Quilliam Foundation – time for tauba? (2010)

“There is a sense that Government has sought to engineer a ‘moderate’ form of Islam, promoting and funding only those groups which conform to this model. We do not think it is the job of Government to intervene in theological matters” (House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee – Preventing Violent Extremism, March 2010)

This statement has led to sinking hearts at Quilliam Foundation, an organization which has been a particular beneficiary of government largesse – by January 2009 it had received ‘almost £1 million of public money with 18 full-time staff and paying about £110,000 a year to rent offices at one of Central London’s most prestigious addresses’ (Richard Kebaj, The Times, 20 January 2009)
Like goldfish in a bowl about to be tipped over, its directors and staff face an uncertain future. Given the public spending cuts and choices between funding the Faith Communities Consultative Council and projects such as ‘Contextualising Islam’, MINAB and RMW, continued funding of Quilliam is in the balance.

For a start, the new Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, Eric Pickles, is likely to take the Commons’ recommendation seriously, and he himself is a believer in strengthening local initiatives. Why should tax payers fund a self-proclaimed ‘think tank’ based in London?

Second, Government already has a well-staffed and competent propaganda unit in RICU, the Research Information and Communication Unit –  which itself has an annual budget of £5.7 million, and will also be downsized.

Third, it has been unable to recruit any Muslim intellectual heavyweights to its ranks. For example Professor Ziauddin Sardar provided this put-down:

“I am troubled by the fact that former extremists are seen as the only people who know how to deal with extremism. Just because you have been an inmate of a mental hospital does not mean you are an expert in clinical psychology. But former extremists are being lionised because they confirm the basic tabloid prejudice that violence is a natural part of being a Muslim”

[https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/apr/24/islam.religion ].

Fourth, it is in competition with Douglas Murray’s Centre for Social Cohesion and could well join forces. After all, Murray has written of Quilliam, “I know very well how these people work because I used to employ some of them. Around the time Ed Husain came to public notice, I recruited him to work with me (through Civitas, the organisation that originally hosted the Centre for Social Cohesion). He liked my views and I had great hopes for him to become a source for real reform” [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/oct/23/quilliam-islamic-fundamentalists-terrorism].

Fifth, the Quilliam Foundation’s opportunistic use of the heritage of the Liverpool shaikh ul Islam Abdullah Quilliam (1856-1932) has back-fired. Professor Geaves writes,

“a brief observation may be made concerning the Quilliam Foundation. The assumption made by the appropriation of Quilliam’s name is that the members of the Foundation are a direct continuation of a moderate or liberal ‘Western Islam’ espoused by Abdullah Quilliam, which is an integrated part of British life. They directly link themselves with Abdullah Quilliam and state that their Foundation was created in his memory. It would appear that Quilliam is being reinvented in some circles to provide narratives of integration. The reality is that Quiliam was deeply enmeshed in the politics of the Muslim world. The Liverpool Muslim community was in touch with a global awareness of a Muslim sense of crisis and felt that it was part of an Islamic revival that was occuring at the time.When it came to conflict between the West and the Islamic majority world, Abdullah Quilliam would proclaim, ‘harm one Muslim and you harm us all’. He was not beyond threatening the British governments of his time with the prospect of inciting the Muslims of the Empire to rise up in the cause of injustices inflicted upon fellow Muslims” [Islam in Victorian Britain – the life and times of Abdullah Quilliam by Ron Geaves, Kube Publishing, 2010; p. 307 ].

Sixth, the Quilliam Foundation has been prone to sensationalism and at times more of a liability to its patrons. In one appalling interview in October 2009, its director Ed Husain stated that that government was morally justified to gather intelligence about innocent people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism. This may have ingratiated him with the security services, but a senior civil servant had to tell him, “I would ask that in future, you speak with more care and accuracy”.

Finally, Quilliam rests on a flawed categorisation of Muslims either as quietist ‘non-Islamists’ or politically active ‘Islamists’. Any government which listens to this simplistic siren song will continue to waste public funds, alienate Muslims and hinder the emergence of a resilient and self-sustaining Muslim civil society.

And who are the ‘Islamists’? Quilliam, like the neo-cons, defines this category as those who hold a theological view-point that
(i) Islam is a faith or religion but also a holistic socio-political order
(ii) it is desirable and efficacious for the Shariah to be a basis of law in a Muslim-majority state
(iii) Muslims, over and above their national allegiances, form a supra-national community of believers, the Ummah, and hold on to a pan-Islamic project for the future.

The privilege of being an ‘Islamist’ on these terms will be claimed by huge numbers of Muslims, so as a conceptual framework it leads to nowhere. The root causes of criminal terrorist incidents in the UK are unrelated to theology.

The Quilliam Foundation fingers Islamic thinkers and activists of the 50s and 60s such as Maulana Maudoodi, Hassan Al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb as ‘Islamist’ god-fathers.
These are personalities belonging to the colonial or immediate post-colonial period of the 50s and 60s. It would be as misleading to quote their statements out of context today as it would be to cite Winston Churchill justifying the use of poison gas against the Kurds in the 1920s. Or as Tariq Ramadan has observed, to read Nietzsche today without understanding the context of his times.

The truth is that for generations Muslims have turned to the religious sources and found reason to give their faith public and political expression. For example in Yugoslavia in the 1940s, far from Egypt or India, young Muslims disturbed by the totalitarianisms emerging from Europe’s bosom began searching for an answer in a third way, that of Islam: “Islam was not only a religion but also a universal ideology which included social affairs and matters of state”, they declared in their journal. One of the stars of this Mladi Musulmani movement, Alija Izetbegovic, had never heard of Maudoodi when he wrote in Islam between East and West, 

“Islam knows no specifically religious literature in the European sense of the word, just as it knows no pure secular literature. Every Islamic thinker is a theologian, just as every true Islamic movement is also a political movement.”

Quilliam Foundation is now making a pitch to the coalition government for its continued funding from the public purse. From its past track record, it is not difficult to envisage the sort of analysis and recommendations that may be forthcoming:

– the ‘Islamist’ threat is growing

– promote groups that can counter ‘Islamist ideology’

– find someone to blame for the public critique of the Preventing Violent Extremism programme i.e. not ourselves

– praise those government units closely aligned with the intelligence agencies

– call for greater surveillance and monitoring of Islamic groups and associations

– belittle any competitors

– belittle voices that call for keeping lines of communication open with all groups and tendencies

– purge Muslim ‘Islamists’ and non-Muslim ‘Islamist sympathisers’ from the civil service

In this scenario Quilliam Foundation and its directors and staff are the storm-troopers banging the drum for an oppressive period ahead.

What would be in everyone’s interests is some introspection and soul-searching to assess whether their work has contributed to a stronger Muslim civil society and better understanding more widely.

There is also need to recognise that one can read the Qur’an and the Seerah in many ways, both as a message of individual spiritual upliftment, and also as a collective endeavour of those committed to truth and justice.

Professor Mamdani’s essay on the way Muslims are being categorised should also be taken on board. He warns of  “the new wisdom that we must tell apart the Good Muslim from the Bad Muslim. On the one hand, savages who must be saved before they destroy us all and, on the other, the civilized whose burden it is to save all”.

Surely QF does not wish to be remembered as the last gasp of orientalist thinking? Humility may lead to tauba. (350)