In this two-part series on the role of Islamic scholars in the countering-violent extremism agenda, Quratulayn Haamidah questions the independence of the government-backed Imams Online initiative.
During the 1980s, tobacco companies were found to be encouraging a culture war in Muslim countries. According to an internal memo of the British American Tobacco company (BAT), Islam itself and its compatibility with the modern world was questioned.
BAT even sought to reinterpret Islam by identifying “scholars” who could be used as the “authoritative” face of their propaganda war. It is important to note that the cause of this broad strategy was because of the mainstream Islamic position on smoking. Islam was considered a threat to projected profits and therefore required a “reform”.
Unearthing destructive underlying agendas that are suddenly setting the discursive framework, and then driving Muslim community conversations within swish venues fronted by interesting characters and companies is thus imperative. History has a tendency to repeat the mechanics and devices of controlling discussions and communities.
The dawn of Prevent
In the early days of Prevent, many of the “discussions” taking place about “violent extremism” were coordinated by government-funded “moderate Muslim” organisations under the subtext of countering terrorism.
In the grand scheme of things, the strategy was obvious; pit various Muslim groups against each other (moderates versus fundamentalists, Salafis versus Sufis etc) as per the now infamous RAND document on “democratising Islam” (recently highlighted by Professor Jonathan AC Brown on this very topic) and allow what we know today as “reformist” Muslims to emerge.
A number of organisations have since been exposed as being funded by Prevent, making it difficult for government propaganda to be forced into Muslim communities through seemingly “independent” fronts. However, the strategy has changed very little.
Faith Associates and Imams Online
Faith Associates and it’s Imams Online initiative recently organised a summit in conjunction with Google where the topic of “extremism” among other connected issues were “robustly debated” during panel discussions.
It was a rough start for the event. With the publicity of the summit out on social media networks, there was a collective concern over the names being associated with the Google/Faith Associates/Imams Online Digital Summit. Within days, prominent scholars like Mufti Abdur-Rahman Mangera, Shaykh Omar Suleiman, and Shaykh Imtiaz Damial pulled out.
On the 3rd of January 2017, Imams Online issued a statement which created a straw-man before proceeding to refute it. It asserted that that the event had “not received any funding from Prevent”, and was “supported in kind by Google”. Imams Online followed this statement up with a Tweet, sharing a Facebook post by a Liverpool-based Muslim chaplain – Adam Kelwick – who was scheduled to contribute to the summit. Kelwick repeated the same point on Prevent funding, adding that he believed it was counterproductive to not attend, given that one of Prevent’s criticism is that it is not a “grassroots response”.
He further stated that he would still attend even if it was funded by Prevent, placing him in a particularly precarious position of contradicting himself; if it was Prevent-funded, it would be intrinsically fulfilling the objectives of Prevent and not be a grassroots response.
Nevertheless, this was followed by two detailed responses, one by a well-known Muslim blogger, and the other by advocacy group CAGE’s Asim Qureshi. In summary, both cogently demonstrated how Google co-opted the countering violent extremism (CVE) agenda, and its British variant – Prevent – had been formed and shaped by neo-conservatives as a “soft” or “cold” aspect of the of the War on Terror, and was based on discredited and unworkable “pre-crime” science that focussed on communities, while absolving the government from political scrutiny.
To his credit, Imam Kelwick’s response on 4th of January accepted that he had “no idea about some of the technicalities, concepts, bodies and other details” mentioned in Qureshi’s post. A week later, Imam Kelwick reportedly went on to tell the Middle East Eye that the Summit’s association with the Prevent strategy was based on “conspiracy theories”.
There are many reasons why Faith Associates, Imams Online and Imam Kelwick’s responses were repeatedly way off the mark.
Firstly, Prevent is the UK “brand” of the countering violent extremism policies operating in the US and Australia. In other words, many of the criticisms, such as forging a state-sponsored Islam through combined calls for reformation and the need to fight “extremism”, the academically baseless concept of trying to predict “terrorism”, and the discriminatory targeting of the Muslim community, afflicts CVE too.
Organisations promoting the concept, even if they are not “funded” are therefore tainted, and of concern. Significantly, Faith Associates and Imams Online have been involved in international CVE conferences facilitated by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think-tank linked to the Quilliam Foundation (which we’ll discuss in the second part of this article).
Secondly, any claims of “engagement”, no matter how “robust”, and how critical of Prevent are futile and meaningless given they are already occurring within the discredited predetermined CVE agenda.
Over a decade ago, many discursive “engagements” were arranged for Muslims with “moderate” groups like the “Sufi Muslim Council” and the Prevent project “Radical Middle Way”. Yet, here we are in 2017, with Muslim children being taken away from their parents on the basis of a specious strategy. The problem, as highlighted in the responses to Imam Kelwick, is the entire pre-crime approach.
Targeting “extremist” mosques using Prevent funding
Faith Associates/Imams Online deflected the uncomfortable Prevent-connection by stating that the event was not funded by Prevent, but it was “supported” by Google. However, on the day this statement was issued, the Home Office’s “Prevent Strategy – Local Delivery Best Practice Catalogue” was leaked. Named within the catalogue was Faith Associates, which had received a sum of up to £43,000 for “mosque engagement and capacity building”.
As part of this “capacity building”, Faith Associates had arguably implemented Prevent for the government in mosques by also enabling “mosque leadership to become more resilient to the threat to extremists”.
The aim of increasing resiliency against “extremist threats” is a reference to the implementation of Prevent concepts within governance structures.
Faith Associates appear to have slipped in Prevent under the guise of helping mosques and Imams with management, seemingly winning their trust for the Imams Online initiative, whilst bringing Imams seemingly “in line” with Prevent.
The implication of this is that the Prevent framework is already in place for the highly likely regulation of madrassa curriculums in order to conform to “British values”, and the violation of the sacred trust relationship between Imams and teachers, and their congregants and students. Imams, mosque and madrassa staff will in effect become part of the “soft” counter-terrorism policy, which will result in them having to report “suspicious” or “extremist” activities.
Those “Barelvi” and “Deobandi” mosques that have been aided by Faith Associates should also be aware that according to the catalogue, the targets for these projects were “mosques identified as vulnerable to extremism”. Are the mosques and Imams aware that they have been categorised as potential “extremists” on the pathway to terrorism and thus targeted? More importantly, did Shaukat Warraich – chief executive of Faith Associates – make this clear when he “engaged” mosques and madrassas?
While the Google Summit may not have been funded directly by Prevent, the fact remains that the event’s organiser is a recipient and promoter of Prevent. Indeed, this remains the real conspiracy.
In the next part, we will discuss the role of Islamic scholars in the countering violent extremism agenda.
Quratulayn is a student of knowledge in the Hanafi school of law. She has studied law, works professionally and takes a keen interest in Muslim public affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of 5Pillars.