Today
Sat 24 July 2021

Nafeez Ahmed reveals how a toxic narrative is permeating British government and media to create an increasingly mainstream white nationalist echo chamber

In part two of this exclusive investigation, Byline Times reveals that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top foreign policy advisor previously supervised a biased research project inspired by anti-Muslim sympathisers of the racist ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory. The research would go on to be used by the Government’s independent agency on countering extremism.

The Downing Street policy aide leading the Government’s most important policy review of the post-Brexit era supervised a research project based on the work of a ‘white genocide’ believer with ties to anti-Muslim hate groups, Byline Times can exclusively reveal. 

John Bew, Boris Johnson’s foreign policy special advisor in No. 10, has been charged with leading Whitehall’s integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy – a de facto manifesto for ‘Global Britain’ which will define the UK’s role in the world for decades to come.

Prior to his appointment in 2019, Bew was a celebrated historian of British statecraft at King’s College London, where he is a professor of history and foreign policy. In that capacity, he headed up a project called ‘Britain in the World’ for the think-tank Policy Exchange. It was launched by then UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon (who had to pay damages to an imam after promoting the anti-Muslim claim that the imam supported ISIS). 

Shortly before this, at King’s College London’s Department of War Studies, Bew was the lead supervisor for a PhD thesis inspired by an advocate of the baseless and racist ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory. Supervising a thesis implies the work is a valid and original argument with sufficiently high standards and academic rigour to merit publication.

According to the Counter Extremism Project, the Great Replacement is “an ethno-nationalist theory warning that an indigenous European – e.g. white – population is being replaced by non-European immigrants” through a programme of reverse-colonisation.

Popularised by the French writer Renaud Camus in his 2012 book of the same name, the theory has inspired far-right terrorists including Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people in the Christchurch attack in 2019; and Patrick Crusius, who killed 21 people in El Paso, Texas. 


Laundering the ‘Great Replacement’

The thesis supervised by John Bew – titled ‘The Global Muslim Brotherhood in Britain: A Social Movement?’ – was completed by Dr Damon Lee Perry in late 2016. This research would go on to influence the Government’s independent Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE). 

The thesis argued that the Muslim Brotherhood exerts global control over the majority of the most prominent Muslim civil society groups in the UK. While the Brotherhood’s Islamist ambitions should not be underestimated, the thesis reduced a vast number of highly diverse Muslim organisations of varying theological and ideological positions to its covert machinations.

In effect, the thesis legitimised discredited anti-Muslim conspiracy theories promoted by American far-right circles for several decades. 

In its introduction, Dr Perry reveals that he was first encouraged to do a PhD on the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain by Dr Lorenzo Vidino, who provided “valuable feedback on an early thesis plan”.

Dr Vidino is an American academic with direct ties to far-right hate groups in the US. He advocates the Great Replacement theory. 

According to Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, Dr Vidino is well-known for promoting “conspiracy theories about the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe and the United States” and “is connected to numerous anti-Muslim think-tanks in the United States and Europe, and has published in various anti-Muslim outlets”.

These outlets include Steve Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism (who was notoriously ridiculed by David Cameron for calling Birmingham a Muslim “no go zone”); and the Middle East Forum – run by Daniel Pipes, who is described as a racist hate-monger by the Australian Jewish Council.

Emerson, Pipes and their organisations are identified as part of a global anti-Muslim movement by the UK-based anti-racism watchdog Hope Not Hate. 

Dr Vidino is on record advocating the Great Replacement theory. In 2005, when asked if Europeans were witnessing “the end of Europe” by FrontPage magazine (the far-right publication of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black activist David Horowitz), Dr Vidino said: “Europe as we knew it 30 years ago is long gone. Demography doesn’t lie: in a couple of decades non-ethnic Europeans will represent the majority of the population in many European cities and a large percentage of them will be Muslim.” 

Dr Vidino is cited 54 times in the first third of Dr Damon Lee Perry’s thesis – essentially to justify its labelling of a wide range of British Muslim community organisations as “members of ‘the New Muslim Brotherhood in the West’” – including, for instance, the Muslim Council of Britain.

Dr Vidino’s core theory about the Muslim Brotherhood – which underpins Dr Perry’s entire thesis – rests on cherry-picking and misrepresentations of key documents by a range of far-right hate groups in the US and Europe. 

