When Martin Luther sent his Ninety-Five Thesis to the Archbishop of Mainz, a document which attacked the cynical selling of indulgences by priests to faithful church-goers, on October 31st 1517, he likely had no idea that his one-man protest against religious corruption would spark the beginning of a great revolution in theological and philosophical thinking which would irrevocably shape the western world.
However, those who sought to criticise church doctrine and practice during the Reformation out of their conviction that the church had turned away from scripture paid dearly for it; frequently with their lives. Powerful institutions, religious or otherwise, almost invariably seek to resist real change whether from without or within and can often find influential allies who are willing to help maintain the status quo against reformers – often by attempting to delegitimise, vilify or censor them.
It is therefore unsurprising that notable liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims attempting to reform the Islamic faith today in the west are facing heavy resistance to their ideas from multiple factions; factions which are not afraid to employ the sort of dirty tactics described above in order to undermine the case for reform.
Maajid Nawaz is someone who has personally experienced many of the sorts of false accusations and smears commonly levelled at liberal reformist Muslims. Nawaz was for some years a highly active member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group which seeks to take over governments and create Islamic states through non-violent means, until he was taken on by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience after having been imprisoned in Egypt for five years and started to re-evaluate his worldview. A decade after leaving Hizb ut-Tahrir and co-founding the Quilliam Foundation, the world’s first counter-extremist think-tank, he has become a leading critic of Islamism, and an advocator of Islamic reform.
Many would find his dramatic turnaround a source of inspiration. However, Nawaz has become Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of many Islamist and traditionalist Islamic organisations because of his reformist outlook. As a result, extremist sympathisers who pose as “moderates” such as Abdullah al Andalusi, consistently try to frame him as a “government stooge” and the Quilliam Foundation as a sell-out to the British state whose aim is to attack and malign ordinary British Muslims. This is in spite of the fact that Quilliam hasn’t received public funding since 2011 – a mere three years after it was founded – stands up against anti-Muslim bigotry and is unafraid to criticise, as well as praise, government policy.
There are also online Muslim news sites and blogs, such as 5Pillars, Islam21C and Middle East Eye, which similarly play off of this false “stooge” narrative and present him as an opponent of the Muslim community. Writers on these sorts of sites have tried to claim that Nawaz is a well-known peddler of “Islamophobia” and that his account of his life is a lie; that he became a liberal reformist Muslim not because of a genuine change of heart, but because he saw an opportunity for financial and social gain. Yet, would a disingenuous opportunist put up with death threats and estrangement from one’s own family, including a wife and son, for the sake of their public views?
One blogger, by the name of Nafeez Ahmed, has even tried to argue that Quilliam has serious links to Donald Trump. In the article Ahmed writes, “Trump has unlikely allies in Britain” and proceeds to list the think-tank as one them, backing the statement up by providing us with highly tenuous “guilt by association” links between the two. Quite a few also like to allege that, despite Nawaz’s repeated defence of his Islamic faith, he is not actually a believer and that his advocacy of reform is in fact a ploy to get Muslims to abandon their religion.
The reformist Islamic theologian, Usama Hasan (who is also a former-extremist) has likewise been a target of demonisation and condemnation within his own religious community. In 2007, Hasan was forced to cease giving Friday prayers as an imam at Leyton Mosque in London after “50 Muslim protesters disrupted his lecture by handing out leaflets against him and shouting in the mosque for his execution”. This was because of his belief that women were free to show their hair in public and that evolution is real, for which the secretary of the mosque suspended him due to the “considerable antagonism” he had apparently caused. The leaflets handed out quoted religious authorities, declaring that Muslims who believe in evolution are “apostates” who “must be executed”. Hasan had received similar threats before, from a group called Islamic Awakening.
On top of this there are those on the English far-right who attempt to vilify Muslims like Nawaz from the opposite direction, saying that his reformist platform is a cover to convince Brits that Islam is compatible with western values and that really he still clings to the extremist beliefs he held while at Hizb ut-Tahrir. Britain First, for example, believes that Quilliam “is run by ‘Hizb ut Tahrir’ Muslim extremists”.
But perhaps the most surprising source of vilification – and enablers of said vilification – towards reformist Muslims and ex-Muslims has been from activists and writers on the left, the sort of people whom one would normally expect to rally to the side of such dissenters.
Less surprising is that the most notable instances of such vilification have occurred in universities, many of which have become a wellspring of regressive leftish politics.
