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Thursday, August 05, 2010 

The Quilliam Foundation and accusations of McCarthyism.

The Quilliam Foundation, the anti-Islamic extremism think-tank funded by the government, is a distinctly strange and shadowy organisation. It's almost impossible to know what to properly make of it, such have been the antics especially of one of its co-founders, Ed Husain, best known writing the memoir The Islamist, detailing his journey through radical Islam and his subsequent rejection of it. From first being seen by many on the right as the answer to the lackadaisical, even collaborationist left, willing to associate with and defend Islamists without understanding the ideology they were trying to propagate, Husain left them feeling cheated first by denouncing the Israeli assault on Gaza of December 2008/January 2009, even going so far as to warn the government that by not doing enough to end the conflict it was complicit in the radicalisaton of young Muslims which would almost certainly take place as a result, and then later by attacking Melanie Phillips for seeing conspiracies where there were none. A week after that crossing of swords the Foundation threatened litigation against Craig Murray for suggesting that the charity had not published its accounts for the year previously, when, it subsequently emerged, the accounts had indeed not been filed until six days after Murray's first post on the subject.

One of Murray's accusations was that QF was akin to a "
branch of New Labour tasked with securing the Muslim vote and reducing British Muslim dissatisfaction with New Labour over the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan", hardly the most generous of opinions of a counter-extremism think-tank but certainly one that wasn't actionable. It also didn't chime particularly with Husain's criticism of the government over the Gaza conflict, but it's certainly interesting that it's now, with New Labour out of office and our new overlords the Con-Dems in charge that the Quilliam Foundation has drawn up a strategic briefing paper titled: Preventing Terrorism: where next for Britain. Even more intriguing is that it's not clear whether the paper, sent to Charles Farr, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, was actively solicited, or drawn up at QF's own initiative. Not, it should be made clear, would we have known anything about it had the document not been leaked. The document was not intended for public disclosure, or to even be circulated within the Home Office, with QF justifying this stance in the preamble to Farr:

Based on our past experiences in this field, we believe it is sometimes useful for the government to mull over and refine sensitive policies -- such as the government's counter-terrorism strategy -- without the twin distractions of media attention and potential civil service defensiveness.

Exactly why QF didn't want the document more widely circulated is immediately apparent - it's highly critical of government departments' current counter-radicalisation policies, while finally going on to list in an appendix a whole series of organisations and groupings it introduces as "The British 'Muslim Scene'. It's also this section which Scribd doesn't want me to have access to, so I can't really comment on it. Needless to say, this compiling of various different groups and labelling them on whether the government should associate with them or not, regardless of whether they promote violence or are merely politically Islamist, something which QF argues in the document itself makes little difference as the overall aim of such groups is usually the same, just their methods differ, has been denounced as McCarthyite. One of those saying as much is interestingly
Inayat Bunglawala, the very person whom Ed Husain was defending last year against Mel P.

The strange thing is that the most controversial part of the document is in fact the justification for keeping it secret, the logic behind it being so obviously false that one of those not meant to see it almost certainly took the first possible opportunity to get it out into the open. It indeed might well be useful for the government to mull over and refine sensitive policies in private, but not without there being submissions from all of those going to be affected first. You simply can't formulate exactly the sort of policy which QF seem to want without there being a widespread debate which involves the media and the civil service, and their reasons for not wanting such oversight and debate of their own proposals are dubious at best. At worst, it suggests that despite being an organisation directly funded by the taxpayer, with apparently way above average salaries for both Husain and
Maajjid Nawaz, it rejects the openness which such comfortable surroundings demand. If this is what we're paying you to do, why aren't we allowed to read and comment on, if not outright reject your recommendations? That QF has refused to comment on the leak or the document also speaks volumes. If this is what you really think should happen to counter-terrorism policy, why not come out and defend it and defend the secrecy in the first place?

There's certainly nothing within the document which is particularly revelatory or fantastically controversial. You can quibble with the claim in the introduction that "the extremist mood music ... which draws British citizens into radicalisation, remains loud and attractive", although a think-tank which is set-up to tackle exactly that is hardly going to admit that the threat has diminished. Also worthy of critique is the way the document's introduction over-intellectualises the motivations of Salafist jihadists. It claims for instance that the infamous comments made by two of those convicted of involvement in
Operation Crevice, of "no one can even turn around and say 'Oh they were innocent - those slags dancing around'", referring to a possible plot to bomb the Ministry of Sound, is an example of a concept known as "forbidding evil", a divine obligation to enforce moral behaviour. Far more likely is that this was just casual prejudice with only a small ideological disgust for "Western decadence" behind it. It's difficult to shake off the feeling that Nawaz and Husain see all strains of Islamism through the prism in which they first encountered it and then experienced it - that of the scholarship they went through in order to progress up the leadership rungs of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The jihadist foot-soldiers far more often have very little to no scriptural reasoning, let alone knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence, to fall back on when challenged, if they ever are.

If the document is an attempt to stay relevant under a new government, then it's one which regardless of its intentions deserves cold, calm appraisal and study of its recommendations. While understandable that they wanted it to remain secret, they've only injured themselves by so tortuously and erroneously arguing for special treatment that both it and they neither need nor deserve, while opening themselves up to both justified and unjustified criticism. QF remains a distinctly strange, opaque organisation, and if it wants to survive that has to swiftly change, especially when its work remains so intriguing and potentially invaluable, even if not even being close to becoming beyond reproach.

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