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Maajid Nawaz, Identity Politics, and the Dangerous Search for the "Community Representative"

06/08/2015 11:54 BST | Updated 05/08/2016 10:59 BST

The treatment of Maajid Nawaz by the Guardian (in contrast to its recently-published interview with the leader of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Britain) reveals a worrying trend in the British Left today, namely its fascination with the search for a Community Representative and the compartmentalising of identity. Perhaps more harmful still is the politicisation of identity which these (largely self-appointed) representatives partake in, and the dumbing-down of discourse that results from it.

In the Guardian's most recent feature on Maajid Nawaz was not focussed on the work which he does with Quilliam, and contained very little on his remarkable background. Instead, we are treated to an article where the majority of the text is focussed on ostracising Nawaz from the supposed "Muslim community". Firstly, this supposes that there is a homogenous "Muslim community" that is spoken for by somebody other than Nawaz, and secondly that Nawaz has no right to speak on issues of extremism purely because he cannot style himself as a Community Representative. Never mind the fact that he is an ex-extremist, who was hunted by Combat-18; wrongly arrested in the UK; and tortured in Egypt, and therefore probably understands more about the extremist mindset than a metropolitan "Community Representative", it appears argued that until he can style himself as such, he should not be allowed to speak at all.

So what might such a Community Representative look like in the instant case? It would appear, on reading a piece published last week, that the Guardian's answer to this question would be a figure closer to Abdul Wahid, the British leader of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (ironically, the very extremist group that Maajid Nawaz left). Far from being a serious interrogation of the beliefs either of Wahid or the organisation he represents, the piece instead seems to take all of his assertions at face value, while painting a positive picture of Wahid, with the sole exception being the challenges to his refusal to condemn anti-Semitic literature produced by the group. Far from being a piece about free speech, as its sub-headline and conclusion would have us believe, the leader and ideology of an Islamist extremist group seems presented rather too positively, as if the only thing to be said about democracy and theocracy is that they are simply different. As for Wahid's idealised depiction of an Islamic State according to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, one need only read its draft constitution (page 240 onwards) to see that such a state would necessarily be patriarchal, authoritarian, and dedicated to the destruction of dissenting religion and culture.

The impression that the two articles seem to give when put alongside each other is that Wahid should be considered more representative of British Muslims than Nawaz, a charge which has little evidence to support it. What it does have going for it by contrast is that Wahid's ideas are far easier to fit into the box that 'identity politics' (I prefer the term 'politicised identity') reserves for Muslims. It is the same box that allowed those supporting external pressure on the Danish government to censor its free press unlawfully over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad to argue that the bare publishing of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad was a grave insult to every Muslim in the world, and thereby explain away the violence that erupted as a consequence. It is the paradigm that justifies the inordinate amount of media appearances of Anjem Choudhary, as if he is somehow more authentic too than Nawaz (despite being a fringe extremist), and which necessarily gravitates itself to the most extremist, most easily offended, and increasingly the most violent and vitriolic elements of any group of people. It is nothing more than the racism of low expectations.

Yet we would have hoped, surely, that by now discourse had grown up to an extent, and that the mainly far-left (or so it would appear) supporters of such pollicised identity would have begun to recognise it for what it is in the wake of the Lutfur Rahman scandal. For the first time in over 100 years, a charge of undue spiritual influence succeeded in a British Court, with Muslim voters told that it was their duty as Muslims to vote for Lutfur Rahman, and the portrayal of anyone who dared to question Rahman - even on matters of policy - as 'racist'. The idea that disagreements could be political rather than racial, or - it would appear - that Bangladeshi and Muslim voters could possibly have come to the reasoned decision not to vote for him seemed to be unknown to Rahman and his team. The response by Rahman's supporters to both the ruling was, predictably, to simply dismiss his opponents as racist. It is hard at times not to laugh at the one-track intolerance exhibited by this response, and indeed to do so at the hypocrisy of Deepa Kumar warning students at Bath University to beware of ex-Muslims and "other native informants" when lecturing other people on the idea of a New McCarthyism. Such ideas, spread by both Kumar and Rahman, surely come far closer to actual McCarthyism than those of their opponents.

The harms of such searches for Community Representatives go far deeper than simply the corruption of Lutfur Rahman; the hypocrisy of Bahar Mustafa; or the flippant dismissal of Maajid Nawaz. They invite us to essentialise parts of people's identity as innate to their politics (a politics which is usually presumed to be far-left), and invite those with the loudest voices and most fanatical support bases to volunteer to be the Community Representatives, irrespective of whether such people actually represent the views of anyone but themselves. One's place at the table becomes contingent on this label regardless of its truth, and nuanced debate and argument to moderation both suffer when your credibility hinges on whether you are viewed as such a representative, as opposed to either the veracity of this claim, or indeed the merit of your arguments, which should be the sole criterion in an equal and meritocratic society.

The fact that we have ended up back here, arguing over who is "representative" of a group as opposed to engaging with arguments, seems to suggest that certain sections of society have learned nothing from Lutfur Rahman and other such scandals. What we should have learned is that nobody can legitimately claim to represent swathes of people bound together by nothing but one facet of their identity, and we should be deeply concerned about those that promulgate extreme messages in others' names. The only time I agreed with Ahmed Younis when he debated Christopher Hitchens in the aftermath of the Muhammad cartoons was when (at 8:36 - 8:39) he asserted (rather weakly in the circumstances) that people represent themselves. In order to properly acknowledge this - and to have mature debates on policies and issues which ultimately affect the entire nation, not just certain groups - we must first abandon our search for the Community Representative.