Jonathan Githens-Mazer vs. Maajid Nawaz

The Sky News Sunday Live programme this weekend featured a revealing encounter between Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation and Jonathan Githens-Mazer of the European Muslim Research Centre, on the subject of Quilliam’s recently-leaked witch-hunting “briefing” against mainstream British Muslim organisations. Jonathan Githens-Mazer accurately nails Quilliam’s contempt for evidence and logic, and rightly argues that the organisation’s primary concern is with guaranteeing its continued receipt of large sums of taxpayers’ money. But there are some other aspects of Maajid Nawaz’s characteristically weaselly performance that need to be challenged.

Particularly disgraceful is Nawaz’s statement that the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park “has recently been accused in parliament by one of its former trustees Khalid Mahmood MP as having hosted Abdulmutallab the Christmas day bomber and Anwar al-Awlaki the Al Qaeda theoretician”. What Nawaz omits to mention is that Khalid Mahmood’s charge against the NLCM was based on a ridiculous US radio report which informed its listeners that Whitechapel Road is in “the Finsbury Park district of London”, confused the NLCM with the East London Mosque and claimed that Abdulmutallab had met al-Awlaki at the NLCM at a time when al-Awlaki was in fact in prison in Yemen.

Here two explanations suggest themselves. Either Nawaz was aware of this, and sought to suggest to Sky viewers that the NLCM was associated with Abdulmutallab and al-Awlaki even though he knew the charge was nonsense. If so, this only reinforces the argument repeatedly put forward on this website that the government should immediately withdraw all state financial support from the Quilliam Foundation. Or, alternatively, Nawaz was genuinely ignorant of the fact that Khalid Mahmood’s accusation against the NLCM was without foundation. In which case, perhaps Nawaz and his Quilliam co-director Ed Husain might consider diverting some of the lavish public funding they currently spend on plush offices, sharp suits and hiring expensive libel lawyers in an attempt to silence their critics, and use the money instead to employ some competent researchers.

And while we’re on the subject of Quilliam’s source of finance, it’s also worth dealing with Nawaz’s claim that “funding that we got from a certain Kuwaiti foundation was cut when we criticised suicide bombings inside Israel”. In reality, Quilliam’s Kuwaiti backers appear to have withdrawn financial support after Ed Husain publicly backed a shameful decision by the then Labour government to ban Yusuf al-Qaradawi from entering the UK. And you can understand why the Kuwaiti foundation took that decision. To anyone in the Middle East it must have appeared incomprehensible that a self-styled “counter-extremism think-tank” should have lined up against a leading voice of moderation in the Muslim world.

Finally, Nawaz asserts that “we’ve opposed banning Hizb ut-Tahrir” and to back up that claim says that he was “quoted by the former Prime Minister in parliament as opposing banning non-violent Islamists”. The reference is to a House of Commons debate in November 2007 in which Gordon Brown did indeed cite Nawaz’s opposition to the illegalisation of HT.

However, while Nawaz has always said he is against a ban on HT, Ed Husain has repeatedly argued in favour of one. He did so in his book The Islamist and has since repeated the call in even more unequivocal terms. Writing in the Daily Telegraph in February 2007, for example, Husain complained:

“Today, in our midst, Hizb ut-Tahrir calls for an expansionist, violent, totalitarian Islamist state – and we continue to ignore it. There is no quick fix to the problem of home-grown terrorism, but banning Hizb ut-Tahrir would be an excellent first step, sending a strong signal to aspiring terrorists that Britain has not changed the rules of game. We no longer play that game.”

But then, as Jonathan Githens-Mazer points out, evidence and logic are of little concern to the directors of the Quilliam Foundation.

Sky News Sunday Live 8 August 2010 – Transcript

Stephen Dixon (SD) (deputising for Adam Boulton) in studio with Maajid Nawaz (MN) (Co-Director, Quilliam Foundation) and Jonathan Githens-Mazer (JGM) (Co-Director, European Muslim Research Centre, University of Exeter) in Exeter.

SD       Since the 7/7 bombings policy makers and security chiefs have relied on Muslim organisations to help prevent radicalisation. However, this week a prominent Muslim think-tank [QF] accused some mainstream Islamic groups of being extremist sympathisers. Well, Maajid Nawaz, Director of the Quilliam Foundation is here and in Exeter, Jonathan Githens-Mazer, an expert in extremism and radicalisation at Exeter University. Gents, good to see you both. Maajid we’ll start with you first of all. Many of the organisations you listed in your report have been used by the government, in some cases funded by the government as well. Is it the case in your view that none of these organisations can in fact be trusted?

MN      Well, I think what we’re trying to say is that these organisations, though they though they may speak against violence they sympathise with the ideology that we call Islamism. And for the Government to support them or fund them or empower them is akin to the government supporting the British National Party against Combat 18 – and I think we wouldn’t consider it when it comes to white fascists – we should definitely not consider when it comes to brown fascists.

SD     But there’s a difference isn’t there between people who believe in Islamism and those people who want to pursue Islamism with violent means.

MN     Of course there’s a difference which is why I was quoted by the former Prime Minister in parliament as opposing banning non-violent Islamists. My name was quoted, it’s there on Hansard, because we’ve opposed banning Hizb ut-Tahrir and anyone else in terms of non-violent Islamist groups. However…

SD      [HT] an organisation of which you were a member?

MN     I used to belong to for 13 years. What that does not mean however is like again we would oppose banning the BNP but just because we oppose banning them because they are not violent it does not mean that taxpayers’ money should be used to subsidise their existence and promote them as Muslim spokespeople. There’s the difference, the civic challenge must exist with non-violent extremist organisations.

