Synopsis: The Right Inches Closer to Islamism: Islamists are not alone in seeking a partnership. Increasingly, conservatives are also working to coopt Western Muslims as important allies against the perceived evils of progressivism, even if Islamists receive greater prominence as a result. For many Republicans, American Muslims may be simply a promising new voting bloc. For others on the Right, however, Islam itself is regarded increasingly as a powerful bulwark against the Left, "globalism," and other perceived threats. Perhaps, in the near future, Islam will be seen not as a threat to Right-wing political designs, but as a means of imposing them.
Maajid Nawaz set up the Quilliam Foundation in 2007. The first counter-Islamist Muslim think tank, it worked to counter the pernicious threats of radicalization and terrorism – partnering with Britain's Home Office and various law enforcement agencies and governments all around the world.
Nawaz was the right man for the job. A former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamist movement with deep ties to terror, his Islamist activities ended with four years imprisoned in an Egyptian jail. Upon his release, he renounced Hizb ut-Tahrir and Islamist ideas. His subsequent, highly praised counter-extremism work (which made him the target of Islamists all around the world) eventually led to his appointment as Prime Minister David Cameron's counter-extremism advisor.
He has long held broader political ambitions. However, despite standing a few years ago as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats, a Left-leaning political party, in recent years, Maajid Nawaz has dropped his counter-Islamist work and embraced a new political identity, referred to by some – whether fairly or not – as the "alt-Right."
Fired from his radio broadcasting job, and with the Quilliam Foundation shut down, Nawaz now spends his days advancing anti-"globalist" views through his various podcasts and online writings. Followed by many tens of thousands, Nawaz advances pro-Putin regime conspiracy theories about Ukrainian "bioweapons" labs, declares "HUGE CRACKS in the state's 9/11 NARRATIVE," and has expressed a variety of questionable claims about vaccines and election fraud.
Most curious, however, has been Nawaz's gradual shift on the question of radical Islam.
Following the stabbing of Salman Rushdie, Nawaz tweeted that "Muslims will be scapegoated, again." He has attacked a Leftist activist for using the term "sharia," and has partly-endorsed claims by the Qatari regime-backed outlet, Middle East Eye, that David Cameron, his old boss, launched a "cold war on Islam."
Most extraordinarily, Nawaz has denounced Biden for criticizing Pakistan, and defended deposed Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as a fearless leader who took a stand against corruption, and was ousted as a part of a "globalist," U.S.-backed conspiracy.
Khan was a dangerous figure, whose regime advanced Islamism across the world and funded and supported terrorism, from the Taliban in Afghanistan and jihadists in Kashmir to Hamas in the Gaza strip. Domestically, Khan established huge efforts to advance various methods of "Islamization" across Pakistan, making use of approaches pioneered during the dictatorship of Zia Ul Haq.
Despite all this, Nawaz – who as a counter-extremist spoke out against the misuse of "Islamophobia" accusations to shut down debate – now claims that "it's an anti-Muslim slur to inaccurately introduce [Imran Khan] using the term 'Islamist.'"
Whether Nawaz genuinely believes the conspiracies, or whether he has happened on a self-serving, lucrative new career is up for debate. Either way, he understands, perhaps more than anyone, the political changes around Islam and Islamism in the West.
Speaking on Joe Rogan's podcast in January 2022, he declared: "Muslims are a lot more conservative... they used to vote ... Republican ... And then Iraq happened, and they switched to the Democrats...we're in a moment now where that switch is going ... very slowly, back to the Republicans."
Nawaz's collection of conspiracies and new worldview is leading his legions of fans in a certain direction, with one supporter stating: "[Islam] used to be portrayed as our enemy or something, when I would much rather live in a conservative traditional Muslim society than whatever the west is trying to make."
