What the demise of Quilliam teaches us about Britain and Islam

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

There was much rejoicing among Britain’s Islamists last week when the thinktank and campaigning organisation Quilliam announced that it was closing. The Islamists were pleased because for the 14 years since its founding Quilliam has been the most prominent Muslim-run organisation arguing for a progressive, non-Islamist Islam.

The exact reasons why Quilliam has shut down are not clear. The co-founder, Maajid Nawaz, has blamed the difficulties of sustaining a non-profit in the era of Covid. Perhaps it is that, or perhaps it is something else. The group never had an easy ride. But the fact that it didn’t, and that so many prominent British Muslims are celebrating its demise, points to a problem worth noting.

I was there in 2007 when Quilliam started. Like a lot of other people, I had spent some years wondering precisely where the reforming Muslims — even the ‘moderate Muslims’ — actually were. After 9/11, 7/7, the Danish cartoons and much more, our country was still going through the early-learning stages regarding Islam. Every time a terrorist attack happened we were assured that Islam was a religion of peace. But when some prominent Muslim organisation was brought forth to reassure us, all too often they tended to be nutters themselves.

Generally, after every attack they would condemn the attack. But they always had a ‘but’. They might condemn the killing of cartoonists but say that blasphemy was a very serious matter in Islam and that this was something the non-believers had to realise. They tended to condemn the destruction of the World Trade Center, but were by no means against terror if it was aimed against Israel. When they condemned the 7/7 bombings they would go straight on to denouncing British foreign policy and warning of ‘Islamophobic’ backlashes. The cumulative effect felt by a lot of us was that Islam had bigger problems than many people were willing to admit.

In time our societal understanding grew more informed. For instance, it became evident that the Muslim community (like almost every other community) had a problem with its self-elected ‘representatives’. Ordinary Muslims had no more desire to presume to ‘speak for’ or ‘lead’ their fellow religionists than any healthy gay person wants to have anything to do with Stonewall. But there was another problem too: the Islamists had spent years organising and the good guys had not.

For instance, while the radicals of Jamaat-e-Islami don’t do very well in Pakistani politics, they have done well in Pakistani diaspora politics in the UK, dominating a number of the groups that like to present themselves as representative. Very few British Muslims feel that they are represented to government by the communal groups who seek to speak in their name. And in truth those communal groups have done an enormous disservice not just to British Muslims but to Britain as a whole.

In 2014 a scandal erupted over a number of state schools in Birmingham that had been taken over by Islamists. Former Met deputy assistant commissioner Peter Clarke’s investigation was detailed and troubling. Individuals involved in the education of these local children were found to be churning out a diet of conspiracist thinking (not least about terror attacks), hostility to the society and ‘a constant undercurrent of anti-western sentiment’.

Yet even now you don’t read much about the Trojan Horse affair because Britain’s hardline organisations and prominent individuals from the House of Lords down spent so much energy pouring slurry over the story. For exposing the conspiracies Peter Clarke and anybody else who expressed concern about the scandal was dismissed as a conspiracy theorist, an Islamophobe and more. To my recollection, among all the UK’s major Muslim organisations, only one accepted that the problem was real and expressed concern at what was found. That organisation was Quilliam.

It was the same with issue after issue. Quilliam was the only Muslim group that didn’t come out with condemnations only to build up to a ‘but’. Three years ago Quilliam produced a report into the ‘grooming gangs’ question — the polite term for the mass rape of thousands of children in towns across England. Because the perpetrators appeared to be disproportionately of Muslim background, Quilliam did a great service in not only addressing the issue but doing so from a Muslim direction. This suggested to Muslims and non-Muslims alike that there were Muslims in this country willing to stand up to these problems, not simply sweep them under the rug and condemn people who’d noticed them.

Once again the response was clear. Every Islamist and Islamist-sympathising group and individual in the UK lammed into Quilliam. It was accused of being ‘far right’ or aiding the ‘far right’, just as it had spent years being accused of ‘Islamophobia’.

It is interesting, this disproportionate vitriol targeted not just at reformers but at real prominent moderates within Islam. The hatred and venom aimed at Nawaz and his colleagues has been exceptional. They have literally had to fear for their lives. And the hatred has far outweighed any aimed at Islamist groups operating in Britain. Certainly the moderates have got far more flak than the Hamas leaders living here. Or the Jamaat types and other backward tribalists who populate the discourse and occasionally the airwaves. And why should that be?

For two decades now, that has been perhaps the most suggestive question. Outside a school in Batley in recent weeks some Muslims have been organising to intimidate a teacher, his family, bosses and colleagues. Will there be campaigns against them? Will the ‘mainstream’ Muslim organisations do anything to de-escalate the problem? As always they will pretend to be brokers between people who can’t be negotiated with and the state.

I don’t say this with any glee, but anybody who put their chips on Islamic reformation or moderate Islam saving everyone should think on the demise of Quilliam. Some of this country’s best citizens, who happened also to be Muslims, gave Islamic reform a good shot here. But it was they — and not their critics — who as a result became the principal target. Not a good sign. Not a good sign at all.

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