The Quilliam Foundation has closed but its toxic legacy remains

For 13 years, the organisation promoted policies that were harmful to the British Muslim community.

Pannelists T.J. Leyden, Usama Hasan, Melvyn Haward Jr., Maajid Nawaz, Susan Cruz, Paul Carrillo and moderator Jared Cohen speak at the Youth Radicalization Redefined during the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theater on April 29, 2011 in New York City [File: Jason Kempin/Getty Images/AFP]

The news that the Quilliam Foundation, a so-called counter-extremism think-tank, has closed, was welcomed by many – particularly by Muslims who have long been targets of the harmful practices of the organisation. On April 9, one of its founders, Maajid Nawaz, announced on Twitter that the decision was made due to the “hardship of maintaining a non-profit during Covid lockdowns”.

Although the foundation had experienced financial difficulties over the past few years, there has been some speculation that Nawaz’s flirtations with Q-Anon conspiracy theories about the US elections and the electoral defeat of Donald Trump may have contributed to internal splits and the decision to close down.

Despite the relief many of us feel, the foundation leaves behind a toxic legacy, which will continue to harm the Muslim community in the United Kingdom and beyond.

The organisation was founded in 2008 by self-proclaimed ex-extremists and former members of the reactionary organisation Hizb ut-Tahirir (HT), Nawaz and Ed Husain. Named after Abdullah Quilliam, it received funding from the Home Office and purported to combat radicalisation in the wake of the 7/7 attacks in London.

Instead, for 13 years Quilliam reinforced the idea that Muslims are a suspect community and supported the draconian “counter-terrorism” policies being pushed by the government. Its members peddled the unevidenced logic that to fight terrorism, the state had to identify and undermine extremist ideologies, which would lead to terrorist actions.

This logic gave birth to the British government’s obsession with so-called “non-violent extremism”. This conveyor belt theory became the bedrock of anti-radicalisation policies and served to normalise the criminalisation of thought rather than actions, and therefore the targeting of individuals who had not committed any crimes but were imagined to be at risk of committing unlawful acts in the future.

In the time that Quilliam was active, the counter-extremism apparatus in the UK grew more aggressive and pervasive by infiltrating every area of public and even private life, with public sector workers being drafted in to help spot these ill-defined signs of radicalisation. This process was cheered on energetically by the foundation.

In addition, it stoked up considerable hate towards Muslims and racialised communities in Britain. For example, when following the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rochdale and other cities, Quilliam published a report claiming that 84 percent of “grooming gang offenders” were Asian. This was later debunked by the Home Office’s own report that confirmed research has found that group-based offenders “are most commonly White”.

Unfortunately, much of the damage had already been done. As Dr Ella Cockbain, a researcher on child exploitation, pointed out in her criticism of the report by Quilliam, “the more ‘grooming gangs’ are seen as a Muslim problem, the more a ‘counter-extremism’ think-tank stands to gain.”

Quilliam was not only confident in making statements and publishing “findings” which were not backed up by data, but it was also ruthless in making sure it held the attention of the government and international arena when it came to Muslims and counter-extremism.

The foundation, in assuming the role of protectors of democracy, attempted to tarnish a whole spectrum of Muslim groups and collectives as being aligned with terrorist ideology. In fact, it supplied the Home Office with a “blacklist” which included the Islam TV channel, Muslim Safety Forum and the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

As a result of these activities, the reputation of the foundation within Muslim communities was quite low; many approached its work with distrust. Had its members sought to undertake de-radicalisation work among British Muslims, it is highly doubtful that they would have gotten anywhere. This, however, was clearly never the intention.

Quilliam’s PR stunt with English Defence League (EDL) founder, Tommy Robinson, is one striking example of how little its members cared about or considered Muslims. In 2013, the foundation announced that it had worked with the far-right leader to help him leave the EDL and his anti-Muslim activism; it even held a high-profile official press conference on the occasion.

Robinson, who had spent years mobilising people against Muslim communities, targeting their mosques, and using them as scapegoats for every imaginable social, political and economic problem, announced he would start working with Quilliam. Just two years later, however, he established the UK branch of the German anti-Muslim, anti-migrant far-right group, PEGIDA.

This was not the only deeply problematic association Quilliam had. Among its funders, there were quite a few Islamophobic entities and figures. In 2012, for example, the foundation received $75,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which often funds so-called counter-jihad organisations including the anti-Muslim hate group the David Horowitz Freedom Centre.

It also won a grant of over $1,000,000 from the John Templeton Foundation, a conservative organisation with links to the Tea Party in the US and reactionary Christian groups. Its former head, Jack Templeton, had funded groups opposing same-sex marriage and defending the war in Iraq.

Another of Quilliam’s donors was “New Atheist” figure Sam Harris, who supports the use of torture and has encouraged the profiling of Muslims in his call for a “war with Islam”.

While Quilliam’s deplorable work towards the institutionalisation of Islamophobia and the destruction of civil liberties may be over, the damage that it has done will continue to be felt. It is enshrined in our counter-extremism policies, in the rhetoric of our politicians, and the far-right thugs that they have empowered as well as legitimised through their work.

As Dr Rizwaan Sabir, a lecturer in criminology who specialises in counter-terrorism at Liverpool John Moores University, told me recently, Quilliam’s impact “should not be taken lightly, since they, especially some key individuals from the organisation, had access to high-ranking policymakers, politicians, and civil servants and were therefore able to influence their ideas around security policy as well as the way they viewed Muslim organisations”.

Quilliam’s groundwork continues to bear fruit through state-led counter-extremism practices, like the Prevent programme, which profiles and criminalises Muslims. Threats to our civil liberties continue to worsen as the government pushes through more and more repressive policies, from the Coronavirus Act being extended, to the introduction of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill attempting to hinder our right to protest. All of this falls into the remit of state securitisation that was so strongly supported by Quilliam.

The work of normalising and pushing forward the government’s narrative has been done and it no longer requires Nawaz and his ilk to help in the process. In addition, there are still other neo-conservative think-tanks, like the Henry Jackson Society, which will carry forward their legacy.

Our focus must now be on completely dismantling the counter-extremism apparatus which continues to be used to erode our civil liberties, defending our freedoms and fighting Islamophobia. Quilliam faced years of opposition and critique from a broad coalition of trade unions, students, teachers, healthcare professionals, anti-racist activists and politicians who all opposed the Prevent strategy.

It is this broad network that must be reinforced and mobilised. As Islamophobic laws are passed with increasing speed across the continent, such mobilisation is urgently needed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.