By Ayesha Siddiqa
3 Oct 2009
A FEW months ago, I met a three-member team from a UK-based think tank called Quilliam. Based in London, the organisation claims to be the first counter-terrorism think tank in the world.
It was started by two young Muslims, Ed Hussain and Maajid Nawaz, who were formerly part of the Islamist organisation Hizbut Tahrir (HT). They are now dedicated to weaning Muslim youth away from global jihad and towards peace.
It was interesting listening to Maajid Nawaz who had come to Pakistan to talk about his experience as a member of HT. He said he used to visit Pakistan to recruit people in the military and in government for the global jihad. It was during a period of incarceration that Nawaz said he saw the light and decided to wean people away from jihad.
Luckily for the two men, the British government was able to provide funding to set up Quilliam. Now they both go around the world with a missionary zeal to spread another kind of message. Their aim is also to bridge the gap between the Muslim world and the West.
The Quilliam team’s trip to Pakistan was aimed at visiting universities where Maajid Nawaz spoke to students about how he was wrong in supporting global jihad. Earlier, the organisation had funded a conference of the vice-chancellors of various Pakistani universities to convince them of the project that Nawaz later undertook.
The organisation is certainly an interesting idea. But it might not take off in the Muslim world because of its inherent shortcomings. To start with, the think tank has no input from within the Muslim world, which makes it a foreign concept. The problem is that a foreign idea tends to attract negative attention. Quilliam seems to represent the foreign frustration at the lack of an alternative discourse in the Muslim world. It has tried to start the discourse by providing these former HT members with a forum.
However, the lack of real contacts inside the Muslim world turns this into a venture without depth. For instance, in their eagerness to establish contacts and work amongst the youth, Quilliam has partnered organisations in Pakistan with little or no credibility. Another noticeable flaw is that since it is unable to get respectable names from the Muslim world on board, the organisation will not be able to achieve much to please its donors. Besides the two names mentioned earlier, there is no significant name on Quilliam’s team that would generate positive attention.
It would be foolhardy to pretend that there is no scope of an alternative debate of ideas in the Muslim world or people are not capable of doing that. Quilliam could, in fact, build itself as a neutral forum to develop ideas across the Muslim world or even between the Muslim world and the West. Surely, a well-funded organisation can make better use of its resources than just telling the HT story.
At a conceptual level there are two issues worth considering. First, an alternative discourse to curb violence will have to see that rebellion within the Muslim world is partly (if not entirely) driven by a post-colonial discourse, especially where the Muslim population is faced with brutality and is struggling for survival.
People in such places cannot be dissuaded from fighting militarily until and unless there is also a new discourse on the other side regarding the solution of the problem. More importantly, in many places the post-colonial discourse dovetails into an anti-imperialist debate. The problem is that religion becomes a tool that people don’t want to abandon because of the absence of an alternative ideology or set of ideas.
Second, it goes without saying that there is a real need for a new discourse within the Muslim world on numerous issues starting from the concept of the state, war and peace to social norms and economic life. Historically, the Muslim world was progressive due to the independence of academic institutions when it came to arriving at new concepts. Even in the recent past institutions like Al Azhar in Egypt were to be taken note of for encouraging new ideas.
However, it is also a fact that the formulation of ideas in the Muslim world has stopped or taken a peculiar direction as far as political thought is concerned. The bulk of the interpretation of religious texts has been driven by the post-colonial ethos of societies and thinkers.
At this juncture, there is an urgent need in the Muslim world to think anew about a lot of issues, not to appease the West, but to contribute to the internal political discourse. Issues such as the link between religion and politics in an Islamic state or war and conflict involving a Muslim state, or the position of non-Muslims in an Islamic state are matters which require a rethink.
It is not that finding a new direction is not possible. For instance, there have been Muslim scholars in the past such as Abd Al-Razik at Al Azhar who came up with revolutionary ideas regarding the political character of a Muslim state, especially in the context of the link between religion and politics. Though his ideas in the 1930s were not pursued as they were considered too revolutionary, there are newer thinkers who have contributed fresh input to the concept of an Islamic state.
It is unfortunate that most of this discussion is taking place outside the Muslim world by Muslim scholars. It needs to be brought into and made part of the mainstream. Perhaps organisations such as Quilliam could become a forum for the exchange of ideas, rather than just doing what many might regard as a foreign conspiracy. But then, one is also forced to wonder why, despite the riches of the Muslim world, we are unable to create a forum that would allow Muslims to talk amongst themselves and voice new ideas.
Of course Muslim states in the Middle East and the Gulf fund research initiatives at foreign universities such as the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. However, it is important to bring new ideas and discussion to the heart of the Muslim world if a change is to be brought about or if the social and political development of Muslims is the goal. Until new ideas are generated and discussed, Muslims can hardly hope to flourish or progress.
- The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst. firstname.lastname@example.org