Tolerating the intolerant – Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Conversation at JW3


On Tuesday night, JW3, a Jewish community centre in north London, hosted a discussion between Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a multitude of issues including Islam, Islamism, refugees and freedom of speech. It was a fascinating discussion to be a part of, to say the least.

Ali is a world-renowned atheist and women’s rights activist. Born and raised as a Muslim, her public conversion to atheism and outspoken criticism of her former religion has made her a polarising figure, culminating in a fatwa of death being issued against her. Nawaz is the chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank in the UK. He is a British Muslim who was once a committed Islamist, for which he was imprisoned for four years in Egypt.

Despite clear differences between Ali and Nawaz, such as the former being an atheist, the latter a Muslim, what transpired on the night was consensus on almost every issue discussed. This was somewhat surprising, considering the history of the two speakers. Their first encounter was a debate in 2010 where they were on opposite sides of the motion “Islam is a Religion of Peace”. Nawaz was proposing the motion and Ali opposing. Their views on Islam back then were clearly distinct from one another’s.

This preface to Tuesday’s event is noteworthy because it highlights the extent of the modification of both speakers’ views, particularly on the question of the nature of Islam. Nawaz is no longer a proponent of the claim that Islam is a religion of peace. Instead, he now believes that it is neither intrinsically violent nor peaceful; its nature depends on how violent or peaceful its followers are. Ali has been an unrelenting critic of Islam in the past, calling it in 2007 a “nihilistic cult of death”. She has somewhat moderated her views in years since. Now more optimistic about the potential of Islam to be compatible with free societies (a clear departure from past statements), based on the hopes that a reformation will occur, she no longer condemns the entire religion and all its followers as she has previously been accused of doing.

Both echo one another when speaking about the problems of Jihadism and radical Islamism. Neither believe that these ideologies are innate to the religion of Islam and can therefore be defeated without having to condemn the entire religion. Both believe that this will only occur, however, if moderate, reformist Muslims are empowered to pushback against the hard-line conservatives within their communities. Whether one agrees with their specific views or not, it is at the very least impressive to see that civil discourse has created areas of consensus amongst two public intellectuals whom in the past had very divergent views.

Freedom of Speech

If there was one overarching theme to the night’s conversation, it would be the encroachments of freedom of speech in free societies today. A gripping moment in the discussion occurred when Ali spoke about the death threats to both her and Nawaz’s lives: “We are not talking about the third world – the free world is suffering from threats to freedom of speech”. It was hard for anyone in the audience to disagree with her, having just experienced first-hand the multiple stages of stringent security checks, across multiple floors, prerequisite for our admission into the auditorium in which the event was held.

Her detailing of the security measures that she must employ out of necessity for her and her family’s safety – several bodyguards, round the clock protection – conveyed the constant danger her life is perpetually imprisoned in. She also revealed that the long-standing fatwa issued on her life was recently renewed in Iran, prompting uncomfortable shifting in seats and sideward glances amongst the audience, to say the least. If anyone in the audience wasn’t initially convinced that freedom of speech is being threatened in the UK and other free societies, then the very experience of seeing Ali and Nawaz speak, the fact that getting to our seats required passing through security measures similar to those at airports, would likely have persuaded them of the contrary.

Ayaan Maajid


The Regressive Left

Nawaz spoke about the criticism of his work with Quilliam, and how shocked he’s been about the main sources of that criticism. In particular, he relayed his frustration with the “regressive left”, a term he coined to describe those on the left who, he argues, sides with the illiberal Islamists and Jihadists when they label Nawaz, Ali and other Muslim reformists and critics “Islamophobes” and “bigoted”.

Ali expounded on Nawaz’s criticism of the regressive left, who have tried to undermine her legitimacy as a critic of Islam by calling her “traumatised” as a result of a bad childhood (she was a victim of genital mutilation as a child). A piece in The Guardian said that her views are “emotional, not rational, and as such beyond reach of most useful debate”. Both speakers expressed their astonishment that they have as many critics from the left as they have from the far-right and the Islamists – the latter they expected to hate them, but certainly not the former.

