With Communities Secretary Eric Pickles pushing a tough new government approach to British Muslim organisations, the former head of the Muslim Council of Britain argues the time is ripe for rapprochement.
Writing on the Conservative Home blog, former Conservative MP and now journalist Paul Goodman exclaims "Go for it, Eric!" at the news that Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has announced a new integration strategy from the British Government. This integration strategy, for which cheerleaders such as Goodman have long been calling, promotes an exclusive not inclusive policy, re-emphasising a Coalition policy that the British Government will no longer talk to umbrella Muslim organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).
I believe that is a serious error of judgement.
Some columnists have crowed that such moderate Muslim organisations are somehow ‘extremist’. This negativity has been shown to be flawed: for example, by the prominent Conservative political columnist Peter Oborne, who as early as 2008 made a strong case that "we should all feel a little bit ashamed about the way we treat Muslims in the media, in our politics, and on our streets". This was backed up in a report he wrote with James Jones, ‘Muslims under siege: Alienating vulnerable communities’. As recently as last summer, the issue was highlighted in a working paper of the Institute for the Study of European Transformations at the London Metropolitan University.
Every community has its share of shortcomings and in such a diverse grouping as ours there will always be fringe voices filling the airspace with their odious words. But we Muslims come from four corners of the world. Contrary to the static view that Muslims are monolithic, we are in reality ‘a community of communities’. As relative newcomers, our ability to articulate our views and present our case to wider society is hugely limited. But time and again Muslims have proved that they are the most loyal citizens, with the same aspirations and concerns as other Britons.
There is room for optimism. President Obama declared that the War on Terror was over in 2010. The US withdrew its forces from Iraq on 31 December 2011; it is ending its combat role in Afghanistan as early as in 2013. We now look to Tahrir Square – epicentre of the Arab Spring – as a symbol of ordinary people’s resilience and a struggle for dignity and optimism for a long time to come. The rise of the Occupy Movement and ‘We are the 99%’ revealed a growing backlash against obscene economic and social inequality.
Here in Britain that mood of optimism has risen amidst the economic gloom. Two mega events are going to bring the world to London this summer: the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Games. With around one third of Londoners from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities; more than 300 languages spoken by Londoners; and at least 50 non-indigenous communities with populations of 10,000 or more, London is truly a world city. These two events are not only going to showcase the best of Britain and a spirit of global peace and harmony, but have the potential to kick-start our economic recovery.
Economics and politics aside, we should aim high when it comes to community cohesion and social harmony. In a modern pluralist society all communities should have a stake in the body politic. No group or community should feel pushed to the margins. Is this true for Britain’s diverse Muslim community? Prior to the terrible atrocities on the fateful morning of 7th July 2005, British Muslims were often seen as a force for good. They were loyal, their forefathers had fought for the Empire, many had a flair for enterprise and small business, whilst Muslim families often espoused strong family values – the sort of values which are often praised by mainstream politicians.
This was not the case after ‘7/7’. The negative depiction of Muslims and their religion, initiated by a fringe group of far-right organisations, became a hallmark of political and media discourse: to the extent that Muslims are now seen by many as a security threat. A shadow of suspicion is haunting this community. In the forefront of this suspicion are mainstream Muslim bodies including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the British Muslim community’s most democratic and representative organisation. The MCB is a network of over 500 incredibly diverse Muslim organisations: Sunni and Shia, Bangladeshi and Pakistani, Sufi and Salafi. It treads a delicate line between each and (ironically) has been lambasted by some in its own community for not being ‘radical’ enough.
Many of us expected the Leveson Inquiry would look into the nature of reporting on Muslims. So far there has only been one submission from one Muslim group; we are not sure whether any other major Muslim groups or individuals will have the opportunity to put their views before the Inquiry ends. It will be a missed opportunity if the Inquiry fails to comment on this issue or comes up with any meaningful recommendation to reassure Muslims that they will not remain an easy target for negative (and frequently lazy) media portrayals.
