Muslim Britain: the end of identity politics?

Ehsan Masood
2 July 2006

In early June 2006 the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) elected a new leader to take over from its founding secretary-general, Iqbal Sacranie. But Bangladesh-born Muhammad Abdul Bari, an educationalist, and former airforce officer with a doctorate in physics, is discovering that the national Muslim stage is becoming a crowded one. News of another nationwide group (though so far comprising mostly writers and journalists) emerged at the same time as Bari's election. Muslims for Secular Democracy is chaired by Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and supported by Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament, among others. It may end up playing a much-needed watchdog role for the MCB.

This is just the tip of a much larger iceberg. Muslim communities in Britain have been experiencing change and innovation in the years since the 9/11 attacks. But the pace of change has accelerated significantly since the 7 July 2005 bombings in London: new organisations, projects and initiatives have emerged virtually every month.

Among the more noteworthy launches was that of a body called Progressive British Muslims in November 2005 at the House of Commons. This group wants to represent all those Muslims who feel themselves to be unrepresented in existing faith-based community organisations.

In the three months after the 7 July 2005 bombs in London, openDemocracy published forty articles examining their political background, context and implications. Among them:

Isabel Hilton, "Letter from wounded London" (7 July 2005)

Mohammed Sajid, "The gap between us: British Muslims and 7/7"
(18 July 2005)

Max Farrar, "Leeds footsoldiers and London bombs" (22 July 2005)

Maruf Khwaja, "Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures"
(2 August 2005)

Aftab Malik, "The state Muslims are in"
(15 August 2005)

Tariq Modood, "Rethinking multiculturalism after 7/7"
(29 September 2005)

The latest project, launched on 27 June 2006, is the creation of four leading Muslim organisations (including the MCB itself): a Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (Minab). Such a body was one of the recommendations from the "preventing extremism and terrorism" taskforce, a forum of some 100 influential Muslims which the government turned to for advice shortly after 7/7.

After strenuous discussions about questions of its remit and accountability, Minab has been established as an independent and self-regulating organisation. Khurshid Ahmed of the British Muslim Forum describes the issue it seeks to address: "There are problems of governance within mosques and we need to build their capacity and make sure they are properly resourced."

Change and innovation is not just confined to politics and community relations. Much is happening too in the field of arts and entertainment. For example, the Festival of Muslim Cultures is a year-long arts-based event (whose patron is Prince Charles) in which many of Britain's leading museums and galleries have devoted time and space for exhibitions, talks and performances on a Muslim theme; another project, in Manchester's science and industry museum, is the "1001 inventions" exhibition that features the work of Muslim inventors and scientific pioneers during Islam's first 1,000 years of history.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Association of Britain and the office of London's mayor Ken Livingstone have teamed up to organise Islam Expo, a packed four-day extravaganza of lectures and seminars, comedy, music and theatre at London's Alexandra Palace on 6-9 July 2006.

In this wealth of activity and energy, British Muslims are attempting to redefine their public presence and image, and to emphasise that the rich cultural resources they inherit are far closer to their current reality than impoverished stereotypes of jihadist militancy. Beyond this, three things seem to be going on.

First, this volume of activity suggests that a series of exciting initiatives have emerged in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings that give much cause for optimism. Many of these initiatives will help to build the capacity of community institutions, aiding the process of their modernisation; at the same time they will help develop deeper and more mutually-reinforcing relationships between Muslim Britain and wider Britain (on the former, see my book British Muslims: Media Guide, produced in partnership with the British Council's Counterpoint project and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists, 2006).

Second, these relationships involve Muslim community institutions working alongside mainstream British organisations in a spirit of partnership, friendship and mutual learning.

Third, the British government has learned how a little bit of sensible prodding on its part and relatively small amounts of finance can encourage otherwise fractious community organisations to sit down, work together and hence deliver more effective services to their users. The national mosques advisory board, for example, is unlikely to have come about without some kind of government involvement – even if (as in this case) this very involvement had the effect of uniting different Muslim community organisations against what they saw as excessive government interference in the setting up of an independent body.

This opposition notwithstanding, the formation of this board is no small achievement. An organisation that could help many of Britain's estimated 1,600 mosques to become more accountable and deliver a more professional service has been discussed for decades. Yet it has never been considered realistic because of the many divisions that exist within Muslim community organisations. Now, political and theological differences have been put aside as groups representing the different traditions within Shi'a and Sunni schools came together so the board could see the light of day.

