What the Guardian's Maajid Nawaz sting says about their team's journalistic ethics

“Don’t look to the Daily Mirror,” we were told. That’s a tabloid. “Look instead to the Guardian. That’s the standard you ought to emulate.” Well, we are looking. Where are the standards?

It all started with a landmark speech that the UK Prime Minister David Cameron delivered on July 20. All too often, the people of the West are used to seeing their leaders take to their podiums whenever issues of Islamic extremism are to be addressed, with the words, ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ and ‘This has nothing to do with Islam.’

For the first time, Cameron, while acknowledging that the vast majority of the Muslims of the UK were peaceful, productive citizens, addressed also the fact that Islamism (their term for Islamic extremism) is not completely independent of the religion.

In Cameron’s own words: “… simply denying any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn’t work, because these extremists are self-identifying as Muslims. The fact is from Woolwich to Tunisia, from Ottawa to Bali, these murderers all spout the same twisted narrative, one that claims to be based on a particular faith.
Now it is an exercise in futility to deny that. And more than that, it can be dangerous. To deny it has anything to do with Islam means you disempower the critical reforming voices; the voices that are challenging the fusing of religion and politics; the voices that want to challenge the scriptural basis which extremists claim to be acting on; the voices that are crucial in providing an alternative worldview that could stop a teenager’s slide along the spectrum of extremism.”

It happens to be a well known fact that Cameron’s advisor for this speech is Maajid Nawaz, a British Muslim reformer of Pakistani origin. Maajid, who is the founder of the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation has both his detractors as well as admirers within the British Muslim community. His wider appeal though is built on a majority non-Muslim base, cheering on counter-extremism work.

One would think that a national British newspaper like the Guardian, which claims to be a champion of leftist values such as secularism and liberalism, would be glad to champion his work. Yet that is sadly not the case. Championing minority communities to have the right to hold views or host activities which would not be tolerated among White Britons by contrast – such as homophobia, anti-Semitism or female genital mutilation (FGM), has sadly become a facet of the illiberal left (or regressive left) as Maajid and other progressive brown-skinned reformers fighting illiberality in their midst have come to term them.

For their trouble, Maajid and his ilk are known of as ‘Uncle Toms’, ‘Coconuts’ and ‘Native informants’. All these are highly derogatory labels for ‘darkies’ who dare aspire of ‘white’ ideals for their own communities. As many brown-skinned liberals have pointed out, this attitude arises in fact from the ‘racism of low expectations’ – which imagines progressive ideas and ideals to be only the preserve of white skinned people.

Unfortunately, the Guardian has been taking this route for some years now, which it is finding itself hard to bail out of – that of a pseudo-liberal sympathetic approach with cultural and religious minorities, whatever repugnant views they hold or activities they dabble in; along with an associated attacking of all those who dare address those issues, even if they be members of those minority communities themselves.

As such, a few days after Cameron’s speech, the Guardian’s Peter Osborne wrote a sympathetic interview-profile of the current Head of the British Hizb ut-Tahrir branch, Dr. Abdul Wahid. The tone of the article reeks all over of the typical racism-of-low-expectations one has come to expect from the Guardian, where it pats Dr. Wahid on the back for being a good little studious boy even if he is prone to unfortunately, unacceptable thought processes. ‘Pat, pat… he believes in some terrible things but it’s his right after all. We really shouldn’t expect more of him nor should we judge him; we should instead champion his rights to hold these views, as this is a democracy. Never mind that Dr. Wahid is working to destroy this democracy to establish Sharia law in Britain; that is still his right in a democracy.’  Oh, and Wahid is a GP with a quite ordinary living room, just so you know. Quite what Osborne was expecting to see in Wahid’s living room is open to debate, but he was surprised (or charmed) enough to incorporate that into his article. ‘He’s just like the rest of us chaps. He has a typical British living room. There were no decapitated human heads mounted on walls there – not to worry.’

After Osborne had thus given his seal of approval to Hiz ut-Tahrir, it was Maajid Nawaz’s turn.

First Nosheen Iqbal, the commissioning editor of the Guardian’s G2 magazine sent this admiring email soliciting an interview with Maajid to the Quilliam Foundation.


