A ‘system of self-appointed leaders’?

Stephen H. Jones, Therese O’Toole, Daniel Nilsson DeHanas, Tariq Modood and Nasar Meer

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Who speaks for us? The ‘who’ and ‘how’ of faith representation

Taking PartCritics of Muslim representation have become more prominent over the last decade. As a consequence, almost all attempts to lobby politically on behalf of Muslims are regarded by many with suspicion. Today, though, Muslim representation is more dynamic, with new Muslim voices using a range of different channels to engage with government. The dominant understanding of Muslim representation as a ‘system of self-appointed leaders’ needs to be reassessed to take these changes into account.

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Who best represents British Muslims, and how should British politicians engage with them? These two questions have provoked continuous and frequently heated debate for many years, particularly since the establishment of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) – the UK’s most successful Muslim representative organisation – in 1997. The political representation of identity groups is, of course, always a contentious topic. The principle that under-represented or minority groups should be present in political institutions, elected assemblies or governance forums often raises questions about authenticity, authority and the significance of symbolic presence versus the substance of ideas and policies. While Muslims are not the only group to face these questions, in recent years Muslim representation has stood out as an area of political contestation.

To take a contrasting example, while Jewish representative bodies have certainly been subject to criticism,[1] generally British politicians have been happy to engage with, and reluctant to openly question the legitimacy of, Jewish groups such as the Board of Deputies and the Community Security Trust. Political relationships with Muslim groups, on the other hand, have at times been openly and deeply hostile. Hazel Blears, while Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, publicly upbraided the MCB,[2] while David Cameron and Michael Gove have raised questions about Muslim groups of acting as front organisations for hard-line Islamic parties such as Jamaat-i-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood.[3]


“Since 2001 demand for people who can speak credibly about the Islamic tradition has grown, but this new prominence has provoked a severely critical response.”


In fact, it is probably true to say that an atmosphere of hostility has arisen toward the political representation of Muslims in recent years. Since 2001 demand for people who can speak credibly about the Islamic tradition has grown. New opportunities have also emerged for Muslims to interact with national and local government on policy areas such as security, integration and equalities as a consequence of the emergence of (faith and inter-faith based) participatory governance initiatives. But this new prominence has provoked a severely critical response. Government and Muslim representative bodies have been chastised for privileging the views of one ethnic group and/or theological tradition, or of community elders at the expense of women and younger people.[4] Various (often inaccurate) accusations have also been made that the UK government has enabled the penetration of governance networks by religious extremists.[5] For many commentators, the right answer to our opening questions seems to be, ‘No-one, and never’.

Yet while the criticisms of specific Muslim organisations have made politicians more aware of the risks of a ‘take me to your leader’ style of politics, there is a downside to the current negativity. Critical accounts have often ignored the growing range of diverse Muslim voices taking part in contemporary processes of governance. Moreover, amidst the criticism the reasons why Muslim representation can be an asset in a democratic society are often lost.

Representation and the unelected

First of all, why should politicians ever engage with Muslims as Muslims? Why shouldn’t everyone just be engaged with as citizens through the conventional mechanisms of electoral democracy? The main reason this is not sufficient is because electoral representation is limited. As Michael Saward, who has written more than almost anyone on elected and unelected representation, points out, elections reveal only a snapshot in time; they are limited by territory; some (such as the young) may not be able to vote; the choice of elected representatives is always restricted to certain options; and elected representatives are always part of an electoral system that is not chosen. In recent times, particularly, electoral representation has become less reliable as a means of identifying popular opinion. There has been a decline in voting rates; disaffection with mainstream parties and politicians (though not with political action) has grown; and there has been a shift in styles of politics throughout the West ‘from the more formal and hierarchical to the more informal and network-based’.[6]

image8Partly because of this, Saward says, modern politics is best thought of as a dynamic contest between representative claims.[7] An elected politician may make a claim about a particular issue or characterise a group’s interests in a certain way, but these claims are always questionable and can always be contested by spokespersons for different groups. These counter-claims are most important when a group is excluded, de jure or de facto, from formal political processes. The MCB was in fact set up on something like this basis: its leaders emphasised that British Muslims are among the country’s most disadvantaged and are (or were in the 1990s) neglected by policies focusing exclusively on ‘race’ and ethnicity. The MCB thus attempted to act as what Saward terms a ‘surrogate representative’[8] – an umbrella body seeking to coordinate and publicly articulate wider British Muslim interests.

