Who speaks for us? The ‘who’ and ‘how’ of faith representation

800px-Gordon_Brown_at_Diwali_in_House_of_CommonsThere is a seemingly limitless number of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, humanist, Sikh and other faith organisations active in public debates in the UK, many of which advance explicit or implied claims to represent their tradition or community on some – if not all – issues. But can a single organisation ever legitimately represent a faith community, and if so what should it look like? Should elected politicians ever engage with such representative organisations, and if so how should they go about it?

This series of articles examines how these two questions apply to British Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. In three of the articles, the sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris, John Zavos of the University of Manchester and Jasjit Singh of the University of Leeds examine the emergence, respectively, of Jewish, Hindu and Sikh representative organisations.

As Keith Kahn-Harris explains in Representing Jews, Britain has long hosted organisations whose main role has been to represent Jewish interests to government. However, as these organisations’ traditional role of cementing a sense of national loyalty among Jews has shifted and the Jewish population has diversified, Jewish representation has become a more complex affair, with new challengers emerging.

Hindus and Sikhs, by contrast, have a much shorter history in Britain, but John Zavos, in Representing British Hindus, and Jasjit Singh, in Who Speaks for British Sikhs?, show that over the last fifty years the Hindu and Sikh populations of Britain have both formed into recognisable ‘faith communities’, with a number of publicly active umbrella bodies emerging to address matters of political concern, such as discrimination in employment.

In two further articles, Stephen Jones et al. of the University of Bristol and Paul Statham of the University of Sussex examine recent developments in Muslim representation. In Not Easy Being in the British Media, Paul Statham focuses on Muslims groups’ efforts to influence media portrayals of Muslims, while in A System of Self-Appointed Leaders?, Stephen Jones et al. argue against the common portrayal of Muslim-government relations as a ‘system of self-appointed leaders’. Drawing on recent empirical studies, both articles agree that recent years have seen new Muslim organisations as well as new styles of representation emerging.

Finally, in Religious Leaders Don’t Represent Religious People, focusing on Christian faith leaders, Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University and the Religion and Society Programme argues that politicians and the media too often make the error of taking religious leaders’ claims about what Christians believe at face value.