Presence, voice and impact: Muslim participation in governance

Therese O’TooleStephen H. JonesDan Nilsson DeHanasTariq Modood and Nasar Meer

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Muslims and governance: an evolving relationship

Taking Part

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Thanks to events such as the Rushdie affair and the publication in Denmark in 2005 of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim political activism has been associated primarily with protest. The last fifteen years have however seen Muslims increasingly participating in governance. Though less remarked on, this type of political action has had a significant impact on national politics in Britain.

It may be difficult to imagine that thirty years ago British Muslims went largely unnoticed. In the early 1980s, the British press published only a fifth of the articles on Islam that they do today.[1] When Muslims did attract public attention, the overriding focus on ‘race’ and ethnicity meant they were generally viewed by political commentators on both right and left not as Muslims but as ‘Asians’.

Since then Muslims have repeatedly found themselves in the spotlight. The Rushdie affair, the end of the Cold War and, especially, 9/11 and 7/7 prompted sustained scrutiny of Islam in Britain, along with intense (and not always productive) debates about the integration of Muslims, the accommodation of Muslim difference and the involvement of Muslims in political extremism.

Yet the growing self-organisation and political activism of British Muslims is only partly due to such flash-points. The last two decades have witnessed other, less spectacular, developments that have seen British Muslims becoming politically and civically embedded in UK governance at both local and national levels.

First, there has been a rise in activism among Muslims. Muslim groups lobbying for state recognition of Muslim distinctiveness and seeking inclusion within governance have proliferated, with a wide range of new, diverse groups becoming audible. Second, there has been institutional innovation in the ways in which government engages with Muslims. The emergence of new forms of participatory governance has created new points of contact between the state and civil society groups – including Muslim, and other faith, groups.

MPCG TOT 1Between 2010 and 2013 we undertook a study whose aim was to analyse these changing dynamics of Muslim participation in governance.[2] To date it is the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind, based on a total of 112 interviews with a wide range of state and civil society actors – including MPs, civil servants, policy advisers, police, faith leaders, representatives and community activists. Our research examined state–Muslim engagement across policy areas such as equalities, community cohesion and community oriented counter-terrorism (in particular the ‘Prevent’ agenda), examining how state-Muslim engagement plays out nationally and in different local contexts. Our aim was to provide a detailed account of Muslim engagement in governance since 1997, exploring areas of progress as well as setbacks.

Setbacks were not hard to find. Over the last decade, there was a tendency in government to see engagement with Muslims through the prism of security and counter-terrorism. In particular, potentially worthwhile projects – such as those aimed at amplifying the voices of Muslim women – were distorted by the Prevent agenda.[3] There was also a tendency within government for ministers to support one Muslim organisation, only to capriciously switch to another according to the vagaries of public perception or changes in the Cabinet.

But alongside these there have been remarkable successes. Muslim campaigning and lobbying have resulted in significant achievements in securing institutional responses to tackling discrimination and misrecognition. Progress has often been slow, power relationships have often been one-sided, but state-Muslim engagement has become more sophisticated. Notably, there is today a diverse political landscape, or what Tariq Modood calls a ‘democratic constellation’, of Muslim civil society groups.[4] Below we summarise some of these developments, focusing on three dimensions: presence, voice and impact.


The phrase ‘a politics of presence’ was coined by the political philosopher Anne Phillips as a way of drawing attention to the fact that the ability of social groups to take part in political processes matters, perhaps as much as the ideas debated during those processes.[5] Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Muslims were for the most part absent from British political institutions, with no MPs or peers and very few councillors.

