Britain’s increasingly vocal pro-Islamist lobby

This is a guest post by George Readings, Communications Officer and Research Fellow at Quilliam.

Is it really “logically false” to suggest that increased adoption of non-violent Islamism makes violent Islamism more likely? This is precisely what was suggested when Quilliam’s Co-Director Maajid Nawaz appeared on Sky News over the weekend to discuss our recently leaked briefing with Jonathan Githens-Mazer. Githens-Mazer is a North American academic who, along with former policeman Robert Lambert, runs the ‘European Muslim Research Centre’ (EMRC), based at the University of Exeter. His views are a case study of the naivety of some academics (and civil servants) when confronted with the totalitarian ideology of Islamism.

Githens-Mazer is a good example of the clique within the civil service and elsewhere that Tim Montgomerie recently warned about. This clique argues that non-violent Islamists should be empowered so long as they oppose terrorism on British soil. Their key rhetorical argument is that, although all terrorists may be extremists, this does not mean that terrorism should be addressed by combating extremism.

For example, Githens-Mazer suggested on Sky that there is “no evidence base” for the argument that Islamist terrorism can be addressed by tackling Islamist ideology in all its forms. This is a bizarre position for many reasons, not least because the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre based at Thames House has warned that increased spread of non-violent Islamism facilitates recruitment to Islamist terrorism.

Furthermore, Githens-Mazer himself has (rightly) warned of the increasingly “toxic atmosphere” being created by anti-Muslim attitudes and the way this “endangers Muslims who lead average non-violent lives”. In one context he happily argues that increased adoption of an extremist ideology is likely to cause the increased violence in the name of that ideology, yet he applies different standards to Islamism.

Admittedly, Githens-Mazer is right in a limited respect. Quilliam would happily concede that, although there are numerous examples of non-violent Islamists going on to become involved in terrorism, as analysis of terror attacks is not a science like physics or chemistry it cannot be categorically proven that adopting a non-violent form of Islamism makes people more likely to be convinced of the permissibility of using violence to achieve Islamist goals.

However, Githens-Mazer has elsewhere advocated using one form of extremism (Saudi-style Wahhabism) to ‘deradicalise’ violent extremists, claiming that they have the “resonant power” to do so. In effect, he is saying that absolute proof – which is a logical impossibility – is required before he will accept that non-violent extremism feeds into violent extremism, yet he is happy to claim – also without absolute proof – that a ‘conveyor belt’ can operate in the other direction, pulling individuals back from violence. He cannot have it both ways.

This is not to mention the other extraordinary claims made by Githens-Mazer during the debate, for example that Quilliam “posit a specific line because it’s a business, it’s how they put money on their table. So to that extent they go which way the political wind blows.” Not only is this untrue – we have consistently advocated the same line since we were established in 2007 – but in June my colleague James Brandon sent a request to the University of Exeter under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. This FoI revealed that the entirety of the funding for the EMRC during the year 2009/2010 came from just two sources: Islam Expo Ltd (£50,000) and the Cordoba Foundation (also £50,000). Githens-Mazer appears to be naive to the idea that individuals of the kind he thinks of as “mainstream British Islamists” might have a more totalitarian and intolerant agenda than he has yet noticed. Otherwise he would presumably not have taken funding from them.

The Cordoba Foundation is an interesting example. In 2007/2008 it was granted £34,000 by Tower Hamlets council, but this funding agreement was terminated after the Cordoba Foundation gave a platform to Hizb ut-Tahrir. In March 2008, David Cameron described the Cordoba Foundation as “a front for the Muslim Brotherhood”. More recently, when Cageprisoners organised a fundraising dinner at Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall on 30 August 2009, the Cordoba Foundation agreed to co-sponsor the event, even though it was advertised as featuring a video message from Anwar al-Awlaki. The al-Qaeda cleric’s appearance was eventually banned by Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall and the Cordoba Foundation claim that they “communicated [their] serious reservations about the inclusion of Imam Al-Awlaki” and that it was “to [their] satisfaction that he ultimately did not feature in the event proceedings”. However, the statement does not suggest that the Cordoba Foundation actually called for Anwar al-Awlaki’s video message to be cancelled.

Furthermore, the Cordoba Foundation’s explanation of the events surrounding the Cageprisoners event is rather confusing. Their November 2009 statement claims that they agreed to co-sponsor the event in August 2009, but did not become aware of Anwar al-Awlaki’s advertised appearance via video link until “a few weeks later”. This is rather odd as I have in my possession an email dated 15 July 2009 in which I warned Kensington and Chelsea Council about Awlaki’s role in the Cageprisoners event to be held in their town hall. How was I aware of this crucial fact long before the event’s co-sponsors, the Cordoba Foundation? Even more confusingly, why does a video trailer for the event posted to Youtube by Cageprisoners on 7 July 2009 claim that the Cordoba Foundation were co-sponsors and that Anwar al-Awlaki would be speaking?

Rather than threatening to sue Maajid for raising concerns about the Cordoba Foundation’s role in co-sponsoring an event that was advertised as featuring a video message from Anwar al-Awlaki, it would be helpful if the Cordoba Foundation could clarify:

1. When they agreed to co-sponsor the Cageprisoners event.

2. When they discovered that Anwar al-Awlaki would be speaking at the Cageprisoners event.

3. What steps, if any, the Cordoba Foundation took to prevent Anwar al-Awlaki speaking at the event they had agreed to co-sponsor.

Githens-Mazer also claimed that we used our briefing to “dictate to government who they should and shouldn’t work with” and that this was “absolutely outrageous”. Quite apart from the fact that Githens-Mazer doesn’t seem to have decided whether Quilliam is dictating to government or going “which way the political wind blows”, as a counter-extremism think tank it is our job to identify Islamists and warn government about the pitfalls associated with empowering them. Moreover, he is wrong on both counts. We are advising, not dictating, what we consistently advised under the previous Labour government as well: it is not good policy to empower non-violent Islamists in the hope that this will somehow prevent Islamist terrorism.

As Maajid Nawaz pointed out on Pickled Politics last week, our criticism of Islamism should not come as a surprise to anybody. However, nor should we be surprised that the UK’s increasingly vocal pro-Islamist lobby has reared its head in response.


Do read another piece on CIF by George Readings: Islamism, in any form, is a threat