Quilliam Director Maajid Nawaz addressed a conference on 27th October 2008 on “Secularism in the Muslim Diaspora” at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. The conference was convened by Dr Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Center and was filmed by Arabic satellite news channels. Other speakers included:


Bassam Tibi from Germany, Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for International Affairs, Gottingen University


Jean-Pierre Filiu from France, Visiting Professor at Georgetown University


Afshin Ellian from the Netherlands, Professor of Legal Philosophy at the University of Leiden


Jonathan Laurence, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Boston College


Peter Mandaville, Associate Professor of Public and International Affairs and co-Director, Center for Global Studies, George Mason University


Bassam Tibi spoke about the need for German society, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to make efforts towards better integration into German society, and for Muslims to reform Islam. Dr Tibi gave his own combination of German citizenship and Syrian heritage as an example of how many Germans would not accept him as fully German no matter how far he integrated. Jean-Pierre Filiu spoke to dispel cliches around the French strategy towards addressing issues of integration and secularism, stating that France had historically made admirable efforts to integrate “Islam” officially, though conceded that this success needed to be mirrored with efforts to integrate French minorities at grassroots level. Afshin Ellian, an exile from Iran, spoke about the need for the Netherlands to insist on ‘immigrants’ adopting a Dutch national identity and Dutch values as a solution to “radical Islam”.


Maajid Nawaz spoke on ‘Is Shari’ah a Law?’. Maajid proposed that Shari’ah is in fact a religious and moral code that was historically not adopted or codified in any way by Muslim political authority. Calls to adopt Shari’ah as a law or indeed naming it ‘Shari’ah law’ are not Islamic, are ahistoric and are recent innovations promoted by Islamism. Maajid was also critical of the notion that Islam itself is in crisis, or needs reformation, and of those adopting the ‘immigrant’ model to analyze the problem of Islamist radicalization. Maajid differed with Afshin Ellian on framing the problem as an immigrant problem, and in his consideration of extremism as a manifestation of Islam itself. Instead, Maajid argued that extremism was in fact a product of modern political ideology super-imposed on Islam, and that it grew amongst young Muslims born in Europe (in opposition to the tradition of their parents and in ignorance of Islam) not amongst Europe’s Muslim immigrants and not through traditional Islamic expression.


A lively discussion ensued where Afshin Ellian insisted that Islam was integral to extremist rhetoric and Maajid explaining that in fact Islam was used to justify a modern ideological project. The session ended in good spirit with all agreeing that it is vital for young European Muslim voices to be at the forefront of such a debate and in winning over the fertile middle ground.