SD     Jonathan what do you make of what Quilliam did?

JGM     Well I think there’s something slightly disingenuous in Quilliam. The real thing is that they [QF] posit a specific line because it’s a business, it’s how they put money on their table, so to that extent they go which way the political wind blows. They have to justify putting down all kinds of other organisations, ’cause it’s the only way they justify existing themselves.

SD     That’s quite an accusation.

MN     Indeed, that’s quite an accusation, I’m surprised Jonathan’s saying that especially because the centre he works at [EMRC] is actually funded by some of the organisations that we’ve named, who do have serious Islamism problems. However, I don’t want to get into a tit for tat about funding because I think Jonathan would be aware of the fact that since our inception two and a half years ago we’ve been arguing the very same line through the Labour government and now through the Coalition government, it’s got absolutely nothing to do with…

SD     But you do try to paint yourself as an independent think tank when you are pursuing government funding.

MN     Part of our funding, in fact a large part comes from Government. However, we are also funded by private foundations and individuals and we began being 100% privately funded and that funding that we got from a certain Kuwaiti foundation was cut when we criticised suicide bombings inside Israel. So we then began to change our funding sources due to that and we were forced to go to public grants as well.

SD     Why would it be wrong Jonathan for a group which is painting itself as counter-radicalisation, counter-extremism to get government funding and as a result of that influence government thinking on these issues.

JGM     But see for me it’s not about funding and it doesn’t shock me that Maajid really goes down that line. One of the things that happens is that you have a [brief interference with signal]  …it’s a very political point of view, they base their whole opinions not on research but on what they feel. Now the point is it’s not that they don’t have the don’t have the right to say it, it’s not that it’s not an important voice, but the point is that’s a very political voice, it’s not evidence based, there’s no research to support it. And I’ll give a great example. What you get from the Quilliam Foundation many times is this line that not all extremists are terrorists but all terrorists are extremists and therefore extremism causes terrorism. This is a logically false argument. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work scientifically and it doesn’t work academically. It works industrially, it works as a great spin in order to try and get money and in order to influence political agendas. But the fact is that doesn’t lead to evidence based policy. Now this is the problem, when they produce these documents, they go to government and say you should work with someone and you shouldn’t work with the other, there’s no evidence base for this, this is all opinion, it’s not scientific.

SD     It’s a fair point isn’t Maajid? You do need evidence based policy, surely. I mean some of the accusations that have been levelled at other Muslim groups in the country is that they’re unrepresentative, I mean couldn’t that be pointed at the Quilliam organisation as well?

MN     Absolutely it could and we’re not representative, we’re a think-tank it’s not our job to represent people it’s our job to device policy and think out of the box and that would be an accurate accusation to make we don’t claim to be representative and I’d like…

JGM     But then how you can you Maajib justify…

MN     Excuse me I didn’t interrupt you Jonathan let me finish please, let me say it’s not about funding, please don’t make funding as your first point that you raise live on television.

JGM    Well you shouldn’t introduce it Maajid.

MN     Now as for the specific allegation of not having research that’s evidence based I would concede that there’s no 100% solid evidence that links non-violent extremism to terrorism. But then I would also ask others who make that point to concede that you can’t apply the process in reverse. Then don’t use extremists to think you can take terrorists and take them away from violence.

JGM     So how was it you can justify this secret advice…

SD      Let Jonathan come back on this.

JGM     I don’t understand then what gives Maajid, what makes Quilliam think that they have this right then to dictate to government who they should and shouldn’t work with. I mean it’s absolutely outrageous.

MN     Well, if I had the power to dictate to government I’d be a lot more powerful than having to debate with you on Sky Jonathan.

JGM     One of the organisations named in the secret [QF] document is the North London Central Mosque [NLCM].

MN      Yes.

JGM     On the grounds that somehow it’s a hotbed of radicalisation. Actually what you had in the re-founding of Finsbury Park Mosque [NLCM] – and I was at the fifth year anniversary event – is a complete success story. Now this success story is always ignored by Quilliam in pursuit of funding and political points, and to that extent they constantly go where the wind blows.

MN     OK so coming back to … I don’t know which accusation to begin with … the North London Mosque [NLCM] has recently been accused in parliament by one of its former trustees Khalid Mahmood MP as having hosted Abdulmutallab the Christmas day bomber and Anwar al-Awlaki the Al Qaeda theoretician. Some of the other organisations we listed on the list that Jonathan’s so crazy about, the Cordoba Foundation, they in Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall, hosted the Al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. The Muslim Safety Forum, its trustee Azad Ali has declared on television that he does not believe in democracy, he happens to be a civil servant as well and so I think there is a serious problem with these organisations. Now…

SD     Let me just put one final point on the back of that then to Jonathan. You talk about evidence based policy in all of this Jonathan but Quilliam Foundation, both directors are former Islamists, they’ve turned their back on that particular ideology, doesn’t that experience count for something when trying to tackle these problems?

JGM     Of course, and their voice needs to be heard.  I would never argue that in a democracy that that voice [QF] shouldn’t be heard. But let me tell you it’s not academic and it’s not scientific. If I went and said I’m going to base all my experiences of dealing with car mechanics and of only go to one auto mechanic – that was good or was bad – and then said that [experience] applies to all auto mechanics, that can’t be right. What you have are two people [MN and Ed Husain] that have very important, interesting experiences, but it’s not scientific proof, it’s not causal logic. In fact it’s not logical at all the kind of arguments that they’re putting forward in that way.

SD     Gents I’m afraid that we’re going to have to leave you to agree to disagree on that this morning. Hopefully we’ll revisit that sometime soon. Maajid Nawaz, Jonathan Githens-Mazer, thank you both.