Nick Cohen

How Maajid Nawaz went from hero to conspiracy theorist

His ideas now are not so far from the ravings of the dogmatists he once exposed

August 04, 2022 09:28

On a summer evening in the 2010s, I went to a fine Edwardian home on the western edge of Hampstead to sell Maajid Nawaz to Liberal Democrat activists. They could see that the talk show host was a handsome and charismatic presence. I added that he was a man of unimpeachable liberal principles as well. He had put his life on the line for noble ideals when he founded the Quilliam Institute, a counter-extremism think tank that opposed the ultra-reactionary version of Islam he had supported in his youth.

Hampstead’s Jews would welcome his rejection of antisemitic conspiracy theory. Every decent person would applaud his commitment to human rights and democracy. Impressed more by his efforts than mine, Hampstead Lib Dems put him forward as their candidate in the 2015 general election.

Now look at him. During the pandemic, he came out as an anti-vaxxer. LBC is not a station famed for its fastidiousness. It still cancelled his show. Nawaz lost his job, but conspiracy theorists from across the English-speaking world rewarded him by sending his Twitter follower count above 500,000.

Since then he has dipped into what I label as paranoid interpretations from across the web. Everywhere, he sees the “New World Order” — a plot to replace nation states with a totalitarian world government. He talks of satanic rituals, the Nazis and the Bilderberg Group as easily as the rest of us talk about the weather.

I broke with him when he tweeted that left-wing anti-fascist demonstrators acted as agent provocateurs during the storming of the Capitol in January 2021.

To make a living Nawaz must feed his audience. Like any influencer who depends on clicks and Substack subscriptions to maintain his income he must keep his customers satisfied. Nawaz cannot afford to admit that antifa demonstrators played no part in the Capitol riots or that he now realises that a cabal of modern illuminati has no intention of taking over the planet.

Analogies from the pre-digital age do not do justice to the stresses the new technologies impose. You can think of Nawaz as a businessman gauging his market. But business owners do not think their customers are rejecting every aspect of their personality when they shop elsewhere. Even actors reeling from the judgements of theatre audiences do not experience the same psychic pressure a social media audience can apply. Actors are on stage for a few hours, and can blame a poor script or director for failure. Living online leads to a hunger for approval and fear of rejection that is centred on the self.

“Gurwinder”, the author of Prism, a Substack that analyses digital media and culture, recently described the phenomenon of “audience capture”. We talk of “captive audiences,” when performers exert control over the viewers. But the power can flow in the other direction as audiences take over the performers. Everyone changes their behaviour because of the attention of family, friends and workmates. Online we have the attention of strangers, or in the case of influencers like Nawaz of hundreds of thousands of strangers. Social media rewards polarisation because it builds bonds between people who have nothing else in common. The influencer can measure their approval in likes, comments and retweets. He learns he must remain in his outlandish character to meet their expectations.

John Updike said in the 20th century that celebrity was “the mask that eats into the face”. Online celebrity in the 21st is the scalpel that rearranges the face into a cartoon version of the man or woman you once were.

The person becomes the persona, and if he or she returns to their old self it feels almost dishonest. The online caricature is now the authentic you.

Like me, Gurwinder was once Nawaz’s friend and admirer. Like me, he remembers Nawaz insisting that Quilliam staff collected evidence before condemning Islamist or white neo-fascist extremism.

The social media scalpel has cut up this careful, evidence-based activist and rebuilt him as a caricature conspiracy theorist, whose ideas are not so far from the ravings of the dogmatists he once exposed.

Nawaz’s enemies have a simpler explanation. He was always an extremist, they say: an Islamist extremist when he supported Hizb-ut-Tahrir as a young man, a liberal extremist when he ran Quilliam, and a QAnon-style extremist today. The lyrics change but the tune remains the same.

This is too pat a theory, and everyone who knew the Nawaz of the 2010s can see its faults. It misses how the technological revolution is pushing social media users into becoming prisoners of their personas as they change to suit the watching online eyes.

If you doubt me, look at acquaintances that spend hours each day on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. Look maybe at how you have changed if you do the same.

Maajid Nawaz may be an outlier. But the processes that wrought his transformation are transforming our culture.

August 04, 2022 09:28

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