“The solution lies not in our bullets, but in our ability to galvanize civil society”: Maajid Nawaz on how to stop Islamist terrorism

Maajid Nawaz was once an extremist Islamist—a recruiter for terrorist groups who spent years for his activity in an Egyptian prison. Nawaz then realized the dangers of Islamism is pernicious, became a liberal, and founded the London think tank Quilliam, dedicated to countering extremism.  Nawaz has criticized, as he does in the following video at the recent Oslo Freedom Forum, the invasion of Iraq, the use of drones by Americans, and the execution of Bin Laden. I agree with him on all these points. We should not be murdering people without a trial—if we’re able to capture them safely.

Despite Nawaz’s criticism of U.S. and British policy, he’s still demonized by Regressive Leftists, and for reasons I can’t fathom. He’s a Muslim, not an atheist;  he was once part of a terrorist network, so he’s seen it from the inside; and he’s espousing a peaceful, discussion-oriented solution to the problem of Islamist terrorism. What’s not to like?

Yet Nawaz is constantly criticized by the Regressive Left; they’ve called him a “porch monkey” as well as Sam Harris’s “Muslim validator” and his “lapdog.” The odious Nathan Lean, for whom I have nothing but contempt, took him apart in The Atlantic for, among other things, being too well dressed. I am beleaguered on email by nutjobs trying to convince me that Nawaz is a plant: a spy for terrorism who really intends to further the Caliphate! How dare Lean, or other Regressive Leftists, presume that they know better than Nawaz how to deal with the terrorist mentality.

Actually, even Nawaz’s solutions, discussed below, are problematic, for though I think he’s correct in arguing that we can’t shoot our way out of the problem, his solutions seem unworkable. Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he calls for “galvanizing the grassroots and working with civil society activists”—trying to change the Islamist narrative into one in which Muslims develop constructive goals and accept democratic values. Yes, that’s the solution, but it seems far beyond reach. How can you persuade a faith whose adherents (not all of them!) accept the literal truth of the Qur’an to abandon the narrative of worldwide domination, to accept women and gays as equals, and to stop demonizing nonbelivers, apostates, and those of other faiths?

So although I’m energized by Nawaz’s talk, I am also pessimistic about his solutions. Nevertheless, one thing he says not only makes eminent sense, but is actually workable. And that’s this: “The solution lies in giving people permission to have this conversation. The problem with President Obama was that it was anything but wanting to have the conversation.”

The conversation, of course, is about the influence of a pernicious religious ideology on people’s behavior. We recognize how Catholicism and Christianity can erode people’s empathy and humanity, but we’re loath to do that with Islam. Instead, we’d rather blame the U.S. for the entirety of terrorism, with the ridiculous assumption that if we just pulled out of the Middle East (we’re largely out of there anyway), every bit of terrorism would stop.

Nawaz is right: we need to start having the discussion rather than avoiding it. Believe me, if a million Catholics started killing gays, subjugating women, and trying to establish the Pope’s reign over the entire world in the name of the Church, we wouldn’t have a problem criticizing the religious dogma causing that behavior. Nor would we claim, as does Bill Donohue, that Catholics are simply marginalized as persecuted. No, it’s only with Islam that we bridle. That’s partly because we’re scared of criticizing the faith (we all know the consequences of that), and partly because we consider Muslims, unlike Catholics, as oppressed “people of color.” But pigmentation doesn’t equate with virtue.

It’s time to have that conversation.

h/t: Malgorzata


  1. GBJames
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Nawaz is a hero, IMO. But I, too, am skeptical about making Islam nicer. I have more hope in the rise of Arab atheism, not that it is an easy lift either.

  2. Joseph Stans
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if this was noted:
    Oxford University replaces portraits of male alumni to be more ‘politically correct’
    Oxford University to replace ‘male, pale and stale’ image with gay, female and black icons. (Telegraph)

    According to The Sunday Times, the university has moved to “dispel its ‘male, pale, and stale’ reputation” by asking students and faculty to nominate relevant individuals or groups representing diversity in gender, race, disability and LGBTQ to be depicted in portraits.

    Pictures of author Jonathan Swift, 16th century poet John Donne and bible translator William Tyndale were all removed. And portraits of TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, author Hari Kunzru and journalist Naomi Wolf have been put up. (Daily Mail)

  3. Claudia Baker
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Personification of courage.

    And yes, well dressed. What the hell is wrong with that? Fuck you Nathan Lean.

