I sense that the signatories of this letter would rather perpetuate problems and grievances than find solutions
This is quite a difficult response to write, as I am guaranteed to be labelled ‘Islamophobic’. Both I and my organisation will receive a continuous stream of ad hominem attacks, most completely untrue, but peppered with elements that are publically believed, hard to disprove or irrelevant.
But regardless of how difficult this is, it is necessary because I think Wednesday’s joint statement, headlined ‘Muslim Community rejects the State’s criminalisation of Islam and condemns moves to silence legitimate critique and dissent’, is detrimental to integration, will worsen community cohesion and offers no progressive solutions to the challenging policy area of counter-extremism.
At best, the hyperbolic language – such as the claim that the UK has criminalised Islam and that the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act is McCarthyite – is negligent, as it perpetuates the myth that there is institutionalised discrimination against Muslims in the UK and that we don’t respect Freedom of Religion here.
At worst, it is nefarious, as it serves to shut down debate, for such charged language will put Britons off speaking out and will make them feel anti-Muslim for doing so. It pushes naïve followers of the signatories to buy into a victimhood narrative, exacerbating the polarising ‘them-and-us’ construct that is so intrinsic to the radicalisation process, and a key part of its escalation to violent extremism.
But of course to say so has been pre-empted by the writers, and therefore the signatories, who have got their retaliation in first by saying “words like radicalisation and extremism [are] unacceptable”. This all shuts down debate about phenomena that clearly need to be tackled and is pretty commonplace for the self-styled anti-Prevent lobby, whose perpetual focus on the Prevent brand has added to its ‘toxicity’.
This is a difficult policy area for a number of reasons, and Quilliam is actively and independently working to improve and refine counter-extremism and present evidence-based policy advice for both the UK government and other governments internationally. Take my project to promote adherence to human rights in counter-terrorism legislation, for example, or another to work with the European Commission to improve evaluation, due diligence and cost-effectiveness of counter-extremism work across the EU.
Furthermore, look at Quilliam’s repeated calls for the separation of counter-terrorism from counter-extremism, both strategically and structurally, meaning that law enforcement agencies would have less interaction with educational institutions and stop the over-securitisation of this agenda. Or alternatively, see our pushing for a civil society approach to counter-extremism, which would involve adequate training for frontline workers who are better placed than the police to do effective values-based primary prevention work, and spot radicalisation as part of targeted prevention work.
Many of our findings and recommendations would improve the lot for British Muslims, but I sense that the signatories of this letter would rather perpetuate problems and grievances than find solutions. Only those whose currency is the politics of identity benefit from sowing tribal divisions. Moreover, improvements to counter-extremism policy are not desirable if you fundamentally oppose even the premise of counter-extremism like some of the signatories, who want to fabricate the illusion of, or indeed strive to create, critical mass in support of Islamism and in opposition to secular liberal democratic states.
The letter again pre-empts this accusation by suggesting that opposing “normative Islamic opinions” is a ploy to silence speakers. This is savvy positioning, as it simultaneously attempts to whitewash various views of its signatories that are antithetical to human rights as normative, and suggests that any opposition to this goes against our treasured liberal progressive human rights values.
In response to this, it is worth having a look at the particular views of some of the signatories, such as Abdurraheem Green’s anti-Semitism, Haitham Haddad’s support for female genital mutilation and suicide bombing in Israel or Iraq, or the views of Hizb ut-Tahrir, represented over 20 times in this 170-strong list, which include the stoning of adulteresses among the aims for their aspired-to caliphate.
I certainly don’t assume that everyone on the list shares those views, but I do question their judgement in aligning with such figures.
Here is the problem for the signatories – Quilliam has repeatedly insisted that the UK should not ban Islamist groups that stop short of committing, promoting, or preparing violent actions. Exposing and criticising bad ideas, logical fallacies, or an ideology that often creates an atmosphere conducive to terrorism, is a much better pursuit than legislating against them and does, in fact, uphold our ‘values and liberal freedoms’.
This does not mean that we should legitimise those who hold these views by giving them an unopposed platform, exposing vulnerable people to their poisonous ideology, or funding them from the public purse to counter violent extremism. Establishing the difference between legality and legitimacy is important, and recognises that non-legislative tools may be necessary to counter extremism of all kinds.
Lastly, we must remember that very often both the anti-Muslim far-right and the Islamist far-right see Muslims as a monolithic bloc. Sadly, the media often makes this mistake too and I don’t think it is helpful to assume that these 170 signatories speak for or represent the ‘Muslim community’, just as Quilliam never claims to.
Striving for representativeness feeds this fallacy for three reasons: firstly, it invariably prioritises religious identity over all others, perpetuating a central Islamist narrative. Secondly, the notion that Islamists might be representative is shattered when you consider their views towards women, gay people, and any Muslim who doesn’t absolutely agree with them, undeniably more than 50 per cent of the total Muslim population. Thirdly, a 2006 YouGov poll (p80) found the MCB, widely assumed to represent more British Muslims than any other group, only had 6 per cent support, and aren’t even included among the signatories.
Some newspapers, blind to such nuance, feed this with lazy headlines.
I too affirm my “commitment to robust political and ideological debate and discourse for the betterment of humanity at large”. My starting point is that Islam, secular liberal democratic values, and our work to counter extremism are all compatible.