There are other times when unelected representatives can become salient too. There may be moments when politicians need to engage with ‘expert’ representatives that have insight into an issue or specific subsection of the population. At other times, a certain group may have a ‘stake’ in a particular political decision and thus many legitimately articulate a distinctive interest or perspective. The work of the MCB can be used to illustrate both of these. During the period when it was in close contact with New Labour between 1997 and 2005, the MCB on different occasions engaged with government on the issue of halal slaughter, in the process making a claim about its expertise in that area. One of the MCB’s major successes was its lobbying for improved religious discrimination legislation. Polls have consistently demonstrated that Muslims in general do not feel the MCB or any other group represents their interests consistently,[9] but on this issue they certainly had the support of most Muslims, even those who had been critical of them.[10] Importantly, this included all Muslims irrespective of ethnic origin and level of belief because all can potentially be discriminated against as Muslims. To use Saward’s term, all are to some extent ‘stakeholders’ in this issue.


“One thing that can be said about New Labour is that its engagement with the Muslim Council of Britain was open; who the government was consulting on ‘Muslim issues’ was well- known.”


Of course, the MCB was subject to criticism both in the years it worked closely with the New Labour government and after it was marginalised following a series of disagreements over aspects of foreign and domestic policy.[11] The MCB’s representative model was based on it acting as a ‘delegate’ for affiliated mosques and Muslim associations, and its positions tended as a result to reflect the conservatism found amongst mosque leaderships. Like its predecessors the Council of Mosques for the United Kingdom and Ireland (COM, founded 1984) and the Council of Imams and Mosques (COIM, founded 1985), it struggled to transcend ethnic and theological differences. Its claim to speak for ‘Britons with an Islamic heritage’ also at times frustrated more secular Muslims.

Up until 2005, New Labour was also subjected to criticism for favouring the MCB despite the imperfections mentioned above. Nevertheless, one thing that can be said about New Labour is that its engagement with the MCB was open; who the government was consulting on ‘Muslim issues’ was well-known. This meant that the MCB’s claims invited further counter-claims, such as when the organisation British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), an organisation that is less committed to securing differential treatment for Muslims, produced a guidance document for educators in direct response to a report the MCB produced on Muslims in school.[12]

The new landscape of Muslim representation

Indeed, the growing array of different claims from groups such as the British Muslim Forum, the Al-Khoei Foundation, Progressive British Muslims, BMSD and others was also a key reason behind the MCB losing its near monopoly on government engagement. With so many different voices speaking up it became harder to see the MCB as the authoritative voice regarding Muslims’ wishes and opinions. Of course, this was attended by New Labour’s turn toward other groups, such as the Sufi Muslim Council and Quilliam, who were less critical of the government’s counter-terrorism policies. But what we have seen since the 2005 bombings has been the broadening and diversifying of Muslim representation within British civil society. The MCB has gone from being, as Yahya Birt has commented, ‘the darling of the political establishment’ to being ‘just another voice at the table.’[13]

Sadiq Khan, Shadow Lord Chancellor

This diversification is only partly due to a greater range of competing Muslim pressure groups emerging, each with its own distinctive stance. As our recent research has shown,[14] what we have also seen over the last decade are new modes of Muslim representation becoming more important and creating channels by which traditional community leadership-based representation can be supplemented or challenged. Up until the 2000s there were perhaps two main types of Muslim representative with whom government engaged: the delegate and the religious authority figure, such as the late Zaki Badawi. (Interestingly, with some notable exceptions, Muslim religious leaders have only played a minor role in UK politics, especially relative to rabbis and clergy; the MCB, BMSD, Quilliam, the Muslim Association of Britain and the British Muslim Forum are all led primarily by laypersons.) While effective in some ways, both these modes have significant limitations. More recently, however, two new types of representation have become more relevant.


“While there can never be a perfectly successful way of incorporating Muslim voices in democratic politics, there is still plenty of room for government to ‘fail again, but fail better’.”