Recent decades have seen a slowly increasing presence of Muslims within political institutions. New Labour appointed the three first Muslim peers in 1998 – Lord Ahmed, Lord Alli, and Baroness Uddin – whose youth and political biographies were at the time seen as a challenge to the House of Lords establishment. Britain’s first Muslim MP, Mohammad Sarwar, was elected in 1997, and since then the number of Muslim MPs in the House of Commons has doubled with each successive general election, with eight entering Parliament following the 2010 general election. Included among these were Britain’s first three female Muslim MPs[6] and first two conservative Muslim MPs.[7]

The growing presence of MusliMPCG TOT 2ms in political positions can also be seen in the civil service and in local councils, where there are now more than 200 councillors of Muslim origin.[8] There has been a steady increase in Muslim presence in governance through faith-based initiatives, participatory local governance structures and as a consequence of the need to find representative bodies on issues relating to cohesion, equalities, integration and security.

Progress, however, does not mean equality. In both upper and lower houses of Parliament the proportion of Muslims remains far below that in the general population (in the Commons, parity would be achieved with 31 Muslim MPs). At the local council level, Muslim politicians remain overwhelmingly likely to be male, first generation migrants, South Asian, and affiliated with the Labour Party. With some notable exceptions, Muslim women, younger generations, and ‘new arrivals’ (for example Somalis) have a limited presence in formal political institutions, though these groups have been active in alternatives to conventional ballot box politics.[9]


Muslim civil society activism is now far more complex than it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Muslim-government relations were mediated by one or two large mosque federations. Muslim umbrella groups in Britain have existed since at least the 1970s, when the Union of Muslim Organisations was formed, followed shortly by the Council of Mosques and the Council of Imams and Mosques. During this time, however, Muslim organisations suffered from various limitations: mosque hierarchies dominated, different organisations were divided along ethnic and/or theological lines and government contact was minimal.

This third problem was overcome in the early 1990s following the Rushdie affair, which saw the creation of a range of new lobbying groups, including the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs (UKACIA) and the (at the time strongly separatist) Muslim Parliament.[10] In the mid-1990s, the UKACIA, in discussion with government, helped form the National Interim Committee on Muslim Unity in 1994, which in turn led to the foundation of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in 1997, a few months before the election of a new Labour government.

The years between 1997 and 2005 represented a ‘golden period’ for the MCB, with its leaders enjoying the attention of national political leaders and advancing a case for key legal and policy changes. During this time, however, the other problems remained, and as a consequence ‘competitors’ to the MCB began to emerge, with some of these coming from different Islamic traditions, and others presenting counter-arguments to specific positions that the MCB had taken on subjects such as faith schools and legal pluralism (especially the place of Sharia within English civil law).

MPCG photo
Taking part: Consultations between Muslims and government, such as this one involving the group Forward Thinking, have become more common over the last two decades

This proliferation of Muslim groups intensified under New Labour, which after 7/7 sought new partners, such as the Sufi Muslim Council and Quilliam, which were willing to support its approach to integration and counter-terrorism – an approach that proved controversial. This period also saw an increase in other participatory opportunities and contact points, such as those created through the Preventing Extremism Together working groups. Notably, our research found that such forums opened up pathways into governance for those outside of conventional mosque networks. While contact between Muslim groups and government remains a vexed issue, our research also indicated a more nuanced understanding of Muslim representation emerging, reflecting a growing recognition that the ‘take me to your leader approach’ that had typified the state’s engagement with Muslim civil society was unworkable and unwanted.  Links between Muslim organisations and the state have become increasingly diverse, with agreements and disagreements recognised as a necessary part of, rather than an obstacle to, effective engagement.


How much impact has this increasing political presence and lobbying had upon political decisions, policy language, funding allocations, and other governance outcomes? The hardening of public opinion against multiculturalism and the emphasis by government on security and extremism have led many academics to depict government engagement as mainly instrumental or tokenistic. Muslims are commonly portrayed as the objects, rather than subjects, of governance – a group that has been played, rather than one actively playing the game.[11]

But, for a range of reasons, this is too negative and simplistic a picture. In part, this is because Muslim actors engaged in governance have often been able to adapt government agendas to unintended ends. In Birmingham, Leicester and Tower Hamlets, we interviewed local actors who had adopted a very different approach to Prevent to that advocated nationally. At a national level, many Muslim actors remained active in governance even after the organisation they represented had fallen out of favour with ministers.

