Manchester University Press has recently been criticized in the Telegraph for publishing a book edited by Asim Qureshi. Qureshi is Research Director at CAGE, a British advocacy organisation working with people impacted by the ‘War on Terror’. The article quotes Sara Khan, the Lead Commissioner of the Home Office’s Commission for Countering Extremism, as well as David Toube and Haras Rafiq, two members of the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based organisation focusing on counterextremism. In the article, Khan, Toube and Rafiq denounce CAGE as supporters of terrorism and criticise the university press’s willingness to work with them.
Part of a bigger debate on counterextremism in the UK
I have my own opinions on CAGE and I certainly don’t agree with everything that they stand for (maybe one day I’ll write a separate article about that), but the way Sara Khan and the Quilliam Foundation try to discredit them in this article in the Telegraph is appalling. How they attempt to build their argument here deserves closer examination, because it is not just an expression of disagreement over a book. Rather, it is an example of how polarized and derailed parts of the debate on counterextremism in the UK have become – and the role that organisations supported by the government play in this. I will hone in on three key issues in this article:
- who has criticized CAGE here and what that tells us about debates on counterextremism in the UK more generally;
- the question of ‘academic respectability’ referred to in the article;
- and how we speak about terrorists.
The book at the heart of this controversy
The book that caused all this controversy is an edited volume entitled ‘I Refuse to Condemn: Resisting Racism in Times of National Security’, expected to be published in autumn 2020. It consists of a collection of articles by researchers and activists examining the nexus of racism and national security, with a focus on expectation to condemn:
“In times of heightened national security, scholars and activists from the communities under suspicion often attempt to alert the public to the more complex stories behind the headlines. But when they raise questions about the government, military and police policy, they are routinely shut down as terrorist sympathisers or apologists for gang culture. In such environments, there is immense pressure to condemn what society at large fears. This collection explains how the expectation to condemn has emerged, tracking it against the normalisation of racism, and explores how writers manage to subvert expectations as part of their commitment to anti-racism.” (Manchester University Press website)
I am all for criticism and debate. But reading the comment of Sara Khan and the Quilliam Foundation in the Telegraph article, it seems obvious to me that this is not a constructive debate. They are essentially bashing a political opponent. This is curious, because neither Sara Khan nor the Quilliam Foundation stand out for having much credibility within large parts of British Muslim communities when it comes to Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) or criticisms thereof. Both have a track record of trying to discredit those who disagree with their point of view and accuse them of being ‘extremists’. This is not a new tactic – I have previously written about Sajid Javid using it in a very similar manner. The fact that neither Sara Khan nor David Toube or Haras Rafiq seem to have actually read the book is telling.
Why not allow for critical debate?
The fact that people who hold such attitudes advise government on counterextremism is concerning. We need critical debate – including those who disagree. We need critical engagement. We need change. Why do Sara Khan and the government not take critics of their counterextremism approach serious? Why do they not listen, learn and reflect on criticisms, such as the ones put forward in that book?
A government agency must not be divisive
In the Telegraph article, Sara Khan is quoted as saying:
“Groups like Cage use the guise of ‘freedom of speech’, ‘rule of law’ and ‘anti-racism’ but it is the Commission’s view that when Cage’s activism, beliefs and behaviours are examined closely these values are in fact a cover to legitimise their divisive activism.”
However, the same charge can be levelled at Sara Khan, the Counterextremism Commission she leads, and of the Quilliam Foundation. We will see this when we look closely and beyond labels of ‘counterextremism’, ‘British values’ and the likes. No group is exempt of criticism. I can personally think of several things I would criticize CAGE for. But do you really have any moral ground for criticizing others for being ‘divisive’, when you yourself have been as divisive in much of your activism and career as Sara Khan and the Quilliam Foundation have been?
Of course, there is a notable difference here – and that’s that the Commission for Countering Extremism is funded by the government, whereas CAGE is an NGO. An NGO can be divisive. A government agency, however, should not. It has to represent and serve all citizens. It must not be divisive. But that’s exactly the effect a lot of Sara Khan’s work and her statements at the Commission have had.
Is the book a ‘veneer of academic respectability’?
Moreover, Haras Rafiq of the Quilliam Foundation is quoted as saying in the Telegraph piece that the book gives CAGE a ‘veneer of academic respectability’, therefore implying that the group does not deserve these academic credentials. This comment displays a complete lack of understanding of how academia works. If a group publishes with a university press, it does not give them a ‘veneer of academic respectability’. Rather, it shows that the contribution of said group to debates on a topic are to academic standards. That does not mean that the group is right, or that you need to agree with the argument they put forward. But if you question their ‘academic respectability’, you better explain why that’s the case. Was there a problem with the peer review process? Did they plagiarise? Or was there anything else wrong with how they worked? Because just disagreeing with the conclusion they come to does not suffice to put someone’s academic credentials into question – that’s simply not how academia works.
Why stoke the fire when you can build bridges?
In sum, Sara Khan and the Quilliam Foundation are in no position to criticize an NGO like CAGE for their supposed ‘divisive activism’. No matter what you think of CAGE, the criticism directed towards them as part of the most recent controversy about the book by Qureshi is unjustified. In fact, the current controversy tells us much less about CAGE than it does about how government-supported organisations in the UK stoke the fire in debates on counterextremism – when really what they should be doing is to build bridges and bring people together. The safety and wellbeing of our communities is far too important for individual personalities and groups in the counterextremism industry to use it as a political fighting ground.