Interview with Quilliam Society Founder Ross Paton

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Aberystwyth Quilliam Society logo by (provided by the society).

by Heather Crumpton

Last December I had the opportunity to speak with Ross Paton, a second year International Politics student at Aberystwyth University. Throughout the first semester he had been busy founding and promoting the Aberystwyth Quilliam Society. The society is loosely based upon the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremist think tank based in London. The founder of the Quilliam Foundation, Maajid Nawaz, is a former Islamist who now campaigns against Islamist extremism. Although the foundation itself focuses upon extremism of all kinds Ross noted that “due to the prevalence of recent Islamist attacks and Islamism in general, [Quilliam] has been primarily dealing with Islamism.”

The term Islamism (as opposed to Islam) refers specifically to the political ideology of Islamist extremism. For Ross this distinction between Islam and Islamism is crucial: “It is really, really important that people understand that difference, because people often wrongly see [those combating Islamism]….as bigot[s] when they are actually trying to combat something else entirely.”

‘These narratives are not publicised enough’

One of Ross’s motivations for setting up the society is his passion for freedom of speech: “if you cannot express certain thoughts then automatically there are some things that are off the table in terms of discussion.” When asked what the society aims to do he said, “Quilliam would like to give other anti-extremist people voices” since he believes “these narratives are not publicised enough.”

He went on to say, “I think it is actually important to discuss ideas, as what we have seen in …[the debate around] extremism is that they want to actually get rid of ideas. You can often discuss ideas and disagree with them, but some people will think that you can’t even discuss them. For example, there is the far right who want to deport Muslims and want to get rid of Islam as an ideology. Then on the opposite side you have Islamists who want to enforce blasphemy laws and prevent satire, like we saw with Charlie Hebdo. It’s of course important to be sensitive about these things but fundamentally I think people should be allowed to express their opinions. Then other people can disagree with them. I think dialogue is always the best because there are two ways of solving things. One is dialogue and one is violence. Anything that curtails dialogue is a bad thing because that could lead to violence. That’s why I think this society is a good idea, because it promotes those liberal ideas of freedom of speech.”

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Aberystwyth Quilliam Society hosting the Iranian Resistance, featuring Dr Ayla Göl, Ross Paton, and a member of the Iranian Resistance (left to right). Photograph provided by the Aberystwyth Quilliam Society.

‘A battle of ideas’

In order to promote dialogue, Ross has been inviting speakers to attend events held by the Quilliam society. By the time of this interview, three Quilliam events had taken place. The first being a debate with members of the Iranian resistance, who were fighting against the political implementation of an extreme interpretation of Shia Islam. The question ‘is Turkey becoming a failed state?’ was debated in the second event, while Adam Deen was invited to talk about what fuels extremism in the third event. Adam Deen is a former member of Al-Muhajiroun (a jihadi terrorist organisation based in Britain) who now works for the Quilliam Foundation. He was pulled into a totalitarian form of Islam from a young age, and from this has developed a particular awareness of the processes that lead to people discounting all other viewpoints and focusing on one ideology to the point of being willing to kill or die for it. When asked about the third event Ross said that ‘bombing the Islamic State is not going to solve the problem. There needs to be some sort of ideological battle. A battle of ideas. That’s where people like Adam come in. The former extremists who can have that battle of ideas.’

Quilliam are planning to host more speakers and events during the second semester, with the aim of widening the debate. Ross made this clear by saying ‘there are other forms of extremism that we think are necessary to get ideas about. So you could look at a Neo-Nazi extremism and you can look at people who have come out of that.’ When asked if Quilliam has any plans for future speakers, Ross said ‘my secretary, Josh, had a very good idea of inviting a former anti-Zionist speaker, which is something that we don’t hear too much about in mainstream media.’

If you are interested in learning more or have any questions, the Aberystwyth Quilliam Society can be found on Facebook. Alternatively, you can email Ross Paton directly at rjp6@aber.ac.uk.