First, the identities of Muslim politicians have become more salient, sometimes involuntarily, with figures such as Sadiq Khan, the present Shadow Lord Chancellor, feeling they need to ‘speak out’ as Muslims following events such as the 2005 London bombings. As Khan puts it himself:

 [A]fter July 7th happened there were very few British Muslims able to articulate how we were feeling, [the] fact we are all [supposedly] terrorists; and I couldn’t run away from the fact that I’m a Muslim so I did media and talked about the impact on Muslim communities.[15]

Secondly, the establishment of various consultative forums in the wake of 7/7 allowed Muslim individuals expertise in a given field – such as discrimination law – the opportunity to enter governance spaces in which they could speak on behalf of Muslim groups. This has been a particularly significant pathway for Muslim women such as Nahid Majid and Alveena Malik, both of whom were prominent in the Preventing Extremism Together Working Groups in 2006. A claim to expertise has been central to Quilliam, the controversial ‘counter-extremism think tank’ that has done much to challenge the MCB’s dominance. Together, these different modes of Muslim representation have begun to create a diverse landscape of Muslim political and civil society organisations, or what Tariq Modood calls a ‘democratic constellation’ of British Muslim perspectives.[16]

In many ways, this is good news for democratic politics in the UK. To take another point from Saward’s work, it is worth emphasising that unelected representatives have certain advantages over their elected counterparts. Because they are not bound by the limits of a specific jurisdiction or electoral cycle, and do not have to represent the whole constituency’s interests or wants, they can be more flexible and dynamic.[17] Moreover, because the symbolic architecture of the political system doesn’t do any work for them, they need to work harder to make their representative claims convincing. But these benefits can only be felt under certain conditions. There needs to be open debate between claims-makers, and government needs to be willing to be flexible and transparent in its engagement with organisations. What is encouraging is that all the groups we spoke to as part of our research acknowledged the need for such open debate, and did not aspire to act as the British Muslim voice. To the coalition’s credit too, it has eschewed Labour’s tactic of promoting a single organisation, tending instead to engage different groups of different issues (such as Faith Matters on Islamophobia).

The situation is still, however, far from ideal. Many of the Muslim women we spoke to who had been active in government forums spoke of being marginalised and included in tokenistic ways. Muslim-government relations are also still negatively affected by vague or spurious allegations of links to extremism.  Perhaps because of this, the coalition has not always been clear or transparent about whom it is engaging with on what issues in the way that New Labour, for all its imperfections, generally was. Indeed, sometimes Muslim voices have simply been left out altogether: a recent report of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee on the coalition’s ‘Big Society’ agenda included contributions from Jewish, Catholic and Anglican, but not Muslim, voices, for instance.[18] So while there can never perhaps be a perfectly successful way of incorporating Muslim voices in democratic politics, there is still, to quote Samuel Beckett, plenty of room for government to fail again, but fail better.

Stephen H. Jones is Research Assistant in the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and one of the editors of Public Spirit. He is a sociologist of religion specialising in Muslims and Islam in Britain.

Therese O’Toole is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol and is Principal Investigator on the Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance project. Her academic work has focused on ethnic minority political engagement and participatory governance.

Daniel Nilsson DeHanas is Research Fellow at the University of Kent. Until 2012 he was Research Associate on the Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance project. His sociology research has focused on post-migration religion and politics.

Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol, founding Director of the university’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship and founding editor of the journal Ethnicities.

Nasar Meer is Reader in Social Sciences and Co-Director of the Centre for Civil Society and Citizenship at Northumbria University. His work focuses on the relationships between minority identities and citizenship regimes in Britain and the EU.

[1] See Keith Kahn-Harris’s article in this series.

[2] Daud Abdullah, ‘My Reply to Hazel Blears’, The Guardian: Comment Is Free, 26 March 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/mar/26/hazelblears-islam.

[3] See Hansard, ‘House of Commons Daily Debates’, United Kingdom Parliament, 25 May 2006, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/vo060525/text/60525w0011.htm; David Cameron, ‘Speech to the Community Security Trust’, Conservatives, 4 March 2008, http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2008/03/David_Cameron_Speech_to_the_Community_Security_Trust.aspx.

[4] See Arun Kundnani, The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain (London: Pluto Press, 2007); Pragna Patel and Uditi Sen, Cohesion, Faith and Gender: A Report on the Impact of the Cohesion and Faith-based Approach on Black and Minority Women in Ealing (London: Southall Black Sisters Trust, 2010); Gita Sahgal, ‘Two Cheers for Multiculturalism’, in Warning Signs of Fundamentalisms, ed. Ayesha Imam, Jenny Morgan, and Nira Yuval-Davis (London: WLUML Publications, 2004), 51–60; Kenan Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy (London: Atlantic Books, 2009).

