This week saw the glitzy, celebrity-packed launch (at the British Museum) of the Quilliam Foundation, the latest manifestation of "moderate", government-backed Islam in Britain. Speakers included the beauteous Jemima (no-knickers) Khan, who revealed that she had been the subject of the inevitable death-threats from extremists, as well as celebrity ex-Islamist Ed Husain whose idea QF appears largely to be. There was also Paddy Ashdown, Timothy Garton-Ash and the Rev Giles Fraser, while Rachel North spoke movingly about the need to "go forward together". Another high-profile supporter, looking somewhat out of place in such company, is Conservative MP Michael Gove. The group would seem to have behind it a good deal of political goodwill and, possibly, financial support. What's not to like?
The aims of the foundation, which include persuading young Muslims away from the path of violence and rejecting the notion that Islam and western democracy are incompatible, sound laudable enough. It's reassuring, too, to note the calibre of opposition that they have attracted: an unholy alliance of leftists and Islamic radicals. Inayat Bunglawala wrote on CIF that a conspiracy of sorts was afoot:
Some representatives of various UK Islamic groups were invited to see senior officials at the Department of Communities and Local Government recently to discuss the work they were doing with young people. Strong hints were dropped that they could obtain financial support from the government, but only if they were prepared to work with - and thereby help lend credibility to - Ed Husain's soon to be launched Quilliam Foundation.
While Seumas Milne, also on CIF, complained that Husain,
has, meanwhile, compared Hamas to the BNP, described the Arab "psyche" as irredeemably racist, criticised the director of MI5 for "pussyfooting around" with extremists, poured cold water on the idea that western policy in the Muslim world makes terror attacks in Britain and elsewhere more likely, dismissed the idea of Islamophobia and defended the government's decision to ban the leading Muslim cleric Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi from Britain because he had defended Palestinian suicide attacks.
So far, so good. And QF's statement of objectives sounds progressive enough, if more than a little vague:
The Quilliam Foundation is a counter extremism think tank. Created by former activists of radical Islamist organisations, our founders are familiar with the mindset and methods of extremist groups. Now under the guidance of mainstream Muslim scholars, we believe that Western Muslims should revive Western Islam, our Andalusian heritage of pluralism and respect, and thereby find harmony in West-Islam relations.
The Andalusian kingdoms, so frequently eulogised as a golden age of mutual tolerance, scientific enquiry and civilisation, were of course created by an invasion of Spain, and there was never any doubt as to who was in charge. But we'll let that one pass. And few could object to QF's desire for "a genuine British Islam, native to these islands, free from the bitter politics of the Arab and Muslim world". A Muslim version of the C of E, perhaps, minus Woolliams' enthusiasm for Sharia. I particularly warm to their desire for Muslims to integrate into Western society "as citizens, not as a faith community".
Putting a little more flesh on the bones, we also read
The Foundation aims to help foster the intellectual and religious paradigms necessary to revive a genuinely Western Islam. To do so, obstacles along our path need to be removed. We consider these to be scriptural literalism, extremism, Islamism, and foreign ideological influences and interferences with Western Muslim communities. By exposing and undermining these forces, we hope that Muslim communities will organically move toward Western Islam: pluralistic, traditional Islam set in a modern Western context.
Sounds a bit New Labourish to me: "traditional values in a modern setting". And, indeed, Blairesque triangulation seems to be the name of the game. So while stressing the modern, western orientation of QF - and of the Islam it wants to see created - its supporters are anxious to look to traditionalist (but comparatively moderate) clerics from the Middle East:
Western Muslims should pioneer new thinking for our new times. Here, Muslim scholastic giants, such as the noble Abdullah bin Bayyah and Shaikh Ali Gomaa (Mufti of Egypt), have provided ample guidance.
New thinking, old men. Gomaa, as it happens, is on the record as supporting the use of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. He also attracted much mirth in Egypt a few years ago when he issued a fatwa praising a woman who allegedly drank the Prophet's urine. Last year it was reported that Gomaa had rejected the traditional punishment of death for "apostates". He angrily denied this slur: "What I actually said is that Islam prohibits a Muslim from changing his religion and that apostasy is a crime, which must be punished".
As for Abdullah bin Bayyah, he has been prominent among Muslim leaders demanding an international blasphemy law to prevent any criticism of Mohammed. He described the publication of the Danish cartoons as "an aggressive act that has violated the highest sanctities of the Muslim people" and "devastating to the ideal of convivial dialogue between peoples."
Another puzzling feature of this new grouping is its name.
QF takes its title, and its inspiration, from the unfortunately-named William Quilliam, a Liverpudlian convert to Islam who lived about 100 years ago. An article on their website, by Ashraf al-Hoque, contrasts Quilliam's approach with that of Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual forefather of Al Qaeda. But it also bills him as "Britain's first Muslim activist", reveals that he was in the pay of the Ottoman and Persian governments, and details his advice to Muslims on their duty to fight against Western colonialism:
Quilliam utilised his established periodicals to urge Muslims of the colonies not to participate in British military campaigns directed against other Muslims, such as in Sudan. He encouraged Muslims neither to take up arms against their co-religionists nor to even nominally aid the imperial apparatus under any circumstance;
“For any True Believer to take up arms and fight against another Muslim is contrary to the Shariat, and against the law of God and his holy prophet…I warn every True-Believer that if he gives the slightest assistance in this projected expedition against the Muslims of the Soudan [sic.], even to the extent of carrying a parcel, or giving a bite of bread to eat or a drink of water to any person taking part in the expedition against these Muslims that he thereby helps the Giaour [sic.] against the Muslim, and his name will be unworthy to be continued upon the roll of the faithful”. (The Crescent, March 25th 1896, Vol. VII, No. 167, p. 617)
We also learn that "Quilliam’s fervent advocacy of Muslim solidarity and united resistance against anti-Muslim imperial policies were a prominent feature of his discourse."
At the same time, he managed to annoy the neighbours by insisting on having the call to prayer chanted at his Liverpool mosque, an action that led to demonstrations and brought forth an editorial in a local newspaper which, leaving aside differences in language, might almost be describing events in Oxford in 2008:
“To hear the muezzin (sexton) here is most incongruous, unusual, silly and unwelcome, and the man who stands howling on the first floor of the balcony in such a fashion is certain to collect a ribald crowd, anxious to offer a copper or two to go into the next street, or even ready to respond to his invitation with something more than jeers”
In fact, the more one reads about Quilliam, the less appropriate a model he seems for a modern, relaxed Islam, comfortably fitting in with western secularism, and the more he comes to resemble the very radicals the eponymous foundation is supposed to be campaigning against. Here he is, for example, in full rhetorical flight:
“At the present time, union is more than ever necessary among Muslims. The Christian powers are preparing a new crusade in order to shatter the Muslim powers, under the pretext that they desire to civilise the world…This is nothing but hypocrisy, but armed as they are with the resources of Western civilisation it will be impossible to resist them unless the Muslims stand united in one solid phalanx”. (The Crescent, April 22nd 1896, Vol. VII, No. 171, pp. 681-682)
Osama bin Laden himself couldn't have put it better.