At Goldsmiths University last December, ex-Muslim and anti-Islamist campaigner, Maryam Namazie, gave a talk hosted by the university’s Atheist, Humanist and Secular Society (AHS) on “Apostasy, Blasphemy and Free Speech in the age of ISIS”. During her presentation, members of the audience from the Islamic Society repeatedly tried to disrupt the event by heckling her, crying “Safe Space!” and “Stop intimidating me, I feel intimidated!” (And yes, these are grown men we’re talking about), and turning the projector screen off when a picture of Muhammed was displayed.
In her talk she voiced her opposition towards homophobia and misogynistic sharia courts. Yet, after the event both the LGBTQ+ and Feminist societies at Goldsmiths sided with the Islamic Society, with the latter saying that “hosting known islamophobes at our university” like Namazie “creates a climate of hatred”. The LGBT society in their message of solidarity said “members of ISOC have been nothing but charming, patient, kind, and peaceful as individuals and as an organization”.
Putting aside the obvious contradiction between this statement and their confrontation with Namazie, this is the same ISOC which has regularly hosted Islamists and Islamist sympathisers such as Hamza Andreas Tzortis and Asim Qureshi. The events these two attended and spoke at were before the AHS event and neither of them appears to have been condemned at the time by the LBGTQ+ and Feminist Socs.
Namazie had faced similar demonization by the student-left only a few months prior. In September last year, she was initially barred (but later lifted due to public pressure) from speaking at Warwick University by the student union, having been invited by its Atheist, Humanist and Secular Society, on the basis that she was “highly inflammatory” and might “incite hatred on [Warwick] campus” towards Muslim students.
Maryam Namazie responded to the no-platforming, saying, “They’re basically labelling me a racist and an extremist for speaking out against Islam and Islamism”. What made this attempted censoring of Namazie by the student union at Warwick particularly appalling is that ex-Muslims are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world right now; whose dissenting voices are often silenced in the Middle East and elsewhere by murder. By trampling on Namazie’s right to dissent, and by demonising her voice, the student union were effectively aligning themselves with this effort by fundamentalists to silence the persecuted group.
Such opposition towards her speaking at the university by the student left was then defended by Guardian commentator David Shariatmadari, praising their concern for Muslims (yet again, ex-Muslims don’t enter the picture) and implying, with no evidence whatsoever, that Namazie would also probably like to “shut down debate” given half the chance. This was the same Shariatmadari who two months before wrote what was widely regarded as a hatchet-job interview in the Guardian of Maajid Nawaz. In this interview, Shariatmadari employs a series of anonymous quotes from people, among other things, in an attempt to delegitimize and stigmatise Nawaz’s person, as well as the work of Quilliam. For the sake of brevity, I don’t wish to look at the interview in detail (and because Nawaz himself responded to it in detail). However, I will list two examples from the interview which clearly illustrate what Shariatmadari was trying to do.
First, trying to associate the think-tank with the right and far-right in the minds of left-liberal Guardian readers, he quotes one unnamed person who says of Quilliam, “the problem is the connections they have – with [right wing think-tank] the Henry Jackson Society and [former head of the English Defence League] Tommy Robinson.” Shariatmadari omits the fact that Quilliam has worked with people across the political spectrum in the pursuit of countering extremism, including the Labour party, Peter Tatchell, James Bloodworth and others on the left.
Then, in an attempt to defame Nawaz himself, he quotes a former acquaintance of the man (and therefore someone who is likely to be an Islamist or Traditionalist, with a vested interest in slandering a former fundamentalist-turned-reformist), who says, “I don’t think Maajid believes in anything. I think he is basically a man who says: what is my cause and what is going to get me the most attention, the most publicity?” This assertion, which suggests that Nawaz is only interested in countering extremism and reforming his faith out of self-interest, is made to sound ridiculous when you think that, as Sharitmadari himself points out, Nawaz’s public positions have made him wholly unpopular with many British Muslims especially when you think of his choice to be a Parliamentary candidate for the much-maligned Liberal Democrats (rather than the Conservatives or Labour).
Back to British universities: Haras Rafiq, the Managing Director of Quilliam, ex-head of the Sufi Muslim Council, and a Muslim reformist himself, was also met with hostility whilst going to speak at an interfaith LGBT+ rights event at Warwick earlier this year. A certain society at the university decided they would protest against the event and boycott it due to the reformer’s involvement in the Government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy – what many people deem to be an “islamophobic” piece of legislation. In his presentation, Rafiq stood up for gay rights, saying that in spite of the rampant homophobia of Islamists, there is a strong foundation for them in Islamic teaching. The name of the society which decided to denounce Rafiq and his Islamophobic ways? Yep,the LGBT society (Warwick Pride).
