A Muslim Think Tank to Counter Extremism
How can Islamist extremism be undermined? This question is currently preoccupying security officials throughout Europe. The fear of renewed attacks, as experienced in Madrid and London in recent years, is great.
In the UK alone, the internal intelligence agency MI5 has around 2,000 individuals in its sights allegedly prepared to carry out terrorist attacks on British soil. And two dozen Islamist extremists are said to have travelled from Germany to Pakistan where they are being prepared for the Jihad by al-Qaeda organizations.
New directions in dealing with Islamists
How should we challenge Islamist extremism in Europe ideologically? Ideally with Islamists who have either abandoned extremism or speak out clearly against the Jihad: this is certainly the conclusion many security authorities have come to. Here too the UK is playing a leading role.
Thus in May the so-called Quilliam Foundation was established: an anti-Islamist think tank, created by former members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned a few years ago in Germany for stirring up anti-Semitic hatred.
Maajid Nawaz, one of the Quilliam Foundation's founder members, left Hizb ut-Tahrir because he saw no future for an organisation which failed to allow for conflicting views. He is now an advocate of secular, democratic states.
Pioneer in the "war of ideas"
The Quilliam Foundation aims – and its founders' intellectual acumen should guarantee it – to be a pioneer in the so-called "war of ideas".
This is a term which now seems hackneyed, but serves however to illustrate what is at stake and why the Quilliam Foundation will certainly be more successful than institutions set up with US money to convince Muslims of the United States' purported altruism (such as the Arabic language TV station al-Hurra).
The US concept of the "war of ideas" was flawed from the start. PR strategists at the Pentagon seriously wanted us to believe that this "war" was solely about the perception of Muslims, rather than the reality. US Middle-East policy was said to be fair and balanced, it just had to be presented better and then the anger felt by Muslims, especially Arabs, would vanish in a puff of smoke.
Any halfway neutral observer must admit that for forty years US policy towards the Middle East has been biased towards Israel – which many Germans can understand – and that this has reached its climax under president George W. Bush.
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein was not an act of charity either, and the resulting chaos and daily terror has touched many Muslims, driving some to extremism.
Humiliation and discrimination
Maajid Nawaz knows this feeling of powerlessness. As a teenager he experienced racism at first hand. He had white friends who were stabbed by far-right vigilantes simply because they were involved with a "paki".
But it was the war in Bosnia, with the massacre of thousands of Muslim women and children which finally drove Maajid Nawaz to Islamism. In the Hizb ut-Tahrir he learnt to see himself as a as a first-class Muslim rather than a second-class British citizen, as a member of a world-wide community, all suffering from the cruelty of the malicious West, but with God on their side, prepared to defend themselves and certain to win in the end.
Ed Husain's withdrawal from radical Islam
Asked what he found so attractive about the extreme form of Islam, Ed Husain, the other intellectual force behind the Quilliam Foundation, replied with six adjectives: elite, exclusive, stimulating, contradictory, authoritative and confrontational.
Today Ed Husain attacks Hizb ut-Tahrir for its global conspiracy theories, which allow no grey tones, acknowledging only good and evil. Yes it is true, he says, that western Middle East policies have contributed to radicalization, as has the constant, visible discrimination of citizens with darker skin.
But if neither of these problems existed, the Islamist rat catchers would look for other subjects around which to stir up young Muslims. He believes that as long as Muslims such as himself do not acknowledge that they have a serious problem with extremism, they can do nothing against it.
On the Quilliam Foundation website is an audio file of a debate between Ed Husain and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. They agree on many things, both for instance calling for more self-criticism from Muslims. On one point, however they disagree fundamentally: in their attitude to Islam.
Polarization instead of self-criticism
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has abandoned her faith and now attacks it forcefully, unafraid to risk causing insult. She is fully entitled to do this, but because of it, she only reaches a white audience, who see their aversion to Islam confirmed.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is touching a deep wound which many practising Muslims carry around with them: what does it feel like to hear people say every day that your religion is reactionary, violent and repulsive? Many people in Europe now seem to see Islam simply as a disease and Muslims therefore as patients who need to be cured.
This is humiliating and it is why Ayaan Hirsi Ali is part of the problem; she is will never spark self-critical debates among Muslims, simply provoking defensive reactions.
Ed Husain is different. Asked why Islam seems so resilient in times of godlessness, he states that he finds spiritual comfort when he hears lines from the Koran and feels warmth in the presence of Muslim clerics.
In a secular country which fails to set examples and has no sense of truth, Islam provides most believers with peace of mind and offers them moral orientation, he says: Islam is an experience, a taste, a scent.
This is not only an invitation to all Islamists to re-think their rule-fixated faith; it is also an invitation to all non-Muslims to recognize the spiritual power of Islam which they may never themselves be able to feel.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Steph Morris