Perspectives: The Quilliam Foundation - fighting extremism

(L-R) Muslim interface advisor and political and social commentator and former leader of the EDL. Mohammed Ansar, Tommy Robinson Muslim interface advisor Mohammed Ansar and former leader of the EDL Tommy Robinson first met on the BBC One programme The Big Questions

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The former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), Tommy Robinson chose to announce his resignation at a conference organised by the counter-extremist think tank Quilliam. Jonathan Russell, political liaison officer at the Quilliam Foundation sets out the organisation's views on combating extremism.

It might sound surprising, but Tommy Robinson and the senior members of the Quilliam Foundation have something in common: they decided to walk away from extremism. As a teenager, Quilliam chairman Maajid Nawaz was attacked by racist thugs, experiencing the kind of far-right extremism the EDL now struggles to contain.

Disconnected from the spiritual and personal Islam his parents and grandparents had been brought up with, Maajid experienced an identity crisis mirroring those of many other British Muslims of his generation.

What is Quilliam?

  • Founded in 2008, the Quilliam Foundation is a think tank that aims to challenge extremism and promote democracy
  • It is not aligned to any particular religious organisation or political party
  • Quilliam has its critics. Some contributors to BBC Radio 4's Sunday said it has "no credibility within the Muslim communities". There were also calls for more transparency about who funds the foundation. (The debate about Quilliam can be heard 22 minutes into the programme below)

As a result, he joined the internationalist and revolutionary Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), in which he was active and in leadership positions of for more than 10 years, and which led to five years as a political prisoner of the regime of the former Egypt President Hosni Mubarak.

After renouncing Islamism, Maajid resolved to confront the ideology by founding Quilliam with Ed Hussain, another former activist of HT and author of The Islamist. The name Quilliam itself is taken from the name of the founder of the first mosque in England, a 19th Century convert from Christianity to Islam.

The founders recognised that Islamist and far-right extremism are mutually supportive, providing to each other the symbol of an intolerant and aggressive 'other' against which to mobilise.

Therefore, successfully countering extremism would involve tackling both sides and has formed a central part of their work from the outset.

Osama Bin Laden

Central to Quilliam's mission is explaining clearly what Islamism is, and what it is not: Islamism is the reinterpretation of Islam as a political ideology; it is only one relatively recent interpretation which does not represent the majority of Muslims in the UK or around the world.

Having former Islamists from all backgrounds in the Foundation certainly helps to achieve the Foundation's goal.

For example, Quilliam President Noman Benotman was formerly a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the group established in 1995 whose work focused on the overthrow of the former President Muammar Gaddafi and the establishment of an Islamic State in Libya, and had close links to Osama Bin Laden following his participation in the Western-backed Afghanistan jihad against the Soviet Union.

Image of Quilliam chairman Maajid Nawaz with some Pakistani students at the Agricultural University, Faisalabad. The Quilliam Foundation is also involved in projects outside the UK. In this picture, chairman Maajid Nawaz meets some Pakistani students at the Agricultural University, Faisalabad

Mr Benotman now leads international outreach to political activists in the Middle East and North Africa and personally played a key role in the disbanding of the LIFG.

Quilliam's work is not simply academic or policy-driven. By speaking at sessions held by Muslim community groups, mosques and prisons in the last five years, the Foundation has helped to counter radicalisation in the UK in a very practical way.

When Tommy Met Mo

When Tommy Robinson, then leader of the EDL, met Mo Ansar, the Muslim who campaigned to ban the EDL, on BBC One's The Big Questions, it turned out to be the encounter that changed everything.

Ansar challenged Robinson's knowledge of Islam and offered to show him how real British Muslims live and what they actually believe in.

The programme uncovers the full story of how Robinson came to his decision to leave the organisation he founded; the moment he first met Maajid Nawaz from Quilliam; and it questions whether this is just a change of tactics or the beginning of a new Tommy Robinson.

But tackling extremism also means working at the grassroots level outside the UK. For example Quilliam partnered Pakistan's youth-led social movement Khudi, which has successfully challenged the monopolisation of the national political discourse by Islamist groups by providing young people with an outlet for the expression of democratic values.

So far, Khudi Pakistan has chapters in 10 urban centres across the country, and has involved 15,000 young students and activists, with its annual Festival of Ideas offering participants a space to network and exchange ideas around democracy, human rights and civil liberties.

Khudi has run workshops and presentations over the last four years and continues to produce a monthly magazine, The Laaltain, aimed at Pakistan's university students.

'Negative symbiotic relationship'

Islamism itself represents a spectrum of positions but one with a common ideology that runs contrary to the ideas of democracy, human rights and pluralism that underpin successful societies.

By confronting Islamist ideas with these better ideas, Quilliam challenges both violent Islamism that represents a direct threat to peace and non-violent Islamism that provides mood music for its violent counterpart.

Challenging far-right extremism stems from the recognition that it enjoys a negative symbiotic relationship with Islamism; in other words, they give each other a reason to exist.

Nick Jode, a former EDL supporter, who came across a clip of Maajid Nawaz by chance, later described how watching it led to him starting the journey away from extremism: "The most impressive thing was that Maajid's message wasn't violent - he was talking about tolerance and a peaceful change. I thought Maajid was a fantastic speaker and started researching his work".

Despite common misconceptions, the Quilliam Foundation does not call for non-violent extremist groups to be banned, believing instead that a peaceful refutation of extremism and promotion of alternatives is a more effective way of breaking down extremist ideologies.

Its aim is to continue building on its success with Muslim communities all around the world and in the UK, believing that the popularity of Islamism and other forms of extremism is a trend which should not be dealt with merely by force, but by engaging with communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and encouraging participation in mainstream British society.

The Foundation enjoys its status as a private not-for profit organisation that has not received public funds since 2011 as it can remain ideas-focused, non-partisan and continue its own pursuits. Quilliam's ideas, projects and output are all made possible by the support of private donations from Muslim and non-Muslim individuals and foundations based in the United Kingdom and all around the world.

In order to win the battle of ideas, it is imperative to regain control of the narrative from an unrepresentative minority who have managed to attract disproportionate attention in recent years and to demonstrate that equality, religious freedom and democracy are not principles which should belong to specific communities, but essential for us all.

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