Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation
It’s hard to quit things you like, even when they’re bad for you: smoking, drinking, marching through the streets of England with gaggles of thugs, singing nasty songs about Muslims. Luckily, there’s help: Nicorette, AA and Quilliam – a London-based “counter-extremism think tank” that helps de-radicalise men and women who hold fanatical worldviews.
On Tuesday, Stephen Yaxley Lennon (aka "Tommy Robinson") announced that he was leaving the English Defence League (EDL) – the Islam-battling street army he founded in 2009 in Luton – because it had been infiltrated by “fascists and racists”.
“I went away [to jail] for 18 weeks,” he told a pack of journalists on Tuesday evening, at an invite-only press event in central London. “I was given time to evaluate everything… I asked myself a lot of questions.” Soon after being released, he and cousin Kevin Carroll decided to resign their EDL posts.
Behind the scenes – as is now widely known – Robinson and Carroll had met with members of Quilliam. They had spent time with Usama Hasan, a former Islamic radical-turned moderate Imam and scholar: learning about the theological differences between "Islam" and "Islamism", and considering modern interpretations of Koranic teachings. In turn, Robinson seems to have convinced Quilliam founders that he doesn't actually hate Muslims.
Quilliam took over the storyline from there. A press release issued by them announced the big news. Tommy made his first post-Reformation appearance at a press conference organised by Quilliam, where co-founder Maajid Nawaz (a former Islamist radical) pledged to “guide [the men] and facilitate their transition”. If all goes well, this could be a huge coup for a still-controversial organisation, known mostly for its work with Islamist zealots.
But it might not go well. Because, after all, this is Tommy Robinson, who just a few weeks ago told me over the phone that a full-frontal war between Europe and Islam was imminent – and that Muslims were plotting to seize the continent. "Just one day, all of a sudden. Bang. Jihad.” So another way to look at things is that, by rushing to Tommy Robinson’s side, Quilliam is staking everything on what he does next.
Left - right: Usama Hasan, Tommy Robinson, Maajid Nawaz and Kev Carroll. Photo by Henry Langston.
On Tuesday evening, dozens of suit-clad reporters gathered in the basement of London’s Montague Hotel. Cameramen set up around the room, and grumbled that the crystal chandeliers and mirrored ceilings were reflecting light. And then: a knock at the door. Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll filed in with Maajid Nawaz and Usama Hasan. Seated before the crowd, Robinson’s eyes darted: his hand raised nervously to pat the spiked tips of his hair. “This is going to be challenging,” said Nawaz, by way of an opening. “So I’m going to take my jacket off.”
The two men who started the foundation are both former radicals: both young members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic association that aspires to unite all Muslim countries as a single Islamic Caliphate. At age 16, Mohammed ("Ed") Husain had got in with the wrong crowd at a London mosque – and then spent five years as a radical activist. Maajid Nawaz was an Essex lad with a taste for hip-hop and early memories of racism – who later worked as a Hizb ut-Tahrir recruiter, before being jailed in Egypt.
Everyone likes a comeback kid. Both Husain and Nawaz saw the error of their ways. Husain is now a senior fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations. Nawaz is now a civil rights activist who has given a TED Talk. Both penned prosaic memoirs: The Islamist: Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, What I saw Inside and Why I Left (Husain) and Radical, My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening (Nawaz).
Quilliam was something the government could sink its teeth into. It pushed a by-Muslims-for-Muslims strategy, aimed at reining in the extreme elements of the fold. It eschewed the dangers of political correctness – speaking openly about Muslim “fanatics” who “sow the seeds for more terror”, and the “historical intolerance” of Wahhabi Muslims. And it sought to internalise the revolution: “With Islamist extremism in particular,” Quilliam’s website reads, “we believe a more self-critical approach must be adopted by Muslims. Westphobic ideological influences and social insularity need to be challenged within Muslim communities.” Husain wrote of Muslims who were “fully Western and fully Muslim, free from the political burdens of the Arab world and the cultural baggage of the sub-continent”.
Quilliam’s launch event was addressed by the likes of journalist and socialite Jemima Khan. “I’m certainly very far away from most people’s idea of what a good Muslim should be,” she told the crowd.
Nawaz and Robinson celebrating with restaurateur and Twitter user Iqbal Wahhab
Today, the group mostly works with Muslims. Quilliam identifies “four key contributors” to radicalisation – “a range of perceived grievances, a crisis of identity, the existence of a legitimising ideology and the exposure to those who advocate such an ideology” – and works to intervene in presenting cases.
But Tommy is not Quilliam’s first EDL patient. Recently, Quilliam inspired a man named Nick Jode to leave the League. In his online Testimony of a Former EDL Supporter, Jode describes an evening spent trawling the web, “looking for websites and information against Islam”. He stumbled across Newsnight footage of Maajid Nawaz debating with Anjem Choudary, of the Islamist group Islam4UK. “I found myself mesmerised by how Maajid beat Anjem in the debate.” Later, he read Nawaz’s memoir – and started watching his speeches online. After it all: “I can finally say that I too have changed,” he concludes. “I was a racist and a horrible man.” Today, Jode’s Twitter profile reads, “Time for all creeds and colours to take note of @maajidnawaz and @quilliamf.”
