A Conservative Activist Reconciles His Many Identities
"There is something deeply unsettling about the idea that leftists just assume you subscribe to a set of preconceived notions based wholly on religion or the color of your skin."
Portrait by Jonnie Craig
This story appears in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
"Hi, everyone. My name is Danial. I have a brief message for you all." Danial Mirza gazed down on a crowd of 60 or so left-wing activists waiting expectantly below. The 20-year-old activist's request to say a few words was extremely last minute. The list of speakers at University College London's anti-Trump protest was long, very long. So Mirza took a deep breath, knowing he wouldn't get a second chance.
"My message for you is: Make America great again! Build the wall! Ban the refugees! Thank you." There was silence. Mirza, too polite to drop the mic, dutifully returned it to the organizer. "Wow," she said, as the crowd began to boo. Mirza, with a spring in his step, made his way back to the library to study Austrian free-market economics. Before he got there, a man collecting money for charity stopped him. He'd obviously missed the speech. "Would you like to help refugees, sir?" the man asked. "No, thank you. I do not support the refugee movement," Mirza replied. "I think they're illegal."
This is Danial Mirza, a British Muslim, the son of Pakistani migrants. He wears a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat, used to own a shotgun license, gets straight As, and sports a mustache. He also co-founded the Young British Heritage Society (YBHS)—a right-wing libertarian student association. The activists who gave Mirza a chance to speak didn't see this coming. Julia Hashimoto Schaff, the organizer who gave Mirza the mic, said she did not expect someone at UCL with those views to have the guts to share them in front of a crowd, "especially considering he referred to himself as Muslim."
"My request was very vague. I didn't make any explicit indication that I shared their views," Mirza told me when I met him in March, an assertion that activists in attendance confirmed. The protest disturbed his studying, he said, so he decided to intervene. "I'm not going to play the race card. But there is something deeply unsettling about the idea that leftists just assume you subscribe to a set of preconceived notions based wholly on religion or the color of your skin—and if you fall out of line with what they think you ought to believe—you're the equivalent of an 'Uncle Tom.'"
Stereotypes in Britain are usually assumed to work against ethnic minorities. In March, the Henry Jackson Society, a right-wing UK think tank, published a comprehensive analysis of every single terrorism offense in the country. It studied terrorists, finding that British Pakistanis of Mirza's age are the demographic most commonly convicted of Islamist offenses. This was the kind of racial profiling that I thought might affect Mirza and might perhaps even offend him. "I can't think of a time when I've ever been targeted in a derogatory manner," he told me. I can't argue with Mirza's experience. But privately I wondered if his answer was informed by what is clearly a fierce aversion to being thought of as a "snowflake."
"I recognize that a lot of people experience racial discrimination," he said as we sat in a centuries-old pub called the George Tavern, in Stepney, London. "And it's a terrible thing that shouldn't exist in our society. So I think part of the reason that it does exist is a lot of people are still obsessed with this idea of race."
The bar shares its name with the patron saint of England, and though Mirza does not indulge in the noble British art of having four pints at lunchtime on a Friday, there are other traditions that concern him. "I'm talking about things like freedom of speech, which are fundamental Enlightenment values pioneered by British thinkers," he said as we sipped black coffee. "Things like the rule of law, the Magna Carta."
Mirza told me the creation of the YBHS stemmed from a trip to China, when he became very conscious of the lack of "freedom to say things in public" and immediately decided he wanted to stand up for Enlightenment values. I took this high-minded declaration as an indication that Mirza was privately educated—but I was wrong, obviously. He was a gifted state and grammar school kid, whose family would really much prefer if Mirza kept his head down.
