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Islam’s New ‘Native Informants’

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A scene from the French campaign in Madagascar, by Louis Bombled, 1895

Returning from Lebanon and Egypt in 2003, Edward Said wrote an angry dispatch in the London Review of Books on how the Iraq War as reported on Arabic TV channels portrayed a different conflict from the one reported by the American media, in which journalists were “as lost as the English-speaking soldiers they have been living with.” He argued that the stream of Western commentary “has obscured the negligence of the military and policy experts who planned it and now justify it.” The misguided belief that the Iraqis would welcome the Americans with glee after a period of aerial bombardment, a fundamental flaw in the planning of the military mission, he pinned squarely on the out-of-touch exiled Iraqi opposition and the two Middle East experts who, at the time, held the most sway over US foreign policy in the region: Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami.

Said dismissed Bernard Lewis as an Orientalist, a generalist, and an ideologue. But the Lebanese-born Fouad Ajami was damned in fewer words: he was a “native informant.” By that was meant one who deploys “we,” Said wrote, “as an imperial collectivity which, along with Israel, never does anything wrong. Arabs are to blame for everything and therefore deserve ‘our’ contempt and hostility.” In a profile of Ajami written for The Nation that appeared at almost the same time, Adam Shatz observed that Ajami’s failure to predict the Saudi conveyor-belt of radicalization that brought about 9/11 (so focused was he on “the menace of Saddam and the treachery of Arafat) still had not dented his Middle East expert credentials as far as the US media were concerned. “America was going to war with Muslims,” Shatz wrote, “and a trusted native informant was needed.”

Fifteen calamitous years later, the scorn that the late Ajami received at the time has been vindicated. But the term “native informant” has become a troubling one. As a derogatory description of an indigenous person considered a collaborator with the colonial or invading power, it sits too closely for comfort to slurs such as “house slave” and its derivatives. In the discipline of postcolonial studies, “native informant” was once useful in understanding the way certain cultural brokers from former colonies could benefit from helping more powerful Western authorities objectify their people. In an essay on the Lebanese-American academic Evelyne Accad, the scholar Dorothy Figueira described native informants as “disciplinary gatekeepers providing an authoritative version of history for the upper classes (reformers or nationalists), and the West.” But in a world where these “authoritative versions” are not simply academic, but can also be the ideological underpinnings of military aggression, the native informant’s role is that of enabler.

After September 11, for Western governments and the journalists and public figures who backed them, telling a critical story about Muslims and the Muslim world became the preamble to the Iraq War. In what followed in Western states, the mobilization of intelligence and law enforcement agencies against their own Muslim populations meant that those “natives” who aided in this effort, either deliberately or unwittingly, were smeared as traitors by some within those populations. Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-American psychiatrist and writer on Islam, said in a 2006 al-Jazeera Arabic debate that “the clash of civilizations” (a phrase popularized by Lewis) was a narrative not of Western aggression but of Muslim barbarism. “The Muslims are the ones who began using this expression,” she insisted. “The Muslims are the ones who began the clash of civilizations.” In her book A God Who Hates, Sultan wrote that “No one can be a true Muslim and a true American simultaneously.” The Muslim cleric with whom she debated on al-Jazeera called her an apostate. In his book Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims, the author Stephen Sheehi described Sultan as a “self-promoting charlatan and ‘native voice,’” who had “sailed into the mainstream media on hateful winds released from the Islamophobic Pandora’s box that had been opened by the media’s hunger for horror stories by Muslim women.”

When a Canadian Muslim reformer named Irshad Manji rose to prominence in 2003 through publishing a series of essays, collected as The Trouble With Islam Today, she met with a similar reception. Arguing that the Muslim world was falling behind the West because of Islam’s inherent backwardness, she declared: “liberal Muslims have to get vocal about this fact: Washington is the unrealized hope, not the lead criminal.” Responding in a 2006 review for The Nation, Laila Lalami wrote that this “native informant” had produced “a narrow polemic, selectively citing events and anecdotes that fit one paradigm only: Muslim savagery, which of course is contrasted with Western enlightenment.” Alongside these tough appraisals came a still more derogatory note. Issandr el-Amrani of the Arabist blog referred to them as CRAP, “courageous reformist Arab personalities.”

