A Leading Activist In Britain’s Muslim Community Has Died Of The Coronavirus

“There was laughter everywhere that he went.”

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Fuad Nahdi, a prominent British Muslim journalist and activist who published an influential Muslim-focused magazine and was a key voice in Britain’s Muslim community, died on March 21 after being infected by what his family later learned was the novel coronavirus, his son said.

Nahdi, 62, who had other health issues stemming from diabetes and cancer, fell ill and “spiraled really fast,” his son, Nadir Nahdi, told BuzzFeed News.

His family called an ambulance, and Nahdi was taken from his home in Wembley, an area of northwest London. He remained in the hospital for about a day and a half before he died; his coronavirus test came back positive two days after his death, his son said.

Friends and family remembered Nahdi’s charismatic personality, his talent for networking and mentoring, and his important role in shaping contemporary British Muslim identity.

“Fuad Nahdi was a powerful force to be reckoned with, inside the Muslim community, but more generally in British civil society, as well as more broadly in international Muslim circles,” Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a friend of Nahdi’s and senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, said in an email. “He was fiercely independent, and deeply committed to the normative tradition of Sunni Islam that informed his sense of justice and spirituality.”

Born in Tanzania in 1957, Nahdi grew up in Mombasa, Kenya, and went to the University of Nairobi. He moved to the United Kingdom in 1983 after winning a scholarship to attend SOAS University of London. In the UK, he met Humera Khan, and the couple married in 1989. They had two children together: Nadir, 30, founder of online platform Beni, and Ilyeh, 25, a speech and language therapist. Khan, 60, is also an activist in her own right as the cofounder of An-Nisa Society, a group focused on Muslim women.

He founded Q-News in the early 1990s, a magazine that focused on young Muslims in the UK and was published until 2006.

“Fuad as a person and Q-News as a publication could be summed up in four ways: as progressive, cosmopolitan, attentive to context, and respectful but never deferential let alone obsequious towards religious and political authority,” Yahya Birt, a University of Leeds professor and another friend of Nahdi’s, wrote in a Medium post remembering him. Through Q-News, Nahdi mentored a generation of young Muslim activists and journalists.

“I think every single person that wrote there, Fuad had something to do with their careers,” said Dr. Nabila Munawar, project manager of the Inclusive Curriculum program at the London School of Economics and longtime friend of Nahdi’s, who wrote for and served as an editor at Q-News.

Munawar described how Nahdi was an attentive but sometimes challenging mentor. She recalled how, after she was getting ready to submit her master’s thesis about responses to 9/11 in the Muslim community, she asked Nahdi to look it over.

“He called me back and said it was bullshit,” Munawar recalled with a laugh. “You could always just trust him to [say], ‘You’re not gonna like this, but this is what I think about this.’ ... He wanted it to be good.” Munawar said Nahdi was influential in shaping her thinking in her academic work on Muslim identity; “He really brought out that idea that you don't impose identity on people, but it should come from them.”

“Dad was all about providing an alternative narrative that was positive and uplifting,” Nadir Nahdi said. “That alternative channel was so formative for an emerging young British Muslim identity to take shape because it wasn't rooted in the kind of heaviness, the tropes of what the politicized environment was trying to bottle us in.”

Nahdi made inroads into the British establishment and encouraged interfaith cooperation, becoming the first Muslim to address the General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body. And during a fraught era in which discourse around Islam and Muslims in the West was often imbued with anti-Muslim prejudice and focused on extremism and the war on terror, Nahdi worked to influence policymakers and in 2005 launched an organization, Radical Middle Way, that was focused on promoting a more positive vision of Islam.

“The Radical Middle Way is based on the premise that most of the discussion about Islam is held in a context of extremism on both sides,” Nahdi said in an interview in 2007. “So actually to be moderate, to be in the middle, is radical because it's different from the perceived notion around us.”

Munawar recalled once tagging along during one of Nahdi’s visits to Parliament; as they sat in the café having tea, Nahdi spotted former prime minister Margaret Thatcher nearby and cheekily dared Munawar to go speak with her.

His impish sense of humor endeared him to many. “There was laughter everywhere that he went,” his son, Nadir, said. “Dad was literally the soul of a party.”

Under normal circumstances, the family home would have been inundated with visitors in the wake of his death, Nadir said. But because of the coronavirus lockdown in Britain, the family have been grieving alone and were only permitted to have 20 people attend Nahdi’s funeral last week.

But there was “a sense of obligation that it wasn't only us grieving, but it was the whole Muslim world almost because Dad was quite a prominent figure in Muslim relations and conversations over a long period of time,” Nadir said.

So the family decided to livestream his funeral so Nahdi’s friends and associates around the world could be there at least virtually. A virtual memorial service was also held for Nahdi over Zoom and Facebook on Thursday night.

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