Practically, Mirza wants his organization to fight for free speech on campus, policing the language police. As the potential for offense has grown—just as in the US—there is a growing sense on the right (and parts of the left) that debate is suffering. Some of the most high-profile free-speech cases on UK campuses in recent years have included a threat to picket comedian Kate Smurthwaite's planned performance (ultimately canceled) at Goldsmiths University because of her views on decriminalizing prostitution; a (failed) request for Cardiff University to withdraw a speaking invitation to Germaine Greer because of her views on transgender issues; and a ban on a bunch of right-wing college newspapers. Each incident consolidates the view that millennials can't cope with challenging ideas.
"One of my main goals is reconciling my Muslim faith with my conservatism."
Mirza plans to set up chapters of the YBHS at different UK universities, with the aim of opposing No Platform policies. He envisions using the YBHS chapters to challenge radical Islamic preachers and controversially says he would not deny radical preachers a platform or the right to speak freely, so long as they could be challenged. Britain's counterterror laws forbid some forms of speech, such as encouraging support of organizations like the Islamic State.
"I belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which has a great reputation in the West for being one of the more liberal and forward-looking denominations of Islam—even among some of my personal heroes on the right," Mirza told me.
"Predictably, we are heavily persecuted by mainstream Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere. When the media talks about Muslims being the biggest victims of Islamic terrorism, more often than not they are referring to Ahmadis.
"The Ahmadi movement is centered in Pakistan, where the government has passed legislation to actively discriminate against them. This fuels a strong anti-Ahmadi sentiment and, by extension, a strong hatred toward other 'non-believers' in Pakistan, which may be one of the factors contributing to the tendency toward terrorism." The Ahmadis are notable for being one of the most progressive Islamic movements, generally rejecting violence and encouraging dialogue with other cultures. "I would say a lot of the issues of Islam are cultural and not fundamental," Mirza said. "You'd be surprised how well received it is by conservatives when they actually listen. One of my main goals is reconciling my Muslim faith with my conservatism."
One conservative who has clearly not received Mirza's message is Milo Yiannopoulos, formerly the so-called darling of the alt-right. Yiannopoulos is a vicious critic of Islam, frequently claiming that it is incapable of integration with the West. "This isn't an Islamic terror problem," he has said in interviews. "This is an Islam problem."
Mirza invited Yiannopoulos to speak in Britain—his only lecture this side of the Atlantic last year. I asked Mirza how he feels about the line that Yiannopoulos takes. "I mean, for the Islam issue, he takes a harder line than I do, and that's fine," he told me, for the first time a note of irritation in his voice. "I don't agree with it 100 percent, but I agree with a lot of his criticism of Islam, and he makes the same criticism I do."
I met Yiannopoulos on several occasions last year, when he predicted (correctly) that Trump would win and (incorrectly) that he would be in line for a job in his administration. Back then, his pleas for "freedom of speech" seemed to be partly an excuse for being an asshole and partly a veneer for his own brand of libertarian politics, but he was also a huge asset for the Trump campaign. However, when he strayed beyond the bounds of acceptability, the powerful conservatives he'd hitched himself to ate him up and spat him out. Yiannopoulos, a frequently too-outrageous mascot for a movement with values more aligned with the 1950s, proved the invisible line in the "say anything" movement was not inciting others to abuse on Twitter or attacking Islam but appearing to endorse sex between older men and 13-year-old boys. Suddenly, freedom of speech didn't seem to count for very much. Mirza remains on Yiannopoulos's side. "I find the idea of having sex with a 13-year-old, as most people would, quite abhorrent, really," he said. "But I still support Milo because I agree with a lot of what he says. I think it's a witch hunt."
Mirza is an unfailingly polite bundle of contradictions, and despite his idealism, in America, it's hard to imagine he wouldn't be prone to the same fate as Yiannopoulos: cast aside as too wayward by a movement that was never interested in people like him anyway. But we're in Britain, where Mirza's necktie, which was decorated with the logo of the neoliberal think tank Adam Smith Institute, may be taken as a more reliable sign of allegiance than his religion or race. And where the irony of his politics is that the closer he gets to the mainstream, the more he proves that Islam is compatible with the right and even the alt-right. He may not fit the stereotype, but he conforms beautifully.