Building the Bridge: Muslim community engagement in Bristol

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAleksandra Lewicki, Therese O’Toole, Tariq Modood

Commentators have argued that the city of Bristol managed to turn the implementation of Prevent into a genuine collaboration between public authorities and Bristol’s Muslim communities. The collaboration created a novel multi-agency consultative body that significantly improved Bristol City Council’s engagement with minority communities. Here, Aleksandra Lewicki, Therese O’Toole, Tariq Modood give an overview of their research into ‘Building the Bridge’, outlining their key findings and recommendations.

The full report is available here: Building the Bridge Report 2014

In Bristol, the previous Government’s Prevent Programme was implemented collaboratively by public authorities and Muslim communities in the city, which manifested itself in the re-branding of Prevent as ‘Building the Bridge’. Building the Bridge emerged as a participatory mechanism for community engagement that established a new institutionalised relationship between Bristol City Council, the Police, diverse statutory agencies and Bristol’s diverse Muslim community. The multiagency forum was widely celebrated as a story of local success and a model of good practice, particularly in comparison with how Prevent had been implemented and received elsewhere. Our research examined in greater detail to what extent Building the Bridge facilitated a genuinely participatory engagement between public authorities and Bristol’s Muslim communities. We investigated the organisations’ dynamics of participation and representation, the kinds of activities initiated by Building the Bridge, and developed three models for how Building the Bridge could be taken beyond Prevent. Although its activities were chiefly concerned with the overall aim of preventing violent extremism, Building the Bridge enabled interventions that addressed some key community grievances and facilitated the engagement of young people, women and mosque communities in the city. For a short period of time, Prevent funding enabled a regulated form of community engagement, some of which has continued even after the withdrawal of resources. The Bristol experience demonstrates how local authorities can institutionalise regular civic interactions with minority communities in diverse localities. We argue that the city should draw on this success and further institutionalise this collaboration within Building the Bridge.

Key findings

  • Although initiated by a nationally defined political agenda, individuals involved in Building the Bridge were keen to establish a joint understanding of locally specific problems and potential solutions. Participants in Building the Bridge felt that the forum enabled them to raise public authorities’ awareness of community concerns and discuss the implications of local politics and policing practices.
  • Bristol’s approach to implementing the previous Government’s Prevent Programme provided several institutional mechanisms for Muslim community involvement, including leadership capacity-building, agenda setting powers and representation of a variety of perspectives in an advisory body, in the process creating a new political opportunity structure that enabled Muslim claims to be articulated and addressed..
  • This ad-hoc organisational structure had a significant impact on the density of contacts and interactions between local authorities and local representatives of the Muslim community, and thus addressed some of the previous deficits regarding Muslims’ political representation in the city.
  • The availability of funding enabled the provision of community activities, including workshops and skills development for young people and Muslim women in Bristol. Building the Bridge provides evidence that there is great need for such opportunities beyond the limited scope of a Prevent agenda.
  • While Building the Bridge sought to give voice to a diverse and multi-faceted constituency and made continuous efforts to expand its reach, a few Muslim groups preferred not to get involved with the forum. Some participants expressed concern that a number of Muslim organisations received more attention within Building the Bridge than others, and its remit could have been extended with regard to ethnic and class based diversity.
  • A currently ongoing discussion within the Muslim community concerns the role and the participation of Muslim women within mosque committees and mainstream society more generally.
  • The continuation of Building the Bridge meetings and activities after the discontinuation of Prevent funding demonstrates that the organisation has potential to act as a post-Prevent democratic and consultative forum and could continue to enable community engagement with the local authority and statutory agencies in the future.


Bristol has developed a novel participatory approach to implementing the Prevent Programme, which facilitated a hitherto unprecedented level of civic engagement between local authorities and minority communities.

