Was Maajid Nawaz’s “extremist” phone-in guest scripted?

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“Quilliam International” released a podcast of Maajid Nawaz talking on LBC radio with a phone-in guest calling himself “Razwan”. On Youtube the clip is entitled “Maajid Nawaz talks to former extremist who wanted to assassinate him”.

The podcast seems to have gone down very well with viewers, receiving a very high number of likes compared to dislikes – and apparently attracting almost universally rave reviews from commenters.

One commenter (Joel Brazel) enthused, “This kept me hanging on every word exchanged; I’m not sure any piece of fiction could even come close to this…”

Yes. Unless of course it is exactly that – a piece of fiction.

At the beginning of the clip we hear Nawaz telling listeners the call-in number, so we understand this purports to be a spontaneous chat show in which callers can randomly phone in to discuss issues with Nawaz.

But was this call really spontaneous? Or was it instead premeditated, scripted and perhaps even practiced beforehand?

For a start, unlike most of the other material published on Youtube by Quilliam, only the audio is provided. Most other clips are video segments showing Nawaz in the studio talking into his microphone. Perhaps his video recording apparatus was not working that day?

But then there is the distinct, intermittent sound of someone’s mouse clicking (2:27, 2:28, 2:32, 5:40, 5:41, 5:49, 10:11, 10:12, 10:16, 10:17, 10:21, 10:22, 10:27, 11:13, 11:14, 11:17, 11:21, 11:22). That would have to be either Razwan or Nawaz, because the mouse would need to be quite close to someone’s microphone. Of course it is perfectly possible that one of the two was just idly browsing for pizza delivery, though it does seem rather unlikely given they are live on air. There are no mouse clicks on any of Nawaz’s video footage, and he doesn’t normally sit with a computer.

Other technical observations supporting this idea include Razwan’s wooden delivery, his stumbles over longer words (e.g. “meticulously” at around 1 minute 15s, “predominantly” at 2 m 16s), and his sudden canned expressions of emotion – e.g. “oh my god, it’s a massive problem” (at around 3 min 10s) and long sighs in response to several questions.

In my imagination Nawaz is well organised and has his script in front of him on a piece of paper. The less professional Razwan is sitting at home reading from his PC screen. Razwan is quite nervous but also very excited to have the opportunity of delivering this performance live on air, and he is prone to wandering off script, or forgetting which parts they agreed to leave out. In particular, Nawaz’s haste to move on from the comment about Nawaz being Razwan’s assassination target sounds like Nawaz reigning Razwan in.

Before going any further, let’s take a moment to discuss motive. If Nawaz scripted this discussion, what was his objective? Rather than saving my thoughts on this as a cliff-hanger for my concluding paragraph, I will hearby break with standard essay-writing practice and provide some suggestions from the outset. The reason is because I think without some notion of what to look for my complaints about Razwan’s story might seem jumbled, and you might not stick the argument out until the end.

Here’s my theory:

Nawaz knows he can’t deny attrocities have been committed against the West in the name of Islam. He also realises people won’t believe this is all coming from overseas. Instead he limits his objective to:

  1. Reinforcing the false narrative that those who commit violent acts are “extremists” following an “extreme interpretation” of Islam, and that Islam itself is fundamentally peaceful. He wants us to keep thinking that we need only to worry about certain groups – not about the ideology of Islam itself.
  2. Trying to cement in our minds that Islam has the same values as Christianity and the West. Only “extremists” believe in killing apostates. (Nawaz makes himself out to be a moderate muslim himself and has no issue with his caller saying he has converted to being a Roman Catholic. Razwan specifically mentions comparing his mother with “Mary the mother of Jesus”.)
  3. Reassuring us that extremists can “see the error of their ways”, renounce extremism, become like British people, and even fight against what they used to believe.
  4. Asserting that Nawaz and his “counter-extremist” organisation is having an impact on dealing with this “Islamic Extremism”, and that we can all take our finger off the panic button, because Nawaz and his chums have the problem all in order. Nawaz of course, by his own admission “used to be an extremist” – so the fact that he is being trusted to run a “counter-extremist” organisation is insane in itself.
  5. Stalling us with endless debate and confusing us with contradicting claims so we never agree on what action to take. A democracy is weak when everyone disagrees, and a way to exploit this is to spread doubt, discord and disinformation. It’s divide and conquer all over again. (May I recommend some highly intellectual philosophical reading: see “Asterix and the Roman Agent”.)
  6. I am going to say these guys are having a lot of fun. They are laughing at us. Some of the things they are saying are so ridiculous, they can only possibly have been dreamt up by individuals taking pleasure in making fools out of people. Think of one of Sacha Baron Cohen’s early “Ali G” interviews (when the interviewee didn’t know who he was) or Chris Morris from Brass Eye. There’s an arrogance here, and I think that is important.

