Robin Yassin-Kassab

Abusing Quilliam’s Name

with 19 comments

quilliamAbdullah 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.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 13, 2009 at 1:42 pm

19 Responses

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  1. “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.”

    In that case,what use if Islam then? What use is any religion or philosophy or moral tradition?

    Let every one dress, behave, talk as they wish.

    In effect, the whole world becomes like the modern West, where morality is reduced to physical violence, and religion is a weekly trip to church.


    August 16, 2009 at 6:19 pm

  2. I don’t think the imposition should be top-down, Dar. When it is imposed, the result is mass hypocrisy. I’ve lived in Saudi Arabia and seen this. In Syria, on the other hand, people may decide to, for instance, wear hijab because they are convinced of it. Another example: in the areas controlled by/ loyal to Hizbullah in Lebanon, nobody bothers a woman who chooses not to wear hijab. Most women do wear it, and still the individual conscience is protected.

    As for those puritanical ideologies which fail to recognise the value of art, music, popular culture (I don’t mean the Western capitalist definition of popular culture, which is in fact corporately provided), I don’t think they are good examples of Islam. I know Salafis would disagree with me, and this is not the place for those discussions (about the ahadeeth on music, for instance, and how they should be interpreted). The point is that there are different points of view, and I object to narrow minded people arrogantly imposing one point of view on everybody else.

    I object strenuously and often to Western violence and the shallowness of much of its supposed morality. Nevertheless I think your reductive statement “morality is reduced to physical violence” is simplistic and unhelpful.


    August 16, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    • My main point is still valid. The very point of any belief system is to impose some values/morals/discipline on the individual and community. Otherwise what is its use?

      If that hypothetical women in Hezbollah areas decided to also wear a bikini with a see-through tank top, will this also be her own will?

      If it is, then what need for any moral system, except what one believes individually.

      “Nevertheless I think your reductive statement “morality is reduced to physical violence” is simplistic and unhelpful.”

      Perhaps I did not write it out properly, I meant that in the modern West, morality is mostly judged by whether something causes physical harm or not.

      No matter jhow venal, degenerate, and vile, “as long as its not hurting anyone”, then it is defended.

      Unless you actually physically beat someone, then no one would all you immoral no matter what you do. So a company that pollutes a river is attacked, by an entertainment company that pollutes morals (say, MTV tv channel) is not.

      This is what I meant by morality being reduced to physical violence.


      August 19, 2009 at 2:17 am

      • I don’t know if women wear see-through bikini tops in Hizb areas – I expect the public sense of decency and their own individual values would prevent them from this. The point is there are no Hizbullah moral police to do the job. But there are miniskirts and bare midriffs.
        see also Nir Rosen’s excellent article on Hizbullah – http://www.truthdig.com/report/print/200601003_hiz_ballah_party_of_god/
        And do you know the notoriously slutty Lebanese pop singer Haifa Wahhbi? Asked during a TV interview to name the person she most admired, she launched into long praise of Hassan Nasrallah.
        It all depends on who is doing the imposing, Dar. I think religious and moral values are only any good when people decide to impose them on themselves. We disagree on this, which is fine (al-ikhtilaf rahma). My point was simply: look, I’m a social liberal, not the type easily stereotyped as ‘an extremist’ Muslim, but I still find the Quilliam Foundation deeply objectionable.

        As for the West only acting against violence – it all depends whose violence, doesn’t it. They are outraged by what they call ‘terrorism’, but American or British planes and tanks murdering civilians in Baghdad and Kandahar is just fine.


        August 19, 2009 at 10:35 am

  3. Qunfuz I thought you find this interesting as well


    Here Maajid is telling us that the military institution of Israel does not target civilians intentionally!

    Talk about being an apologist for war criminals!


    August 16, 2009 at 9:04 pm

  4. great article- jazakallahukhair


    August 18, 2009 at 8:29 am

  5. You may wish to consider writing a follow up post to this, especially given since the cowards and two faced liars at Quilliam took this post and tried to attack the BNP to gain some kind of acceptance from Muslims (despite the fact that they have MORE in common with the BNP in terms of ideas, tactics, and methods against other Muslims than they care to reflect on).



    August 19, 2009 at 6:26 pm

  6. There’s a level of honesty in this article that is sadly missing from political discourse these days. No holds barred spoken like a true field Negro.

    QF charlatans will be remembered on the same pages of history as lord haw-haw, early 21st century war time propagandists.


    August 19, 2009 at 8:05 pm

  7. I don’t know how people have turned the term ‘field negro’ and ‘house negro’ into ‘field nigger’ and ‘house nigger’. You’re not the first but it is a pretty glaring slip for anyone familiar with Malcolm X’s autobiography. The term nigger is downright offensive; negro can be interpreted in more than one way.