An emerging dialogue

When I wrote in openDemocracy in the aftermath of the London bombings of the war of ideas between different wings of British Muslims, I had little idea that in one area of dispute at least a rapprochement was underway (see "British Muslims must stop the war", August 2005). Groups representing different strands of Muslim thinking were beginning to talk about how they could work together.

The resulting discussions between Q-News magazine, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis) and the east London-based Young Muslim Organisation UK– among others – has led to a joint roadshow of Islamic scholars that is currently on tour around Britain giving lectures to younger Muslims on aspects of contemporary Islam (see The Radical Middle Way). But would these groups have come together had it not been for a government offer of modest financing and other support for the roadshows? I am less sure.

In any case, all of this leaves unanswered what many regard as the biggest question of all: will the effect of these initiatives on the attitudes and behaviour of British Muslims be to create an insurance policy that will insulate us from another 7/7?

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He is the author of British Muslims: Media Guide (British Council/Association of Muslim Social Scientists, 2006), and co-editor (with Daniel Schaffer) of Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press). He has also edited How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network

Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief"
(November 2005)

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO"
(December 2005)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope"
(January 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"Language: a toolkit for life on earth"
(March 2006)

"The rocky road to citizen rule"
(April 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The light of education: blind children's best buys'" (May 2006)

"Ziauddin Sardar: paradise lost, a future found" (May 2006)

"A post-imperial diplomat" (May 2006)

"Israel and the bomb: don't ask, don't tell" (June 2006)

I would argue that this is the wrong question to ask. Despite the best efforts of legal agencies and social-support institutions as well as governments, the troubling reality is that there will always be small numbers of people who will break the law; and an even smaller subset of those will want to resort to violence to get what they want. We can sharpen our understanding of criminal behaviour; we can reduce a person's propensity to want to offend through better education and training; we can improve how we anticipate, detect and solve crime. But there isn't a society on earth which has succeeded in eliminating violence – and, in extreme circumstances, terrorism – completely and for good.

This means in turn that there are no guarantees of non-violence. Everyone must, however, play their part. It is up to citizens to be vigilant; and it falls on the state and law-enforcement authorities to improve how they gather and assess intelligence in order to better protect the public from the danger of an atrocity – and to minimise the social damage if one occurs.

The police and the security services know they have a lot of learning to do. The very fact that the 7 July bombings (and their near-repeat on 21 July) took them by surprise made this evident. The report into the bombs from parliament's intelligence and security committee, published in May 2006, reinforced the point. But to many British Muslims, it was the ill-advised police raid on a Muslim household in Forest Gate, east London, on 2 June 2006 that made this a palpable truth.

250 police officers raided a house in east London in the belief that the house contained dangerous chemicals. A young man was shot during the raid, and the house was completely taken apart, but nothing incriminating was found. The police and security services need the trust and confidence of communities if they are to do an effective job. Communities, at the same time, need to believe that the police service is ultimately there to protect them from harm: and not to be the cause of it. Failed raids do not help anyone's cause.

A new era?

So what of the future – the next twelve months, and indeed of the next twelve years and beyond? The next few paragraphs might have sounded different had I not been alerted to a significant development in the thinking of Britain's largest Muslim organisation. It is the kind of change that will affect each of the MCB's 400-plus affiliates; but it will also influence how the council is perceived by those on the outside.

Iqbal Sacranie's twenty-page valedictory speech – delivered at the MCB's annual general meeting on 4 June 2006 – contains a section on blue skies thinking that he calls "future scenarios". In this, on page 16 of the document, Sacranie divides his thirty-five-year experience in community activism into three stages:

  • stage one, the 1970s: the focus was on mosque-building, "ethnically and linguistically self-contained silos" that Sacranie likens to store-houses in an industrial complex
  • stage two, the late 1980s and early 1990s: defined by the moment when (in 1989) a large number of British community groups united to call for the banning of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. This, in addition to the conflict in Bosnia, helped to forge the idea among Muslims that their needs would be better served if recognised as a separate faith-based group
  • stage three, 1997: the coalescence of these groups to form the nucleus of a much larger MCB. This, the culmination of what researchers call "identity politics", came with recognition of religion in the 2001 census.

Iqbal Sacranie leaves open the question of "stage four", but it isn't hard to detect that the council which he helped to found is alerting its affiliates to begin preparing for change. It is worth quoting Sacranie here at length:

"Identity politics has been psychologically satisfying and allowed socio-economic inequalities to be addressed, it also nurtures community self-interest." But, he adds: "(one) strategic choice is for Muslims to be doing much more for the moral and social upliftment of society as a whole, rather than just for their own communities. It will mean replacing an inward-looking approach with greater engagement as individuals in the civil society around us. It will mean the age of identity politics is over."

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