Deciding who and who not to talk to has always been a strategy used by those in power against those they seek to control. FAHAD ANSARI discusses the attempts of the British government to find or establish an acceptable leadership for the British Muslim community.
First there was the Muslim Council of Britain, then the Radical Middle Way, followed shortly after by the stillborn Muslim Council, and now British Muslims have the Quilliam Foundation. Describing itself as “a counter-extremism thinktank” that has been “[c]reated by former activists of radical Islamist organisations, who are familiar with the mindset and methods of extremist groups”, the Quilliam Foundation is the British government’s new tool in its campaign to engineer its own brand of Islam. Whereas previous clients busied themselves with promoting “moderate Islam” and “Sufism”, QF has taken it upon itself to go one step further and advance the cause of secularism as the “true face of Islam”.
As a counter-extremism think-tank, much of what QF will be engaged in will depend on how it defines “extremism”. In its launch publication, Pulling Together to Defeat Terror, it defines as extremist “Wahhabites who declare takfir other [sic.] Muslims” and “those who uphold the ideas in Syed Qutb’s Milestones or Mawdudi’s books on jihad and believe in an Islamist state with an expansionist army”: in other words, essentially our Salafi brothers and sisters and any Muslims with any political aspirations based on Islam. Interestingly, Ed Husain, co-director of QF,himself has pronounced takfir on these people: “Call them jihadists, Islamists, but I wouldn’t call them Muslim,” said Husain in an interview with a leading Qatari newspaper in April 2008.
In its agenda for change, among other things QF calls for the establishment of well-resourced “deradicalisation centres” staffed by “mainstream” Muslim scholars who counter “Islamist ideology” with “traditional, pluralistic Islam”, the refutation of the arguments of influential Islamic thinkers such as al-Banna, Qutb and Nabhani, the application of pressure on Islamist groups to jettison publicly and privately the ideas of these thinkers, the encouragement of ordinary Muslims to hand over extremists to the authorities, the encouragement of students and imams to wear clothes that ensure they belong to mainstream society, the monitoring of Islamic societies and prayer-rooms on campuses, and the establishment of a ‘no platform’ policy for these alleged extremists.
The primary agenda of QF, however, is the promotion of ‘Islamic secularism’, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Recent statements by its founders, Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz, are so controversial as to bring them outside the fold of Islam in the eyes of many ordinary Muslims, let alone scholars. For example, in an address to City Circle in November 2007, Nawaz made statements such as that “Islamism is an ideology that believes sovereignty belongs to God, that legislation belongs to God…Those notions are alien to Islam” and “I don’t think God revealed Islam to tell me how to run a state”. Husain has repeatedly criticised elements of the shari‘ah regarding inheritance and the hudood as “barbaric”, “inhumane” and “outmoded.” A brief examination of these ex-Islamist founders of QF is helpful for trying to understand the motivations that drive them.
Ed (“short for Muhammad”) Husain, virtually unknown until last year, came to prominence after the publication of his book, The Islamist, his tale of how he embraced political Islam as a teenager and became what he calls a “fundamentalist”, before he saw the error of his ways and renounced Islamism for “moderate, traditional” Islam. Husain lays the blame for extremism at the door of political groups around the Muslim world such as the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, the Jama‘at-e Islami and Hizb ut-Tahrir and their British wings, as well as the ‘Wahhabis’, with whom he claims these groups have developed a close relationship. That the book has drawn accolades from such “friends of Islam” as Melanie Philips, David Aaronovitch, Michael Gove, Martin Amis and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is telling.
Husain is nothing more than a deluded individual, desperately seeking a sense of belonging and embracing every new ideology he finds with uncontrollable zeal and passion. From the Young Muslims Organisation to the Islamic Society of Britain to HT to government mouthpiece for secularism, Husain needs to feel loved. He is a confused individual with no credibility, except with his neo-conservative financiers. Without credibility, QF is destined to die in its infancy. Enter Maajid Nawaz.
The current director of the QF joined Hizb ut-Tahrir when he was 16 years old. After imprisonment in Egypt in 2002, Nawaz returned to Britain in March 2006 and joined HT’s National Executive Committee, becoming a leading spokesman and proponent of Khilafah. In May 2007, Nawaz resigned from HT and rumours began to circulate that he had been seen with EdHusain at a Radical Middle Way event. In an interview with altmuslim.com on 3 June 2007, Husain claimed that he had influenced Nawaz’s decision to leave HT. While Nawaz initially remained silent and many within the community gave him the benefit of the doubt, in September of last year he began publicly condemning the political element of Islam (or ‘Islamism’), singling out HT in particular for criticism.
