Abdullah Quilliam was a 19th Century British convert to Islam, the founder of a mosque in Liverpool. He was also an anti-imperialist and a supporter of the Caliphate. He argued that Muslims should not fight Muslims on behalf of European powers, citing specifically Britain’s enlistment of Muslim soldiers against the resistance in Sudan. If Quilliam were alive today he would, at very least, be kept under observation by the British intelligence services.
It is ironic, then, that this activist Muslim’s good name has been appropriated by the government-backed and funded Quilliam Foundation, established in April 2008, supposedly to counter extremism in Muslim communities.
Those who read my stuff will know that I despise Wahhabism, and still more Wahhabi-nihilism. I oppose Islamic political projects which aim to capture control of the repressive mechanisms of contemporary Muslim states. I am stunned by the stupidity of such slogans as “Islam is the solution.” I take issue with anyone who attempts to impose a dress code or an interpretation of morality on anyone else, and I loathe those puritanical ideologies which fail to recognise the value of music, art, mysticism, philosophy, and popular and local cultures in the Muslim world. It is obvious that political Islam has often been exploited for very unIslamic purposes by the American empire and its client dictators in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere. Nominally Islamic political parties bear a great weight of responsibility for diverting the Iraqi resistance into a disastrous sectarian war. The terrorist attacks on London in July 2007 were abominable crimes and a catastrophe for all British Muslims. I know all that, yet I oppose the Quilliam Foundation.
The Quilliam Foundation’s purpose is to generalise all Islamic political or oppositional movements under the ‘Islamist’ heading, whether these movements are right or left wing, Sunni or Shia, violent or not, local or global in their concerns, whether they intend to conquer or to resist conquest. It aims to decontextualise all Muslim violence, and to delegitimise all Muslim opposition to British foreign policy. It tells power what power wants to hear. As such, it’s an organisation of house negroes, to use Malcolm X’s language. To use the language of Salman Rushdie (in an earlier incarnation), it’s an organisation of brown Uncle Toms.
The Foundation’s visible backers are a crew of Islamophobes, neo-conservatives and Zionists, people such as Martin Amis, Melanie Phillips, David Aaronovich and Michael Gove. Its front men are three people – Ed Husain, Maajid Nawaz, and Rashad Zaman Ali – who used to be members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir (or claim to have been – the Hizb denies Husain was ever a member). A past as a simple-minded extremist is apparently a CV asset. Since the publication of his appalling book ‘The Islamist’, Ed Husain’s career has galloped on. In some ways he has become Britain’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali, quite irrelevant to Muslim communities and their necessary internal debates but a star in the media. Like Hirsi Ali, Husain has opined that there are too many immigrants in the country. He supports banning the hijab in schools (and thus, like a good Saudi policeman, believes in state-imposed dress codes). He generalises in the most racist way about “the racist Arab psyche.”
Husain and his friends define political Muslims of any stripe as enemies of freedom, and follow the Jacobin dictum ‘no freedom for the enemies of freedom.’ They encourage people to shop those they suspect of extremism to the authorities. Husain is proud that while in Damascus he shopped people he thought were Hizb ut-Tahrir members to the Syrian mukhabarat, and therefore delivered them to certain torture. It’s understandable and right to inform the police if you come across someone planning a bomb attack on civilians, but Husain here is reporting thought crime. He is the kind of ‘moderate’ that police states depend on. The kind of native informant necessary to justify British legislation which criminalises not only terrorism but ‘glorification’ of terrorism (Terrorism Act 2006). And what does glorification of terrorism mean? Not incitement to violence, for that is already illegal. It means expressing support for groups deemed by the government of the day to be ‘terrorist’ (such as the democratically elected government of the occupied Palestinians). It means holding opinions which the government deems unacceptable.
When she was Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith spoke of the importance of fighting “non-violent extremists.” Draft ‘anti-terror’ legislation, thankfully abandoned, proposed labelling as extremist any Muslim guilty of any of six thought crimes. These were: supporting armed resistance anywhere in the world, failing to condemn attacks on British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, supporting Sharia law, supporting the idea of the Caliphate, and condemning homosexuality.