Nawaz is not the only "alt-Right" figure soft-pedaling the problems of radical Islam. In December 2021, Jordan Peterson, the controversial but interesting psychologist and commentator, subscribed to by millions, invited British Islamist Mohammad Hijab onto his podcast. Hijab – an unapologetic antisemite – has recently encouraged Muslims in the British city of Leicester to respond violently to "Hindu fascism" in the city.
Peterson has met repeatedly with other American Muslim voices with Islamist ties, including Hamza Yusuf, head of the Zaytuna Institute. In May 2022, Peterson and Yusuf conducted an online discussion about "What We Can All Learn From Islam & The Quran."
Yusuf is not just the subject of interest by figures such as Peterson, but has enjoyed support from mainstream Republicans as well. In 2019, he accepted a position in the Trump administration's Commission on Unalienable Rights.
Peterson and Nawaz may be interesting case studies, but they are not mainstream conservatives, even if their ideological worldview has gained ground within Republican circles in recent years. The GOP itself, however, is also changing its tune on the question of Islamism.
On July 9, tens of thousands of Somali Muslim Minnesotans gathered to celebrate Eid Al-Adha at "Super Eid," an enormous event organized by dozens of Minnesota Muslim organizations at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
If America's best-known Muslim, Representative Ilhan Omar, was even at this important, vast event – which took place in her own district and was covered by international television stations such as Al Jazeera – she was keeping a low profile.
It was instead Minnesota's Republican Party officials and politicians, including gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen, who were paraded as honored guests, selling their political ideas to attendees.
Republican officials, including the Minnesota GOP head David Hann, took pictures with Islamist leaders, including Waleed al-Maneese, president of Dar Al Farooq, another organizing body behind Super Eid. Egyptian counter-extremism analyst Hany Ghoraba notes that Maneese has "cited Islamic scripture accusing Jews of spreading 'corruption in the land' and has instructed Muslims to place Sharia law above 'man-made' laws."
Super Eid organizers are closely involved with the Minnesota Republicans. Tawakal Ismail, who addressed the crowds of attendees, appeared to manage the GOP's involvement in the event. Ismail is an active party member, arranging the Minnesota Somali Republican Dinner on September 24.
On his social media, Ismail appears to have posted sermons about the "massacre" of Muslim people by the "Jews of Israel." Ismail, along with several other Super Eid speakers, is a graduate of the Islamic University of Minnesota, a Salafi institution run by Waleed al-Maneese, and which has a well-established record of teaching extremism.
Not content with merely showing up, the Republicans at Super Eid handed over money as well. A GOP press release on Republican involvement with the event reports that:
MNGOP Chair David Hann was greeted with great appreciation when he respectfully stepped forward to pledge $5000 to assist in famine relief. The donation will be made to a charitable organization that has a record of direct support to the people in need. The good will engendered by this contribution and the Republican presence at the stadium will be best measured in the voting outcomes this fall.
When contacted for comment, the Minnesota GOP refused to state to which charity the money was paid, or whether it came from party coffers.
Islamic Relief and its branches stand accused by legislators, journalists and counter-terrorism analysts of funding extremism across Europe, and terrorism in the Middle East. A December 2020 press release by the U.S. Department of State noted the charitable franchise's "blatant and horrifying antisemitism and glorification of violence."
HHRD, meanwhile, is a proxy for the violent South Asian Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami. In 2017, the charity openly partnered with the designated Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which 166 were murdered. In March 2022, three members of Congress wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to warn about HHRD's activities and noted that, in 2019, an "organizer of an ICNA/HHRD fundraiser was convicted of lying to the FBI as part of a terror finance investigation."
Meanwhile, radical imams such as Asad Zaman offered sermons at the event. Zaman is head of the local branch of another Super Eid organizer, the Muslim American Society (MAS). In 2008, federal prosecutors named MAS officials as unindicted coconspirators in a major terrorism case. Posts promoted by Zaman on his Facebook account include a wide variety of extremist content, such as expressions of support for convicted Islamist war criminals and links to a neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denial website, which promotes viciously antisemitic conspiracy theories.