One thing conveniently forgotten about Muslims is that as a community they share disproportionately high levels of socio-economic deprivation (mainly due to historical factors and countries/communities of origin). With a less-than-satisfactory parental role in dealing with adolescents; coupled with weak leadership and poor involvement of young Muslims in running many mosques – plus the relative underachievement in education and over-representation in the prison population – the last thing the community expects, or wants, is to be demonised by the press and alienated from wider society. This was highlighted even before 9/11 in the 1997 Runnymede Trust report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All. Rather than improving, the negative depiction of Muslims increased following riots in the summer of 2001(Cantle, Ousley, Ritchie). It then got worse after 9/11 and reached a nadir in the aftermath of 7/7.
We in Britain should feel proud of our model of dealing fairly with people of diversity: in contrast to France, for example, or some other European countries. But, hand on heart, we need to ask whether Muslim citizens are still getting this fair treatment for which we are so famed. Mainstream Muslim groups have been arguing with successive governments about anti-terror legislation and how the Prevent Strategy primarily focused on the Muslim community. These groups feel that they are now being punished for their disagreements. In refusing to tow the line, they must suffer the silence of those frozen from the table. Disagreement in a democratic society is healthy; agreeing to disagree is a political virtue. How we sort out disagreements depends on the political maturity and wisdom of all in our nation – not just a few.
Despite many fundamental differences, two very different political parties forged an unlikely, yet successful, coalition in 2010 to serve the nation during a difficult period. Today the Tories and Lib Dems continue in that successful partnership. On the wider stage of international affairs, the US and Britain are even talking with the Taliban after a decade of fighting. This is political reality. In light of such 'real politik', it beggars belief that a British government avoids working ‘formally’ (or even talking) with mainstream Muslim bodies, which are part and parcel of British society. Isn’t this a gross contradiction to our political tradition?
The funny thing is the inconsistency lies even within Government. While senior Muslim leaders continue to attend and speak at events in Parliament, the official position is that there is no ‘formal’ dealing with the bodies that organise them. It is difficult to believe, but some suggest that the influence of a small number of powerful ideologues and think-tanks want to keep Muslims under pressure. Is that true? I don’t know. There is certainly a perception in some quarters that the Conservative Party does not want to 'know' Muslims. But that does not wash: we have a Conservative Muslim Forum (CMF), for example, a group within the Conservative Party and led by a Muslim Tory peer, which aims to increase Conservative Party’s membership among the Muslim community.
It is encouraging that Muslims are fast-learning the nuances and reality of British politics. Many were traditionally Labour supporters. But Muslims are as diverse as everyone else: they are businesspeople, entrepreneurs, members of the working class, middle class, aspirational. They are ‘bedding down’ within the bedrock of our society. There is no mass desire for an ‘Islamic caliphate‘, despite what the English Defence League or certain think tanks might claim. Nor any call for death penalties, punishment of homosexuals, forced marriages or degradation of women by the vast majority of ordinary, law-abiding Muslim citizens. Most Muslims and Muslim organisations are indeed glad to live in a country which welcomes and protects diversity, as well as freedom of worship. Although Muslims are still under-represented in the Westminster village, we now have this presence in the Conservative Party and among the Liberal Democrats, too, as well as Labour. This is a natural progression: we – as a ‘community of communities’ – are maturing.
We are by nature partners on issues such as social justice and human equality. Working with each political party in Britain is thus easy for Muslim activists, because they share so many of the same values. Our internal diversity – and nature of so many different Muslim groupings and ideologies – demands, indeed forces us, to work with all political groupings.
As a nation, we should remain focused on the real and actual threat of violent extremism: the path towards violent extremism is a thorn that needs to be rooted out from our communities. But that is exactly what we are (and have been) doing in our many different organisations. It is something I have personally confronted during meetings up and down the country, when those from extremists groups have attempted to shout me down or disrupt myself and colleagues. The vast majority of Muslims are working with law enforcement authorities, and with other partners in civil society, to tackle this problem. There may, of course, be differences of opinion as to how we can most effectively tackle the extremists. But the constant demonisation of Muslims and their institutions by the media, and the lacklustre response by the Westminster political class to anti-Muslim intolerance, is not helpful.
The time is ripe now for a reappraisal of the place of the Muslim citizen in Britain; for the better interest of our nation. We all have learned a lot from the terrible events of 7/7: it is time to move on. The world is changing fast. As the Arab Spring brought hope to one part of the world, let 2012 bring a political spring vis a vis Muslims in Britain.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.