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Why does Maajid Nawaz get taxpayers' money to discredit Islam and Muslims?

Social media has been awash with comments about the antics of the Quilliam Foundation's Maajid Nawaz since a Daily Mail article splashed details of his "stag night" held last year. While it is tempting to join in and condemn him for being, it is alleged, "very drunk", as well being in a seedy strip club cavorting with a lap-dancer, it is more fitting to refrain from doing so. He denies acting "inappropriately" in any case. The owner of the club involved also carries a Muslim name, so one must presume that the visit of Nawaz was not unusual in itself and that the clientele includes Muslims as a matter of course. They, however, do not claim to be experts on Islam and Shari'ah law, unlike Nawaz. Hence the flood of criticism on Facebook and Twitter.

Should we care what someone does in his private life? Normally, probably not. What goes on behind closed doors should be of no concern to the public outside. However, it should ring a few alarm bells among reasonable people that Maajid Nawaz is seen by the Liberal Democrats to be a suitable candidate for a parliamentary election. The idea that someone who has gone to such a club and appears to be quite proud of it simply because it was his "stag night" is quite probably anathema to many, regardless of their personal beliefs. It would be foolish to expect MPs to be squeaky-clean in their personal lives – and they're not, as the expenses scandal demonstrated – and there may be other parliamentary candidates looking at Nawaz this weekend and saying, "There but for the Grace of God, go I." Nevertheless, people aspiring for public office are, not unreasonably, held to higher standards and are expected to set a good example for others to follow.

In Nawaz's case, he has also been promoted as a "moderate" Muslim by the government, which has poured a great deal of taxpayers' money into his Quilliam Foundation, the self-proclaimed "world's first counter-extremism organisation". Based in London, its staff include former leading members of Islamist organisations. The foundation lobbies the government and public institutions for more "nuanced policies regarding Islam" and the need for greater democracy in the Muslim world. Why, though, does he get taxpayers' money to discredit mainstream Islam? He has been at the forefront of the political and media vilification of Islamic organisations in Britain and abroad, and the individuals involved in them. It is also claimed that he is a member of "Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel", which probably puts him at odds with most Muslims in the world. Quilliam, it seems, sets the benchmark for what is an acceptable Islam (and Muslim) for an increasingly right-wing political class, and Nawaz has played a leading role in this.

The government clearly believes that the 37-year-old is representative of Islam and Muslims; the fact that the government has chosen Nawaz and his cronies to fulfil such a role says a great deal about what kind of Islam and Muslims the government envisages as the "ideal". Given that his foray into the lap-dancing world is claimed to have taken place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, it emphasises further why he should neither claim to represent any version of Islam nor be promoted by the public authorities and taxpayers' money as doing so. Far from being a leading or significant member of the Muslim community, he is doing his best to distance himself from Islam and its tenets as practised by the vast majority of genuinely moderate Muslims in this country. There are many more suitable candidates for the government to promote as "best practice" for Muslims in Britain; most of them, incidentally, would not identify themselves as "Islamists".

A former member of Hizb-ut Tahrir (the Freedom Party) which campaigns for the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate through non-violent means (at least in Britain), Nawaz was jailed in Egypt in 2005 for his "radical" activities. He claims that he was tortured in prison which, given the propensity of Egyptian governments to do so, is more than likely. When he was released and returned to Britain in 2006, he renounced his "extremist" views and became a spokesman on the issue of extremism. On the face of it, this seems to have been an odd U-turn to make. He was jailed and tortured by the very secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, which persecuted Islamists, and yet upon his return to the UK he turned against the latter and, in effect, advocates the kind of "Islam" preferred by the likes of Mubarak and the current president in Egypt. In other words, it is hardly recognisable as Islam at all, beyond a degree of lip-service. The allegations of his activities in the lap-dancing club would appear to bear this out. He may not have been acting "inappropriately" for such an establishment, as his spokesman claims, but it was certainly inappropriate for a Muslim to even be in such a place (never mind own one, Mr Abdul Malik).

His friends have sprung to his defence, pointing out that only God can judge individuals and their actions, which is true. However, that's a bit odd coming from people who complain about Islamists' promotion of Shari'ah law and insist that everyone should uphold the law of the land, something with which most British Muslims would agree. He hasn't, of course, broken any law in this country that we know of, but his friends rightly refer to him being judged by a God whose revealed religion they claim to follow while simultaneously distancing themselves from it in practice. No wonder Nawaz seems to be so confused, although it does explain why his spokesman pointed out that the man with a fondness for lap-dancers who has claimed to be a "feminist" only has a reputation for advocating women's rights "in the context of Islamic extremism". Or that he apparently held his "stag night" four months before his wedding when, traditionally, it is held the night, or a few days, before the wedding. As someone who espouses "British values" in his "anti-extremism" work, Nawaz should have known that and briefed his spokesman more carefully.

At least one MP has called upon the Liberal Democrats to drop Nawaz as a parliamentary candidate. It has been reported, however, that party leader Nick Clegg has refused to turn his back on the man described by the Sunday Times as "Clegg's darling". The Muslim community in Britain turned their backs on Nawaz years ago. Perhaps it is time for the government to do so as well, and cut all links with the Quilliam Foundation if ministers are genuine about wanting support from within the Muslim community for their efforts to tackle extremism. Quilliam had very little credibility amongst British Muslims before the latest headlines; it has even less now.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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