This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Muslims and governance: an evolving relationship
The report Taking Part: Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance, by Therese O’Toole, Daniel Nilsson DeHanas, Tariq Modood, Nasar Meer and Stephen Jones, was launched in February 2013. In this article, Humera Khan offers her critical reflections on developments relating to Muslim participation in governance, arguing that grass-roots activism, especially by Muslim women, remains marginalised, whilst Muslim communities still struggle to make their voices heard in government.
Broadly speaking, the political participation of British Muslims can be discussed in three key phases: the Anglo-Rushdie Affair, post-9/11 and the aftermath of the London 7/7 bombing. The Satanic Verses fiasco highlighted the primacy of faith in Muslim communities and the deficiencies of a system that at the time recognised only identities based on race and class. It also galvanised the community and made it realise the necessity of political engagement: frustration and anger forced thousands into the streets. But despite the intensity and popularity of the political rallies the returns were not immediate – thanks to the lack of political strategy, relevant agenda and leadership and, most important, the massive rearguard action taken by liberals who felt threatened by the emergence of a faith identity.
But the obvious deterioration of the social and economic conditions coupled with increasing fears about the blowback from the first Gulf War and the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina increasingly made it difficult to continue subsuming Muslim identity under the ‘race’ category. Government had at least to be seen to be engaging with an increasingly ‘troublesome’ minority. Michael Howard, the then Home Office Secretary, advised a group of Muslim leaders in a meeting in March 1994 to set up an umbrella body in order ‘to make it easy for government to engage with the community’. In September 1997 the Runnymede Trust, a liberal flagship think-tank, launched the Islamophobia report but even this was not enough to convince the political establishment of the need to engage and embrace fundamental change in its dealing with a critical minority.
Not surprisingly therefore, 9/11 found the New Labour government in a fix: the authorities had no clear and effective channels to communicate with Britain’s nearly two million Muslims (as figures in the first census to include religious affiliation released only a few months before indicated). By the time Tony Blair declared war against Iraq the situation had deteriorated to the level that is proving difficult to redress to this day. Signs of what was to come had been seen in the Oldham riots of 2001, which was a desperate political act by a community that was and continues to be under-resourced, dispirited and disconnected. It was this sense of frustration, marginalisation and anger resulting in total lack of communications that many believed was a significant contributing factor in the London bombings of 7/7. While the attacks were shocking, they did not come as a complete surprise to experts who had warned of ‘platoons of young angry and disenfranchised Muslims’ across the country equally provoked by Britain’s foreign policy in the Muslim World.
The most disturbing connection between all three crisis points for Muslim communities has been the lost opportunities to invest in meaningful structures of engagement. The public discourse which followed the Rushdie Affair became polarised between Muslim organisations on the side of the blasphemy law and secular liberals emphasising the value of freedom of speech. This created a smokescreen for the real questions such as the racist and Islamophobic incitement of the BNP and the failure of local authorities to address the nature of the discrimination faced by Muslims, including the wider issues of deprivation and alienation. There were equally futile actions taken by Muslim organisations that scurried around to try and harness the neglected and volatile young Muslims. These efforts failed because they did not understand the feelings behind the eruption and did not invest in any long term programme of support. Taking Part sidesteps this impasse and suggests that this crisis positively led to questions of Muslim and religious discrimination being addressed. Perhaps questions were asked, but very little practical steps were taken. Despite the publication of the Runnymede Trust report Islamophobia: A Challenge To Us All little was understood or taken on board institutionally by governments or policymakers.
The shock of the London Bombings in 2005 added another knee-jerk layer of engagement resulting in the Preventing Violent Extremism Taskforce and Prevent Strategy. Though from the beginning most Muslims were generally sceptical of this approach, the need to ‘do something’ and hope that a more long term engagement would emerge encouraged Muslims to get involved. It was obvious as the Strategy evolved that addressing real issues on the ground, including the government’s own failures, was never its intention and that responsibility was once again solely on the community itself, in particular mosques and religious leaders
There was also a misleading assumption made by government that there existed within the Muslim community a viable voluntary sector able to deliver on the ground. Up until the Prevent Strategy focused on national security, it was possible to suggest that government and the Muslim community could work together for the common good. However, this illusion was completely shattered once major funding was given to local authorities to implement what was ironically called ‘community cohesion’ but which in fact did quite the opposite. The surveillance culture that it encouraged – that all Muslims were potential extremists – continues to be with us today.