Even more bizarrely, in his introduction to the thesis, Dr Perry thanks the disgraced charity director Patrick Sookhdeo “for first putting the idea of doing a PhD in my head, and for opening the doors of the Barnabus Fund library in the beautiful village of Pewsey”. Sookhdeo is a convicted sexual abuser and an early conspiracy theorist who once claimed that “non-Muslims are being pushed out” by growing Muslim majorities, trying to “Islamicise police forces, which they have done, and capture political power”. 


Out of their Depth

Despite his undoubted expertise in British history, John Bew has no expertise at all in Islamism or extremism, let alone on the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim communities.

His King’s College London bio even includes the following disclaimer: “Please note that I am a historian and will not accept PhD applications in the area of radicalisation or social science.” 

It is therefore unclear why Bew made an exception for Dr Perry’s work, which focuses on Muslim radicalisation in Britain.

Dr Perry’s thesis also had a secondary supervisor, Michael Rainsborough – a professor of strategic theory at the same department. Through he has published important works on al-Qaeda violent extremism through the lens of strategic theory, like Bew, his publication track record includes nothing on the Muslim Brotherhood, British Muslim communities or social movement theory.

“While his PhD has some theory in it that could probably hold together in some quarters, it’s still a problematic piece of work,” said Tahir Abbas, Associate Professor in Terrorism and Political Violence at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University in The Hague.

“The whole premise is ideological. And then he [Perry] finds theoretical perspectives that support his pre-existing conceptualisations and presents them without any real criticism or discussion.

“There is absolutely nothing on methodology apart from a list of people that he talks to and there’s a great deal of selectivity on the part of the researcher in terms of picking out what he sees as pertinent comments to reflect on.

“I think he’s so inspired by the idea of trying to link up all of these individuals and institutions into some kind of grand conspiracy, pushed on by the likes of Vidino.”

Professor Abbas also pointed out the thesis’ lack of documentation regarding the ethics process for its interviews with named individuals.

Byline Times contacted King’s College London, Dr Damon Lee Perry, John Bew and Michael Rainsborough for a request for comment, but did not receive a response despite multiple enquiries. 

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From Global Britain to the ‘Islamic Revival’

John Bew’s oversight of a research project providing a pseudoscientific justification for an anti-Muslim conspiracy narrative rooted in white genocide theory raises questions about his advisory role to the Prime Minister, in which he is defining Britain’s role on the world stage.

Dr Perry’s PhD thesis went on to form the basis of a report published by a separate UK Government agency: the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE). 

In September 2019, the CCE published a report titled ‘Mainstream Islamism in Britain: Educating for the “Islamic Revival”‘ by Dr Perry. Like his thesis on which it is based, the report claimed that mainstream British Muslim organisations are part of a “new Muslim Brotherhood” movement working for an “Islamic revival” in Britain. 

“Perry’s paper is complete and utter rubbish,” said Professor Tahir Abbas, who has published more than 100 academic papers and books on British Muslim communities and radicalisation. Describing the report as little more than a “copy-and-paste job” from Dr Perry’s thesis, he told Byline Times that the research was of very poor quality. 

“There is no context, contextualisation, analysis and there’s no interpretation apart from the single-mindedness of the author in presenting a whole host of organisations under the same rubric,” he said. “This entire piece is completely malicious and aimed at distorting the picture of Islam in Britain… This paper wouldn’t pass muster in any journal or any scientific publication.” 

The report fails to prove its claims about British Muslim groups as effective extensions of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Professor Abbas, instead relying on outdated associations, over-simplistic assumptions and sweeping extrapolations. 

In reality, the British Muslim landscape has evolved far beyond narrow tropes about Islamism.


From Daniel Pipes to QAnon

There are other questionable areas of research associated with the Government’s Commission for Countering Extremism.

In October 2019, it published another report, ‘Mainstreaming Islamism: Islamist Institutions and Civil Society Organisations’, authored by Dr Usama Hasan and David Toube of the Quilliam Foundation. 

While it raised some legitimate questions about the hosting of extremist preachers, it failed to provide a full and balanced context to understanding British Muslim institutions.

