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The problem with the Quilliam Foundation

The Quilliam foundation's focus on radical Islam leaves equally dangerous far-right movements under-investigated.

Maajid Nawaz sits between the co-founder and the former leader of the English Defence League Maajid Nawaz sits between the co-founder and the former leader of the English Defence League. Picture by Nick Ansell PA Archive/PA Images.The Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) has a long history of fighting racism, extending back to roots in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, so its Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists published last month, attracted widespread interest from those involved in combatting Islamophobia. Unfortunately, this latest publication has been controversial because it includes Maajid Nawaz, the co-founder of the UK counter-extremist think-tank Quilliam Foundation.

Nawaz has denounced this characterisation as 'Islam-splaining', describing himself as 'a brown, liberal, reform Muslim' and denouncing his critics as the 'regressive left', a charge echoed by Nick Cohen in the Spectator. Some elements of SPLC's critique of Nawaz were indeed questionable. It is not clear that the inclusion of some of his more personal peccadilloes shed any light on the charge of extremism. To accuse any self-identified Muslim of anti-Muslim extremism should always give one pause, given the risk of setting oneself up as arbitrator of others’ religious beliefs. There should be a high bar, and the scattershot nature of some of the SPLC's criticisms suggests that bar has not been met, even if other points do illustrate the profoundly illiberal impact of Quilliam's brand of counter-subversion.

This does not mean that a Muslim can never be said to be an anti-Muslim extremist. A good example is provided by a previous row involving Quilliam and a close British analogue of the SPLC, Hope Not Hate. In December last year, Hope Not Hate published a report on the so-called 'counterjihad movement', a self-identified coalition of hardline, far-right anti-Muslim groups, which spawned among other organisations, the English Defence League in Britain.

The emergence of the counterjihad movement had previously been noted in the journal of the Royal United Service Institute as early as 2008. The most comprehensive study of the US counterjihad movement, Fear Inc., by the Center for American Progress, identified its key activists including Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy and David Horowitz of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, both conspiracy theorists who have claimed Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin is an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood; as well as Pamela Gellar and Robert Spencer, the co-founders of Stop the Islamization of America. These in turn were funded by a small number of key conservative foundations such as the Donors Capital Fund, the Scaife Foundations, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Abstraction Fund. 

The counterjihad movement clearly merits attention from anti-racist organisations. Yet Hope Not Hate's report attracted strong criticism from Maajid Nawaz among others because it associated a small number of individual muslims with the counterjihad movement. These included Zuhdi Jasser and Tawfik Hamid, both of whom had supported Frank Gaffney's spurious campaign to present Sharia law as an imminent threat to the United States' constitution, with Hamid actually appearing at the campaign launch. Jasser's other institutional links to the movement included a role as consulting editor of Gaffney's Family Security Matters (FSM). Their active involvement in the institutions and campaigns of the counterjihad movement is more than sufficient to justify Hope Not Hate's decision to identify both men as counterjihad activists, regardless of their personal religious affiliations.

That Nawaz nevertheless criticised their inclusion in Hope Not Hate's report is symptomatic of Quilliam's wider blindspot in relation to counterjihad movements. Quilliam spokesmen are quick to contrast their own liberalism with 'bad apple' Islamophobic demagogues like Pamela Gellar and Robert Spencer. Yet they are slow to see these figures as representatives of an organised ideology, in stark contrast to Quilliam's emphasis on the importance of ideological 'non-violent extremism' where Muslims are concerned. 

Similarly Nick Cohen can write of SPLC's report that 'Pamela Geller, and a few other rabble rousers on the list are just that.' This would have been unduly dismissive a year ago when Hope Not Hate highlighted Frank Gaffney's influence on Donald Trump. Today, when whatever the ultimate outcome, Trump is coming far too close to winning the US presidency, it is dangerously complacent.

Quilliam's abortive move into countering domestic right-wing extremism foundered precisely because of this blind spot. The attempt to 'rehabilitate' Tommy Robinson failed because it did not recognise that although Robinson had left the English Defence League he remained a counterjihad activist. Indeed, as the anti-Islamophobia NGO Tell Mama has argued, Quilliam's intervention may even have facilitated counterjihad activists, by allowing them to abandon tactics of street demonstrations that had shown diminishing returns and to regroup in a new organisation, PEGIDA UK. This is an offshoot of PEGIDA, a German organisation whose moniker stands for ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’.

It is tempting to see this blindspot as a symptom of Quilliam's own increasing dependence on US conservative donors to replace its UK government funding which ceased in 2012. At least one significant donor, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which gave Quilliam US$75,000 in 2013, regularly funds counterjihad organisations such as the David Horowitz Freedom Center and until recently, Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy.

That concerns about such contacts are not a figment of the 'regressive white left' imagination was illustrated at the Home Affairs Select Committee last December when Labour MP Chuka Ummuna tackled Quilliam's leadership about a decision by Maajid Nawaz and Usama Hasan to sign a letter organised by the Gatestone Institute, a New York think-tank which regularly publishes some of the most rabid counterjihad conspiracies. In reply, Quilliam's managing director Haras Rafiq, expressed his abhorrence of the Gatestone-supported Robert Spencer, only for Umunna to dismiss the bad apple approach, arguing that the problem could not be reduced to one of individuals but involved 'quite far-right think tanks and organisations.' Ironically, according to Rafiq’s evidence to the committee, Quilliam became embroiled with Gatestone at the behest of Zuhdi Jasser. The embarrassment that Jasser caused Quilliam at Westminster by linking them to supporters of Spencer, did not stop them defending him following the publication of Hope Not Hate's report a few days later.

In defence of Quilliam, one might argue that its focus on ideological 'non-violent extremism' cannot realistically be applied to the counterjihad movement. For example, it would hardly be feasible, still less desirable, to construct a Prevent-style Home Office program to deradicalise all the writers cited in the mass-murderer Anders Breivik's manifesto. But this very fact underlines the discrimination involved in a counter-subversion approach which stigmatises Muslims who are not even accused of any crime while indulging thugs like Tommy Robinson.

We should think twice about labelling muslims as anti-Muslim extremists, but that must not stop anti-racist organisations from challenging those who abet the counterjihad movement, and that is why groups like SPLC, Hope Not Hate, Tell Mama and others have rightly scrutinised Quilliam's ambiguous role.

About the author

Tom Griffin is a Ph.D researcher at the University of Bath and a freelance writer. He is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World. He is the co-author of a forthcoming Public Interest Investigations/Spinwatch report on the Quilliam Foundation.

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