Maajid Nawaz is a British political commentator and self-described “Muslim reformer” who runs Quilliam, a prominent anti-extremist think thank in the UK. He used to be a member of the extremist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, until he was imprisoned in Egypt and subsequently became an anti-radicalization activist. He has very little standing in the Muslim community in Britain. A reason for this is, in part, because his think tank made a financial deal with the anti-Muslim extremist Tommy Robinson; “I use you, you use me,” Robinson said of the arrangement.
In 2010 he compiled a secret list of nonviolent Muslims – including well-known Muslim human rights activists – and accused them of sharing the ideology of terrorists, and submitted the report to the Conservative government. He has worked closely with torture apologists Sam Harris and Douglas Murray, and has been a vocal advocate of the Prevent strategy, a government counter-extremism strategy which has been condemned by the National Union of Teachers for encouraging surveillance of Muslim schoolchildren. Despite this, he is treated as a serious and credible voice in the UK; he is a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast, has his own radio show on LBC and has written for a wide range of mainstream British news outlets.
He unsuccessfully ran for Parliament as a Liberal Democrat in 2013, yet has remained an influential member of the party. As a Muslim, he is able to lend credibility to right-wing talking points and confirm the prejudices of Islamophobes by appearing as a legitimate voice within the community. In the run-up to the UK election held on December 12, he issued a series of condemnations of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — a lifelong champion of Palestinian rights. The purpose of this article is to untangle the statements that Nawaz has been disseminating on this topic.
The targeting of civilians
On June 10, 2018 Nawaz tweeted a cartoon depicting a Hamas fighter aiming his gun at an Israeli soldier while hiding behind a Palestinian civilian, with the caption: “This largely, and sadly, rings true. Free Gaza from Hamas #AlQudsDay.”
— أبو عمّار (@MaajidNawaz) June 10, 2018
Al Quds Day is an annual protest, which was first instigated by Iran in 1979. The 2018 event took place on the heels of escalations in Gaza at the fence that separates it from Israel. On May 14, 2018, around 60 Palestinian demonstrators were killed by Israeli forces. At the time, commentators and Israeli officials started circulating claims that members of Hamas had used protesters as human shields. Yet, there was no evidence that the protesters who were killed in Gaza were being used as human shields by Hamas fighters. The UN Human Rights Council carried out an extensive investigation into Israel’s use of lethal force and concluded that Israeli snipers “shot [children] intentionally, knowing that they were children,” “intentionally shot health workers, despite seeing that they were clearly marked as such,” — “shot journalists intentionally, despite seeing that they were clearly marked as such,” and “shot [disabled people] intentionally, despite seeing that they had visible disabilities.” The UN Human Rights Council also released a raw video compilation showing unarmed Palestinians being shot by Israeli soldiers.
Subsequently, in a Twitter thread condemning the British Labour Party over allegations of institutional antisemitism, Nawaz accused the left of having “an obsessive focus on Israel for errors that are far worse elsewhere.” Leaving aside the completely unfounded assertion that the left criticizes Israel more than other countries, note the use of the word “errors” to describe Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territories. When Israel bombs seven UN facilities in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, these aren’t war crimes or crimes against humanity; these are errors. When Israel demolishes the family home of a Palestinian fighter in the West Bank, this isn’t an “act of collective punishment” (as Amnesty International characterizes it); this is an error. However, when Hamas fires projectiles into Israel – Nawaz confidently asserts that this is “terrorism” and reflects “a desire to wipe out all Jews from Israel.”
The underlying assumption is that Israel does not intentionally target civilians, whereas Hamas does. If Nawaz does not trust the UN Human Rights Council, then he should read the reports produced by the Israeli NGO Breaking The Silence, which collected the testimonies of Israeli soldiers who fought in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. Here is some of what they had to say:
- “Me personally, deep inside I mean, I was a bit bothered, but after three weeks in Gaza, during which you’re shooting at anything that moves – and also at what isn’t moving, crazy amounts – you aren’t anymore really… The good and the bad get a bit mixed up, and your morals get a bit lost and you sort of lose it, and it also becomes a bit like a computer game, totally cool and real.”
- “There weren’t really any rules of engagement, it was more protocols. The idea was, if you spot something – shoot. They told us: “There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there. If you spot someone, shoot.” Whether it posed a threat or not wasn’t a question, and that makes sense to me. If you shoot someone in Gaza it’s cool, no big deal.”
One could argue that Israeli soldiers have described scenes that reveal the targeting of civilians.
