British subjects—not God's

The founder of the anti-Islamist Quilliam Foundation responds to last month's Prospect critique
September 27, 2008

I wrote my book The Islamist last year to try to break the hold of closet extremists over British Muslim discourse. One year on, the debate is in far healthier shape. Thoughtful young Muslims are becoming more boisterous in their rejection of Islamism as a political model—much to the frustration of Islamists and hard-left dinosaurs.

Last month's Prospect essay by Brunel academic Anshuman A Mondal was a reasonable attempt to assess the Quilliam Foundation, Britain's first counter-extremism think tank, which I co-founded last year. But there were several factual and analytical inaccuracies that I want to put right.

Mondal suggests that Quilliam "represents" moderate or liberal Islam. In fact, Quilliam has argued that British Muslims should now move away from the first-generation Islamist immigrant game of "Muslim representation," and engage with mainstream civil society as full citizens. Bodies such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) were established by a Tory government, and others have been promoted by Labour. They have done more harm than good, putting emphasis on religious identity above the other factors which shape human identity. Quilliam seeks to provide new thinking for western Muslims, and does not wish to play "community leader."

Contrary to Mondal's assertion, there are mainstream Muslim organisations that are just that: Muslim. They do not attract the media limelight but, from Minhaj al-Quran to numerous Sufi orders, they go about their daily lives as pious Muslims without a confrontational agenda.

Mondal says my portrayal of Islamists is too monolithic. In fact, several chapters of The Islamist are dedicated to showing the nuances that distinguish different groups. Nonetheless, the Islamists do have much in common. Almost every Islamist outfit rejects popular sovereignty, preferring "God's rule" over Muslims and others; detests traditional theologians as lackeys of Arab governments; wishes to impose a literalist reading of scripture and an Islamist state; is vehemently anti-western; and wants to destroy Israel.

For me, it is a fact that Islamism, in all its diversity, has led to jihadism. From Egypt to Britain, the trajectory is all too familiar. Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and Britain's Omar Sheikh all started their path to violence as radical Islamists. In July, in Egypt, I met people who had spent time with Zawahiri in prison—their tale is also one of Islamism to jihadism. Quilliam's director Maajid Nawaz confirms this from his own time in a Cairo prison. Islamists provide the social networks and public sympathy for "martyrs," and provide a steady stream of disgruntled Islamist foot soldiers who graduate to jihadism. Preventing jihadism, therefore, starts with challenging Islamism. The ideological bankruptcy of Islamism, its repeated failures—from Sudan to Iran—and the rejection of Islamism by Turkey's AK party illustrate that when confronted, Islamists have no relevant answers.

Mondal is, however, right to say that British Muslim communities are in transition, with many positive changes under way. He rightly challenges my account of the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) and asserts that the ISB "has been contesting older ideas for many years." I agree. I was recently invited to an ISB national event in Lincolnshire and saw first-hand an effective rebuttal of extremism. The current leadership of the ISB reflects a genuinely pluralistic, British Islam. But will they continue to do so? The challenge for ISB and others is to resist extremist pressure from the Bangladeshi Islamists from Tower Hamlets calling themselves the Islamic Forum of Europe, and to continue to develop a British Muslim identity of which our children can be proud.

Quilliam does not claim to be the only player in the debates about religious identity and political attitudes. We stand on the shoulders of good people from different Islamic persuasions, including Tariq Ramadan. Had he not opened the door to questioning sharia penal codes, we would not have been able to argue for their nullification. Had the ISB not pioneered British Islam, Quilliam would not be able to call for a western Islam. And if the Sufis had not injected spirituality into our communal discourse, we would have lost touch with the lifeblood of our religion. Quilliam is the outcome of British Muslim collective history.

British Muslims are at a critical juncture. Today's actions from government, media and civil society will shape the type of Islam we bequeath to future generations. That is why it is vital that public resources are allocated only to Muslim organisations that are genuinely pluralist, dedicated to scriptural flexibility, and that want to see a better Britain for all people, not just Muslims. The MCB, for example, has normal Muslims as its affiliates, but its leadership is dominated by a clique of Islamists connected to Jamat-e-Islami, increasingly from Bangladesh. Why should the government engage with a body that refuses to condemn Islamist ideology—and that breeds a defensive "Muslim-first" worldview?

Finally, Mondal suggests that my understanding of Islam is somehow "apolitical." Far from it: I am a member of a political party and advocate that Muslim politics can be Tory, Labour, Liberal Democratic or other. Muslims are not a separate political bloc and do not require a patronising, paternal attitude from Westminster. We are children of this society and will engage in politics of our choosing, informed by religious values, but not defining ourselves merely by religion. I care about terrorism, the welfare state, inequality and social justice. Those concerns are not isolated from my religious convictions. Why should they be? At the same time, I see no need to ram scripture down people's throats to make a point about social justice.

Quilliam is dedicated to countering extremist rhetoric, raising awareness of Islamism and challenging the consensus among British Muslims. It is gradually establishing itself as an integral part of the British Muslim scene.