It seems pretty clear from this correspondence that Maajid and Quilliam could reasonably expect to have a positive article resulting from this interview. For a very public media-oriented personality like Maajid, whose foundation released the now much favoured ‘Not another Brother’ video countering the call of ISIS a few days after this – agreeing to not talk to other media for the Guardian’s exclusivity policy would have been a sacrifice. Nevertheless, he made a call, based on this interview request that to talk to Guardian, even on their unreasonable terms would be worth it. Except it wasn’t.

The Guardian journalist David Shariatmadari wrote a wretched opinion piece on Maajid, masquerading as an interview.

The piece is basically a hatchet-job on the man and his personality, unacceptably taking pot-shots at his choice of club, coffee preferences, and work without much evidence to back it up. Unless you take the liberal use of anonymous quotes as evidence – and no-one in the journalism world does. Indeed, the Guardian’s Readers Editor, Chris Eliott has been obliged, due to the flood of complaints to his paper,  to put out a statement that ‘the use of anonymous quotes is an insidious way to take a swipe at public figures, and the Guardian was wrong to have used three in this way.’ The statement is not entirely acceptable however because he yet sought to protect the journalists Nosheen Iqbal and David Shariatmadari from further blame by claiming that they felt the use of anonymous sources to be necessary as otherwise those sources could be harassed online, as these journalists now are. In short, they thought it alright to attack a man risking his life among Islamists to do the extremely dangerous job of counter-extremism work, yet they needed to keep sources attacking him anonymous because they were afraid of some online heckling?

Is heckling only alright if a Guardian journalist does it, either via articles or on Twitter?  One of the foremost rules of journalism is that the journalist’s presence and especially his biases should not be visible in his articles – unless it’s a column or opinion piece. This interview of Maajid was supposed to be neither, although it ended up in essence an opinion piece. Yet even as an opinion piece, it breaks way too many bars to come plunging down into mud-singling territory. They didn’t just set the bar low, they plunged it.

It’s so incredibly bad, that as a fellow journalist living miles and oceans way, I am embarrassed for the journalism profession which has sunk to this new low. As once colonized countries, I suppose we still look up to British standards in professionalism. Certainly that was very much the case in my own student days at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. “Don’t look to the Daily Mirror,” we were told. That’s a tabloid. “Look instead to the Guardian. That’s the standard you ought to emulate.” Well, we are looking. Where are the standards?

In their consequent behaviour online dealing with the backlash, especially on Twitter, many of the Guardian journalists come across as juvenile. 

Guardian journalists Nesrine Malik and David Shariatmadari sniggering about the fact the Shariatmadari left it to Nawaz to pick up the tab for their drinks. After which he still felt capable of taking a swipe at Nawaz’s coffee preferences

This is especially true of Nosheen Iqbal, the commissioning editor, whose appalling use of language and grammar, not to mention manners makes one wonder what kind of recruiting procedures the Guardian’s human resource management are employing. Whatever it is, they need to revamp it extensively.

It was outed eventually that the admiration she displayed in her email, towards Maajid and Quilliam Foundation were patently fake. The day before sending this email, she responded to a fellow Guardian journalist on twitter with this:

Maajid’s name is not a swear name that she felt the need to asterisk it. Neither is his last name Nawaaz as she probably very well knows. She deliberately corrupted his name in her response so that her views on him weren’t searchable online. Unfortunately for her, she was still caught.

There is nothing wrong with not liking him or his work, but pretending to do so, and pretending to want to do a positive story on him when she in fact clearly planned the opposite, was patently unprofessional. Called on repeatedly to clarify why she felt the need to approach him under false pretences for this interview, she has resorted to ad hominem attacks and childish tantrums on twitter. One person attempting to engage with her, signed off calling her a ‘petulant child.’  Is this behaviour fit for a Guardian editor?

The Guardian, over the last week has lost the respect of readers not only within the UK, but also globally.  Maajid Nawaz is an internationally well known figure doing crucial work so the media releases associated with him are closely followed.

Just because Nosheen Iqbal and David Shariatmadari set him up for a sting by asking for an interview to write about his ‘crucial work’ and then wrote a sneering opinion piece dismissing his work instead, doesn’t mean he has lost ground with his followers. His work speaks for itself. As does the work of the Guardian’s for itself. Which is rather a pity.

Thulasi Muttulingam is a Sri Lankan journalist based in the country's former war-zone, from where she concentrates on writing articles on post-war development and social issues

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