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Quilliam Foundation: a thoughtful think-tank?

Two writers debate the merits of a new Muslim-and-secular collective that aims to ‘revive Western Islam and unite against extremism’.

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Topics Politics UK

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A group of former Islamic radicals has launched a new think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, to ‘revive Western Islam and unite against extremism’. Below, Henry Williams welcomes the new initiative, while Dolan Cummings argues that it will inflame ‘the Islamic itch’ in British society.

Muslims are not a monolith

Amongst an explosion of death threats, outraged letters from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and bandied accusations of neo-conservatism, the Quilliam Foundation got off to a promising start on Tuesday last week, writes Henry Williams.

The counter-extremist think-tank, fronted by former Hizb ut-Tahrir members Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz, aims to use theological arguments to dismiss the religious justifications for terrorism and to bring with it the sort of media-savvy approach which so far seems only to have been used successfully by the extremists (1).

At the launch on Tuesday, the foundation brought together Islamic thinkers from throughout the world, as well as a collection of British imams, Oxford academic and Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash, politician Paddy Ashdown and socialite Jemima Khan.

The initial presence of Taliban-style black turbans, several feet of beards and Julie Burchill’s favourite hijabed white-girls (2) would not normally inspire confidence in such an initiative, but to hear men with names like Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Bukhari and Dr Ali al Saleh al-Najafi state that Muslims have not done enough to counter extremism, and it is up to ‘us’ Muslims to find an Islam comfortable with itself in Britsh society, was positively exciting.

The biggest ovation of the day came when 7/7 survivor Rachel North explained that God was there 70 feet under Russell Square, London, on 7 July 2005, but not in the way the young man who blew himself up thought. ‘He was there in the people holding hands in the dark, not knowing if the person next to them was black, white, Muslim, Christian or Jewish.’ Timothy Garton Ash, arguing the secular liberal viewpoint that he ‘couldn’t give a fig for a fiqh’, also raised a few giggles/groans.

But does Britain really need a Muslim counter-extremist think-tank? Is it, as Muslim commentator Ziauddin Sardar argued in the Guardian, ‘another attempt at the marginalisation of the overwhelming majority who never had a moment’s doubt that Islam gives no sanction for such murderous and misguided perversion of belief?’ (3) Well, no, actually, particularly as Sardar, a self-proclaimed member of this overwhelming majority, stated in the same article that all Muslims are duty-bound to challenge our current, Iraq-war waging government.

The truth is that with people like Sardar dominating the debate, British Muslims will carry on being portrayed as a monolithic bloc who cannot separate their identity from their religion. As Maajid Nawaz correctly pointed out at the launch of the Quilliam Foundation, this is a form of political Islamism in itself. It also helps give the impression that any British Muslim has to have a strong opinion on a particular issue – whether it be the Iraq war, Danish cartoons, or misnomered teddy bears.

The fact that any opposition to this idea is seen as heresy by self-proclaimed Muslim community leaders like Sardar and the MCB is precisely why there is such a need for the Quilliam Foundation.

What the launch of the foundation showcased to the media was not only that British Muslims are going to take a proactive role in combatting extremism, but also that the guy with the scraggy beard and bulging rucksack next to you on the Tube isn’t thinking about checking into heaven’s best brothel while simultaneously sending you to hell like the kaffir you are.

The experiences of Quilliam’s members, its backing, and its positive message of hope mean that it has a good chance of appealing to its target audience of ‘Joe Muslim in Bradford’. However, this message of hope, and the foundation’s plan to upstage the clowns currently dominating Muslim debate in Britain, may also help to defuse the rhetoric of Timmy BNP in Barking.

Henry Williams is working as an intern at spiked.

Scratching the Islamic itch

The association between Islam and terrorism is like an itch that won’t go away, writes Dolan Cummings. The more politicians and Muslim leaders stress that Islam is a religion of peace and offers no justification for terrorist violence, the more the association is entrenched in the public’s consciousness, including that of young Muslims. This is the problem facing the former radicals of the Quilliam Foundation in their bid to counter extremism by popularising a respectable form of Islam. As supposed experts on extremism, they might have been expected to spot this.

The foundation is named after William Quilliam, a nineteenth-century English convert to Islam, and is explicitly committed to rediscovering a ‘Western Islam’, free from the baggage of the Indian subcontinent and Arab world.

What commentators thus far have largely missed is that it is this very desire to break away from tradition that attracts many young people to radical Islam in the first place. Quilliam co-director Ed Husain explained in his memoir The Islamist that he and other young Muslims were drawn to the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir precisely because it eschewed the muddy politics of the Indian subcontinent that so preoccupied the mosque elders, as well as the socially conservative but non-political Islam of their own parents.

There was something quite cosmopolitan in Hizb ut-Tahrir’s vision of an internationally-focused, intellectually-rigorous form of political Islam, which marked them out even from other radical groups, some of which adopted Arab-style dress. The Quilliam Foundation’s converts from Islamism will not have had to invest in new wardrobes, but can go on wearing the same sharp ‘Western’ suits and dapper jackets as their erstwhile radical comrades.

Arguably, political Islam itself is a ‘Western’ ideology, certainly proving more influential in Western universities than on the Arab street. Even the self-consciously Arab-styled Wahhabis arguably owe more to nineteenth-century Western nihilism than any authentic popular tradition within Islam – a point usefully made by the Quilliam Foundation itself. But the foundation’s evocation of ‘Andalusian’ Islam (the learned and ethnically diverse culture of Moorish Spain) only reminds us of a favourite historical grudge of Islamists, who can be accused of many things, but never parochialism.

What distinguishes the foundation from Islamism is inescapably political rather than cultural. It is quite right that being a good Muslim does not and should not mean taking a particular political position on the Iraq war or anything else. But, like the insistence that Islam is not synonymous with terrorism, this point only reminds us that the opposite view has become axiomatic: the Muslim identity is increasingly defined by an antagonism towards mainstream society. In trying to establish a Western or ‘British Islam’, the foundation cannot then help but get caught up in the government’s politically-loaded social cohesion agenda – indeed it has done little to avoid this, leading to accusations of ‘necon’ leanings – and thus inflaming the Islamic itch.

A more serious problem for the foundation is its uncritical acceptance of the idea of ‘extremism’ as a single problem, which means it confuses student radicalism and political disenchantment with terrorist violence of various (again quite distinct) types. In fact, the desire to break away from the conservatism of traditional Islam and the dead end of Western politics alike is a positive one. Bolshy young Muslims are no more likely than their non-Muslim peers to be won over to a respectable religiosity that seems to preach social conformism and political quietism. The alternative to the present does not lie in the past, Andalusian or otherwise, but in the future.

Dolan Cummings is editorial director of the Institute of Ideas.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said the imprisonment of Abu Izzadeen for talking rubbish showed that it’s a crime to be arrogant. Munira Mirza argued that ‘homegrown terrorists’ are a product of Western self-loathing. Mick Hume suggested Islamic terrorism is real but overstated as a threat to our society. Josie Appleton didn’t think deporting Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed and other radical preachers would solve anything. And in conversation with Brendan O’Neill, Faisal Devji spoke of the London bombers’ explosion of pity, that ‘most dangerous and bitter passion’. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.

(1) See Bin Laden’s script: ghost-written in the West, by Brendan O’Neill, 13 December 2005

(2) A veiled threat?, Karen Robinson, Abdul Taher and John Elliott, The Times (London), 8 October 2006

(3) To lionise former extremists feeds anti-Muslim prejudice, Ziauddin Sardar, Guardian, 24 April 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK

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