The coming together of Quilliam and the English Defense League leadership duo has drawn skepticism, anger and concern from all ends of the political and religious spectrum. A reaction that has at times stemmed as much from doubts about Quilliam as it has the EDL. My own knowledge of Quilliam has been limited to some background on co founders Ed Hussain (via reading ‘The Islamist’ – which I liked) and Maajid Nawaz (mainly through a certain debate with Anjum Choudary on Newnight). The organisation itself has remained a little mysterious.
Much better known to me is the EDL, who I have followed fairly closely since they first arrived on the scene. Putting aside for one minute the distortions by which the EDL have attributed Islam, and by that simply being Muslim, as the direct and sole influence on social issues such as grooming, and numerous other positions I and many others have deep issues with, it is the animosity, hatred and violence with which their nationalism is expressed that is most immediately problematic. This can be compared to the many Muslims and Muslim groups who are engaged peacefully in community life and across communities, but may hold values and world views that are in opposition to the values of many Muslims and non-Muslims alike. These groups may be called upon to renounce their deeper theological values, or specifics of them, or have their civic inclusion left open to question.
I personally value the manner with which commitment is shown by such groups to peaceful community engagement, and indeed value them as people, despite conflicts I may have with particular value positions and beliefs. In turn, for a long time I have been in discussions with colleagues on the need to create opportunities for dialogue with those who might affiliate with the EDL – that is conversations away from the animosity and tribal atmosphere of demonstrations. Part of the benefit of this would be inherent in a process that demands the willingness of participants to engage and to converse in an alternative way – to be heard but also to listen. Such a commitment is something I feel is a valid and positive position in and of itself and one which allows me to converse, as I would with a range of political or religious thinking, on both the shared and oppositional opinions people may hold. For this reason I welcomed the conversation and subsequent collaboration struck up between Quilliam, Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll as a positive and progressive step forward. However the documentary ‘When Tommy met Mo’ brought up doubts about the way this conversation is being framed and managed, not least because the programme demonstrated so much good dialogue, in broad circles and with a range of individuals, that preceded the collaboration, but seemed to be cut short once it took place.
The documentary exemplified some major contradictions in approach. The deeper value positions of Mo Ansar were found to be unacceptible to Quilliam, leaving him, by the end of the programme, excluded from the process and potential for further dialogue. Yet the previous dialogue was one in which he was arguably instrumental in helping Tommy shift his thinking. This was not through his particular persuasion but simply by his being one part of a broad discussion which offered a variety of viewpoints. It is this kind of process that can de-essentialise ‘communities’ and help people – as I believe Tommy Robinson to some extent genuinely did – move away from an ‘us and them’ perspective.
It sometime feels as if Mo Ansar attempts to underplay his deeper value disagreements for want of presenting an entirely harmonious representation (representation, values and disagreement demands another conversation). By doing so he leaves himself open to being ‘found out’, as the corporal punishment discussion with Maajid Nawaz appeared to do (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5ZqX4AFaPQ). However if he didn’t underplay these differences – as many don’t – it seems he would still have been deemed unacceptable as a participant in the Quilliam process. Despite this, as some commentators have pointed out, a process reformed Tommy Robinson, but only partially value reformed – continued vilification of Muslims per se and failure to understand his personal role in generating broad-stroke hatred – is accepted into the Quilliam family. This raises the question; If Quilliam are unwilling to work with Muslims with whom their deeper values and beliefs differ, even where they seek peaceful dialogue, does this mean they don’t hold major issue with the current values espoused by Carroll and Robinson? This matters because it reflects on the possibilities for further shifts in positions in what should be the beginning, not the end of a conversation. They may hope to persuade the former EDL leadership into changing their positions, but rather than persuasion, it seemed more like it was the conversations not aimed directly at Tommy but rather observed by him, that had the most impact.
Dialogue can work along side the good will of people to help us speak to each other about differences while continuing to work together in other ways. This values the manner in which people engage and interact while not underplaying the importance of being able to address our deeper disagreements. While I think I am in line with Quilliam’s political position, I’m not sure I share their ideas about what matters in valuing the contribution people can make to process.
As always none of this leaves us with a simple formula. Where we the draw line around tolerating viewpoints and ethics we disagree with, the connections between belief and action and the precise meaning those viewpoints hold politically – especially within a theological context – all pose complex challenges. Yet the divisions of belief and values into extremist and moderate binaries, and exclusion of people on this basis, certainly don’t help us unpack these complexities. An open minded approach to dialogue can help us begin to open up conversations to complexities which, as we could see in the limited but significant transformations of Tommy Robinson, can make a difference. The concern for me now as far as my interest in dialogue is concerned and in relation to what happens next, is will there be any further dialogue of this kind at all?