The censure of such figures can tip into persecution for their daring to criticize Islam at all—indeed, both Sultan and Manji received death threats. And that can also become a way for conservative forces to demand loyalty, uniformity of thought, and the suppression of critical reflection. It is not hard to see how labeling opponents and critics as “native informants” can be a call for tribalism, as well as a way of smearing perceived traitors. But it was the way negative accounts of Islam were pressed into service to justify the catastrophic war on terror that, unavoidably, lent legitimacy to the accusation.

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2015

It was in these febrile times, in the early 2000s, that the Somali-born Dutch-American writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali began to make her impression on public discussion of Islam in the West. After arriving in the Netherlands in 1992 to escape an arranged marriage, Ali came to a reckoning with her faith and embarked on a political career founded on alerting, mostly, well-intentioned liberals who opposed the US-led intervention in Iraq to the plight of Muslim women everywhere; she argued that there was indeed a connection between Islamic faith and Islamist radicalism. Her emphasis on women’s rights tugged at the heartstrings of some on the liberal-left such as Bill Maher who called her extraordinary, while her unapologetic pathologizing of Islam enchanted others on the right. In 2006, Ali faced the threat of her Dutch citizenship being stripped for lying on her original asylum application, and she found haven in the United States under the auspices of a right-wing think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. It was not long before she, too, earned the tag of native informant from Muslim and Western opinion writers, journalists, and bloggers in progressive media outlets such as The Guardian. Ensconced in the US, Ali reported back from her Muslim past that Muslims, as she said in 2007, “are not interested in peace”; extremism was not a problem of a few rotten apples, she said, it’s the “entire basket.”

Around the same time in the mid-2000s, a member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir named Maajid Nawaz was beginning to renounce his extremist beliefs. A British citizen who fell afoul of Egypt’s antiterrorism laws while studying in Alexandria, Nawaz served five years in Hosni Mubarak’s jails, which were swelled with Islamist prisoners of all stripes. He emerged converted—but away from Islamism. Although he did not claim for himself the provocative title Ali gave herself in her coming-out book, “infidel,” but declared himself a secularist, he also preached that there was a correlation between Islam and radicalization that had not received sufficient attention. He returned to London and co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, a reformist organization that received British government funding for its counter-radicalization program it developed. In time, he, too, was accused of being a native informant, receiving state support in return for providing in 2010 a list of alleged Islamist extremist sympathizers to the UK government, one that accused peaceful Muslim groups, politicians, a television channel and a Scotland Yard unit of sharing the ideology of terrorists. The Quilliam briefing document that came with the list asserted: “The ideology of nonviolent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists,” and that “they disagree only on tactics.” It was described by some as “McCarthyite.”

Both Ali and Nawaz have attracted charges of careerism. Ali’s fraud on her asylum application did little to dispel that impression, while doubt has been cast on Nawaz’s story of jail-cell conversion. For an investigation in The New Republic, Nathan Lean interviewed associates of Nawaz from his days before the limelight:

Buried beneath the adulation are the sighs of those who have long maintained that Nawaz’s dramatic tale of redemption isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Interviews with his friends and relatives suggest that his account is riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies—indications, they say, of a turncoat who cares more about being a well-compensated hero than he does about the cause he champions.

When they first appeared on the scene, neither Nawaz nor Ali had an obvious tribe outside the faith; nor were they decamping to join a coherent anti-Islamic movement. Whether one agreed with them or not, it would be hard to argue that they were not both driven by a genuine conviction informed by their personal experience that something important was indeed missing in the public discussion of Islam and Islamism. And at that time, there was no ready-made audience to which they were cynically playing. Coming from deep from within the Muslim experience, they both expressed what was often unsaid—namely, the pervasive and profound potential for radicalization that can be found in the daily lives of Muslims everywhere. Nawaz argued that it was the entwining of religion and state in the Muslim world that needed to be addressed. Ali focused on the scriptural side, frustrated that there was too little focus on the link between the doctrine and the maltreatment of women and terrorism. But the impulse they shared was that of the polemicist, styling themselves as bearers of uncomfortable truths, and in order to make these points, they sacrificed nuance. It was not long before Nawaz and Ali were both folded under the wing of the political right.

