The Quilliam Foundation, a new think tank, is named after William Quilliam (1856-1932), an Englishman who embraced Islam and set up the first mosque in Britain, in Liverpool.
According to the founders of this initiative, the history of European Islam — and especially what they call “our Andalusian heritage” — is an important resource in the desperately needed search for a new and confident Muslim voice, at ease with secular democracy, and clear in its denunciation of violence.
The people behind the new foundation, launched at the British Museum last week, are themselves former jihadists who have renounced violence and are seeking to articulate a moderate Western-friendly Islam.
Maajid Nawaz, who is from Essex, and is the director of Quilliam, was a senior member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir — a radical organisation that works for the establishment of a Muslim superstate, the Caliphate.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir is banned in many Middle-Eastern countries, although not in Britain. In 2002, Mr Nawaz was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment by the Egyptian authorities for his membership of Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
He was held in the notorious Mazra Tora prison in Cairo, the same prison that held the father of modern Islamism, the hugely influential Sayyid Qutb, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet Mr Nawaz chose a different path. In 2007, he recanted Islamism, choosing instead the search for a different sort of Islam, one that sought to free itself from the political burdens of the Arab world, and particularly extreme Wahhabism.
He now works to provide “a theological and scriptural refutation of ideas that inspire terrorists”.
Some have accused the new organisation of being a front for an anti-Islamic neo-conservative agenda. I have been attacked for being one of its official advisers — as if that makes me a “useful idiot” to some extreme right-wing agenda.
Of course, a number of conservative voices have been among its most active supporters, and some of its members have been harshly critical of multiculturalism. But what this organisation stands for is too important to hitch itself to any one political philosophy. And the leaders of the Quilliam Foundation agree.
The articulation of a moderate eirenic Islam, like the articulation of moderate eirenic Christianity, is one of the great intellectual challenges of our day. In Islam, just as in Christianity, there is a rich history — I am thinking especially of the works of the Sufis.
The struggle between good religion and bad religion is at a crucial stage.
(c) Giles Fraser is Anglican Team Rector of Putney, in London. An Ekklesia associate, he is author of Christianity With Attitude and has been a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford. This article is adapted with acknowledgments from one published in the Church Times