Interview with Quilliam Society Founder Ross Paton


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.”

Quilliam 2

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.’

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


Study Tips

by Helen Siegieda

In first year you may not be spending a huge amount of time in the library, but make sure you do enable yourself to become familiar with how to locate and take out a book, how to operate the printers and scanners and how to find out where there are free computers. I did this in my first year and it helps you jump straight into your studies in second year as you know what you’re doing! Rather than spending months trying to figure everything out.

All the staff are really friendly in Geography and are willing to help out if you are struggling with anything. Personally I was struggling with settling in at university and went to speak to my personal tutor, Kevin Grove, who helped me keep my motivation and discouraged me from leaving. He offered his own experiences about moving miles away from home and how it is difficult at first. Kim Peters is also a brilliant academic tutor and I know she has been approached on multiple occasions by my fellow students who have been unsure how to complete an assignment; keep a note of staff office hours or feel free to email them! All of their details are on the Aberystwyth University website.

Personally I found this one of the most difficult aspects of university life. With being a new student, unfamiliar to the town, eager to socialise and make new friends as well as balance the Taekwondo Club and the Hiking Club, I became a little overwhelmed with everything I had to do. Don’t let things get on top of you! Keep a diary and write down all the things you have to do that week. Don’t pile too much into one day as you may overload yourself; spread it out throughout the week and don’t forget to leave a few evenings for some you time that you can spend with friends or just chilling out.

Aberystwyth University is unique in that it assesses its students in a multitude of different ways; it isn’t just about essays, but reports, literature reviews, group presentations, individual presentations, interviews, questionnaires and more. Being a geography student gives you a huge variety of professional skills that you can take into the workplace. Don’t worry if you lack confidence in presenting or your essays aren’t up to scratch, that’s what first year is for, to hone in on your weaknesses and work on them to become better. Personally at secondary school my teachers would deliberately not pick me to do a presentation because I would be overcome with nerves and be unable to talk in front of a small group of people. After a few presentations at University I am now able to present in front of two hundred people confidently, and I don’t even get nervous. It is statistically proven that after 5-10 presentations you become a lot more confident and used to the activity. Practice makes perfect.

I always find that the more you read, the easier an essay becomes to write. Start by having a look in the library and taking out books that have relevant titles/chapters to your assignment. Start by getting some background information around the topic, then you can use Google Scholar or Primo to hone in on specific areas. I would recommend about 7-10 sources for a decent essay. Make sure you write down the references as you go along, there is nothing worse than finishing an essay and getting to the bibliography to realise you have no idea where a particular quote or piece of information comes from. Lastly, I’d say take your time. Spread the essay process over 4-5 days; spend 3 days reading and making notes, then the next two days planning and writing.

Group work is a really enjoyable part of university, and can actually make you some good friends as you are put into groups that you wouldn’t usually socialise with. Be polite and get to know the other members in your group before starting the work. I’ve found that creating a Facebook page is a really easy way to keep other group members updated and make sure you are all on track. Make sure to meet more than once in your group. You will separate and do individual pieces of research but this has to come together, so meet afterwards to put it into one presentation/report and then practice it a couple of times to make sure it flows. A common misconception is that group work does not require reading like an essay. That is wrong; lecturers all like to see reading in a piece of work so do a couple of readings each and throw in a quote here and there to make it clear that you have read, and make sure it relates to your topic.

Student Views

by Helen Siegieda

Being a student of Human Geography at Aberystwyth I wanted to find out how my fellow students are finding their courses, and what advice they have for prospective students and first years within the Geography Department here.

Isabel Parry (Second Year, F800)
Do you have any advice for students picking modules?
Consider how the module is assessed and what you perform best in e.g. essays, exams, presentations. However, most importantly, choose modules you’ll find interesting and enjoy learning about.

What are your personal interests in geography?
How we impact the environment and how the environment impacts us e.g. natural disasters, climate change, food and water security.

What are you doing for your dissertation?
I’m planning to look at water security and unequal access to water resources.

General advice?
Make the most of opportunities offered, have fun but be sure to make time for university work (especially second year!!).

Olly Haines (Second Year, L700)
What has been your favourite module so far?
Placing Politics due to it being the most relevant to my interests as well as also being able to argue your opinion against other opposing opinions. The lecturers have also been the most interesting.

What are your personal interests within geography?
Politics of geography and how politicians have developed throughout the years as the world around them has changed. For example how social media plays a bigger part each general election. Which has led me to getting work experience/ internship with Kirsty Williams.

Do you have any advice for students picking modules?
Make sure you understand the module content prior to choosing it and make sure it is the right module which is appropriate to your degree, especially second year choices.