Razwan begins his story by claiming he “dabbled with extremism”, as if “extremism” was something you could fall into on a rainy day, like signing up for a cooking class.

Razwan says it started when he “asked his parents if he could join the Taliban”. He does not provide any information about what happened beforehand which could have led him to be considering this course of action. It certainly could not have been his parents, because he reports them denying his request. He then “ended up asking scholars for permission” but unfortunately they also said “no”. So where exactly was this Taliban-joining desire supposed to have come from?

Later he says (at around 2 min 16s), “Online I think was predominantly the way I learnt things and justified things and whatever.” He learnt and justified “things” online. He thinks. And whatever.

But he was “in touch, eventually, with Isis soldiers through Twitter”. So perhaps the problem is Twitter? No explanation is given as to what “eventually” meant or who got “in touch” with who.

Here’s another problem with the story. Razwan claims to have asked his parents to join the Taliban, and yet later was “in touch with Isis”, despite these two organisations being at war with each other. Was Razwan devoid of any particular ideology? He just wanted to take part in “extremism” for the sake of it, regardless of which team he was on, and what exactly the group he was joining stood for?

I suggest it takes a very solidified set of beliefs to persuade people to go out and kill people who are not actually a direct threat. It’s not really a “hm, I feel like trying a spot of extremism. Lets send out a few emails and see which organisation will have me,” kind of affair.

Razwan says when he was asking for permission from the scholars he would “meet them privately in mosques, that kind of thing”. Now, even if we are to believe that Razwan wanted to be an extremist, but the Imams were nice, law abiding British citizens who didn’t want him to go down this road – shouldn’t those Imams be telling the UK authorities about his intentions? Or is privately expressing a desire to murder British citizens covered by confession secrecy rules?

Similarly when Razwan claims to know muslims who were “banned from all mosques in our city… for things that they had done” (around 2 minutes 45 s). If that were the case, shouldn’t the Imams be reporting those Muslims to the authorities? Just how did the collusion between the mosques work so as to ban those Muslims from the mosques, whilst never informing the authorities? If this claim were true, contrary to indicating the noble intentions of the general Muslim population, this would be no less than a damning indictment of it.

But where are any newspaper reports at all of Muslims being banned from mosques? I mean, not just in this case, but ever? A quick search turns up nothing at all. On the contrary, mosques seem perfectly happy to give the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah or any other openly murderous organisations a platform. Indeed we might speculate the only way Razwan’s friends might end up banned by mosques would be if they were attacking the muslim community itself. But that would be a completely different story.

At around 2 minutes into the discussion, Razwan drops the bombshell that Nawaz was one of his “two potential targets for assassination”. Nawaz does not seem to miss a beat at this news, nor appear at all curious as to any of the details. Personally if I learnt that I was talking to an individual who had planned my assassination, I might come across slightly ruffled for at least the next few seconds – and I would definitely have a number of questions. Not so with Nawaz – in fact quite the opposite: with no drop at all in his composure he quickly ushers the conversation away from this topic, “So Razwan, moving away from naming specific individuals who may feel threatened by that…”

The nonsense continues. At 3 mins 20 seconds Razwan “got to the point where I believed my mission in life is to just further the cause of my version of Islam through violent means.” Listen to the recording – that emphasis is not mine. Razwan is very keen for us to be clear that his “extremist” view was not a “normal interpretation” of Islam.

Further still, “I used to walk the streets and look at little girls and think, ‘Why do you deserve to die?’ And I used to go home and justify it in my mind. I used to go to the central mosque and I used to look at the Imam and think, ‘Why do you deserve to die’, and I used to go away…”

The message they want you to take away from this is clear: not only are extremists not normal muslims, but they want to kill innocent muslims just as much as non-believers. Why, muslims are just as much victims of extremists as everyone else!

