Counter-extremism group’s financial woes show flaws of ‘big society’

Quilliam's case shows the shortfalls of private funding, and the danger of the pace of the Tory-led government's programme of swingeing cuts, writes George Readings.

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the outgoing director of the UK’s largest volunteering charity, has today warned of the damage being done to the ‘big society’ by government cuts. Under the headline ‘Coalition cuts funding for counter-extremist group’, today’s Times (£) provides a good example of how this can occur.

For those who cannot breach the paywall, it states:

A counter-extremist group of the kind lauded by David Cameron in his attack on multiculturalism has had its Government funding slashed, in a move that has infuriated some ministers.

This contrast between the prime minister’s support for organisations which counter extremism and his government’s failure to fund the most prominent one is also commented on:

Some Tories said the call was ironic given the cuts to Quilliam, which has been at the forefront of the agenda articulated by Mr Cameron. Paul Goodman, the former Tory MP and communities spokesman for the party, said:

“Quilliam is a kind of counter-extremist body that fits in with the Prime Minister’s vision, so the Government should look again at the winding down of its funding.”

From working to raise awareness of important initiatives such as Minhaj ul-Qur’an’s anti-terrorism fatwa and Muslim-led protests against al-Muhajiroun to publishing a pamphlet dismantling the BNP’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, Quilliam has been at the centre of fostering a civic challenge to extremism in the UK for several years. Having worked for Quilliam, I can attest to the gratitude that many other groups have to it for providing them with the tools and arguments they need to fight Islamist and far-right extremism.

As a not-for-profit working with a range of individuals and groups, Quilliam was the ‘big society’ in action. It was also largely government funded.

Inevitably, counter-extremism work is controversial. Islamist and far-right groups barraged Quilliam with hatred, and death threats have even been made on al-Qaeda affiliated online forums. To those unfamiliar with the counter-extremism agenda, this must have been a bewildering array of attacks on a single organisation, particularly where attacks emanated from groups that had previously tried to pass themselves off as moderates.

No wonder so many trusts and foundations that were initially keen to fund Quilliam’s work pulled out at the last second.

Even potential donors who understood and supported Quilliam’s mission were often unwilling to contribute financially because Quilliam had criticised Israeli excesses in the Occupied Territories at the same time as criticising suicide attacks inside Israel. Quilliam faced accusations of being anti-Israel and anti-Palestine at the same time, ruling out funding from a plethora of sources.

As a result, when Quilliam’s government funding was cut late last year, no private donors could fill the gaping hole left in the finances. Several of my colleagues and I were made redundant. Inevitably, Quilliam’s contribution to the UK’s counter-extremism efforts – whose importance David Cameron himself emphasised just days ago – has been reduced.

Quilliam’s case shows the shortfalls of private funding, and the danger of the pace of the Tory-led government’s programme of swingeing cuts. At the very least, the government should be working with groups to help them to transition to different sources of funding, rather than cutting them off entirely. The risk otherwise is that cuts will kill off the very ‘big society’ the Tory-led government claims it is trying to create.

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