There is cause to be alarmed by this newfound Republican willingness to partner with the Super Eid organizers. Minnesotan GOP officials were not just embracing a neglected Muslim demographic; they are offering legitimacy, and seemingly funding, to hardline Islamists.
Ten years ago, involvement with such imams and groups would likely have generated a serious backlash in conservative press. When did all this change?
Despite the pugnacious nature of Trump's comments about Muslims and radical Islam in 2016, it was in fact his administration that introduced a surprisingly permissive approach to domestic Islamism.
The Middle East Forum's study of federal spending in 2021 revealed:
Trump's federal government gave out, on average, almost three times as much cash to American Islamic organizations per year as it did under Obama. ... [Of] the $63.5 million of federal monies given to domestic Islamic groups since 2009, $37.6 million has gone to groups with some degree of Islamist influence. In just four years, the Trump administration was responsible for over $26 million of that total sum. In other words, under Trump, America has served as a leading state sponsor of nonviolent Islamism.
Monies were handed out to a wide variety of dangerous Islamist groups, including organizations deemed too radical by the Obama administration, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as well as charities under investigation for terror finance.
The Trump administration's involvement with Islamists was not just financial. Senior administration officials met repeatedly with Islamist organizations. Charities such as Islamic Relief were even invited to events hosted by Trump's daughter, Ivanka.
Our studies of federal contact with Islamist groups under Trump were steadfastly ignored by conservative press. Media outlets that had run dozens of our essays and articles in the past refused to touch them, including one popular Right-leaning outlet dedicated to coverage of radical Islam in America.
For many, it is difficult to imagine that the Trumpified conservative movement in America could have come to regard Islamism in the West as a potential partner. More likely, the Trump administration's willingness to fund and empower Islamists was the result of a growing indifference to the subject of radical Islam.
But as Super Eid, Dearborn and other presented examples illustrate, the latter may well have helped to set the stage for the former.
There are other incidents worth noting. In August 2022, four Republican congressional candidates agreed to take part in a candidates' forum at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Illinois. Perhaps one of the most extreme Islamist institutions in North America, the Mosque Foundation has been the subject of multiple federal investigations over terror finance ties.
When questioned publicly about their attendance, two of the Republican candidates withdrew; the remaining two, however, still happily took part.
In May 2022, Republican candidate Greg Raths featured in a candidate forum at the Orange County Islamic Foundation, where he told the Muslim audience, according to the Washington Free Beacon, that the "'Jewish community' uses money to 'control' U.S. politicians." A year earlier, reports the Investigative Project on Terrorism, the mosque's imam called Israelis "child killers" and urged Muslims to "sacrifice whatever resources we can in defense of that land."
Trump himself also continues to disregard Islamism. In April 2022, he endorsed Dr. Oz, the popular television presenter, as the Republican nominee for the upcoming United States Senate election in Pennsylvania. He did so in spite of Oz's widely-reported ties, first revealed by the Middle East Forum, to the Turkish regime, with which Trump himself enjoyed a close relationship.
A month later, Trump declared that Oz's rival for the nomination, Kathy Barnette, had "not been properly explained or vetted" after it emerged that Barnette had expressed some anti-Muslim views.
A lot has changed in Republican politics for Trump to endorse a Muslim candidate and denounce his Islamophobic rivals. The "War on Terror" seems to finally be fading from public consciousness, and hawkish Middle East policy — which was joined at the hip with anti-Islam sentiment — no longer dominates Republican politics.
One key official at Responsible Statecraft, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, is the former executive editor of the influential American Conservative. The late Mark Perry, who encouraged the West to work with violent Islamist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote for both these outlets up until his death.
Indeed, conservative publications such as the American Conservative now publish a growing number of columns denouncing defenders of the "blasphemous" Salman Rushdie or endorsing portrayals of Islam as a bulwark against "the spread of utopian progressivism."