Interestingly, Nawaz says that his time spent in an Egyptian prison meant that he started wondering whether there was a better way “than just meeting oppression and anger with more anger and more oppression”. He says that he developed serious doubts, leading to a decision to leave the organisation. In interviews with several newspapers including the Sunday Times (‘Why I joined the British jihad – and why I rejected it’, 16 September 2007) and the New York Times (‘ From Finding Radical Islam to Losing an Ideology’, 12 September 2007), Nawazdescribed how his time in prison caused him to grow doubtful of ‘Islamism’, which he claims was sold to him in the name of Islam. This raises the question of, if Nawaz was having a crisis of conscience about his beliefs, why, upon returning from Egypt, he became one of HT’s leading members, and spend a year speaking at conferences, demonstrations and in interviews about the need for Khilafah.
On his return from captivity, Nawaz appeared on BBC’s Hardtalk but, rather than discuss his newfound doubts about Islamism, Nawaz assertively claimed that Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ideas were peaceful and that they prevented him from becoming violent or aggressive despite the oppression he had faced. In fact he argued that his time in prison had “convinced me even more...that there is a need to establish this Caliphate as soon as possible”.
Later that year, on 22 October 2006, at the annual al-Quds day march in London, Nawaz clearly expressed the fruitlessness of the Middle East peace process, claiming that the only solution to the problem was the end of Israel and its replacement with the Khilafah. He stated:
“We want to replace the state of Israel. We want to change the status quo, we want to bring in a solution which is universal, which accepts the right of man to live like human beings. And this state has been tried and tested in history, we have seen historically that Muslims, Jews and Christians have lived side by side in the middle-east in a state which recognised their rights to be who they are, it did not call for their elimination or annihilation but recognised who they were. This state that existed in history, it brought a golden era to Spain, it brought a golden era to Baghdad. This is the Islamic State!”
By means of frequent appearances on television, at conferences and in demonstrations, Nawaz became a household name in the Muslim community, admired for his intelligence, hisarticulateness and, most of all, for his ability to rebuild his life after years of imprisonment, and also continue the call to Allah. Then, just over a year later, Nawaz came out of the closet and confessed to becoming what Imam Anwar al-Awlaki has recently dubbed a “RAND Muslim” (based on a US neo-conservative think tank that has produced several reports promoting the characteristics of the West’s ideal Muslim). Had Nawaz made such a confession shortly after being released from prison, one could conclude that it had been a result of the trials he had undergone and, while not condoning it, at least understand the change in mentality. However, what Nawaz did was far more sinister – in promoting himself as a leading HT member and building up a grassroots following before deciding he had indeed found his calling, Nawaz became the first of these “ex-Islamists” to have any sort of credibility.
To bolster its credibility, QF initially put a list of its advisers on its website: these included respected Muslim leaders such as Shaikh BaBikr Ahmed BaBikr and Imam Dr Musharraf Hussain al-Azhari. Most surprising of all its advisers was the presence of Dr Usama Hasan, a Salafi imam at Masjid al-Tauhid in East London, and son of Sheykh Suhaib Hasan. Whereas many listed as advisers asked for their names to be withdrawn, such as Professor Yahya Michot and Mufti Abu Laith al-Maliki, Dr Hasan has come out in full support of his comrades, speaking at the launch of QF, where he promoted “Islamic secularism.” He has refused to distance himself from his comments and defends his involvement with QF, believing that he can “be a good influence there.”
In this belief, Dr Hasan displays a worrying naivety. The other advisers and associates of QF include open enemies of Islam such as Michael Gove, Dr David Green (Civitas) and Douglas Murray (Centre for Social Cohesion), who in 2006 said that “All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop ... Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition. We in Europe owe—after all—no special dues to Islam. We owe them no religious holidays, special rights or privileges.” In addition, QF’s advisers include several dubious and discredited figures within the Muslim community, such as Ghayasuddin Siddiqui (British Muslims for Secular Democracy) and Ali al-Salehal-Najafi (imam of Milltown Islamic Centre in Dublin). Dr Hasan’s belief that his association and involvement with these individuals can produce anything positive suggests of his own political immaturity. That he himself has begun to promote “Islamic secularism” raises the question of who is really influencing whom. The sooner Dr Hasan realises that his only role in QF is to give it some credibility and legitimacy, the better for all concerned. QF will ultimately die a painful death, as its predecessors have, but Dr Hasan, who has dedicated his life to calling to Allah, should realise that it is not something worth going down with.
