Prominent British Muslim journalist and activist whose voice was heard from Downing Street to Dakar
Fuad Nahdi, centre, addressing members of the Church of England’s Synod in London in 2014. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
Fuad Nahdi, who has died aged 62 due to complications related to diabetes, was one of the most important figures over the past 30 years in the framing, development and mainstream influence of British Islam. He also made Britain a bridgehead between east and west, where Islamic scholars came to face their reckoning with modernity.
Nahdi held no great administrative office but he was a consummate communicator with crucial connections when it mattered – which was the moment when British Islam emerged as distinct from “Asianness”, through the Rushdie Affair, 9/11, the Iraq war and the 2005 London bombings.
He also lived in the right place at the right time, for Britain, hosting the world’s most ethnically and theologically diverse Muslim population, became an international centre for debate, providing a more rigorous testing ground than Muslim-majority, often authoritarian, states.
A warm, charming man, widely trusted as a writer and publisher, interfaith leader and community activist, he had unrivalled connections not only in the Arab world and Africa but, unusually for a Muslim, within the liberal establishments of Europe and the US.
His rare cultural, religious and political agility, combined with an irreverent sense of humour, meant his voice was heard from Downing Street to Dakar, from Manchester to Mecca. He was well equipped to explain Islam – and in particular its British version – to establishment figures and became, in 2014, the first Muslim to address the General Synod of the Church of England.
Two of his innovations stand out. First, in the late 1980s and early 90s he founded two independent, often satirical and humorous Muslim publications – MuslimWise and Q-News – which provided an intellectual and spiritual home where the UK’s multi-ethnic, linguistically diverse Muslims could forge a confident, dissenting identity that nurtured resilience against political exclusion and calls to violence. Prior to this, virtually all Muslim media in Britain was funded from overseas – Saudi Arabia, Iran or the Gulf states – and largely reflected the interests of other countries.
Second, after the London bombings he took his message out to Britain’s communities by founding Radical Middle Way, a community interest company that delivered programmes and events promoting the idea that good religion is the way to tackle extremism. Radical Middle Way hosted hip-hop concerts across Britain, attended by thousands of young Muslims, in the midst of which a devout Sufi scholar, usually from abroad, in traditional dress, would take the stage with messages of faith and peace, followed by questions and discussion.
Quick to spot extremism’s harnessing of technologies to spread misinformation, Nahdi ensured that all these events were widely streamed on the internet. Working also in Sudan, Mali, Morocco, Pakistan and Indonesia, Radical Middle Way galvanised a global Muslim conversation.
Nahdi’s message was clearly expressed in the strapline for the Radical Middle Way initiative, which reads: Fight Fear. Fight Ignorance. Have Faith. A fierce critic of both Islamist violence and the Iraq war, he would say: “The problem is not too much religion. The problem is too little good religion.” He would poke fun at out-of-touch imams and enjoyed rattling Islamic institutions. “Beyond beards, scarves and halal meat, what does it mean to be a British Muslim?’ asked an early edition of Q-News.
In 2001, a few days after the World Trade Center bombing, Nahdi anticipated problems that would later beset Britain, telling the Guardian: “The danger is that there are a large number of Muslim leaders in Britain who come from the same school of Islam as the Taliban. They are not extremists, but they copy the style. In Leicester, for example, they won’t allow the women into the mosques.
“Meanwhile, there are platoons of young Muslims roaming the streets. They saw the TV images of the intifada and copied them during the Oldham riots. Now they are seeing Osama bin Laden turned by the BBC and others into a glamorous, Rambo figure. Next time, will they be copying the bombers? We have to invest in forging a positive identity for them so we create the right kind of Muslim. Otherwise it could be dangerous for everyone.”
The content of his publications encapsulated the confusing influences on British Muslims. One page might feature an entreaty from the Grand Ayatollah of Iran, the next an item on Yasmeen Ghauri, the Muslim supermodel, and another on the rise of HIV in the Muslim community.
MuslimWise, a monthly satirical magazine modelled on Private Eye, was founded in 1988 amid the heated reaction to Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. Q-News followed in 1992, a weekly independent newspaper investigating daily life – from dodgy halal certification to racist attacks, domestic violence, youth and women’s projects and corruption in the nascent class of Muslim politicians.
With a female editor, Shagufta Yaqub, and news editor, Fareena Alam, its pages might juxtapose an article on sacred odes with a review of the latest Terminator film. Both publications were in print and did not survive far into the internet age, especially as Nahdi began to turn his attentions to the Radical Middle Way project. But they were influential projects with clout.
Nahdi’s upbringing, and life in Britain, prepared him for cultural connectedness. Fluent in Arabic, English and Swahili, he was born in Arusha, Tanzania, to an Indonesian mother, Alya Faraj bin Muhanna Nahdi, and a Yemeni-Kenyan father, Salim Abdallah bin Taher Nahdi, who was a trader. His paternal heritage was in Hadramaut, the Yemeni home of the Bin Laden clan, which enabled him to observe that “I’m probably the only person who has had lunch with Tony Blair and dinner with Osama bin Laden.”
The family settled in Mombasa, Kenya, and he attended the University of Nairobi, where he studied economics. He was arrested after playing a prominent role in student protests against the country’s then president, Daniel arap Moi.
In 1983 he took a master’s degree in Islamic studies at SOAS University of London and trained as a journalist at City University, guided by Godfrey Hodgson, the veteran Observer foreign correspondent. Hodgson connected him to Reuters and the US and British liberal media, for whom he wrote throughout his career.
Soon after joining the political monthly Africa Events, Nahdi began what became a lifelong, daily conversation with its then editor, the late Zanzibari intellectual and former BBC journalist, Mohamed Mlamali Adam, who rooted the young journalist in an influential British circle of Islamic thinkers.
Nahdi also became a protege of Zaki Badawi, who built British Islam’s key institutions, including the Muslim College and the Sharia Council, and who sought to shape an Islamic identity that could be comfortable for a minority community in a western context. Nahdi eventually saw the opportunity to take Badawi’s insights on to bigger, more popular platforms.
In 1989 he married Humera Khan, a leading figure in British Muslim community development. Her Pakistani heritage, London upbringing and welcoming family embedded Nahdi in British life and ensured that their home became the go-to place for Muslim thinkers.
Nahdi’s friendship with Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, led to his 2014 Synod invitation. His address there anticipated the thinking that preoccupied his final years – that faiths should embrace convergence not conversion, helping people to be ethical and moral beings in a broken world.
“Our interdependent existence must be at the back of our minds at all times,” he declared. “Soon, two out of every three members of the church will have a Muslim neighbour. The need to educate our flocks on the proprieties of co-existence and the embracing of difference is a top priority.”
He is survived by Humera, a son, Nadir, and a daughter, Ilyeh.
- Fuad Salim Abdullah Neheid Taher Nahdi, journalist and publisher, born 1 June 1957; died 21 March 2020