Then there are the concrete policy changes that Muslim activists have played a part in securing. Muslims may have had little impact upon foreign policy, but at a domestic level Muslim groups can claim successes in securing strengthened religious discrimination legislation, legal accommodation for halal and shechita slaughter and state funding of Islamic schools. One of the main achievements of Muslim lobbying groups has been the introduction of a question about religious identity in the decennial national census. This development was noteworthy because the transition from ‘Asian’ to ‘Muslim’ mentioned earlier is frequently viewed as having been imposed by outside forces. It has often been implied that Muslims have been victims of what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls the ‘medusa effect’, where the gaze of the media ‘freezes’ a person’s identity in stone.[12] While this has undoubtedly been an issue, the ability to adopt a distinctive identity in the public sphere is something many Muslims have actively fought for.

Indeed, Muslim recognition remains a matter of political contestation. It is lamentable that these legislative and policy successes have not led to more positive attitudes toward Islam in Britain. On the contrary, there is a prevailing perception that Muslims are an aggressive minority that commands unreasonable privileges from, whilst refusing to integrate into, British society. As one of our interviewees observed, while Muslims have won legislative battles they have struggled to make an impact on wider narratives regarding integration. This is despite the findings of several studies and surveys that, on average, Muslims in Britain actually embrace British identity more enthusiastically than white Britons.[13] Campaigning may have resulted in greater acceptance of Muslims taking part in British governance and politics, but acceptance of Muslims as being part of British society remains a political struggle.

And yet, there is today an increasingly plural, politically and media literate landscape of Muslims civil society organisations. The speedy, sophisticated and unified public response of Muslim groups to the appalling murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in May, which condemned the murder, extended sympathies to the soldier’s family and challenged (and in some cases engaged with) the far-right English Defence League illustrated this. Muslim organisations locally and nationally are today more able to demonstrate a proactive and reflexive willingness to meet the challenges of engaging with public discourses on the place of Muslims in British society.

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.

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.

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] This is one of the main findings of the ESRC/AHRC Religion and Society Programme project ‘Media portrayals of religion and the secular sacred’ by Kim Knott, Elisabeth Poole and Teemu Taira. See:

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

[3] Katherine E. Brown, ‘The Promise and Perils of Women’s Participation in UK Mosques: The Impact of Securitisation Agendas on Identity, Gender and Community’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations 10, no. 3 (2008): 472–491.

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

[5] Anne Phillips, The Politics of Presence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[6] These were Yasmin Qureshi (Labour, Bolton South East), Rushanara Ali (Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow) and Shabana Mahmood (Labour, Birmingham Ladywood).

[7] These were Rehman Chishtie (Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham) and Sajid Javid (Conservative, Bromsgrove). The three other MPs elected in 2010 were Khalid Mahmood (Labour, Birmingham Perry Barr since 2001), Sadiq Khan (Labour, Tooting since 2005) and Anas Sarwar (Labour, Glasgow Central from 2010).

[8] Sophie Gilliat-Ray, Muslims in Britain: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 249.

[9] Richard Gale and Therese O’Toole, ‘Young People and Faith Activism: British Muslim Youth, Glocalisation and the Umma’, in Faith in the Public Realm: Controversies Policies and Practices, ed. Adam Dinham, Robert Furbey, and Vivien Lowndes (Bristol: Policy Press, 2009), 143–162.

[10] Humayun Ansari, The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain Since 1800 (London: Hurst & Co., 2004), 362–364.

[11]For a good example of this kind of position see Arun Kundnani, The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain (London: Pluto Press, 2007). Similar emphasis on security and disciplining of Muslims is found in Derek McGhee, The End of Multiculturalism? Terrorism, Integration and Human Rights (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2008).

[12] Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 110.

[13] The Coexist Foundation, The Gallup Coexist Index 2009: A Global Study of Interfaith Relations (London: Gallup, 2009), 19.

The image in this article is included courtesy of Forward Thinking.

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