[5] See for example Martin Bright, When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries: The British State’s Flirtation with Radical Islamism (London: Policy Exchange, 2006); Chetan Bhatt, ‘The Fetish of the Margins: Religious Absolutism, Anti-racism and Postcolonial Silence’, New Formations 59 (2006): 98–115; Shiraz Maher and Martyn Frampton, Choosing Our Friends Wisely: Criteria for Engagement with Muslim Groups (London: Policy Exchange, 2009).

[6] Michael Saward, ‘Governance and the Transformation of Political Representation’, in Remaking Governance: Peoples, Politics And the Public Sphere (Bristol: Policy Press, 2005), 179.

[7] Michael Saward, ‘The Representative Claim’, Contemporary Political Theory 5, no. 3 (2006): 297–318; Michael Saward, ‘Authorisation and Authenticity: Representation and the Unelected’, Journal of Political Philosophy 17, no. 1 (1 March 2009): 1–22.

[8] Saward, ‘Authorisation and Authenticity’, 12. Saward’s discussion of surrogacy builds on Jane Mansbridge, ‘Rethinking Representation’, American Political Science Review 97, no. 4 (2003): 515–528.

[9] Clive D. Field, ‘Young British Muslims Since 9/11: a Composite Attitudinal Profile’, Religion, State and Society 39, no. 2–3 (2011): 159–175.

[10] See for example Abdul-Rehman Malik, ‘Take Me to Your Leader: Post-secular Society and the Islam Industry’, Eurozine, 23 April 2007, http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2007-04-23-armalik-en.html.

[11] The MCB disagreed with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while New Labour ministers objected to the MCB’s decision to boycott Holocaust Memorial Day between 2005 and 2007, and the decision of its Deputy Secretary General, Daud Abdullah, to sign a Global Anti-Aggression Campaign document following the Israeli government’s incursion into the Gaza strip in February 2009.

[12] British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Advice for Schools: Brief Guidance for Handling Muslim Parental Concern (London: BMSD, 2010), http://www.bmsd.org.uk/pdfs/schools.pdf; Muslim Council of Britain, Towards Greater Understanding: Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils in State Schools (London: MCB, 2007).

[13] Yahya Birt, ‘The Next Ten Years: An Open Letter to the MCB’, Musings on the Britannic Crescent, 27 June 2008, http://www.yahyabirt.com/?p=146.

[14] See Therese O’Toole et al., Taking Part: Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance (Bristol: University of Bristol, 2013).

[15] Interview with Sadiq Khan, 9/3/2011.

[16] Tariq Modood, Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea (Cambridge: Polity, 2007).

[17] Saward, ‘Authorisation and Authenticity’, 8.

[18] House of Commons, Public Administration Select Committee: The Big Society: Seventeenth Report of Session 2010–12, vol. 1, 3 vols. (London: The Stationery Office, 2011).

The image of Muslims on Brick Lane is included courtesy of Daniel Nilsson DeHanas. The image of Sadiq Khan is included courtesy of Steve Punter and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

4 Responses to “A ‘system of self-appointed leaders’?”

  1. Khurshid Drabu

    An interesting analysis of a very important issue carried out by highly respected and authoritative scholars. However perhaps it fails to make the point that MCB despite all its imperfections, is the only Muslim organisation that elects its leaders and that it has an open process of governance. Of course such elections have not always delivered the “leaders” with whom the govt of the day accepts as not being “self appointed” . It is the same old story – we will only accept that a nation or people has gone through a democratic process in electing its leadership if the leadership that it delivers sings from our hymn sheet!

  2. Stephen Jones

    Thanks Khurshid, I think you’re right to point out that the MCB’s leaders are elected by its members. That is a common misconception about the organisation, along with the assumption it is government-funded. That said, it is perhaps important to mention that the MCB’s leaders are elected by a limited constituency – its affiliate organisations.

    • Khurshid Drabu

      Stephen,Of course you are right that the MCB leadership is elected by only its affiliates. I do not think that MCB has ever claimed to be the sole representative of all the Muslim communities in the UK. It is surely the largest Muslim umbrella body and its leadership is not self appointed but is elected by representatives of its affiliates.

  3. Mrs Unaiza Malik (MCB advisor & ex treasurer)

    Stephen – True. The MCB leaders are elected by its affiliate organisations. The 500+ affiliates are currently more representative and inclusive of all the various Muslim ethnic origins, shades of theology and levels of belief than any other known group. That gives the MCB a certain level of comfort in being the umbrella and a voice for British Muslims.


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