  • The institutionalised relationship between public authorities and minority communities should be used to further improve the Local Authority’s and other statutory agencies’ ability to address minority groups’ concerns. A commitment to the institutionalised cooperation within Building the Bridge is required, which also implies financial support for the maintenance of the organisational structure.
  • The ad-hoc organisational structure of Building the Bridge should be further institutionalised through a regulatory framework which specifies a rotation principle and the electoral procedure for its leadership. This framework should determine the frequency of meetings and offer criteria for an improvement of the representativeness of Building the Bridge.
  • Developing this collaboration would require a new constituting moment for Building the Bridge, which includes a clarification of future aims and objectives. We suggest the future of Building the Bridge could be taken into three directions, each of which has implications for the organisations’ profile and composition. It is possible that elements of the three models could be combined with each other.
    • Model A: a countering extremism forum (a forum that draws on the Prevent legacy but is extended to challenge various forms of extremism)
    • Model B: a Black and Minority Ethnic communities forum (a consultative forum for Bristol’s established and newly settled Black and Minority Ethnic communities)
    • Model C: a Muslim forum (a post-Prevent Muslim forum that provides a democratic space for Muslim communities)

The research is based on collaboration between the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and Building the Bridge. It was carried out within, and funded by, the Productive Margins: Regulating for Engagement research programme.


The image of Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and has been released into the public domain.Building the Bridge Report 2014

3 Responses to “Building the Bridge: Muslim community engagement in Bristol”

  1. Ben Barker

    Some interesting and useful points are made, but the emphasis is on the relationship between the Muslim community (communities) and statutory bodies on a city-wide basis. Fine, but there are also issues of the relationship between communities (religious, ethnic, generational etc) within neighbourhoods, ie citizen to citizen, which are more or less independent of statutory bodies. In my own part of Bristol, the Muslim community is quite small, a few percent only, but perhaps 1000 or so people. Apart from running some shops, they tend not to engage in more general community activities, events, campaigns etc. or, at least, that is my perception. Perhaps they are more involved in neighbourhoods where they form larger community groups. We would very much like to engage more with our Muslim neighbours, but don’t really know how.

  2. Iftikhar Ahmad

    An unprecedented seminar was organized at Lambeth Palace on 17th & 18th January 2002 for the creation of healthy relationship between Muslims and Christian all over the world. The late Dutch politician Mr.Pim Fortuys viewed Islam as backward because of its views on homosexuality. He is at a loss to understand that Jews and Christians share the same view. I can’t understand why Pim picked on Islam. The only rational logic I can think of that the spirit of Crusade is still alive in the unconscious minds of all Europeans.

    Charity begins at home and the British society first of all must learn to respect and understand Islamic faith and British Muslim community. It must find ways and means to live amicably for better race relations. Identifying Muslims as the groups most guilty of separatism is simplistic and dangerous. All British Muslims are apparently primitive and incapable of enlightenment. Islam is on the march to destroy Europe with its fine Judeo-Christian tradition. Muslims are the sand –niggers of this country, deserving no respect. A politician with gay lifestyle was admired for his openly expressed distaste for Islam. The world must worship him because he died a martyr for his beliefs. He was Dutch and the Dutch soldiers in Srebrenica could not protect Muslims being killed by Christians. He is considered not racist. Racism is such an ugly word, even the BNP likes not to be associated with it. Since 11th September, humiliating Muslims has become an open and much enjoyed sport and surprisingly, the number of European and American converts are on the increase. In my opinion Islam does not belong to west or east but it is for the whole humanity of the tiny global village.

    It has been proved without doubt that the British society is institutionally racist. Institutional racism is rife in all walks of life including education, employment, housing, NHS, media, law or name any institution where members of the Muslim community do not face racial and religious discrimination. The Muslim community lives in fear and is victim of verbal and physical abuses every where. The British society is a melting pot and the whole world is watching to see the elimination of racial and religious discrimination. The race industry has been ignored for the last 30 years now is the time to take constructive steps to eradicate the evils of racism prevailing in the British society. Building bridges does not mean assimilation and integration. It means establishing channels for contact, for talks, for the exchange of ideas. British needs to recognize and acknowledge that Muslim values do not pose a threat to the strategic values of western society. We all need dialogue at all levels. It is possible to find common ground on the basis of respect for difference and a toleration of others.

    Education is the home of institutional racism; therefore, British educational system must be reformed. Those state schools where Muslim pupils are in majority should be designated as Muslim community schools. Teacher is a role model; therefore, Qualified Muslim teachers are required to teach National Curriculum, Islamic studies, Arabic and Urdu languages.
    London School of Islamics Trust

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