From the start, Ali was more forthright about her goals than Nawaz. Islam was a death cult that must be “crushed,” she told Reason magazine in 2007, and she called for a Western-led war on the religion. In 2011, she was cited as a source of inspiration in the 1,500-page manifesto of Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist who killed seventy-seven people and injured 319 in Norway; and she, in turn, later expressed sympathy for Breivik’s argument that he “had no other choice but to use violence.” She rationalized the attack by assessing his actions not as a response to Islam or immigration, but as an expression of frustration born out of being “censored” by authorities, and by “advocates of silence” regarding his writings in favor of Christian supremacy.

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Maajid Nawaz, 2016

Nawaz took a different path. With the Quilliam Foundation as a platform, he published a memoir about his political journey into and out of Islamism, and toyed with the idea of a career in British politics, running (unsuccessfully) for parliament as a centrist Liberal Democrat. These days, the erstwhile Liberal dedicates the platform he has to attacks on the “regressive left,” fulminating against the hijab (in one instance calling for an international Take Off Your Hijab Day), and sneering at those who refuse to attribute blame in recent high-profile cases in the UK of child sex abuse rings to the race or religion of their South Asian perpetrators as “politically correct do-gooders” (and he refers to “British Muslim rape gangs” on his weekend radio talk show). In podcasts, videos, social media, and public engagements, he has also taken up with other anti-PC agitators such as Douglas Murray, Jordan Peterson, and Sam Harris. For both Ali and Nawaz, these sorts of association and intemperate language have—albeit controversially—helped to earn them the designation “anti-Muslim extremist” from the hate-monitoring group the Southern Poverty Law Center. Nawaz is currently suing the organization for describing him so.

Both Ali and Nawaz were also cited recently as members of the “Intellectual Dark Web,” in a New York Times article that profiled prominent members of a group it described as “an alliance of heretics [that] is making an end run around the mainstream conversation.” It was an inclusion that Nawaz seemed to welcome, accusing the writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown of “whitewashing” him out of her critique of the group in Reason. “It’s quite frustrating to be rendered invisible simply because we’re inconvenient to your argument,” he said. The addition of Ali and Nawaz to their ranks, even if only as silent partners, was an interesting development. They now had a people. And these people have a use for them.

The backdrop to this utility is the mutation and maturation of an organized Islamophobia movement. In the US, the anti-Muslim strand of the American right has evolved from beating the drum for a war on terror, to a war on Islam, and its more extreme flank has been promoted into the White House. National Security Adviser John Bolton served as the chairman of the Gatestone Institute, a far-right think tank known for publishing anti-Muslim agitprop. Gatestone has published pieces claiming, among other things, that Muslim immigration heralded a “Great White Death” in Europe, and had already turned the UK into a “Islamist colony.”

There is now common ground on the more mainstream American right with the counter-jihad movement of anti-Islamic extremists such as Frank Gaffney and Pamela Geller. With Trump as populist bridge (with his false claims, for example, that Muslim Americans in New Jersey celebrated the sight of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York), the normalization of Islamophobia has, in turn, fed the anti-Muslim animus of the alt-right, where the virus of Muslim-hate has merged with a nativist cocktail of antisemitism, racism, and white supremacy. Hard-line secularists and anti-PC free speech advocates such as Sam Harris and other Dark Web intellectuals can be seen as a gentrified cohort in this new coalition of the anti-Muslim right (though Harris rejects this notion). “Given a choice between Noam Chomsky and Ben Carson, in terms of the totality of their understanding of what’s happening now in the world, I’d vote for Ben Carson every time,” Harris has said. Carson is an imbecile, Harris added. “But at the very least he can be counted on to sort of get this one right. He understands that jihadists are the enemy.”

