It’s fair to say the Quilliam Foundation (later rebranded to “Quilliam”) has not been without its problems since launching in 2008. Since its launch, Quilliam expanded much too quickly, taking on too many staff, and has never stopped to define its remit clearly enough.
The organisation is now facing closure after being told by the Home Office in December that it would no longer be eligible for core funding and would need to bid for specific projects instead. That is entirely understandable and reasonable, but Paul Goggins MP hit the nail on the head this morning when he said:
MPs are not opposed to the withdrawal of core funding from Quilliam — indeed greater use of independent funding will further strengthen their credibility. But the switch is happening too fast and risks the organisation going out of business altogether.
At a time when the security service continues to warn of ongoing threats to our security it is vital that ministers find the money to enable Quilliam’s work to continue.
David Cameron’s recent Munich speech — which I welcome and endorse —outlined the need for secular Muslim groups to help redefine the contours of debate in the British Muslim community. That Quilliam should be facing the prospect of closure just weeks after that speech is a disaster for all concerned.
After all, Quilliam’s more enduring contribution has been its ability to stretch the debate in new ways. It has already upset the Islamist applecart by ensuring that groups like the Muslim Council of Britain can no longer act as gatekeeper to the British Muslim community. They are now just one voice among many, with their monopoly effectively shattered.
There is also a wider point to consider; one which is sometimes lost on those who have not been involved in Islamist groups.
Like Quilliam’s director, Maajid Nawaz, I am also an erstwhile member of Hizb ut Tahrir. Indeed, I was the first senior defector from the group (in 2005) and started attacking its divisive message back then. The real difficulty in leaving the Hizb at that stage was not ideological — I knew the party was wrong — but finding the confidence to believe I could live an ordinary and productive life away from the organisation was very difficult. That fear is not untypical. Hizb ut Tahrir is a cult in many respects, an enveloping community of spiritual, emotional, intellectual and social support. When you leave, that support immediately turns into pressure. Friends become enemies overnight. For that reason, many who secretly despise the group have sometimes lacked the moral courage to leave.
When Maajid defected in 2007 and Ed Husain published The Islamist we all discussed the idea of a group like Quilliam. At the time I pointed out that their most important function would be to give others still in radical networks the confidence to leave. The momentum we subsequently created made an indisputable impact.
Consider this: in 2002 and 2003 when I was still a member of Hizb ut Tahrir we held conferences in London’s Wembley Arena and Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena. Both of these events attracted 10,000 delegates each. Beyond that we organised numerous rallies and demonstrations around the country mobilising similar numbers. Today the Hizb is lucky if it can attract 1000 people to its annual conference. In anyone’s book, that is a dramatic reduction.
There are other signs of the Hizb’s decline too. From 2002-2005 the party expanded rapidly and lots of new leaders were being promoted — the so-called “rising stars”. Today, most of those rising stars are nowhere to be seen. I was a regional director for the movement, overseeing all its activities and cells in northern England. In recent years I have taken great delight from learning about the number of people up there who have defected and left the organisation. They were among some of the best and most committed members in the north, and now they have eschewed radical Islam.
Instead, the party is led by the same old tired and hackneyed hands who have propped it up for so many years before: Taji Mustafa, Imran Waheed, Abdul Wahid, Sajjad Khan, and Jamal Harwood among others. They are the old guard who have invested everything into the movement for nearly two decades now. They will never leave. But what groups like Quilliam can ensure is that new recruits don’t join.
The work done by former members has dented much of the clandestine glamour associated with groups like Hizb ut Tahrir. It is no longer seen as an acceptable group for young Muslims to legitimately explore.
Retarding Hizb ut Tahrir’s growth in such a dramatic way would not have been possible without the outspokenness of former members. We have not all needed Quilliam to do so — I have supported it but never worked for it. Nonetheless, its existence is crucial to providing others with the confidence and cover needed to leave the organisation. This does not just apply to people in Hizb ut Tahrir. Over the years I have seen all kinds of other repentant extremists pass through its doors too. They come for any number of reasons —but it is foolish to ignore the psychological comfort a group like Quilliam can provide them.
I am not an uncritical friend of Quilliam. I have had my concerns and have raised these with Maajid in a spirit of camaraderie in the past. This is not the place to revisit those issues, but clearly Quilliam is not perfect. Yet, its imperfections must not be an excuse for its implosion. There is too much at stake for that, and to do so would be to overlook the meaningful impact it has made on aspects of British Muslim life.
Their work is not done yet, and Quilliam’s continued presence in the debate will remain necessary particularly at a time when the contours of British Islam are being so dramatically redefined.
In return Quilliam will need to adapt. It will need to redefine its aims much more sharply and work within clearer parameters. It will need to run a more streamlined operation and work with others in the field more effectively than it has in the past. Much more transparency is also needed.
There is much to suggest this reform can be achieved under Maajid Nawaz’s stewardship. In 2008 Quilliam embarked on a most necessary mission, what it needs now is a chance to see it through.