The message of these segments of the student left, whether intentional or not, is clear. Islamists who believe in bringing about a caliphate with all the regressive laws which come with it go largely unchallenged whilst liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims who stand up for human rights, gay rights, gender equality, democracy and criticise violent strands of Islam with measure and reason are treated as hate-speakers who should be dismissed, ignored, condemned and possibly silenced as well.
On the other side of the Atlantic, there have been similar cases of supposedly progressive-minded people displaying prejudice and hostility towards reformist and ex-Muslims. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, perhaps the world’s most famous ex-Muslim and a hard critic of her former faith, has received death threats from numerous Islamists and Jihadists, often has bodyguards accompany her where she goes and was under 24-hour security after director Theo van Gogh, who she had worked with on the controversial short-film Submission, was shot and stabbed to death – with the murderer leaving a note saying she was “terrorising Muslims” and would be “executed” too.
With the amount of abuse and demonization she has faced throughout her life – including having her genitals cut when she was only five years old – you might think that the student left would be pining for an opportunity to defend such a “marginalised” individual. As one paper put it, “The internet is littered with pledges to torture and slay Ayaan Hirsi Ali.” Instead, she is denounced by many as someone who hates Muslims, when her focus has almost always been on the ideas within Islam, rather than Muslims themselves (though it must be conceded that in the past she has made some seriously wrongheaded generalisations). Some even argue that she is a racist, and others it seems simply like to dismiss her and her arguments by labelling her a conservative. One “black left” blog has called Hirsi Ali a “Neocon with a Black Face”. In response to the constant demonization of her person, Hirsi Ali says, “They don’t want me to start this conversation, and truly, deep down, that’s what it is about.”
Then there is the case of Asra Nomani. A reformist Muslim, she argues that there exists a global “honour brigade” which seeks to curb internal and external criticism of certain strands in the Islamic faith through intimidation and slander. Its official channel, Nomani says, is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. However, she claims there is also “a community of self-styled-blasphemy police”, including blogs such as LoonWatch.com and Ikhras.com (Ikhras is the Arabic for “shut up”), and a slew of social media activists who attempt to stigmatise critics by branding them “Islamophobes”.
One liberal Muslim, Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, was “so battered by online attacks” that she “experienced a physical response to the stress and anxiety,” and ended up in hospital – requiring intravenous injections to top up her essential fluids.
Nomani herself has of course been the target of such attacks. As someone who stands against segregation in Mosques and for the right of a woman to have an orgasm, she has been accused of “shaming” the Muslim community, called a “Zionist media whore”, a “House Muslim” (equivalent to calling a black person a House N***er), a “Munafiq” (similar to calling someone a race traitor) and “many other unprintable insults.” Alongside such abuse, she has also been called an “anti-Muslim hate enabler” and a spewer of “prejudice” by Nathan Lean, a writer who specialises in demonizing and slandering Muslims like Nomani.
Lean has called Maajid Nawaz the “lapdog” of new atheist Sam Harris, called Dr Zudhi Hasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy a “trophy Muslim”, and accused Nomani of shedding “crocodile tears” after the death of her close friend Daniel Pearl. When Nomani publicly confronted him over these baseless slurs he refused to answer. All of this coming from a man who supposedly makes a living writing and speaking against anti-Muslim vitriol.
Additionally, it goes without saying that like almost every Islamic reformer of note, Nomani has received numerous death threats – for telling people what they do not want to hear.
These instances of the demonization of reformist Muslims and ex-Muslims are by no means exhaustive, but they do hopefully give a sense of the dirty resistance currently being levelled (mostly) by the Islamic right and their allies on the left; levelling sordid personal attacks on reformists in order to undermine dangerous and critical ideas which could radically reshape the Islamic faith and stem the tide of Islamism across the world.
Leftists and liberals who wish to reverse the damage which has been done by the regressive left and others should put their full weight behind these protestors and dissenters and call out the slanderers and demagogues who wish to divert attention away from the real issues.
Those fighting for Islamic reform – especially those living under theocratic regimes who put their lives at risk for what they believe – are some of the bravest, most courageous people alive today. Moreover, their arguments and ideas have to succeed if the tide of Islamism across the world is to be stemmed and the killing of Muslims, Christians, Jews, ex-Muslims, atheists, Yezidis and other religious minorities is to stop. We owe them our support.