Ex-extremists call for ‘Western Islam’
The government is keen to find answers to extremism
Discussing hardline Islamist ideologies and violent extremism isn’t exactly the stuff of fashionable London parties.
But the British Museum is on Tuesday the surprising venue for theologians, thinkers and socialite Jemima Khan, all coming together to support the launch of a new think tank to counter Al Qaeda’s world-view.
And this seemingly bizarre gathering exposes the question at the heart of the whirlwind romance between the Quilliam Foundation and policymakers.
Is the launch of this campaigning organisation a step forward in the battle of ideas – or just another group with some kind of official pat on the head – but no credibility on the street?
Since the London bombings of July 2005 a whole string of Muslim organisations have come forward, claiming to have the answers to violent extremism.
Search for answers
The Muslim Council of Britain, the main umbrella body, has been marginalised in an ongoing political row – but two others touted as significant players have had little impact.
Vast sums of money are being spent on research into violent extremism, and entire government teams have sprung from nowhere to try to find answers.
Then into this mix came Ed Husain. Last year he published The Islamist, his story of a life in hardline community politics.
He was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), a global body calling for a single Islamic state across the Middle East.
Husain says the hardline rhetoric of organisations like HT took him and other British teenagers to dark places – places which are the starting point on a road that leads to suicide bombing in the name of al-Qaeda.
Maajid Nawaz (centre): Imprisoned with former colleagues in Egypt
It’s an alluring argument and the book is a compelling read. One government official e-mailed scores of colleagues inside Whitehall late last year, effectively instructing them to read it.
Now Ed Husain and another, less well-known, man, Maajid Nawaz, are launching Quilliam (named after a 19th century British convert) as the counter-argument to extremism.
They say Islam in its purest universal form, as the last message of God to mankind, sits perfectly well in modern multicultural societies – providing that Muslims find the right way to express their faith.
And if British Muslims rediscover the purity of the faith, they argue, they can cast off the political and cultural baggage that would see Islam as the enemy of the West.
This is, however, an argument fraught with danger – which is why Quilliam’s progress will be interesting to watch.
Ed Husain’s book has annoyed many people who would otherwise be on his side, including serious Muslim thinkers who were once of the same radical mindset as him.
Some Muslims who advise government have raised eyebrows over his links with Conservative thinkers. The author himself is a Labour supporter who says the challenge is not party-political.
Supporters say he has been the victim of community sniping because he has had the guts to stand up and be counted and to reveal, warts and all, what lies beneath the surface.
This is where Maajid Nawaz comes in. For years, Essex-born Nawaz was one of the most influential figures in Islamist politics in the UK.
Quilliam says Islam sits perfectly well with modern multi-cultural societies
And he paid for it by being jailed in Egypt for membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir – witnessing the torture of other prisoners and fearing for his own life.
But before finding himself in a Cairo cell, he personally recruited to the cause the very men and women Quilliam is now targeting.
He is known among communities around the country and delivers talks rooted deep in Koranic theology, rather than the writings of the ideologues who provided al-Qaeda’s intellectual foundations. In short, he has street credibility.
The two men and Quilliam’s other founders form an attractive package – effective communicators who believe they can join the dots between communities, counter-extremism strategy and young Muslims.
But it’s this determination to influence government which will be the most challenging issue for Quilliam.
Islamist political groups will use any kind of association between the think tank and policy makers as an attack, accusing it of doing ministers’ bidding.
If Quilliam is to have success with its message it will need to manage this relationship very carefully.
Another organisation, the Radical Middle Way, delivers fascinating lecture tours by progressive Islamic thinkers – but it is dismissed by hardliners because it received Foreign Office funding.
Other schemes involving government cash have also struggled to avoid accusations of “state-approved Islam”.
So can Quilliam reach the young men and women who need most to hear the message?
Quilliam’s strategy is to bathe in the media and political spotlight – but to back this up with a coherent grassroots campaign of rigorous ideas.
And so it hopes to become a rolling ball gathering the moss of former Islamists – and the more moss it gathers, the greater its momentum in communities.
Its founders have deliberately avoided using the difficult theological term of “reformation” – but the think tank is determined to sell the idea of a “Western Islam”.
The organisation initially in its sights is Hizb ut-Tahrir.
By coincidence, it sent out an e-mail on the morning of Quilliam’s launch, calling on supporters to “Stand for Islam” against the onslaught of Western values. It appears to be feeling the heat.