Furthermore, in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in 2009, the Independent Fact Finding Committee on Gaza to the League of Arab States, which was headed by former United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territory John Dugard, concluded that it was “highly likely that mosques, and more particularly the minarets, had been deliberately targeted on the grounds that they symbolized Islam.”
Conflating Hezbollah and ISIS
Nawaz’s discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict also reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. This is clear from an article that he wrote in 2017 condemning the annual Quds Day protests.
In his article, Nawaz asserts that allowing Hezbollah flags to be flown in London would be “an insult to all those we lost to jihadist attacks in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge over the last three months.” It is unclear how this would be the case given that these attacks were claimed by ISIS, which Hezbollah is currently fighting in Syria. The implication is that Hezbollah has carried out political violence in the name of Islam, and so has ISIS, and therefore the two groups are fundamentally the same. Nawaz claims in his article that Hezbollah is “an anti-Semitic, sectarian shia-jihadist terror organisation that advocates the annihilation of Jews worldwide.” This characterization constitutes rhetoric devoid of substance.
The claim that Hezbollah’s goal is “the annihilation of Jews worldwide” is simply outlandish. Hezbollah was set up during the 1980s with the goal of compelling Israel to end its brutal, illegal occupation of southern Lebanon. Nasrallah described its founding during an interview with the former American diplomat Edward Peck as follows:
“We are a group of Lebanese youth. We took the decision that we needed to confront and resist the occupation. The resistance which we have established, when we started with it… I was 22 years old then. The oldest among us was 27 years old, because those who were over 30 then believed that it was impossible to defeat Israel. They viewed themselves as sage, as wise people, and they viewed us or considered us as the crazy youth.”
The Beirut-based analyst Nicholas Noe has observed that Hezbollah’s rhetoric is “guided by pragmatism, rationality and (on some occasions) Iranian strategic interests,” as well as “by a messianic faith in its moral and religious mission,” which is not the destruction of world Jewry but rather what it refers to as the ‘“Resistance project,” the central element of which is challenging Israel’s regional hegemony. Furthermore, it is incorrect to suggest that Hamas and Hezbollah are dedicated to the destruction of Israel; Hamas has repeatedly advocated a two-state settlement since 2006 (and in 2017 it updated its charter to reflect this position), and Nasrallah has stated that Hezbollah will not interfere if the Palestinians accept a two-state settlement.
Most recently Nawaz has been writing about Jeremy Corbyn over social media. During the course of a Twitter thread he argued Corbyn’s “moral and institutional support for terrorism” was incomparable with the so-called “Tory bigotry or crudeness,” or “Tory ‘Islamophobia,’” (he termed Islamophobia as an “annoying misnomer”). He denounced Corbyn for referring to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”–which Corbyn did in 2009 in a meeting at Parliament–and claimed that would be the equivalent of Boris Johnson calling “the Neo-Nazi Christchurch killer his ‘friend’” and taking “money, personally, from a state that funded that killer,” an apparent reference to Corbyn taking money from Iran.
The comparison is absurd. Corbyn had accepted around $30,000 over the course of three years from the Iranian state-owned network Press TV when he was a marginally known member of Parliament. Those appearances ended in 2012 when the channel was banned in the UK for airing the torture of an Iranian journalist. Yet, Nawaz claims sitting for those interviews is equivalent to being paid off by the Christchurch shooter.
Corbyn explained in 2016 that he used the word “friends” in Parliament “and it was about encouraging the meeting to go ahead, encouraging there to be a discussion about the peace process.” He added that he would not phrase his statement that way today: “It was inclusive language I used which with hindsight I would rather not have used. I regret using those words, of course.”
Nawaz continues: “until the day Boris Johnson flirts with actual Muslim-killing terrorists it’s disgusting to draw such analogies, because they are deeply insensitive to our Jewish friends.” The obvious point is that Johnson himself provides weapons to Israel and Saudi Arabia whose militaries have killed Palestinian and Yemeni civilians. And Johnson’s novel “Seventy Two Virgins,” again under scrutiny, is laden with racial and ethnic slurs, sexists passages, and derogatory descriptions of both Jews and Muslims.
Each of these incidents displays a criticism of Corbyn and Labour that is myopic to the facts of the situation. Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, are not boogeyman interchangeable with ISIS and white nationalists. Obscuring the reality on the ground, whether in the UK or in Israel and Palestine, ensures a basic understanding of the facts will never be achieved and in no way addresses the needs of those living under occupation or oppression.