Focusing on a total of eight such preachers, the report did not acknowledge that they were a tiny percentage of the thousands of speakers at mosques and Muslim groups across the country who would not be promoting Islamist ideology. The obfuscation of this wider context fuelled the report’s inaccurate insinuation that mainstream Muslim community organisations are conduits for Islamist extremism.

The Quilliam Foundation has close ties to the same anti-Muslim hate network in the US backed by the HJS’ funders. Since 2011, for instance, it has received $3 million in ‘dark money’ from pro-Donald Trump Republican donors via the lobbying group Gen Next Inc.

Apart from Quilliam founder Maajid Nawaz’s alarming descent into QAnon conspiracy theories during the 2020 US Presidential Election, Dr Hasan has also worked with the anti-Muslim hate group Clarion Project, and signed a statement published by the far-right Gatestone Institute

Gatestone has promoted the white genocide conspiracy theory, and has ties to both Policy Exchange and the HJS – two policy organisations with strong influence on the CCE.

In his 2015 detailed interview for Clarion, Dr Hasan appeared to endorse the anti-Muslim conspiracy theory that the Muslim Brotherhood is working through American civil society groups such as the Council for American-Islamic Relations to “hide their long-term goals of imposing sharia law”.

In December 2015, the House of Commons Select Affairs Committee cited previous reporting by this author when it grilled Quilliam director Haras Rafiq about these far-right associations. In 2010, Rafiq had told the Middle East Forum that “most of the literature on Islam disseminated in mosques has been sponsored by extremists” – a matter “further exacerbated by taqiyya, or doctrinal deceit, which permits Islamists to dissemble their true beliefs”.

Rafiq’s promotion of the idea of ‘taqiyya’ as a practice of deceit to conceal extremist beliefs from wider society is a longstanding false trope put out by anti-Muslim bigots.

The Quilliam Foundation did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.

That the Government’s own dedicated agency to countering extremism would choose to work with an organisation so intimately connected to the hateful extremism it condemns, appears to reveal its own role in legitimising racist narratives – inadvertently or otherwise. 


Obsession with the Brothers

The depiction of ordinary Muslim civil society groups as tentacle-like extensions of the Muslim Brotherhood secretly conspiring to infiltrate the West to impose ‘Shari’ah Law’ is widely promoted by far-right activists who see this as evidence of brown and black immigrants seeking to ‘replace’ native white populations. 

While there can be no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood played a historic role alongside many other movements in Britain’s diverse Muslim communities nearly half a century ago, the height of that activity was largely associated with US and British interests in fostering Islamists as a counterweight to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 

Since then, most serious scholars agree that the Brotherhood’s influence has waned dramatically. Organisations such as the International Institute for Islamic Thought – routinely accused of being a Muslim Brotherhood front by the far-right – in reality have increasingly come to articulate diverse, inclusive and anti-Islamist positions which bear no resemblance to the Brotherhood’s ideology.

That does not mean that we should be sanguine about the threat from Islamist networks, including the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the poor-quality research on these issues overseen by Government officials seems to see enemies where there are none, projecting the Brotherhood as an all-encompassing threat lurking behind every mosque and Muslim community project. 

The persistence of this toxic narrative is not simply due to the activities of fringe, extreme hate groups which openly support fascism, but primarily due to the attractiveness of these dangerous tropes to powerful figures in our Government and media institutions. In this way, an increasingly mainstream white nationalist echo chamber is effectively being created.

A spokesperson for the Commission for Countering Extremism did not deny that the papers by Dr Perry, Dr Hasan and Toube were influenced by hateful extremists with links to alt-right and far-right groups.

Instead, they disassociated the Commission from their conclusions: “Although these papers have been commissioned by the Commission for Countering Extremism, the information and views expressed in the papers are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Commission or the UK Government.”

The spokesperson also effectively blamed “independent academics” from the Commission’s expert group for making decisions about who should be commissioned: “The academic papers commissioned in 2019 were subject to a competitive and rigorous approvals process. Academics had to submit proposals, which were evaluated against criteria set out in the application forms, and by a panel drawn from the then Commission’s expert group which included independent academics, who made the decision on who contracts were awarded to.

“All papers published were subject to legal and peer review, and standard conditions.”

Downing Street did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment. 

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