April 13, 2010

Extremism - to debate or denounce

The Quilliam Foundation, a pretty influential UK think tank focusing on extremism, is holding a round table discussion on a report it put out last month on Britain's Islam Channel satellite television station.

Reading through the executive summary just now made me feel a little uneasy. I've had the same feeling reading some of their other work, and I've always struggled to put my finger on what it is exactly that makes me react as if I'd just seen a thug suddenly get kicked to death on a bus by a bunch of grannies. After a long uninterrupted think (having no electricity, I can't distract myself with Pakistani television), I think I've finally figured it out.

Quilliam says; "the channel regularly promotes intolerance and sectarianism, and gives a platform to individuals and groups with a track record of promoting hatred and violence."

I don't know how Quilliam conducted the study but I'm willing to believe that material like: "I am not against the women. I am not against anybody. But this is the truth. That today, the problem, the calamities and hardship and suffering is due to the women..." or "Shia madhab [school of jurisprudence] has many aqaid [belief systems] which are not acceptable" is broadcast on Islam Channel because I am depressingly used to hearing such things (although, I have hung out with extremists more than most people). The sound of this sort of talk gets my back up. I can imagine the tone of voice it is delivered in, and it grates in my mind.

I'm referring to my own reaction because one person I know who has spent more time with extremists than me is Maajid Nawaz, one of the directors of Quilliam. For those that have not heard of Maajid, he was a key member of UK Islamist outfit Hizb ut Tahrir when it was properly nutty, as opposed to the toned down version it is now. Maajid's HT activities landed him in jail in Egypt. After his release, he left HT, denounced their ideology and helped set up Quilliam. I don't know Maajid. But I have bumped into him a couple of times and have heard him speak once or twice (I related one such occasion here as what Maajid was saying about his own attraction to radical Islamist politics brilliantly humanised the issues floating around in a young recruit's mind).

Ed Husain, the other Quilliam director, had a similar journey (without the jail time). His book The Islamist was very popular and I reviewed it a while ago for AM. I'm sure that due to their own experiences, Ed and Maajid's reaction to hearing intolerant, bigoted claptrap spouted by people who say they are speaking the Islamic "truth" is more pronounced than mine. But is it really a good thing?

As I sort of touched upon in the Arguing Extremism post, the whole issue of what is "moderate Islam" and what is "extreme" has become a battlefield littered with mines that have more to do with appearances than content. What I mean is that many Muslims will almost instinctively denounce something as un-Islamic because it seems to conform to Western norms rather than anything intrinsic about the issue at hand. By the same token, they will see things that seem an antithesis to Western practice as automatically Islamic. And, of course, this approach has gained more popular acceptance recently because to many it seems the West is at war with Islam.

You can see this unsaid, but underlaying, viewpoint in some of the statements pointed out in the executive summary:

"Within the western way of life the idea that a woman, even if she gets married, can refuse relations with her husband because of ‘individual choice'. This is something which is part of the western culture, but not Islam".

By denouncing material of this sort on Islam Channel, or elsewhere, in their customary manner, I think Quilliam actually gives it a stamp of approval. People who think that anybody who talks about "democracy" "human rights" and "freedom of expression" is automatically a "Western-educated, elitist, secularist" and must not be listened to under any circumstances will be quite happy to earn the ire of Quilliam. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are much better at sounding objective, which makes them then sound more credible. The only group i can think of that sounds like Quilliam in tone is, well... Hizb ut Tahrir. For example:

"London UK, 13th April 2010 - David Cameron has called for a ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir in the Conservative party's manifesto launched today which once again twists the truth and states that "a Conservative government will ban any organisations which advocate hate or the violent overthrow of our society, such as hizb-ut-tahrir".

"Their desire to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir shows they really fear that our ideas have taken a hold amongst Muslims around the world, because of our uncompromising criticism of Western foreign policy in Muslim countries, and relentless call to replace tyranny and dictatorship in the Muslim world with an Islamic Caliphate that will bring security, stability, authority to the people, and accountability and justice - all enshrined in the Shariah."

Yes, I am subscribed to email alerts from both organisations.

I'm a big fan of debate. During the last few months in Pakistan, I have come to realise that one of the elements that has evolved in British Muslim society recently that places like Pakistan don't have and could really do with is rigorous debate on issues that tie together religion, identity and politics. The Quilliam approach, in my view, seems to want to shout down rather than argue, tackle or rebut. Denouncing makes for pithy soundbites, but ultimately doesn't convince people to change their views. 

Where I think Quilliam does a great job is where it does encourage debate. Such as the discussions it organised last year at the conferences of the major political parties (here's a write up of one of the sessions which took place on the sidelines of the Tory party conference) and got people talking constructively about counter terrorism strategy.

As for the Islam Channel, is it really al-Qaeda TV? I mean REALLY? I mean, apart from extremism, it will also teach you how to make black forest cupcakes.

Anyway, the roundtable is taking place at midday on April 21 in London somewhere. If you want to go email: events@quilliamfoundation.org