In an attempt to grapple with the challenge of tackling extremism a number of organisations have emerged. From political think tanks to university spin-off organisations, we are offered a range of views through position papers, Op-eds, and television appearances by individuals working within this realm on how best to tackle these issues. Of course, it goes without saying that counter-extremism is a serious affair and getting it wrong can result in extremely unfavourable outcomes.
Of all the counter-extremism organisations that exist in Britain today, the Quilliam Foundation is perhaps the most well known. At first glance the very name of the organisation seems confusing; a think tank that aims to challenge extremism by promoting the secularisation of Islam chooses to name itself after an individual who was anything but a secular liberal. Even when there are instances where there is variance between an organisation and the persona it is named after, the difference is minimal particular on the fundamental outlook of the group. For anyone familiar with Abdullah Quilliam it is palpably obvious that his values diametrically opposed those of the organisation that named themselves after him.
However the confusion isn’t limited to its name. To many people it appeared that the purpose of a press conference hosted by Quilliam held two years ago that welcomed Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll, formerly of the EDL, was to announce their departure from an extremist organisation and to start work on challenging both the ideas they once held as well as those of Islamists. During the conference, Robinson even apologised for the intimidation he caused Muslims at his rallies, and Nawaz stated that his organisation chose to ‘trust’ these men as they embarked upon that journey. In the immediate aftermath of this conference, Nawaz offered to introduce Robinson to his contacts in the government and Home Office and facilitate Robinson’s newfound goals of tackling extremism on all fronts. However, in the ensuing months, the re-branded Robinson resumed his rhetoric on twitter and in formal public gatherings; the skeptics maintained that Robinson was always the radical.
The entire episode has been the subject of various confrontations between journalists and academics, and Quilliam founding member Maajid Nawaz. Now two years on Tommy Robinson finds himself addressing a Pegida rally in the Netherlands, stating that he was ‘proud’ to have set up the EDL, describing his former colleagues as ‘brave and fearless’.
Many have continually questioned Nawaz over Quilliam’s involvement with Robinson as it stands beyond doubt that he hasn’t changed. Such scrutiny is entirely legitimate and ought to be expected given Quilliam’s high profile in the realm of counter-extremism and the influence it has on shaping Government policy. Yet any attempt at scrutiny has been dealt with in a rather brash manner, with Nawaz belligerently responding to those who question his organisation’s association with Robinson.
Today, Nawaz attempts to clarify that the entire purpose of the conference wasn’t to announce the de-radicalisation of these men, but that Quilliam had successfully convinced them to leave the EDL; despite the fact that rather than showing remorse over his days with the EDL, Robinson looks back at them with pride. Furthermore, given that Robinson has gone on to use the affair to ally with larger European groups with far greater capabilities to terrorise Muslims, the perceived benefit of his departure from the EDL is mystifying.
Indeed, it seems that Quilliam made a serious error in judgment when hosting the now infamous press conference. Clearly the prospect of media fanfare and limelight, something Nawaz is notable for pursuing, was the driving force for this superficial undertaking. The only outcome was to increase the public profile of Tommy Robinson and attempt to position Quilliam as an effective organisation that can bring about tangible change, and clearly they cannot. Even if we accept Nawaz’s clarification today, the fact that so many people, including journalists and academics, misunderstood the purpose of this conference suggests a failure to communicate effectively (or more probably an attempt to vindicate themselves). Given that they have helped to compound this issue – rather than resolving it as they are supposed to – Quilliam must now embark upon directly challenging Robinson, and confront the extreme far right movements in Europe with equal vigour to that which they exhibit with Muslim radicals.