British Muslims and the Muslim Council of Britain: the next decade

Yahya Birt
7 July 2008

As the Muslim Council of Britain marks its first decade, it seems an appropriate moment for reflection. As the country's largest Muslim umbrella body, it still remains the "first among equals" in relation to an increasingly large alphabet-soup of representative institutions. The British Muslim Forum, the Sufi Council of Britain and British Muslims for Secular Democracy have all emerged in the three years since 7/7, alongside a profusion of Muslim commentators and other bodies that seek to reflect the government's "rebalancing" in 2006 of its relationship with Muslim communities to emphasise counter-terrorist imperatives.

Yahya Birt is commissioning editor at Kube Publishing. He blogs at www.yahyabirt.com

This article originally appeared in Emel magazine (July 2008)

Also by Yahya Birt in openDemocracy:

"Multiculturalism and the discontents of globalisation" (25 May 2007)

Most of these new actors endorse either an implicit or explicit critique of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and its style of community activism, and have positioned themselves more assertively on the contested issue about what to do about "extremism". In the moral panic over "Islamism", the MCB has too often fallen into the trap of refuting the aspersion of guilt by (ideological) association with violent extremism rather than framing its own proactive narrative on terrorism, and so other Muslim actors have stepped into this vacuum. Yet there will no returning to politics as usual by going around the problem of terrorism (nor, indeed, the "war on terror"). Even on the everyday issues, too little has been done about the shocking deprivation found in the national census of 2001 - figures that the MCB helped to obtain but did not campaign hard enough to get changed.

Once the darling of the political establishment, the MCB has become just another voice at the table. The government has appointed a plethora of internal and external Muslim advisors, has rapidly developed its own national network of local contacts, particularly with respect to "preventing violent extremism" (PVE) funding, and set up its own panels to deal with imams and mosques, women and young people. Rightly or wrongly, the PVE rationale now drives or influences all aspects of government policy on Muslim communities across no less than eight departments - including the department for international development (DfID). And the major mosque-associations - including the MCB - seem poised to be effectively pushed back into civil society to manage imam training and run mosques through the mechanism of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (Minab).

In organisational terms the MCB appears ill-equipped to handle such momentous challenges in terms of its grassroots networking, institutional weakness and democratic health. After thirteen years, if one includes its pre-launch consultation phase in the 1990s, its strategic decision to rely on its affiliates has meant that it has done less grassroots networking than Respect did in a mere three. Even if it ups the ante in this regard, hundreds of Muslim organisations now seek representation elsewhere and, as such, developing effective partnerships is probably now more salient.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on the experience of and debates about Muslims in Britain:

Fareena Alam, "A humane Muslim future" (8 March 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)

The MCB's chief posts are still all voluntary and unpaid. Many of the MCB's affiliates are much better staffed and resourced than the body that seeks to represent them. There is a backroom administrative function but no high-profile chief executive, head of policy research, chief press officer or any other of the personnel one would expect in such an institution. A greater push on core private funding is needed here.

Finally, the MCB is now reconsidering its overly-complicated election process that somewhat disadvantaged larger regional mosque associations in favour of some smaller national groups. A simpler one-affiliate-one-vote system of direct election of the executive positions and, importantly, of the secretary-general is needed. With a direct mandate for a full-time paid position, any affiliate member should be able to put someone forward for the top post with nominations and be able to campaign openly for three months on a manifesto. Elections are supposed to be unpredictable affairs, but not so with the MCB, which has just re-elected both Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari and Dr Daud Abdullah as his deputy for a second term. Where is the urgency to connect with that half of Britain's Muslims under the age of 25 with more fresh faces in executive roles?

The next few years will be critical to the MCB's long-term health as a relevant and dynamic organisation. In recent times, some of its prominent affiliates have looked far too close to active party political campaigning for comfort, particularly with Respect and Muslims4Ken, a strategy that was avoided by the council in the 1990s, although mere party membership has been better handled. This association with the old left is hardly the best positioning for a non-party political institution preparing to deal with an incoming government that may very well be Conservative.

With all these challenges ahead, the biggest one may well be that of internal expectation from a young community that is looking for relevant and substantial leadership (beyond the usual pieties of "Muslim unity" and "Muslim interests") and is alive to all the other opportunities for engagement that are now open to it.

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