Nawaz pointed out the hypocrisy of those on the left who criticise reformist, moderate Muslims and ex-Muslims like him and Ali. He argues that they criticise him and Ali because of ingrained liberal beliefs about tolerance, multiculturalism and anti-racism, which he and Ali seem to be violating, but are in fact not. The regressive left believe that all critics of Islam are, by definition, “Islamophobes” – bigoted and intolerant. Their criticism of Nawaz and Ali is driven by the impulse to protect minority groups, like Muslims, homosexuals and women, from hate and marginalisation. This is a perfectly justified impulse considering the existence of real racism, bigotry and intolerance, evident in the many far-right groups currently flourishing across Europe.

However, the hypocrisy lies in the misapplication of this impulse towards critics of Islam who are not racist, bigoted and intolerant of Muslims as individual people, but simply want illiberal beliefs in Islam replaced by liberal ones, as Nawaz and Ali do. The question that Nawaz raises so astutely is this: why is the left not supporting the minorities within the minority? He is referring to the minority of secular, gay and feminist Muslims as well as ex-Muslims in the world today who are trying desperately to gain influence within their own Muslim communities, as they try to supplant the predominant beliefs in their communities: people like Ali, Maryam Namazie and Asra Nomani. The regressive left, writers like Glenn Greenwald and publications such as The Guardian, instead of empowering these minority voices, chooses to undermine and condemn their efforts because any criticism of Islam is taboo in their view, marginalising the minorities within the minority as a result.

The threats to freedom of speech is as much driven by the regressive left as it is by the far-right and the Islamists. The so-called liberals, who, in an ironic expression of cognitive dissonance, side with the opponents of free speech and of liberal values and not those who are defending these values when they make it taboo to say certain things, often by using the racist charge. An example of this was in 2014, where Ali had an invitation to speak at Brandeis University rescinded because of the pressure put on the university. The pressure was not only exerted by the Muslim student association at Brandeis but also, somewhat alarmingly, by liberal students at the university.

Sam Harris, the famous neuroscientist and atheist, writes about how a faction of the left are silencing critics of Islam in the name of anti-racism and tolerance of religious beliefs. He has also been a victim of this hyper-politically-correct culture we see spreading throughout the UK and the USA at the moment, when Ben Affleck condemned his views as “racist” and “gross” with flippant ease on Bill Maher’s Real Time. The cost of this lip service to liberal principles is hypocrisy and self-delusion about the root causes of the problems we face when it comes to terrorism.

President Obama is guilty of creating this bubble of self-delusion when he refuses to utter the words “Islamist extremism” after terrorist attacks. Nawaz rightly points out that this obfuscation results in more animosity and possibly violence towards Muslims because it doesn’t clearly distinguish between radical, extremist Muslims and the vast majority of peaceful, moderate Muslims around the world. If we really intend to prevent the majority of peaceful Muslims from racism and revenge from far-right groups after terrorist attacks, we should be clear that terrorism has nothing to do with them by identifying the cause of terrorism as Islamic extremists and fundamentalists. To not say “Islamic” under any circumstances is clear denial and delusion, which has the opposite effect of spurring on the genuine racists and bigots to target ordinary Muslims.

The Paradox of Tolerance

To paraphrase Popper, one cannot tolerate the intolerant. This is something that many on the left haven’t fully grasped yet when it comes to criticising Islamic extremism, an ideology as intolerant as they come. Homosexuals being thrown off buildings, apostates being blown up, women being stoned – these are the people who the left has traditionally been the devout defenders of, but have now deserted because of political correctness and fears about causing offense.

The response to the Charlie Hebdo attack epitomises the inadequate response from the majority of the left. Not only were reasons and excuses posited in defense of the attackers, but some even blamed the cartoonists themselves for their miserable ends. It is disgraceful that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were characterised as racists only days after they were slain by radical jihadists for drawing cartoons. It is even more disgraceful that this characterisation was driven by many on the left.

The regressive left must banish its current mentality of political correctness and refusal to criticise anything even remotely related to Islam, based on the fear of being racist and an irrational paternalistic attitude towards protecting the feelings of Muslims. This attitude, as Nawaz puts it, is a racism of a different kind: a racism of low expectations that perceives the feelings of Muslims as especially fragile, requiring special attention and mollycoddling. Until it manages to banish its regressive faction, the left will continue to be a part of the threat against liberal values that the far-right and radical Islamists of our societies present.




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