American Conservative authors include leading figures of a new "post-liberal" religious conservativism, such as Sohrab Ahmari, who – once a vehement counter-Islamist – now takes a curiously indifferent view towards the theocracy of the Islamist Iranian regime.
These changes are not limited to mainstream conservatives in the United States. In Canada, for instance, there is growing concern over the Conservative Party's appointment of activists from Muslim Brotherhood circles to senior positions in the party.
In Britain, the Conservative Party has long tolerated several Islamist supporters within its ranks. Perhaps the most prominent example was the late Lord Sheikh, an important Conservative Peer who passed away in September 2022.
In 2011, the Conservative Muslim Forum boasted that Lord Sheikh, its chairman and founder, had been a "VIP guest" at a gala hosted by Al-Muntada Al-Islami Trust, a leading radical Salafi charity funded by the Qatari regime and, as it later emerged, maintained ties to ISIS financier Nabil al-Awadi.
In 2014, another official of the Conservative Muslim Forum called for the government to end its boycott of the Muslim Council of Britain, an Islamist umbrella organization that was blacklisted by the Labour government in 2009 after one of its officials became a signatory to the Istanbul Declaration, which justified attacks on British troops and Jewish communities.
Groups such as the Conservative Muslim Forum may appear to be fringe groups. But it precisely because mainstream Conservativism tolerates these fringe groups that they end up serving as harbingers for mainstream Conservative behavior in the future.
The most concerning forerunner of future Islamist collaboration within the Right, however, can be found in its very extremes.
The Far Right
Over the past few years, across the West, a small but growing number of politicians and activists from far-Right networks have embraced Islamist partners. British neo-Nazi Mark Collett's interview with American Islamist hate preacher Daniel Haqiqatjou illustrated the reasons for this attraction of seeming radical opposites: a shared fear and hatred of Jews, "liberalism" and Western ideas of democracy and liberty.
Examples can be found all over the West. Andrew Tate, an obnoxious British-American social media "influencer" with millions of followers and connections to radical figures in the British and American far-Right, is perhaps the most curious example.
Tate has been excitedly welcomed by American Islamists, including prominent imams such as Nouman Ali Khan, for his claims that Islam is the "future" and his declarations that "first world Islamic countries" have none of the problems faced by the West, such as "broken" family values.
Interviewed on one popular American YouTube channel, and later shared by millions of Muslims around the world and republished by dozens of Western Islamist organizations, Tate explained:
Islam fixes a lot of the problems that men are currently facing. The problems we're discussing on this show, Islam fixes all of them. ... If I had to bet on one religion, as if I were betting on the stock market for the future, you have to bet on Islam. Because Muslims are intolerant, and I'm not saying that disrespectfully. Because if you're tolerant of everything, then you stand for nothing.
I can walk through London with a t-shirt saying "Jesus is gay" and nothing will happen to me. If I did the same thing with the Islamic prophet, I'd be dead before I got to the end of the street. That's how much they believe and respect, and I respect people who stick up for what they believe in. ... Muslims are the only people who will defend their religion. They will defend their beliefs. They refuse to be mocked, they refuse to be insulted. ... That's an amazing thing about them.
Islam keeps society in the role where women obey their man, women have children, women have big families – women are exceptionally happy to do so. ... You need to go to Islam. That'll fix everything.
In October, Tate reportedly converted to Islam.
While the news was wildly applauded by many hundreds of Muslim activists on social media platforms, Conservative Islamic thinkers such as Ismail Royer were far from thrilled. Royer wrote: "Andrew Tate is a degenerate filthy pimp who deserves a brutal, humiliating public whipping."
Similar hints of future unions can be found elsewhere. In France, the L'Union des démocrates musulmans français (UDMF) is an Islamist political party founded in 2012. Its officials include a leading former member of National Rally, France's leading far-Right party, who still describes himself politically as "to the Right of the Right."