In mid-May, just over two weeks after its official launch, QF removed its list of advisers from its website. At the time Dr Usama Hasan and other advisers were themselves being sincerely advised by members of the Muslim community to distance themselves from QF. One can only speculate about whether the removal was due to these advisers having disassociated themselves from QF or whether it is, as QF states, that the advisers have asked to continue to advise them in private “so as to save them the indignity of constant Islamist-Wahhabiteharassment.”
Despite all of the above, QF will fail. Similar and more sinister plots against Islam and Muslims have been attempted throughout our history. All have dissipated and have been consigned to the past, with only the Truth prevailing, clearer than ever. Ed, Maajid and co. are being regularly exposed for their inconsistencies, not only by Muslims, but also by non- Muslim commentators. For example, Seamus Milne wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian Comment is Free section last month about it being a good time “to be in the ‘moderate Muslim’ business”, stating that QF’s leaders “could not be less representative of mainstream Muslim opinion in Britain” (‘All mod cons’, 21 April 2008). Even Dominic Casciani at the BBC has asked whether QF is “just another group with some kind of official pat on the head - but no credibility on the street.”
The British government will eventually realise this and transfer its funding to yet another puppet body. Like previous groups supported by the government, QF has explicitly denied that it receives any government funding. Similar denials were previously most strenuously made by the Muslim Council of Britain and the Radical Middle Way, yet as the years passed, details of their funding have emerged, compelling these groups to admit their receipt of such moneys. One does wonder, though, how two virtually unknown individuals have been able to fly around the globe (Qatar, Vienna, Athens, Dublin, Copenhagen, etc) and speak to audiences of senior civil servants, diplomats and other senior people, without governments supporting them More persuasive is the revelation by Inayat Banglawala, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, that “some representatives of various UK Islamic groups were invited to see senior officials at the Department of Communities and Local Government recently to discuss the work they were doing with young people ... Strong hints were dropped that they could obtain financial support from the government, but only if they were prepared to work with ... [the] Quilliam Foundation” (Comment is Free, 17 April).
From moderation to Sufism and secularism, this has been the trend which the British government has followed in its efforts to socially engineer its own trademark “acceptable” face of Islam. The stronger it perceives the Islamic awakening to be, the more diluted a version of Islam it attempts to create. As the idiom goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune. The tune today is “Islamic secularism”.
This piece cannot be complete without mention of the great Muslim leader after whom QF is named. Although QF are using his name “to help foster a genuine British Islam, native to these islands, free from the bitter politics of the Arab and Muslim world”, a more detailed study of Quilliam’s life will show that he was the very antithesis of what QF stands for. Yahya Birt(‘Abdullah Quilliam: Britain’s First Islamist?’) writes that “in the high tide of Empire, Quilliam wrote his subversive pan-Islamist tracts in favour of defensive jihad, ummatic [sic.] solidarityand the support and defence of the beleaguered caliphate.”
His words, written more than a hundred years ago, constitute excellent advice that those who are abusing his name should reflect upon today:
“O Muslims, do not be deceived by this hypocrisy. Unite yourselves as one man. Let us no longer be separated. The rendezvous of Islam is under the shadow of the Khalifate. The Khebla[qibla] of the True Believer who desires happiness for himself and prosperity to Islam is the holy seat of the Khalifate.
“It is with the deepest regret that we see some persons seeking to disseminate disunion among Muslims by publications issued in Egypt, Paris and London. ‘Verily, they are in a manifest error.’
“If their object – as they allege it – be the welfare of Islam, then let them reconsider their action and they will perceive that instead of bringing a blessing to Islam their actions will have a contrary effect, and only further disseminate disunion where it is – alas that it should be said – only too apparent.
“We fraternally invite these brethren to return their allegiance, and call them to the sacred name of Islam to re-unite with the Faithful.”