The Dark Web is not a black hole; it is a career ladder. And what binds Nawaz and Ali into this alliance is a shared conviction that any objection to broad-brush, generalized negative statements about Islam bordering on bigotry is simply an attempt at leftist silencing. This anti-Islamic rhetoric, under the guise of free-speech absolutism, means that Ali and Nawaz must indulge their associates’ more abhorrent views because the liberty to speak without consequence is all that matters. Thus, for example, Nawaz indulges Sam Harris’s rehashing of the IQ–race wars. Appearing together recently on libertarian comic Joe Rogan’s podcast, Nawaz did not challenge Harris when he said that “to assume an absolute uniformity of interest and aptitude in every population… is just scientifically irrational.” He chose instead to focus on how critics of Harris act in bad faith.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the British conservative writer Douglas Murray often favorably review each other’s work, a significant portion of which, in Murray’s case, is spent hyperventilating about Muslims and immigration. She appears as his debating partner to argue that Islam is not a religion of peace, while he has called contemporary Muslim faith “a creed of Islamic fascism—a malignant fundamentalism, woken from the dark ages to assault us here and now.” In 2016, at the National Secular Society conference in the UK, Nawaz also shared a platform with Murray, who has consistently argued that “all immigration from Muslim countries must stop.” In August, Nawaz will be on another panel with Murray in Sydney, Australia. The Canadian academic and provocateur Jordan Peterson has called Ali “a feminist icon,” and has declared his support for Nawaz’s SPLC lawsuit. In turn, Nawaz regularly defends Peterson against criticism from women who object that his preaching of the virtues of “enforced monogamy” amounts to approving domestic violence. The Quilliam Foundation’s fundraising has also raised eyebrows; the organization has reportedly received over a million dollars from the US-based John Templeton Foundation, a group with ties to Tea Party conservatives and the Christian right. Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign chairman in the 2016 Republican primaries, Chad Sweet, also sat on Quilliam’s US board.

But how does one stay on the right side of the fight—rightly denouncing abuses committed in the name of Islam, such as honor killings, female genital mutilation, or the death sentence for blasphemy and apostasy—without giving ground to those who want to make those abuses about a religion or a people in a defining, essentialist way? And how does one manage this without falling into the traps of apologia or cowardice? 

Granted, it is a challenging thing in this world to be a Muslim reformer. The faith has no papal-style institution or single central authority on which reformist activists can focus their efforts, and the diffuse and diverse nature of Muslim experience renders any single effort inchoate. Lately, moreover, the ranks of vocal critics of Islam within the faith itself have been depleted as the demands of combatting the external threat of anti-Muslim prejudice have come to seem more pressing. A bunker mentality has set in. And then there is a certain orthodoxy demanded by some quarters on the left. The listing of Maajid Nawaz by the Southern Poverty Law Center is a case in point: it was a sloppy designation that collapsed him and Ali into the same category; while it can be argued that Ali’s pugnacious statements on Islam and Muslims justified such a classification, it is harder to do so with Nawaz. One of the reasons cited for Nawaz’s listing by the SPLC is that he argued for the banning of the face veil under certain conditions. This is an illiberal position, but not an “extreme” one.

But the answer to those questions is that it’s not that hard to be a critical friend. Some achieve the status of native informant, but no one really has it thrust upon them—without their accepting it. Several Muslim and Arab activists have faced similar abuse (from progressives and from Muslim voices), yet made different choices. The writer and activist Mona Eltahawy, for example, has been attacked by some on the postcolonial left as a native informant because she adopts an uncompromising universalist position on women’s rights, which sometimes leads her to criticize “her people.” In response to an essay she wrote in Foreign Policy, “Why Do They Hate Us,” in which she argued that Arab men hate women, she was denounced for feeding Western stereotypes. Yet she has remained undiverted from her cause, the feminist fight against Arab patriarchy, without falling into the arms of the anti-Muslim right. Ed Husain, Nawaz’s co-founder of Quilliam, is now a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations where his career has taken a more scholarly route; he is an equally strong critic of extremism and intolerance in Islam and of the West’s misunderstanding of the Muslim world. Maryam Namazie, a high-profile British-Iranian secularist and spokeswoman for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, was a co-signatory, with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, of an open letter declaring that “After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global totalitarian threat: Islamism,” but she, too, is more discriminating about her political bedfellows than Ali appears to be.

