Questions for Quilliam: counter-extremism and Islamophobia
It has been a bad month for the Quilliam foundation, the British organisation which claims to be the "world’s first counter-extremism think tank".
In its heyday, Quilliam was receiving millions of pounds worth of funding from the British government. It was the darling of the right wing press, playing the role of "moderate" Muslims by supporting the government’s Prevent agenda.
But British Muslims have long questioned the legitimacy of an organisation so heavily reliant on government funding with leadership whose claim to expertise rests on their own previous histories of radicalism. Now even British MPs have, it seems, come to view Quilliam with scepticism.
|Quilliam’s co-founder Maajid Nawaz and research director Usama Hasan had signed a statement organised by the Gatestone Institute, an American think tank with a mixture of neoconservative and anti-Muslim "counterjihad" personnel on its books|
At a hearing of the Home Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into countering extremism at the beginning of December, Quilliam head Haras Rafiq was challenged by MPs to explain his organisation's connections with people and organisations that can only be described as extremists – of the right wing, Islamophobic variety.
Labour MP Chuka Umunna asked Rafiq why Quilliam’s co-founder Maajid Nawaz and research director Usama Hasan had signed a statement organised by the Gatestone Institute, an American think tank with a mixture of neoconservative and anti-Muslim "counterjihad" personnel on its books.
Pointing out the Islamophobic conspiracy theories that Gatestone’s website pushes, Umunna asked incredulously "I just wonder what on earth an organisation like your own is doing associating with and signing statements organised by an organisation like the Gatestone?"
Rafiq’s response was to claim that he did not know that Gatestone publishes the work of notorious Islamophobes like Robert Spencer.
This was a strange claim given that, seconds earlier, he appeared to defend Gatestone, stating his belief that it had published the work of self-defined "terrorism expert" Steven Emerson before he was discredited (after claiming, amongst other things that Birmingham in the UK was a "totally Muslim city").
He also clearly knew about the content of the statement – arguably an attempt to impute blame for acts of violence collectively to all Muslims – which, worryingly he called ‘just and noble’.
Yet Rafiq stated that he "would not have allowed" Quilliam’s name to be associated with the Gatestone Institute had he known it published Robert Spencer’s work and said he would "look into" the issue.
However, on the organisation’s website there is no sign yet of any statement explaining whether Nawaz and Hasan who signed the statement were similarly ignorant of Gatestone’s promotion of anti-Muslim racism – or not.
The one possibility raises serious questions about their competence, the former more deeply troubling questions about their attitude to Islamophobia.
In either case, without issuing an explanation and apology, condemning the Gatestone Institute and distancing themselves from it, Quilliam’s claim to be "anti-extremist" is untenable.
Indeed, it has other alarming US connections that also require explanation. Naz Shah MP suggested that "alliances at the heart of Quilliam Foundation strip it of all credibility," citing the politics of Chad Sweet, a board member on the American branch of Quilliam between 2011 and 2013.
Here, Rafiq shrugged off the issue by stating that Quilliam U.S. was a separate organisation.
Even if this somewhat far-fetched explanation is accepted, the UK branch of Quilliam itself has additional questions to answer.
|Some suggested that Quilliam were seeking to use the publicity the former EDL leader brought them to try to dig themselves out of a dire financial situation, while he was using them to gain legitimacy|
Ever since a Quilliam press release from October 2013 stated proudly that it had facilitated the departure of Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) from the English Defence League, the far-right street movement he founded, critics have raised sceptical eyebrows and asked why.
Some suggested that Quilliam were seeking to use the publicity he brought them to try to dig themselves out of a dire financial situation, while he was using them to gain legitimacy.
Now a book released by Robinson has confirms that this is how he too perceived the situation. It also reveals that Quilliam made financial payments directly to him – which it says were expenses rather than an incentive to leave the group.
Either way it was clear very soon after Maajid Nawaz and Usama Hasan sat next to Robinson in 2013 that his politics had not changed.
Admittedly, Quilliam’s defence that it never claimed to have "de-radicalised" him but merely to have left the EDL leaderless is factually accurate.
But when the EDL has appointed a new leader and Robinson has re-started a branch of PEGIDA in the UK (an attempt to import the anti-Islam, anti-immigration movement that took off in Dresden, Germany) - possibly helped by credibility and money that came courtesy of Quilliam – it is hard not to see QF’s activities as self-serving and counter-productive.
Arguably the same could be said of individuals and organisations pushing "counter-extremism" discourse more broadly.
The UK’s "counter-extremism" policy Prevent, a model which has been exported to other European countries, the US and beyond, has had since its inception a one-sided focus on Muslim communities. The effect has not only been discrimination but also polarisation, as it has helped create a climate in which far-right Islamophobic extremism - Prevent’s blind spot - has flourished.
And as Donald Trump and the rise of the Front National has proven, this Islamophobic extremism is not merely at the fringes but exists in the mainstream and at the heart of established political power. British academic Arun Kundnani has been one of the few to identify this broader trend: the radicalisation of our own political culture and governments.
Quilliam are one of the handmaidens of this process and the anti-Muslim connections of this so-called "anti-extremist" think tank are a microcosm of the wider synergy of counter-extremism policies and Islamophobia today.
Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.