I profiled the controversial former Islamist and anti-extremist activist Maajid Nawaz in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. More than anything, I wanted to write a piece that took his arguments about radicalization seriously and separated the quality of his thought from the details of his personal biography—something his many detractors insist precludes him from the conversation. I first became aware of Nawaz in late 2015 when, holed up in my Paris apartment after the November 13 attacks, I found myself searching for ways to make sense of the punishingly nonsensical. Without knowing anything about his life, I encountered the man first through his ideas, which felt unusually reasonable and clear from where I was sitting. He positions himself firmly against Islamism but also against the xenophobic far right, noting the ways both are derived from larger transnational narratives, allegiances, and trends that are equally extremist and threatening to core democratic ideals. His views are heterodox, a quality I thought strengthened them.
But in writing about the man and observing the reaction to my piece on social media, I realized the kind of conversation I wanted to spark was virtually impossible in the current intellectual climate. A few high-profile voices on the left mocked the entire premise of the piece, as if the very act of writing about Nawaz was itself illegitimate. Here was a subject preemptively ruled out of bounds.
A friend wrote to point out that Nawaz’s problem is in many ways the problem of the center-left in general in this age of escalating polarization: if you are not to the extreme of one side, then you are by necessity on the other. But we can all agree that so long as one is in lockstep agreement with one’s own tribe, one may be doing many things, but thinking independently is not one of them. We can agree on that, can’t we?