Asim Qureshi, of the advocacy group CAGE, writes an open letter to Imams Online declining an invitation to appear at an upcoming conference organised by the group which was recently exposed as having received Prevent funding.
The Imams Online Digital Summit in partnership with Google will take place at Google HQ in London on the 11th January 2017.
Speakers include Shaykh Imtiyaz Damiel of the Abu Hanifah Foundation, Mufti Abdur Rahman Mangera of the Rayyan Institute, journalist Remona Aly, Dr Bilal Hassam of British Muslim TV, Imam Qari Muhammad Asim of Leeds Makkah Mosque, Nick Pickles of Twitter UK, Karim Palant of Facebook, Naomi Gummer of Google UK, Shaukat Warraich of Faith Associates, Dr Shiraz Maher, Matt Collins, Director – Prevent Delivery Unit, Akeela Ahmed, Advisor Cross Government Working Group on Anti-Muslim Hatred, Professor Tahir Abbas, Senior Research Fellow – RUSI, Imam Adam Kelwick and Ustadha Khola Hasan.
The following is an abridged version of a letter to one of the organisers that Asim Qureshi published on his Facebook page:
Dear brother Adam Kelwick,
Jazakallahkhayr for your invitation to join you at the Imams Online Digital Summit at the Google HQ in London. I appreciate you trying to engage with those who take a principled stance, conceptually and practically, against Prevent. My colleague Moazzam Begg met you in the past and mentioned how supportive you were of our work – barakallahfeek…
It is important to acknowledge from the beginning, that CAGE is unwilling to lend support to policies that harm the civil liberties or human rights of a single individual – not matter how distasteful the person may be. This is how rights work: they are either for all, or for none.
Our principled stance against Prevent is not simply situated in our current critique of its ‘science’ and modalities – but rather it comes from learning about the joint experiences of our forebears. When we speak to colleagues who fought for black civil rights in America, they warn us that Prevent/CVE sounds exactly like the US government’s COINTELPRO programme (please read Arun Kundnani’s book ‘The Muslims are Coming’). Our colleagues in South Africa are constantly making their own links between Prevent/CVE and Apartheid – they say that everything that we are seeing in the UK was done to them. The list of historical violations goes on. We find ourselves standing up for a cause that many stood up for previously, and like them, we do not take the excessive castigation of the state or the media as a sign that we are losing the argument – rather it is a sign of their weakness that they only ever rely on ad hominem attacks, rather than engaging directly with the concerns we raise.
Dear brother Adam – please understand that the issue with Prevent is not just about a few bad cases here and there, it is about the entire structure from its epistemology to its implementation. Experts from around the world (all of whom are involved in social justice movements with no links to the security industry) tell us that Prevent is wrong in its science. As someone with a legal background myself, the notion that you can have a statutory superstructure that is implemented to operate in a pre-crime space by making public sector workers and the charity sector into the eyes and ears of the state is beyond wrong. You know full well how this becomes a mandate for everyday bigotry to manifest itself on a nationwide level. The government tells us that in 2015, 4000 referrals were made to Channel, 2000 of whom were Muslim – an indicator for them that the policy is evenhanded. Let us be real: that is 2000 out of 3 million Muslims, as opposed to 2000 out of 57 million non-Muslims. A simple calculation will tell us that it means a Muslim is 20 times more likely to be referred to Channel for deradicalisation than a non-Muslim. The degree of policy, legislation and securitisation is completely disproportionate to the threat.
I understand that you have concerns with Prevent, and I very much appreciate you expressing them publicly. I think the two points you made in your Facebook post are well made and need to be teased out further. However, going back to who we as communities choose to work with, it does remain surprising that you would still choose to associate with the event at Google.
Google is not some evil entity set out to systematically harm Muslims and Islam, but when we consider who it works with on the issue of CVE, its perspective becomes all too transparent for communities. They are not simply a neutral venue devoid of politics, but rather have thrown in their lot with a specific narrative of counter-terrorism – one rooted in the epistemology of Prevent/CVE. The issue of whether the event is funded by Prevent becomes meaningless, as in this case if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
Google Ideas, recently re-named “Jigsaw”, and the Google Next Foundation have partnered in the past with the Quilliam Foundation (in particular Maajid Nawaz), and supported their work to formulate their own CVE programme known as “Against Violent Extremism” (AVE). AVE is managed by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). Aside from ISD’s worrying links to prominent US neo-conservatives linked to what the Center for American Progress calls the “Islamophobia Network”, senior members of ISD who specifically work on Prevent/CVE issues have come from the Quilliam Foundation (Erin Saltman and Rashad Ali). In the case of Rashad Ali, he has worked for the Henry Jackson Society in the past. The programmes that they have worked on together enunciate Prevent-speak completely, and so they are not neutral voices in this field, but rather regurgitate that there is a significant threat, a narrative that is fear-based and hearkens to a security state.
This is not about non-engagement with the government. CAGE has engaged in multiple forums with them on many occasions, and will continue to seek to do so. This is about how we engage with the politics of those with whom we would not normally partner, such as neo-conservative think tanks. It is worrying that with everything social justice movements have been through, some Muslims still feel it is appropriate to do so. It is perhaps more disconcerting that Ulama would choose to work with such organisations and programmes once neo-conservative links and connections have surfaced.
From what you have mentioned in your post on FaceBook, I think it is genuinely incredible that you are looking to challenge media misrepresentations of Muslims, but make little mention of how this is often led by government narratives on ‘extremism’ such as David Cameron’s Munich speech promoting “muscular liberalism” as a panacea to problems within Muslim communities…
The Imams Online event ultimately does not provide a neutral platform for debate and discussion. A number of those who are involved have some link to Prevent/CVE, or the national security structure of the UK. For that reason, I will refuse your invitation to attend. The people in the room are for the most part not policy makers, they are individuals and organisations who are playing a role in furthering the notion of pre-crime prevention within the parameters of a discredited framework, a position that we find to be wholly unconscionable.
When Imams Online was launched, a number of scholars reached out to me concerned at the response to a question by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. When asked about the sources of funding for the organisation, he mentioned – and this is paraphrased – that government funding should not mean that there are issues with the project. It is important to acknowledge that this is a problem – whether it is Faith Associates or Imams Online – as communities seeking to engage with those speaking in their name, need to know that, as a matter of perception and fact, there are no conflicts of interest. Shaykh Hamza’s unwise words at the recent RIS conference are indicative of how when our scholars speak on matters from a perspective that does not take into account victim/survivor communities, the damage can be great.
Dialogue is not an issue for us at CAGE – we know it is necessary – especially when speaking to our own community. We would welcome sitting with you to discuss what meaningful conference might look like, but cannot engage where the terms of reference are based on the structural and epistemic violence of the state. Hence why the IO conference is not one where simply asking a question or challenging from the floor will produce any real dialogue.
I urge us, as a community, to listen to the voices of the disenfranchised. To seek the betterment of our situation, we need to think about the rights of all, and put into place structures within our own communities that help to engender trust. We cannot do this while the shadow of government funding and its false epistemology hangs in the air.
I appreciate the time you have taken to read this.