The former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), Tommy Robinson chose to announce his resignation at a conference organised by the counter-extremist think tank Quilliam. Jonathan Russell, political liaison officer at the Quilliam Foundation sets out the organisation’s views on combating extremism.

It might sound surprising, but Tommy Robinson and the senior members of the Quilliam Foundation have something in common: they decided to walk away from extremism. As a teenager, Quilliam chairman Maajid Nawaz was attacked by racist thugs, experiencing the kind of far-right extremism the EDL now struggles to contain.

Disconnected from the spiritual and personal Islam his parents and grandparents had been brought up with, Maajid experienced an identity crisis mirroring those of many other British Muslims of his generation.

After renouncing Islamism, Maajid resolved to confront the ideology by founding Quilliam with Ed Hussain, another former activist of HT and author of The Islamist. The name Quilliam itself is taken from the name of the founder of the first mosque in England, a 19th Century convert from Christianity to Islam.

The founders recognised that Islamist and far-right extremism are mutually supportive, providing to each other the symbol of an intolerant and aggressive ‘other’ against which to mobilise.

Therefore, successfully countering extremism would involve tackling both sides and has formed a central part of their work from the outset.

Central to Quilliam’s mission is explaining clearly what Islamism is, and what it is not: Islamism is the reinterpretation of Islam as a political ideology; it is only one relatively recent interpretation which does not represent the majority of Muslims in the UK or around the world.

Having former Islamists from all backgrounds in the Foundation certainly helps to achieve the Foundation’s goal.

For example, Quilliam President Noman Benotman was formerly a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the group established in 1995 whose work focused on the overthrow of the former President Muammar Gaddafi and the establishment of an Islamic State in Libya, and had close links to Osama Bin Laden following his participation in the Western-backed Afghanistan jihad against the Soviet Union.

The Quilliam Foundation is also involved in projects outside the UK. In this picture, chairman Maajid Nawaz meets some Pakistani students at the Agricultural University, Faisalabad
Mr Benotman now leads international outreach to political activists in the Middle East and North Africa and personally played a key role in the disbanding of the LIFG.

Quilliam’s work is not simply academic or policy-driven. By speaking at sessions held by Muslim community groups, mosques and prisons in the last five years, the Foundation has helped to counter radicalisation in the UK in a very practical way.

Islamism itself represents a spectrum of positions but one with a common ideology that runs contrary to the ideas of democracy, human rights and pluralism that underpin successful societies.

By confronting Islamist ideas with these better ideas, Quilliam challenges both violent Islamism that represents a direct threat to peace and non-violent Islamism that provides mood music for its violent counterpart.

Challenging far-right extremism stems from the recognition that it enjoys a negative symbiotic relationship with Islamism; in other words, they give each other a reason to exist.

Nick Jode, a former EDL supporter, who came across a clip of Maajid Nawaz by chance, later described how watching it led to him starting the journey away from extremism: “The most impressive thing was that Maajid’s message wasn’t violent – he was talking about tolerance and a peaceful change. I thought Maajid was a fantastic speaker and started researching his work”.

Despite common misconceptions, the Quilliam Foundation does not call for non-violent extremist groups to be banned, believing instead that a peaceful refutation of extremism and promotion of alternatives is a more effective way of breaking down extremist ideologies.

Its aim is to continue building on its success with Muslim communities all around the world and in the UK, believing that the popularity of Islamism and other forms of extremism is a trend which should not be dealt with merely by force, but by engaging with communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and encouraging participation in mainstream British society.

The Foundation enjoys its status as a private not-for profit organisation that has not received public funds since 2011 as it can remain ideas-focused, non-partisan and continue its own pursuits. Quilliam’s ideas, projects and output are all made possible by the support of private donations from Muslim and non-Muslim individuals and foundations based in the United Kingdom and all around the world.

In order to win the battle of ideas, it is imperative to regain control of the narrative from an unrepresentative minority who have managed to attract disproportionate attention in recent years and to demonstrate that equality, religious freedom and democracy are not principles which should belong to specific communities, but essential for us all.

This article was originally posted on ‘BBC Religion and Ethics’ on 29 October 2013.

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