How Islamists Co-opt Dissenters Like Ayaan and Maajid


I have lost count of how many times a non-Muslim friend excitedly asks me about Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Maajid Nawaz. “Isn’t she great?” they exclaim. “Isn’t he amazing?” they ask – without really asking.

These friends are well-meaning. They are concerned about terror attacks and extremism. They see people of color, who grew up inside Muslim communities, who suffered and persisted, and who appear to be boldly “speaking truth” about issues that get covered up in our politically-correct culture. These are the voices – they tell me – that will stop the extremists and usher in reform.

I have learned to smile and thank them for their enthusiasm. But then I begin the tough task of trying to explain why Ayaan and Maajid are not the “Great White Hope” – and that they have ironically given Islamists more power to tamp down on reform within Muslim communities. It seems counter-intuitive to my enthusiastic non-Muslim friends. But it’s a phenomenon that deserves to be analyzed.

Sometimes I start to respond by telling them about my friend Malika, born in Holland to Moroccan parents. She is still traumatized by what happened to her in school in 2004, at the height of Ayaan’s popularity in the Netherlands as a “reformer” serving in parliament and appearing constantly in the media. Some of the kids in Malika’s class had heard their parents quoting Ayaan’s writings on Islam. They began directly an avalanche of verbal abuse at her, calling her a “terrorist” and the “follower of a pedophile”. When she tried to defend herself, she was beaten up by classmates outside the schoolyard.

Now Malika is no Islamist – in fact she is a liberal who hates their misogyny, bigotry, and corruption. But she cannot shake a deep resentment for Ayaan, whom she blames for the beating she received. Malika is hardly the only kid in Holland who experienced this, and there are surely many British Muslim pupils who were bullied by kids citing Maajid Nawaz’s more strident declarations about extremists lurking within the UK’s Muslim community.

Smart Islamist agitators know all about these traumas and don’t hesitate to exploit them. “See, had it not been for Ayaan your child would have never got beaten up.” Both Maajid and Ayaan are pointed out by Islamists as one of the reasons Muslims’ lives are “miserable” – for “giving anti-Muslim bigots ammunition against the otherwise peaceable Muslims.” These arguments resonate particularly well with more conservative European Muslims. The argument goes like: “If you feel there’s a witch hunt against Muslims today, it’s because of the ‘so-called reformers’. They have made your life as a Muslim in the West unpleasant.”

It’s a brilliant inversion – and it makes “dissidents” from Muslim backgrounds scapegoats for problems that Islamists have played a big role in creating. Ayaan and Maajid become very convenient distractions from Islamists’ own misdeeds and failures in responsibly handling communal affairs. Ayaan and Maajid are made to shoulder responsibility for things like police surveillance and anti-Muslim bigotry. They are cast as the cause, the abetters, and the validators of the things that “make your life difficult.”

The self-styled reformers have also made some questionable statements and decisions along their career path. These include “impassioned” over-the-top claims about Islam, visiting strip clubs, and being misleading on immigration forms. These are all things Islamists do constantly – but the bad judgment calls of Maajid and Ayaan are used by Islamists to raise questions about their integrity.

Islamists also go after the murky funding sources supporting Ayaan’s and Maajid’s activities (while of course ducking questions about their own lines of credit) and criticize their propensity to be “media whores” who long to be in front of the camera. The AHA Foundation (AHA stands for Ayaan Hirsi Ali – talk about cult of personality) and the Quilliam Foundation become seen as vehicles for their own egotistical need rather than effective community institutions.

It only further helps that Ayaan is a self-declared non-Muslim – implicitly suggesting that the only real solution is to stop being Muslim. The sense is reinforced by the adoration she received from far-right politicians and pundits. She seems to embody their argument: the only good Muslims is an ex-Muslim.

Maajid has never renounced his heritage and has genuine bona fides as an ex-extremist. His problem is that Islamists have successfully branded him as a “snitch for Islamophobes.” He also offended the sensibilities of many conservative fellow South Asian Muslims by appearing in videos drunk in a strip club (though they fail to note the hypocrisy that the private videos were released by the club’s Muslim owner).

The real problem he faces is that he has failed to build any sizeable Muslim constituency. He may have thousands of Twitter followers and a few professional colleagues, but he has shown no ability to mobilize people in the streets… in the real world. When he ran for public office a Muslim-majority district, he failed to win election. He should get points for taking a risk – but it revealed his failure to build a reliable and sizable base of Muslim supporters.

The result is that people like my friend Malika are not rallying to either Ayaan or Maajid. In the end, liberal Muslims are not looking to them as leaders. They see them as self-serving and devoid of altruism. Malika cannot identify any way in which Maajid or Ayaan work has improved her life in any significant positive way. Hence she is DISTRACTED by the Islamist attacks on them and IMMOBILIZED.

It’s too bad, as Muslims like Malika could admire Ayaan and Maajid for speaking out publicly about what they believe – which comes with real risks. Ayaan’s close friend was murdered in the streets. Maajid’s ex-wife won’t allow him to see his son. Whatever money they are making and public attention they’re getting has come with a real price tag. And some of their critiques are worth engaging.

But the cold fact is that both Ayaan and Majid have not dented Islamist domination of Muslim communities in the West. After over a decade of work, neither of them can fill a hall with Muslim supporters.

While we may not rally to dissidents like Ayaan and Maajid, we owe it to ourselves and our children to look into the mirror and say: “How can we succeed where they failed?” Islamists want us to be confused, and in disarray. They continue to thrive while the rest of us pay for their corruption and deceit. So we shouldn’t let our concerns about Ayaan and Maajid get in the way of doing the right thing.