Now here’s an exercise: listen to Razwan’s rambling “explanation” of how he came to leave Islam, and sum it up in your own words. Having difficulty? That’s because what he says over this section of the clip (around 5:35 – 7:20) makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. “What happened was, it’s amazing. I was in the process of getting rid of all of my things, giving them away to charity…” Don’t make the mistake of thinking Razwan is unusual here. Simply all Jihadis are highly charitable. “And then I was going to move flat once to clear my tracks a bit more, and then I was going to set off, and I had the money ready and everything. And then what happened was, I was still praying like, like a… I was the most devout muslim I’d ever heard of never mind met, and during the night I would be, you know, just tears running down my cheeks and I would be, um, just asking God, ‘Please, if I’m wrong then show me…’ I’d already gone through the whole process in my mind of what are my friends gonna think when I’m in the newspapers, what are my parents gonna go through, and I’d justify that it was all worth it. So I’d be there, it was just me and God now. And, um, I would say to God if I’m wrong, please show me – this kind of thing. And then finally I got to the point where I thought, ‘Okay, let me now think, er, ways that would be blasphemous for me to have thought before.'”

Still with him? Me neither, but it gets worse.

“Because I’m about to die. It literally hit me that I am about to leave this world, in some way or fashion. I am about to go to prison, I don’t know what that’s going to do to my mind – I’m going to go psychotic. I thought this is the moment now for me to think a certain way that’s sinful, so I started to read things from a whole different viewpoint, and then suddenly things started to unravel, and then there was this… my world kinda turned upside down, and I thought ‘hold on, have I seen everything in the wrong way’, and that was a long process as well. And thats… eh… how I kinda left it.”

Um. What?

Notice how there is not one single detail during this entire string of verbal diarrhea. Normal, real stories have specific details – they happen at certain places at certain times, involve certain people and contain certain memorable detail. “I was at Glastonbury Music festival at the back of the big arena, and my friend Mike had just given me this t-shirt which said “Big Fat Nerd” on it…”

Razwan’s “story” not only has no dates, times or places, it involves literally zero other people. It’s a strange tale of an epiphany which mysteriously hit him somewhere at some time while doing some unspecified activity, for no real reason whatsoever. This then marked the beginning of an equally mysterious “long process” which apparently manifested itself over a 5 year period, during which he spent his time doing unspecified things, again at unspecified locations, with unspecified people. It’s not clear what elements were present duing this “long process” which saved him from his extremism.

“I’ve already put one foot in hell.. but God would kind of take that foot away and the rest of my body would go to heaven, type thing.” says Razwan.

“Yeah,” says Nawaz, as if that all makes perfect sense. Apparently, “the exact same thing” happened to him.

But Nawaz’s version seem to happen a lot faster. He appears have his epiphany literally the moment after becoming an extremist. He says, “In solitary confinement, after we witnessed the torture in Egypt, and I got to that brink where I said, ‘I want revenge against the Egyptian state, and I’m prepared to be a suicide bomber because I watch people die in front of me from torture. And it was at that moment that I had to permit myself to think differently, just to be sure, just to be 100% sure that I was right, and you know, the rest is history, it unravelled from there. So I really relate to your experience.”

So as soon as he was prepared to become a suicide bomber, that’s when he knew he could no longer be an extremist. Had he conducted any “extreme” acts before then I wonder? In fact, did either of these “extremists” actually commit any extreme acts at all? They seem like an especially benign pair of extremists, both of whom just went to some strange place in their heads, mulled over the possibility of committing some extreme acts, but in the end never actually did anything at all. What definition of “extremist” are we using here exactly – possibly a “non-practising” one?

“If I went back to, er, my home town, um, it’s very likely I would be beaten to… almost death,” says Razwan at around 8 m 20s.

“Wow!” says Nawaz, after after a pause, as if this surprises him. Why would it surprise him? Nawaz’s continuing attempt to feign the mannerisms of a “BBC” style English liberal – who might indeed react in such a way – just does not work here. Surely Nawaz as someone who “used to be an extremist” and has reportedly spent several years in jail in Egypt for his extremism, would know full well the brutal punishments in Islam and the fact that apostasy is punishable by death. (In fact, he himself mentions death for the crime of apostasy in his Newsnight discussion with Jeremy Paxman and Anjem Choudary). Didn’t Nawaz, as an extremist, blow people up and cut people’s heads off? How did he end up such a gentle sounding liberal, anyway?

