Maajid Nawaz, eloquent, charismatic, and sartorially exquisite head of the Quilliam Foundation, emerged from an Egyptian prison not just a wiser, but a Christianised man.
The former recruiting sergeant for Hizb-ut-Tahrir now regularly cites CS Lewis; not something many Hizb-ut-Tahrir members are given to doing – after founding the world’s first Muslim counter-terrorism think tank.
He’s just published a new book Islam and the Future of Tolerance with New Atheist Sam Harris; writes about reform for the Daily Beast and leads courageously and outspokenly a huge following as ‘we Muslim reformers’ on Twitter.
But it’s not Nawaz who interests me the day before Human Rights Day.
It’s the old man who fought for his release, whom no other journalist has ever thought to interview, John Cornwall.
I first stumbled upon him at the launch of Quilliam in 2007.
The atmosphere was febrile and intense at the prospect of coming face to face with real live Islamic extremists.
I’ve never seen such security for an event – in the basement at the British Museum. MPs, and TV teams rubbed shoulders with over-excited journalists from all over the world, jostling for a place near the auditorium, where Jemima Khan, Paddy Ashdown and other luminaries waited on stage.
After his release from the torture cells of Mazra’a Tora prison outside Cairo, and two years trying to get back into HuT – which is committed to re-establishing a caliphate based on shariah law – Nawaz and co-founder Ed Husain who now runs programmes at Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation, were coming out as unlikely establishment figures to renounce the hate they’d engendered.
In a stunning volte face, it was Nawaz who later ‘offered a helping hand’ to the very scourge of the HuT and all its works, the English Defence League’s leader Tommy Robinson. He met Nawaz while filming ‘When Tommy met Mo’ for the BBC, and asked him to help him leave the EDL.
Nawaz embraced him, telling the press conference that announced it: ‘I was given a new start in life. Why should I not give the same to Tommy?’ To some tittering from the hack pack, he also announced he was giving Robinson ‘religious instruction’.
Robinson went to prison for mortgage fraud soon after, and the Quilliam work petered out. He is now setting up a new anti-Islam grassroots movement along the lines of Germany’s Pegida.
But it was a noble and to some journalists, inexplicable,
gesture by Nawaz: one clearly born out of his own discovery that u-turns are sometimes for real.
His offer to Robinson was a profoundly Christian act, conducted in the full glare of the media, in a packed hotel ballroom stiff with security off Russell Square in London.
And the man who provided the model he was to follow now sits quietly with me in another London hotel.
That man is John Cornwall. ‘Maajid was moved to the very core by my campaigning and my regular letters to him and his two pals. God used that to turn him around 180 degrees.’
When Nawaz’s mother met John for the first time after a meeting at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to discuss the case, she said to him: ‘Why do you go to all this trouble for people you don’t know?’
It’s a question that has intrigued me ever since I heard an old man shout out from the back of the auditorium at the British Museum at the event that launched Quilliam: ‘What about mentioning who got you out of prison?’
I managed to track the man down. He is sitting with me now at the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone, frail now, a stout hazel stick propped up against the sofa for an ailing ankle and a somewhat incongruous – given the surroundings - rainbow ribbon in the lapel of his battered tweed jacket. He fights for misunderstood gays, transgender individuals and even managed to help get a matricide conviction quashed.
Did John Cornwall call out from the back of that auditorium because he was upset that Nawaz had invited no Christian onto the congratulatory line-up on stage – or some other reason? There were no Christians up there to join the obvious non-Christians – among them Jemima Khan and A C Grayling - all of whom were profusely thanked for their support?
‘It didn’t worry me at all. I called out because I was surrounded by admirers of Maajid and I wanted him to have the opportunity to say that what he was now doing was going to do something good in Christian-Muslim relations.’
Nawaz did not hesitate then, and has not hesitated since. In his best-selling book Radical, he names John and his faith. He agreed to take part in an Amnesty film about the case, in which he is seen warmly embracing his old friend.
It is part of his newly adopted persona to cite the Chief Rabbi or other non-Muslim icons in his tweets, while being impeccably balanced about the horrors of the Crusades, the Inquisition and the badness of Christians-in-general.
His liberal brand of Islam is to many Muslims frankly make-believe. It’s a form of belief that rests on Christianity. It takes no hostages from history, and floats free of all that jars with a material world, while claiming as truth merely the spiritual impulse that still drives Muslims towards reverence in an irreverent age.
Who is to say this is not Islam?
Certainly Nawaz opposes the classical narrative that the ummah will eventually return to the glory of that golden age long promised by defeating Christendom and all its works.
What puzzles many people who cannot sever the link between the Muslim scriptures and what’s happening in Iraq/Syria is, how can Nawaz both claim to be a Muslim and yet not want the overthrow of the very ideas that saved his life? That was after all what Muhammed came to do.
None of this worries John Cornwall. He’s merely played faithfully the part allotted him. ‘These things it appears God pushes at me. God chooses people he knows will do what they should.’
It’s the second time I’ve interviewed John. He calls himself an ‘extreme moderate’ – but says he dislikes all extremism. So why does he pursue society’s moral and religious lepers so tenaciously – and tenacious is a word he uses of himself as being a ‘gift’.
‘By insisting on the infinite value of every human being by virtue of being children of God, I had hoped to be able to build bridges and to have the worth of my religion recognized.
‘To see Christ in the other means that my neighbourhood has no boundaries.’
The tears that come suddenly are totally disarming. ‘It’s the triumphs that move me,’ he whispers, eyes brimming. ‘I have come up against a total solid brick wall and that’s driven me metaphorically to my knees and I have asked the way forward and been given it.’
The causes Cornwall has espoused have cost him his reputation, even for 15 years his respect at Buckingham United Reformed Church. The editorship of the church newsletter was taken from him after one particular controversy.
Bravely he did not leave as many would have done, no doubt. And he’s now getting put back on rotas, reading and prayers, but what he really wants is to get back into the pulpit.
He has a passion for seemingly lost causes and an almost furious instinct to right what he sees as wrongs. He is drawn to asylum seekers, immigrant families and those others love to hate. Is he difficult to live with? His devoted wife Audrey will not hear a word of criticism, even when he directs it at hmself, and his successful children are following in his footsteps with acts of kindness.
So where does his tremendous motivation come from? And is this gentle old man really one of the most remarkable Christians I’m ever likely to meet? Troublesome like Christ; humble to the point of infinity; terribly determined; and heedless of opinion. Why is he so different?
He reaches for his coffee, and I suddenly understand. His left hand has no fingers.
Completely deformed and useless, it is usually disguised in his other hand as he talks.
It happened when he was seven years old, cleaning out the sausage mincer at his father’s butcher’s shop. He got his hand stuck in the blades, and but for a quick-thinking neighbour, would not be alive today.
It is a trauma too acute even after nearly 80 years, for him to think about. ‘That was extremely traumatic. I seldom mention it. I cannot let myself picture it. Trauma is written on my medical record and of course it’s affected my life considerably, but every time I have overcome.’
It may be that, by the grace of God in an age when trauma counselling was unheard of, John sublimated the terror of his imprisonment in a mincing machine, and channelled it into fighting for the liberation of all those whom he intuits share a similarly unmerited fate.
It is a perhaps ridiculous irony and terribly British that a sausage mincer should really be at the root of Maajid Nawaz’s crusade.