  4. somer
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I think the US has to use the drones and had kill Bin Laden – after all had the head of the Afghan state supporting Bin Laden – they couldn’t just allow it to be a base for repeated direct attacks on the US. I think the mentality is so machismo that no action from US would have been seen as Gods message the infidels are women and there to be conquered. That was the kind of language just after September 11

    A government that is a lot better than Mullar Omars for the people is there – how long it will last is not really the wests fault, and the violence the soviets and their puppet govt beforehand – inflicted is not the fault of the west. Neither is the civil war prior to Taliban rule, although the West is too keen to proliferate weapons.
    I think the drones are as targetted as they can be and far more would be killed by direct military intervention in Afghanistan given the Taliban tend to fight guerrilla amongst communities. The US and allies will have to leave eventually

  5. Posted July 12, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    And he has been arguing the conversation is made much more palatable by using precise terminology: we are decrying Islamism as opposed to Islam and jihadism as opposed to jihad. We have to give liberal Muslims the linguistic tools to stand against the fundamentalists in their own religion.

  6. Dave
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    “Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he calls for “galvanizing the grassroots and working with civil society activists”—”

    Sounds great. If only it were that easy. Unfortunately, if you’re a civil society activist in Bangladesh, you’re at serious risk of being hacked to death with machetes. In Saudi Arabia you find yourself imprisoned and sentenced to be repeatedly flogged to within an inch of your life. I’m not optimistic that either of these countries, or others in the muslim world, are going to become receptive to secularisation any time soon. There is very little “civil society” to mobilise, and what there is can only operate at grave risk to itself from the state or from self-appointed vigilantes.

    For now, I’m content that we carry on shooting to keep islamist terrorism at bay.

  7. Merilee
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 10:54 am | Permalink


  8. Heather Hastie
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m a big admirer of Maajid Nawaz and the work he does. Like many of those within Islam who are trying to reform the religion, he’s putting his life at risk to make the world a better place.

    There are more people with views like his in Muslim-majority countries than most of us are aware of. Pakistan, for example, has quite a strong liberal democratic faction in politics. We in the West just don’t know about them, and some of the reasons are those Nawaz stated.

    The growing number of Muslims moving from dictatorships and theocracies to liberal democracies is seen as a threat by many. I think we need to turn it into an opportunity to spread the values of humanism and liberalism to people with little or no experience of them.

    • Kurt Lewis Helf
      Posted July 12, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink


    • somer
      Posted July 13, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      +1 Yes reform (as in humanist oriented change) is very important and Nawaz does great work.

  9. Posted July 12, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    “Believe me, if a million Catholics started killing gays, subjugating women, and trying to establish the Pope’s reign over the entire world in the name of the Church, we wouldn’t have a problem criticizing the religious dogma causing that behavior.”

    I’m unaware of Catholics killing gays (or women), but they still do not consider permitting gays, as they are, to be Catholics. They still abhor them. And as to Catholics subjugating women, they’ve done it for so long and so much they hardly recognize that they’re doing it any more. The whole St. Paul thing still is going on. Seen any female Catholic priests, etc. recently? Men rule. Women should remain in the background and silent. And the church yet seeks to control women’s sexuality to be for childbirth only. They still do not allow any birth control options other than abstinence. The Catholic church subjugates women.

    • somer
      Posted July 13, 2016 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      Yes it does but de facto it has little power – the vast majority of catholics ignore it. True the process is unfinished but even in most christian majority countries the Catholic church has been forced to accommodate coexistence with secularism even if it wont actually admit it. Moreover the greek and roman parts of the Christian tradition do actually expect a degree of justification of moral matters in rational terms so are inherently vulnerable to secular challenges. The Trinity is based on greek philosophical ideas and since founding of Christianity the theology has been defended by learned wings of clergy in philosophical rational (at least internally) argument terms. Today the Church does not deny evolution unlike evangelists, and accommodates most of modern physics. The same can’t be said for some other religions

  10. Posted July 12, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink


  11. Posted July 12, 2016 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Conceding that religion is cultural fiction is simply too much for our species. Unfortunately, we’ll have to settle for scriptural attenuation in whatever way the architects of apology can redesign it. In the meantime, heads will roll.

  12. Jimbo
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Nawaz is one of the good guys and kudos to Sam Harris for lending his support and supporters to extend the reach of Nawaz’s message. I’m also skeptical that his or Ayaan’s solutions to moderating Islamic violence will work. Any better ideas?

    Actually, one of the better debates I’ve seen on the subject was from Douglas Murray and AH Ali against Nawaz and Zeba Khan. Murray may be Hitch’s heir apparent on Islamism and brings wit, intellect, and righteous indignation to the conversation.

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