    Umer Siddique

    August 26, 2009 at 3:57 pm

  8. I have ‘field nigger’ deep in my head, probably from rap music. You’re quite right, Umer: Malcolm said ‘field negro’, and the ‘nigger’ term is much much more problematic. I will bear it in mind in the future.


    August 26, 2009 at 6:40 pm

  9. Its is intresting to note “qunfuz” or “confuse”
    you are indeed also taking quite a hard line by insisting your own views.. you aint that different either. if the issue is “hardline”/ aggression.

    Islam is a religon for all types of people with diffrent temprament.. Saudi for that matter are just one of those types..and it is a combinition of all good in each type that comes together to move the complete vehicle.. If I may remidn you not all Sahaba were the same..but they all brought individual skills and emotions/ passions which collectively benefited.
    We should all work together… the question is how.. we need a system/ leader someone who will bring our positives together!!!


    August 26, 2009 at 9:58 pm

  10. True, Awakening Now, I’m being rhetorical. But even though a lot of individual Saudis (not all of whom are Wahhabis anyway) are decent people, the Wahhabi trend of thought I have serious problems with. I’m just expressing my opinion, not saying I have the whole truth. Allahu Alim.


    August 26, 2009 at 10:24 pm

  11. Hi Qunfuz. I do not mean to pick holes for the sake of it, but I do find certain parts of your article a little problematic. 🙂

    Qunfuz, you mention: “I take issue with anyone who attempts to impose a dress code or an interpretation of morality on anyone else.”

    Here in Britain it is illegal for an adult male or female to walk naked in public; at what point does it stop becoming a dress code in your view?

    Again here in the UK, there are ideas of morality which are considered closed to debate. For example, it is not illegal for one to be racist, homophobic or sexist, but society’s morals dictate that one who is any of these things is immoral. I am not arguing for these things one way or another, but which society does not seek to impose an interpretation of morality on others?


    September 27, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    • Umer, please see my response to Dar, in the second comment down.


      September 30, 2009 at 4:26 pm

      • Qunfuz, judging by your comments above, you are not just any liberal with a blind hatred for anything one may class ‘fundamentalist’, due to your statement ‘al-ikhtilaf rahma’ which is in its context absolutely correct. I do think your point is valid about mass hypocrisy being prevalent in a society that just imposes the letter of the law.

        However, there is a middle ground, and this is something the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) put into action as well as modern day Western governments.

        Western governments do not have a problem with Shari’ah because it is *imposed*; rather most of them object to it because the *standards* for morality are different.

        As an example, it is fair enough to quote the examples you have given regarding hijabis and those who wear less ‘modest’ clothing. However, you’re missing the point that even in those areas, and even in Western countries, there is a point at which you have to impose the law, whether people like it or not. Nudists may not like the fact that they can’t walk the streets in their birthday suit, but that’s tough. At that point, even Westerners start talking about ‘indecency’. Yet one person’s modest is another’s indecency, and the reason why the West look down at the Shari’ah is not just because a dress code is enforced; it’s because the standards for acceptability are different (okay they may also have a problem with the methodology of enforcement of certain laws but that’s another issue 🙂 ).

        The correct example is the gradualism adopted by Rasul (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) whereby education was the key; once people knew, for example, why alcohol was bad, and once they accepted certain things in their heart, it did not matter that a ban had been placed as they accepted it fully.

        Western governments have similar concepts too. Campaigns, education, debate, etc. In the end you will still get people who claim that a public cigarette ban is a form of dictatorship, and in a sense it is, but that’s tough; most people think it’s a good thing after hearing the arguments for and against. For them it’s not dictatorship or imposition, it’s common sense.

        Does that make any sense?

        Umer Siddique

        October 2, 2009 at 10:13 pm

  12. More self righteous nonsense. This topic and ALL of you are so very boring now. MOVE ON.

    Ahmadul Banna

    October 25, 2009 at 11:40 pm

  13. Yes, Umer, it does make sense.

    Ahmad, your comment is amusing. Perhaps your blanket attack on everyone, and your failure to state what precisely is upsetting you, is self-righteous nonsense. Dear me, we’re just talking about ideas here.


    November 2, 2009 at 5:20 pm

  14. […] upset the patriots at the Mail on Sunday was this one, on poppies. And I strongly suspect that this article on the Quilliam Foundation may have had a role in the […]

  15. AA brother
    Well argued and important article. Thanks.


    February 22, 2010 at 5:07 pm

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