The French far-Right has also enjoyed close contact with Iranian regime Islamists. And notorious French comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala – who popularized the quenelle, an inverted Nazi salute – has expressed support for both jihadists and French far-Right activists such as Alain Soral.
France is not a lone example. As Daniel Rickenbacher notes in European Eye on Radicalization:
First, in January 2018, Vona Gábor, the head of the Hungarian Far-Right party Jobbik, praised Islam as a bulwark against Western globalization and the decline of traditional values. He also advocates that Hungary's foreign policy should move closer towards Iran.
Second, in December 2017, a German court convicted an ISIS sympathizer for having planned a terrorist attack against German soldiers. Interestingly, the wannabe-terrorist had been a Neo-Nazi just two years earlier. Before his conversion to Islam, he had published an article on a Far-Right blog crudely titled "He who incites against Islam hisses with the tongue of Judaism."
In the United States, much was made of the pro-Taliban rhetoric found among "far-Right" groups on social media in 2021, following the fall of Kabul.
And in 2022, two members of the Boogaloo Bois (described by the ADL as an "anti-government extremist movement") were sentenced to prison "for conspiring to provide material support and resources to Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist organization, for use against Israeli and U.S. military personnel overseas."
These may be extreme examples. And the relevance of the far-Right to mainstream Conservatism in the West is of course debatable. But some of the justifications for these alliances is not so dissimilar to those found within increasing sections of the broader Right: fears of the excesses of progressivism; convoluted claims about a sinister "globalist" threat; and a growing disregard across much of the Right for traditional conservative ideas around liberty and individual rights.
An Islamist-Conservative Axis?
Conservative outreach to American Muslims comes at an interesting time. Republican flirtations with diaspora Muslim communities accompany growing efforts by foreign Islamist regimes to woo the American Right, along with growing arguments within American Islamist circles over the extent to which two decades of alliances with the Left have served to weaken their original radical causes and miseducate their children.
Anger at the perceived infusion of "progressivism" into American Muslim institutions has angered enough Islamists that a growing, public rejection of the Left is becoming increasingly apparent, and some now even regard the Right as a more natural home.
These changes, along with the excesses of the progressivists, perhaps partly explain a survey conducted by the Associated Press in 2020, which revealed that 35% of American Muslims voted for Trump in 2020. This can only have bolstered conservative efforts to embrace Muslim communities as allies, while ignoring the consequent empowerment of their Islamists.
But it is not just Islamists who see opportunity in Republican and other Right-leaning circles. Ordinary Muslims are becoming wealthier, and less likely to support the wealth redistribution ideas and left-leaning jargon advocated by Islamists aligned with the Left, such as expressed by officials of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
As those who worked on George Bush's presidential election campaign in 2000 know, this is a dangerous road down which to walk. But the politics of Islam and Islamism in the West is changing in other ways. American Islam in particular is no longer represented primarily by a single Islamist movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is torn between dozens of competing forces, both radical and not. With growing discontent among an increasingly prosperous and politically-fractured American Muslim middle class against their self-appointed Islamist leaders, there is a clear opportunity for conservatives across the West to capitalize with its new Muslim base.
Much has been written on the Right's own ideological changes over the past few years. Some of this, as discussed above, can perhaps explain the phenomenon of Western Islam's "akh-Right."
Should remaining liberty-minded conservatives also continue to choose the wrong partners – funding and empowering American Islam's Islamist leaders – then the Right risks affording Islamists political power and powerful credibility, allowing them to reaffirm radical control over Muslim communities; and, with friends among both the Left and Right, advance their radical ideas further into Western polities more deeply than ever.
In general, the changing approach on the Right indicates a deeply worrying uninterest among conservatives on the question of Islamism and a dismissal of the danger it continues to pose. These days, Islamism rarely gets a mention in British and American conservative political manifestos or media, in spite of the persistent jihadist threats, and continued extremist hold over so many Muslim communities.
Such disregard can only come back to haunt the Right later.
Sam Westrop is the director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.