For his next trick Razwan says he also rang up a radio station to answer “yes” to the question “is it ok to assassinate British people fighting for Isis?” because he “knows what these people are capable of”. Not only did this guy used to try to build bombs to kill British people, now he has gone entirely to the other extreme and is advocating killing people who did what he did? Surely if he was “saved” himself, then he would want to “save” other people, not kill them?

But we drift yet further into the realms of hilarity, and here we are getting to the part of the discussion which made me add item 6 to my list of Nawaz’s objectives. It seems that by now Razwan has cast off his initial nerves, and with ever growing confidence is making increasingly preposterous claims. (Perhaps in his arrogance he is wandering off script?)

It turns out Razwan is a chronic religion hopper. After his epiphany he became “Shia initially”. Remember, this is after shifting between the 2 Sunni hardline organisations of the Taliban and Isis. Razwan doesn’t offer any justification for his decision to switch from Sunni to Shia Islam. While this apparently is not unheard of, it would seem those making the transition do have some quite particular reasons for making the move, none of which relate to ex-extremist epiphanies. The 2 versions of Islam are different in quite specific ways, but neither really seems more “extremist” friendly.

Without futher ado he then became Roman Catholic. This happened a year ago – though please remember he hasn’t seen his family in 3 years. So I guess he was “Shia initially” for 2 years? Or perhaps he tried a couple other religions in between?

Razwan doesn’t forget to to appeal to identity politics, and thus paint a picture of himself as a victim: “And I’m Afghan ethnically as well. I’m sure that played its part, you know, with disillusionment in this country; not knowing who I was being an Afghan here, second generation and so on…”

Nawaz continues the attempt to portray “extremists” as victims “stuck” in a place they don’t really want to be in: “The process that you went through, and the process that I went through, as you agree there are probably hundreds if not thousands of young, angry muslims in the country who are still stuck there. And you and I both know what that feels like, and its not a… it’s a horrible place to be in.”

Yes. Obviously its a far worse place than having your head cut off.

Razwan, “The security services asked me, they told me they’ve got a… they’ve got a young guy whose still in secondary school and he sits in class and he draws pictures, he doodles a plane going into the twin towers and he’s still in secondary school…”

So we have a kid who is sitting in class dreamily doodling, only instead of doodling a girl’s name or perhaps creatures from science fiction, Napoleon Dynamite style, this kid is doodling “a plane going into the twin towers”. Is it only me that finds this mental image ridiculous?

Precisely how many times did this kid doodle this scene in particular? Were the police not alerted the first time he did it, and if not why not? And these “doodles” were definitely and unmistakably of “a plane going into the twin towers”? Personally I’m not sure I could produce enough detail to depict that in a “doodle”.

“.. said “what can we do with him”. And I actually said, “Send him to every single imam of every single muslim sect and get him to sit down with each one and learn his religion better”.

Again the very deliberate message is that Islam itself is not the culprit. What the kid needs to do to free himself of his “extremist” ideas is not give up the religion – instead he should learn more about the religion. Because of course Islam is the cure, not the ailment.

“They were shocked that I said that…” continues Razwan. Really? The “security services” were “shocked” that an “ex-Muslim extremist” recommended going to see Imams? You would think the “security services”, presumably dealing with the threat of actual terrorist activities on a daily basis, might be a little more difficult to shock.

“They thought I was going to say tell him to, you know, become atheist or read, er, you know Dawkins..” Did they indeed? And how exactly can you be sure this is what they “thought you were going to say”? Is there some specific reason why the “security services” would expect Razwan to reach for Dawkins? Unless at some point he had claimed to be influenced by Dawkins, I really don’t see why the “security services” would expect a response involving Dawkins. What religious practitioners ever recommend Dawkins? That’s a fantastically naive “security services” you’ve got there.

How about this gem: “My mum was full, you know, burqa, niqab – everything – and she’s a good woman. I’d actually make parallels between my mother, who’s Deobandi and wears a niqab and burqa and Mary the mother of Jesus. That’s how good of a woman my mother is.”

I want to conclude by expressing my opinion that this whole charade was nothing more than a complete piss-take. It has “spoof” written all over it. Think about a documentary produced by “Brass Eye”. For Westerners, this does not need explanation. It may be presented dead-pan, but we instinctively watch it and laugh, because we know it can’t be serious. I put it to you that this is the same kind of spoof, except the person being made a fool of is the trusting Westerner who doesn’t know enough about Islam to see the joke.

Of course another reason for missing the humour is the fact we really don’t find terrorism all that funny. But apparently, in Islam, it’s a great big joke.

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