything, where it’s all about “my truth and my feelings,” anything is allowed—including torture and brutality for the sake of “my truth.”

Philanthropy: There are many efforts within philanthropy pushing what is called Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Should there be rules on the demographic makeup of boards, staffs, recipient charities? 

Nawaz: I veer away from any form of quota system. We need to be conscious of not being discriminatory against anyone, but the danger of putting things into concrete is that you could end up with tokenism. You end up creating more harm than good. 

Take the controversy at Harvard. Asian students deliberately graded down so that other minorities can be graded up. You end up pitting groups against each other. 

When Obama was initially elected, there was a brief period where we could have put the brakes on and allowed things to naturally move forward. But there was a counterproductive ratcheting up of the discourse. When race becomes the leading conversation, it always leads to more division and not more unity. The net result is that minority communities suffer.

Philanthropy: What do you think of grants that have diversity strings tied to them? Have you ever had a donor try to give you money with an agenda attached to it?

Nawaz: It happens all the time, actually, and it’s really challenging. In a sense it’s human—people have their own reasons for giving, their own things they believe in and aim for. My advice for nonprofits would be to have a very strong and trusted relationship with your backers so that they take your lead. On the diversity issue I would say, “You know I really value diversity, but I don’t believe in quota systems because I don’t want to be a token.” The donor needs to trust me enough to absorb that message and also know I’m not going to give up on desirable goals. I just want to arrive at the goal without doing something that I believe is counterproductive.

Philanthropy: You were labeled as anti-Muslim by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Nawaz: I was shocked. The SPLC is a behemoth, with multimillions in the bank. At first I gave SPLC the benefit of the doubt, and assumed there must be some misunderstanding. I tried to talk to them. But there was no response to e-mail, no response to letters. Karima Bennoune, who is a U.N. human-rights official, sent them an official U.N. letter saying, in essence, “What you have just done is absolutely ridiculous, you’ve got to stop.” They ignored her. 

After two years of this, I was incensed. So we went to court. We had a big hurdle of how to pay for it. Thank God for crowdfunding, because that’s how we raised the lawyers’ fees.

We also created a media campaign, because we knew the SPLC has many skeletons in their closet. Only someone working with radical Islamists could accuse me of being anti-Muslim. I wanted to know who the SPLC’s allies were. Just as we were about to file court papers to get that disclosed, they offered $3 million to settle the case. I said, “No,” because I wanted them to also cover the legal fees. The very next day they agreed to $400,000 in legal fees in addition.

They feared disclosure. And now we see why. Very soon after, their founder Morris Dees resigned amidst allegations of racism and sexism. Then the CEO resigned, and the whole thing imploded. I don’t think they’re going to completely recover from it.

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