It was a disaster waiting to happen. In a highly publicised press conference, Tommy Robinson and Quilliam announced that the former had seen the error of his ways and decided to part with the English Defence League, a hard-line anti Islam group.
Many prominent organisations and personalities had expressed scepticism at the time, dismissing it as nothing but a PR stunt to bolster the images of both Quilliam, a counter extremism think tank founded by former members of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which had allegedly been floundering with financial issues, and of Tommy Robinson, a man, who in his own words, was even being shunned by other parents when picking up his children from school.
Others went so far as to suggest that Maajid Nawaz, co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, was using this to boost his own political ambitions. He did later mount an unsuccessful campaign as a candidate for the Liberal Democrats party in the 2015 UK general elections.
Nawaz argues that it was his duty to engage with extremists from all sides, whether Islamist or anti Islam, in order to help de radicalise them. In that, I whole heartedly agree with him. In fact, if I had been in his shoes, and Tommy Robinson had contacted me saying he would like to change, I would have definitely welcomed the opportunity to facilitate the change. No one in their right mind should question Quilliam for attempting to do so.
But the revelations by Robinson yesterday, that he was paid thousands of pounds by Quilliam to leave the EDL, lends credence to the suspicions of many who thought there was something sleazy about the whole affair.
Quilliam has denied the accusations, stating that Robinson was only paid to cover costs he incurred related to community outreach.
Widely circulated emails from Maajid Nawaz, in which he appears to be actively soliciting donations for Robinson, seem to contradict that statement. In fact, the emails appear to show that Nawaz is fully aware that Robinson was financially dependent on EDL donors, and was asking for donors to help financially support him instead.
If Robinson’s transition was dependent on financial support, then it was not much of an ideological change to begin with- definitely not one that warranted a full-fledged press conference and staking the reputation of an organisation on.
At the time, Fiyaz Mughal, the director of the anti-Islamophobic monitoring group Tell MAMA, had told the Huffington Post UK, “This is an extremely short-term measure for Robinson, who needs money, and who is desperate to get out.”
This does raise troubling questions about the extent of Quilliam’s awareness of the disingenuous nature of Robinson’s change, and whether they turned a blind eye to the warning signs for their own benefit.
Many, including Mehdi Hasan, Sunny Hundul and Mughal, had warned that Quilliam was legitimising Robinson, and helping him rehabilitate his image without him showing any meaningful signs of reform.
Robinson’s twitter account had continued to share highly inflammatory posts about Muslims, and as the Afzal Amin scandal, where the Tory candidate had hoped to utilise the EDL to increase his votes, showed, Robinson still maintained close links with the organisation, despite having left it in an official capacity.
His recent announcement about his alliance with the UK charter of anti Islam group Pegida, which aims, amongst other things, to stop Muslim immigration to the UK and the construction of mosques in the country, shows it’s business as usual as far as Tommy Robinson is concerned.
One thing that Robinson is right about though is the lack of any credibility the organisation seems to have in the mainstream Muslim community, where it is viewed by a significant number with a mixture of disdain and contempt- especially after revelations that it had allegedly compiled a dossier of peaceful Muslims and groups for British security officials (unsolicited), as well as its co-founder, Ed Husain’s apparent endorsement of the government’s right to spy on all Muslims, whether they are suspected of terrorism or not.
When I raised this with Maajid Nawaz, he took offense to the use of the word dossier, insisting that it was just a report compiled by the think tank listing Islamist organisations that the government should not ban.
Journalists, including Glenn Greenwald, on the other hand, were sharing articles on social media, including one by Guardian that seemed to paint another picture.
Nawaz, in particular, has often been singled out for criticism that he helps to legitimise figures of anti Muslim and anti Islam bigotry, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris by adopting the role of the token “Muslim friend” for these individuals, in order for them to deflect such accusations.
Several critics have argued that by engaging with them as peers, instead of people who have made highly charged and often inaccurate statements about the adherents of a major world religion, and never calling them out on it, Nawaz lends them credibility in the eyes of general population.
Ayaan Ali famously called for Islam, not radical Islam, all of Islam, including the overwhelming majority of peaceful, law abiding Muslims to be crushed and defeated. Many argue that she is now a different person, yet she has not, to the extent of my knowledge, ever publicly apologised for those remarks, nor admitted they were hateful and bigoted.
When I raised this concern with Nawaz, he replied, “Intellectuals don’t always apologise, they adjust their positions & admit it.”
It is comments like these, and the apparent double standards when dealing with intolerance from the “left”, that rile a lot of his critics. I might not be considered an “intellectual”, but I do feel that calling for military action against over a billion peaceful people, solely based on their religion, at least warrants a public apology.
Maajid, to his credit, has gone after Trump for his bigoted statements, but many people question whether Trump’s ideology is really that much different than Ayaan’s when it comes to dealing with Muslims.
Accusations that some Muslims or former Muslims allow themselves to be exploited by anti Muslim or anti Islam groups, helping foster an environment of persecution and hate against the wider Muslim population, are nothing new. Similar things have long been said about figures such as Tarek Fatah, Asra Nomani or Taslimah Nasreen to just name a few.
In fact, I just read a joke online that went, “Ayaan Ali, Tarek Fatah and Taslimah Nasreen walked into a bar.” “Yeah?” “Maajid Nawaz was bar tending.”
Whether justified or not, many figures who do not profess the mainstream views of their own community have always been labelled as selling out, and such accusations should be taken with a grain of salt, unless there is substantial evidence pointing to it.
What is worrying though, is there are links being reported associating Quilliam with neoconservatives, and far right figures and proponents of anti Islam sentiment, such as Pamella Gellar, Robert Spencer and Douglas Murray.
Chad Sweet, who is currently serving as the chairman of Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, was reportedly appointed to Quilliam’s US board of directors by Nawaz himself.
Extremist Islamist ideology and the presence of organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir on university campuses is a major cause for concern for everyone. As recent events have shown, with the advent of social media, ISIS and such organisations, are becoming more capable in targeting impressionable individuals to join their evil cause. Just as worrying should be the rise of violence by right wing fanatics.
This makes the work of counter extremism and moderate think tanks more important than ever before. However, it is imperative that we don’t let our fears get exploited by those with ulterior motives. And for that more transparency and accountability should be demanded from all involved.