It is a sign of how far Britain has fallen from its domestic liberal traditions that such measures could even be considered. It is a principle of international law that armed resistance is a right of occupied peoples. It is through armed resistance that fascism was defeated in Europe, and armed resistance played a key role in liberating colonies from the European empires, and black people from apartheid in South Africa and segregation in America. British opponents of the imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Muslim or not, may quite legitimately ‘fail to condemn’ attacks on British troops in these countries. Only a misguided patriotism which identifies the nation with government policy would make this position taboo, but there is a great British tradition of opposition to such nonsense. “Patriotism,” said Dr. Johnson, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Homosexuality is condemned by the followers of all traditional religions, and by many atheists too. People should not be free to attack homosexuals, but they should be free to condemn homosexuality, or heterosexuality for that matter. And sharia law, and the caliphate, mean different things to different people. State interference in these debates is only justified when someone tries to impose his ideas violently.
Ed Husain helps create the atmosphere which targets free debate and freedom of opinion in Britain. With all the subtlety of the Daily Express he sets up a false dichotomy between spiritual, moderate and traditional Islam on the one hand, and ideological, political, extremist, literalist Islamism on the other. In his excellent essay ‘Islamism and the Roots of Liberal Rage’, Arun Kundnani asks
Is it not possible to be both spiritual and political, activist and moderate, non-literal and non-traditional? … By collapsing together all these different dynamics into a singular threat, ‘Islamist’ becomes a term that designates any political appropriation of Islamic concepts as dangerous, effectively silencing most democratic forms of Muslim politics in Britain and elsewhere.
This is precisely what the Quilliam Foundation seeks to do. With tactics reminiscent of Campus Watch, it sends out McCarthyite ‘Quilliam alerts’ which are in effect character assassinations of those who dare to rock the narrow neo-con boat. Since he wrote an article arguing that a revived caliphate could be based on democratic values, Osama Saeed, SNP candidate for Glasgow Central, has been targetted. Saeed has organised a demonstration against al-Qa’ida and called for legislation against forced marriages, but he’s still considered an extremist “bad apple”.
The Quilliam Foundation’s methods may actually contribute to violent extremism amongst British Muslims. If Muslims feel they cannot engage in the media and political realms except to apologise for their religion and praise the bombing of fellow Muslims, some will despair, and come to believe that mainstream white Britain really is a foreign land. Then they will find it as easy to murder British civilians as government ministers find it easy to murder Arab and Afghan foreigners.
It’s a mistake to depoliticise Islam: the attempt to do so will only keep Muslim politics underground and alienated. If Islam today is so political, that is because Muslim communities face such deep political problems. And if Muslims are stereotyped and oppressed as Muslims, it is natural that they will fight back as Muslims. (Twenty years ago Pakistani Muslims were oppressed primarily for their skin colour, and they responded as ‘blacks’). Beyond these local conditions, Islam is a political religion, and should be. Islam’s political temper is something to be proud of, even if many recent manifestations of Muslim politics have been horrifically misguided. Since the invasion and ravaging of Iraq, British Muslim activists have built alliances with the more open-minded sections of the left. This is an encouraging proof of the integration of Muslims into British political life, not something to be condemned.
Ed Husain wants a British Islam which is “in harmony with the world in which it finds itself.” But Islam would be a parody or shell of itself if it was in harmony with a world of mass poverty, tyranny, and catastrophic climate change. An Islam enjoying a harmonious relationship with a Britain engaged in criminal imperialist wars would not be Islam at all. The same goes for Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. Surely one of the main purposes of religion is to strive for greater social justice. Any form of religion which makes complacent accomodations with power (and I concede that most forms of religion historically, Islam included, have done this) is a false form.
One power structure that Husain has completely accomodated is Zionism. He condemns British newspapers for publishing the occasional article by Hamas members. Opposing the existence of the apartheid Jewish state on principle is cast, unsurprisingly, as anti-Semitic Islamist extremism. Which makes many secular and religious Jews, many Christians, Marxists, atheists, liberal democrats, and me, anti-Semitic Islamist extremists.
The Quilliam Foundation is itself an extremist organisation, run by young men who know very little. It would all be laughable if it didn’t receive so much taxpayers’ money, if it wasn’t taken on tour in Pakistan, with the British secret services providing security, and presented as a genuine representative of British Muslims, if certain sections of the British elite didn’t believe it was helping them to communicate with angry Muslims. At very best, its embrace by the establishment shows the ignorance and patronising arrogance of that establishment. Intelligent, activist, humane British Muslims have a great deal of work to do.