A few months ago, I wrote a post on Quilliam, a UK-based “counter-extremism think tank” that was established in 2008 by former British Islamist radicals. I highlighted Quilliam’s general mandate to “actively challenge extremism” in the UK, Europe and abroad, introduced its directors, and underscored some of its research and ongoing projects.
Some readers of this blog have since questioned my favourable impressions of Quilliam, suggesting that I’ve not taken into account some of the controversy that surrounds the think tank and its leaders.
It’s true that both co-founder, Ed Husain, and Quilliam have their detractors.
For instance, the veracity of Husain’s personal story of radicalization – retold in his 2007 autobiography, The Islamist – has been questioned. Individuals involved in some of the events Husain describes in the book have rejected his interpretation and claim that he was never a member of any radical organization. Others have labeled Husain’s account as “dated and misleading” or have suggested he misinterprets how Islamist radicalization takes place (here and here). Still others, like British author Melanie Phillips, have gone from applauding Husain for his “courage” to suggesting that he has in fact “never properly renounced Islamist extremism.” Husain has defended himself on several occasion (here, here, and here), but reservations nonetheless remain.
As for Quilliam, a few critics have questioned its reliance and association with some controversial Islamic figures. Others have suggested that its broader counter-radicalization strategy is flawed. Still others have implied that the organization has an alternative (and much more nefarious) agenda.
So, how should we interpret Quilliam? And what role does it play in combating radicalization in the West, if any?
My take remains that Quilliam is generally a force for good in our confrontation with radical and violent Islamism. As an organization, it is staffed by individuals versed in radical ideology that can proactively challenge Islamist thought in a way that resonates with British (and Western) youth. And it continues to attract jihadis who have renounced terrorism. In August, Noman Benotman, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a proscribed terrorist organization once associated with al Qaeda that has recently turned its back on terrorism, joined Quilliam. He then immidiatly published an open-letter denouncing al Qaeda.
Quilliam also publishes original and in-depth academic reports on a variety of critically important subjects and posts them online for free dissemination. They’ve recently added two articles to their library: one describing how al Qaeda’s supporters infiltrate and manipulate online chat rooms and a second on radicalization on British university campuses. Both subjects are exceptionally topical and understudied.
Quilliam isn’t perfect and it has yet to properly address some of the criticism levied against it. But Canadians need to be aware of the ongoing and nuanced debates taking place among practicing Muslims on issues like political Islam, terrorism, violence, and radicalism. Fighting terrorism effectively will require establishing a counter-narrative against those that legitimize violence, and getting that counter-narrative out to as many people as possible. Quilliam is trying to do just that.