Complicity and Duplicity: the EDL and Quilliam

By Yasmin Begum, Development Intern for V4CE

In recent weeks the English Defence League's (EDL) Tommy Robinson has announced his departure from the group through the anti-extremist organisation Quilliam. At a press conference in central London with Quilliam, he discussed “the dangers of far right extremism”, the non-productive nature of street demonstrations and the “on-going need to counter Islamist ideology . 
 
 
Finding Muslim allies in his fight against extremism, Robinson has joined the think-tank. In light of the politics of the EDL, Robinson's involvement with the foundation raises wider questions over its motivations, given its controversial history and involvement in the Prevent scheme.
 
Quilliam describes itself as “the world’s first counter-extremism think tank” and was started in 2008. It was named after Abdullah Quilliam, a British man who converted to Islam in the 1880s. He founded the first mosque and Islamic centre in Liverpool, England. The Quilliam Foundation was started by Maajid Nawaz, a British-born Pakistani. Nawaz co-founded the Quilliam with his friend, Ed Husain. Husain has a similar background to Nawaz, and who similarly turned away from Islamic extremism.
 
The Prevent Scheme, a part of the Channel Project, was started by the government in light of the 7/7 attacks as a counter-terrorism project. Eight years after its birth the government has stayed relatively quiet on the controversial and problematic scheme which seeks to stop a rise in extremism: specifically Islamic extremism in young people. A report called “Spooked”, written by Arun Kundnani in 2009 published by the Institute of Race Relations illustrated that Prevent specifically targeted with young people and women with a “bulk of funding”. It emphasised that local authorities have been pressured to adopt the scheme in direct relation to the amount of Muslims living in an area: making the word terrorist synonymous with the word Muslim.
 
A follow-up article titled “Still Spooked” by Kundnani found that out of the 1,120 individuals were identified by the project: 90% were Muslim, 290 were under 16 and 55 were under 12. Teachers, youth workers and others working in these services have been asked to refer young people at risk of Islamic extremism for government and police interference and rehabilitation, with no exact guideline as to what warrants referral. Quilliam gave recommendations on what constitutes Islamic radicalisation; use of the terms kufr, caliphate, or holding ultra-conservative views. It was also mentioned that any of these in isolation was not in fact dangerous, but more they were dangerous when they were clustered together. For those working in these positions and with young people, funding from this project may put them in a difficult position and undermine the professional integrity of their work along with alienating the young people they work with. When Islamophobia is particularly rife, making a wrong or inaccurate judgement about a young person has the potential to ruin lives.
 
Prevent prides itself on working across a variety of sectors- including the faith sector and VCOs. While doing so, a number of organisations and people may feel that the money is used to silence Muslim organisations and faith groups from being overtly critical of the government. The government creates polarised ideas and images of Muslims, portraying Salafis as hard-liner Islamists who are opposed to “British Values” but taking a softer line on Sufis, seeing them as tolerant, democratic and in line with their ideologies. These generalisations about Islam are essentialist and highly subjective as there are over 70 variations of Islam practiced in the United Kingdom by different races and multiple ethnic groups and just proves to highlight long-held inaccuracies over Islam and Islamic communities.
 
If Abdul Quilliam was a student today, he may be potentially earmarked for his political beliefs including support for an Islamic caliphate and for opposing British foreign intervention. One student at SOAS, the same university Nawaz attended said “To be honest, surveillance of Muslims was always high, especially after 9/11 and 7/7 it’s coming out in the public more, but nothing has changed at all, we always knew. They have always been watching us.” Allegations that Prevent spied on Muslim communities were heard in the House of Commons as recently as 2010, yet calls for an inquiry were dismissed by senior politicians.
 
Maajid Nawaz was quoted in the Guardian newspaper as saying he "would work to introduce Robinson to his own contacts in government and the Home Office in an attempt to procure government funding". Robinson's arrival also gives both a well-needed facelift after the controversial and racialised politics of the EDL and cuts to the Quilliam foundation owing to their lack of credibility in the Muslim community after their involvement in Prevent, among other issues. This coincides with an increase in Prevent funding, which has been boosted by £100 million pounds of a year. This was announced by the government called CONTEST earlier on this year along with that 10% of the resources will go into combating far-right extremists, announced by a report released earlier this year by the coalition government called "CONTEST". Another shift is that Prevent has extended its arms to include adults in its programme. 90% of its resources, however, will continue to be ploughed into 'combating Islamic extremism' and disproportionately in Muslim groups
 
Arun Kundnani perhaps hit the nail on the head after we contacted him explaining that "In the first few years after it was founded in 2008, Quilliam was central to the government's Prevent program. It trained thousands of local authority workers to participate in surveillance programs directed at young Muslims. It aimed at identifying, not just potential criminal activity, but 'extremist ideology'. But 'extremism' was always defined vaguely enough that it could include widely held religious and political opinions, such as having strong critical views on British foreign policy or in believing in the literal truth of religious texts. Like Quilliam, the EDL also took its mission statement from the Prevent narrative. It held Islamist extremism to be a widespread problem in British Muslim communities that required surveillance, exposure and, ultimately, violence. Thus, the recent alliance between the EDL's Tommy Robinson and Quilliam is fitting. They have long shared the same politics; now that complicity has been formalised."
 
In light of a domestication of far-right wing policy through Robinson’s and Quilliam’s wholly unusual relationship, it’s troubling that a Muslim organisation has come forward and joined with Robinson. In a nuanced press release on Quilliam’s website, they wrote “a long term strategy is needed to ensure that Robinson becomes not just an ex-EDL leader, but a champion of genuine liberalism and moderation”. In the past, Robinson has repeatedly used racially inflammatory language, yet apologised to Muslims for “creating a climate of fear”: and not for his other comments, like calling the prophet Muhammad a paedophile and Islam a disease.  One youth worker and community activist summed it up well: “What does this say to VCS and faith organisations in the regions? Are we now moving from preventing far right wing views as the government in recent times has begun to address to accommodating the likes of the EDL and other groups and their virulent Islamophobia and racism?”