What is important to note is that in most of the initiatives that affect them, Muslims have not been part of the formulation or even implementation of policies or strategies adopted, but only the victims. The approach has invariably been colonial in nature – the ‘take me to your leader’ strategy. At no point was there, or has there been until today, the recognition of the institutional failure of government and statutory sector to address the discrimination and exclusion faced by British Muslims. As a result the majority of Muslims tend to be sceptical and suspicious due to past experiences of government and the statutory sector introducing initiatives that are neither tangible nor aimed at addressing the root causes of problems faced by the community.
Taking Part has attempted to put together an extremely complex series of events, policies, conflicts and discussions in the post 9/11 world. It is a fair report but has some obvious limitations, which are fairly common in academic research in this area. Its overall conclusions are based on elite interviews, mainstream reports by government, media projections and academic research. As a result, hard-fought battles by grassroots organisations such as An-Nisa Society are never given their rightful place in the history of British Islam. The way the report has ignored the role of women is also a glaring weakness which needs to be rectified.
Several influential interventions do not even get a mention. This includes, for instance, a report titled ‘Briefing Paper: The Equality Bill 2009/10’ and ‘Implications for Muslims and the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE): A response from the Muslim Community, February 2009’ written by Khalida Khan, Director of An-Nisa Society. The latter report in particular was the only substantial critique of the Prevent Strategy and which gave a voice to Muslim concerns and spearheaded the battle to challenge the Strategy. This raises the question of whether genuine grassroots women’s organisations can be valued and recognised for their contribution. It seems that Muslim women are called upon only to address issues such as forced marriage, domestic violence and sexual grooming and are not on an equal footing with Muslim male led-organisations on the wider issues facing Muslims.
When the new coalition came into power and conducted a review of the Prevent Strategy, it initially took the pressure off the community, reducing the intensive scrutiny by the media and lessening the need to expend limited resources on campaigns challenging the policies it generated. This much needed breathing space allowed the Muslim community to develop itself more constructively, but this has been cut short by the recent Woolwich murder of Army drummer Lee Rigby. Where this will take us as far as government policy and Muslim engagement is concerned we will have to wait and see, but one thing is for sure: we must not allow it to take us back to the previous government’s culture of surveillance of the Muslim community.
In the absence of meaningful government action the Muslim community needs to step back from the merry-go-round of government scrutiny and explore ways of empowering ourselves to have ownership of our own agenda and futures. It is from this point of view that An-Nisa Society and Radical Middle Way have joined together to set up the Faith and Khidmah Campaign which aims to network, support and enhance the strategic development, capacity and impact of Muslim civil society in Britain. This initiative will engage with grassroots Muslim communities in an internal discussion on how to address the critical issues within the community and provide Muslim practitioners with a meaningful agenda. It will take time, but at least it will mean that a more pro-active process has begun and will hopefully not only shape the nature of future political engagement but also make it more effective and progressive.
Humera Khan is a freelance consultant and researcher and co-founded An-Nisa Society in 1985, an organisation managed by women working for the welfare of Muslim families. She has written numerous articles for various publications including Q-News, The Guardian and The Independent.
 Therese O’Toole et al., Taking Part: Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance (Bristol: University of Bristol, 2013).
 Fuad Nahdi, founder of Radical Middle Way, writing in 1997. Quoted in Alibhai-Brown Yasmin, ‘Who Are These Self-appointed Clerics That so Mislead Our Young Muslims?’ The Independent, 22 October 2001, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/yasmin-alibhai-brown/yasmin-alibhaibrown-who-are-these-selfappointed-clerics-that-so-mislead-our-young-muslims-632165.html.
The image in this article is taken from a workshop run by the An-Nisa Society exploring the issue of culture and identity entitled ‘A Single Box Cannot Explain Me’.