Sometimes, the group takes controversial stances on foreign policy issues – on the grounds that “foreign policy grievances are among the most common grievances for recruits to manipulate to further their own ends.” Quilliam founders blasted “Britain’s inaction over the 2009 Gaza crisis,” for instance. Other times, it shows signs of ideological wavering. On its website, Quilliam addresses the treatment of homosexuals in Muslim-majority countries with jargon-fuelled ambivalence:
“We see ourselves more as an organisation disseminating inter-disciplinary views that enhance human rights and mutual respect, not as a religious organisation devising reform theology. Consequently, we believe that Islam should not be judged by the condemnable actions of Islamist regimes. As human beings and equal citizens, Quilliam believes that homosexuals should be treated equally in all respects and in all countries. Consequently, we will continue to campaign for civil liberties for all human beings, and don’t think we need to dabble in theology to do this. We at Quilliam address theology only to dismantle the ideology of Islamism itself. Hence, we will speak out openly against anyone who calls for, or believes, that homosexuals should be punished by law in any way, in any country. However, we cannot provide religious edicts in order to change any religion from the outside in order to make homosexuality considered permissible (or Halal).”
It’s hard to say how much money the group is bringing in. Its website explains: “Quilliam is funded by both private and public funds… Specific details of Quilliam’s finances are published in our Annual Report.” I asked Quilliam’s press officer for a copy of the most recently Annual Report. I was told that "there is only one print copy and that that has gone missing”.
Ed Husain photo via
In 2009, the Times reported that Quilliam had received £1 million from several government departments. “The Times understands that the foundation, which has 18 full-time staff, is paying about £110,000 a year to rent offices at one of Central London’s most prestigious addresses… Inside, the offices are expensively furnished with state of the art computers and plasma screen televisions.” The newspaper quoted an anonymous government minister, who called the sum Quilliam received from the government outrageous and said that Britain had become host to an “ex-Islamist industry”.
Indeed, not everyone loves Quilliam. The organisation’s early years were especially rocky. In 2009, co-founder Husain argued that the British government (via its Preventing Violent Extremism strategy, via the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, via the Home Office) should spy on innocent Muslims who were not accused or suspected of committed crimes – in order to prevent terrorist attacks. A year later, it was revealed that Quilliam had provided the government with a list of people and groups who purportedly share the ideology of terrorists; the list included a number of ostensibly peaceful people, as well as a unit of Scotland Yard. Fatima Khan of the Muslim Safety Forum accused Quilliam of “McCarthyism”.
But momentum is on Quilliam’s side. Continent-wide, the ex-radical business is growing. It includes important and successful de-radicalisation groups like EXIT Sweden and EXIT Germany (which specialises in de-neo-Nazification) and the UK-based "Against Violent Extremism" network. There’s even an industry lingo; a “former”, is a former-extremist who has publicly renounced his views and actively works against former radical colleagues. In 2011, Google held a Google Ideas Summit Against Violent Extremism, which featured dozens of these so-called formers. In a promotional Google video, an ex-radical explains: “My goal is just to take the term ‘former’ and make it cool!”
Maajid Nawaz as a young, arrested Islamic radical
At Tuesday’s press conference, Maajid Nawaz got cagey when I pressed him on the exact nature and extent of his interactions with Tommy Robinson. But the chronology seems to be this:
Tommy reached out to Nawaz because “I’d known what Quilliam was doing for years… read the policies and reports.” Initially, Nawaz refused to meet with Robison; he was unconvinced by Tommy’s claim not to hate Muslims. So Tommy and his cousin Kevin met twice with Usama Hasan, who reported that despite some ideological flailing, the men seemed genuine. Nawaz, then “convinced that they didn’t hate Muslims”, met with Tommy and Kevin: on the condition that they discuss an EDL departure. It appears that Nawaz met with Tommy and Kevin only twice before blitzing the media on their behalf.
“I feel like it’s a bit of a publicity stunt. I’m shocked that Quilliam is doing it really,” said one London-based think tank researcher, who asked to remain anonymous. “Whatever Tommy Robinson goes on to do next, people will point back to Quilliam.” Matthew Goodwin, an associate fellow at Chatham House, echoed this scepticism. “Is the process by which this happened going to be made transparent?” he asked.
Quilliam’s move is particularly risky because while Tommy seems to disavow the methods of the EDL, he stands by his former beliefs. His press conference appearance resembled a high-level political resignation. He got choked up recalling fun times out with the lads. He thanked his fans: “Best people I ever met in my life in this movement!” He said he looked forward to spending more time with his wife and kids. On Tuesday, Tommy’s personal assistant Helen Gower told IBTimes that the men planned to form a new movement.
What will that mean come election season? This summer, Maajid Nawaz announced that he had been selected as a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for London’s Hampstead and Kilburn Seat. “Mr. Nawaz,” his press release explained, “continues his political journey from a former leading member of a radical organisation towards liberal democratic values.”
Quilliam’s “political journey” may well be tied to Tommy, who boasted yesterday that he would “lead a revolution against Islamist ideology”. But Maajid Nawaz ain’t scared – just excited. “As well as being a very positive change for the United Kingdom,” he said in his press release, “this is a very proud moment for Quilliam.”