What accounts for the difference between these other examplars and Ali and Nawaz seems to be the latters’ inability to separate their cause from their sense of slight or personal grievance. Their resentments toward the left derive in part from the intensifying culture wars, especially in the US, and in part from a sense of betrayal at not being embraced by those they might have assumed would be their natural allies. (“You were supposed to stand up for us, not intimidate us,” Nawaz wrote of the SPLC in The Daily Beast). This has put both Ali and Nawaz in a strange place, from which they argue that their “native” experience should take precedence over all other liberal or progressive positions, at the same time as they claim that their affinity with the right-wing pundits, neo-conservatives, or habitués of the Intellectual Dark Web has nothing to do with the Islam-insider perspective they bring. So they argue against “the bigotry of low expectations” in one breath, yet in the next deploy gender and skin color to deflect criticism. In a 2017 New York Times op-ed, Ali wrote:

I am a black woman, a feminist and a former Muslim who has consistently opposed political violence. The price for expressing my beliefs has been high: I must travel with armed security at all times. My friend and collaborator Theo van Gogh was murdered in broad daylight. Yet the SPLC has the audacity to label me an “extremist,” including my name in a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists” that it published on its website last October.

It is not clear why Ali’s gender, race, or former religion are relevant in this instance, unless these facets of identity are designed to operate here as some kind of moral shield. Nawaz often invokes his race on social media, sometimes reducing ideological criticism into a racial slight. One critic, disappointed by what he perceived as Nawaz’s conversion to the Charles Murray school of thought on IQ differences, called him “a good boy at heart but easily manipulated.” Nawaz responded: “1) No. You don’t know my view 2) You’re a white lefty calling me a good ‘boy’, who you ‘told.’ Because you know, a brown man can’t possibly think critically for himself…” 

Nawaz and Ali thus depend on a selective sort of identity politics, according to which there is no exchange to be had with white people who disagree with them (because they are patronizing and racist), but dialogue is possible with those who will engage in discussions about racial disparities in IQ, the “death of Europe” at the hands of immigrants, or the value of “enforced monogamy.” It is a license that Nawaz, in particular, does not extend to others, such as when he lambasts Muslim British politicians over their associations with Muslim organizations he regards as problematic or dangerously radical. In April, Nawaz demanded that Sayeeda Warsi, a peer in the House of Lords and the most prominent Muslim member in the British Conservative Party, explain her relationship with a group called Muslim Engagement and Development, which he alleged shares funding with a pro-jihadist group. Warsi responded that she “will engage with anyone who doesn’t espouse or excuse violence.” He accused her of hiding behind slogans and supporting Islamists while opposing counter-extremism organizations such as Quilliam.

In much the same way, they deploy the pre-emptive defense that the description of native informant itself is a racist slur, while accusing Muslims of using cries of Islamophobia as a shield from critical scrutiny. In keeping with the Dark Web members’ unfounded protestations of enforced purdah, both Nawaz and Ali seem to be everywhere, not only on Fox News and conservative platforms, but also giving talks on Ivy League campuses and appearing in the pages of The New York Times and on the airwaves with Anderson Cooper. Where they rarely seem to be is anywhere where there is a Muslim audience. A cursory look at the activity of their most enthusiastic social media followers reveals a skew toward not just the non-Muslim, but the fervently anti-Muslim.

It is hard to shake the impression that since Nawaz and Ali now see everything in relation to the traitorous left, they have been recruited to the right’s agenda—which is increasingly hostile to Muslims, immigrants, and brown people generally. In a recent interview, Ali scoffed at those who claimed that Trump’s presidency would be catastrophic because the founding fathers of the United States had, in their wisdom, devised a system that protects the republic from demagogues; she doesn’t “see any problem” with Trump’s travel ban on visitors and refugees from several Muslim-majority countries. As for Nawaz, his obsession with the “regressive left” has led him to conclude that good-faith efforts by British politicians to address Islamophobia will be “used as a shield to introduce blasphemy laws in Europe through the back door.” For two campaigners who spent so much time and trouble escaping the tyranny of religious indoctrination, it is ironic that they appear blind to the ways they have been co-opted by the forces of reaction. If they now face accusations of being native informants, they must reckon with their own agency in taking on the part of gatekeepers of a highly partisan Western view of Islam. What Nawaz and Ali fail to acknowledge when they dismiss any criticism of their positions and associations is their conscious complicity.