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, Dilwar Husain responds to the report and offers his reflections on what it means for Muslims in Britain, calling on British Muslims to move beyond reacting to events and build a more positive narrative about Islam in the UK.
What I propose to do is make four observations about what this important research reveals about Muslim participation, before offering a few thoughts about how the report asks questions of the Muslim community in Britain.
First of all, when I was reading the report, what struck me was how much impact Muslim communities have had in terms of keeping alive the debate about faith in the public sphere. Of course, Muslims are not a majority faith, far from it; they are only about five per cent of the population. But the amount of debate – for good or for bad, because clearly not all of it is helpful and not all of it is positive – that has ensued in the last ten to fifteen years about Islam and the presence of Muslims, their belonging, their position, their role, their aspirations, has kept alive a debate about what faith as a whole means in our society.
Secondly, there is an important theme that runs through this report, and that is how engaged Muslims actually are. Often the public narrative is that Muslims are disengaged from public life or political structures of society. They are, supposedly, self-isolating. Yet this report shows how extensively engaged people have been, people from wildly different backgrounds – different movements, organisations, groups, individuals, mosques and networks in different parts of the country. There is a wider narrative of integration that the report very helpfully constructs.
Thirdly, there is a delicate balance that comes out in the report concerning the agency that Muslims have. That is to say, there is a balance between, on the one hand, how much Muslims act in their own name and act consciously and deliberatively and, on the other, how much is ‘done to them’. There have been purposeful, strategic, deliberate interventions that Muslims have made, for example in lobbying for the census question about religion, or lobbying for particular forms of accommodation or legislation. But a lot of Muslim public action has taken the form of scrambling once the headlights hit you, and asking: ‘How do we now react?’ And I think anyone who works with Muslim communities will have seen that tension and will have felt those dynamics in their relationships with people within the Muslim community. Right now, I’m not sure that the balance is right. While some Muslim action is deliberative, much of it is just reacting and responding.
Then fourth, there is a point about, to quote Mohammed Aziz in the report, winning the battles but losing the wider war. I think what we have seen over the last fifteen years is that there have been some particular gains that have been made in legislation, particularly around equality issues with the introduction, and gradual strengthening, of religious discrimination legislation. But overall, there has been a negative turn in the way that Muslims and Islam are perceived. The image of Islam and Muslims, and the public reaction to Islam and Muslims, is probably more negative now than it was fifteen years ago. There are lots of important strategic lessons in that about how the Muslim community needs to influence the wider debate.
My final set of reflections focus on questions that this report poses to Muslims. O’Toole et al.’s report is structured along four main themes: 1) faith representation; 2) equality and diversity; 3) inter-faith engagement; and 4) security and Prevent, and I want to offer a reflection for Muslims on each of those areas.
First of all, on representation, there are important lessons to learn about how Muslims manage their own internal democracy – that is, how organisations work, how individuals relate to those organisations, and how representation works. The report says that we have shifted in a helpful direction and I would agree with that. As the report says, we have in British politics shifted from a ‘take me to your leader’ approach of a singular representative, to a ‘democratic constellation’ of competing voices. That raises a lot of questions and dilemmas, I believe, for Muslims. For example, how will Muslims engage in the process of representation with a ‘constellation’ of competing voices and can competition be harnessed positively? What democratic methods will we evolve to benefit from that competition creatively rather than allow it to be a hindrance?
Secondly, on equality and diversity, the report does say that much has been achieved on the broader legislative front on equality and diversity, but it also raises the important question of what commitment Muslim communities are making to those equality and diversity issues themselves. Are these pragmatic pursuits to pursue legislative protection for ‘us’ – in quotes – while we don’t really think seriously about the impact that is having on anybody else, or is this a thoroughgoing, principled pursuit of equality for all? That naturally creates lots of argument and debate within the Muslim community. What about gender equality? What about the rights of minority groups within Muslim circles?
On faith engagement, a lot has been happening and a lot of good progress has been made; the report picks up on that. But there are real challenges about how deep those engagements currently go, how much further they need to go and how much more meaningful they can become. Also, there is a challenge about how practical they can be, because a lot of the engagement is largely talk and discussion. I think the Near Neighbours programme helps to move these discussions toward a more practical area.
Finally, on security, the most controversial of the areas here, there is a question about how Muslims and Muslim organisations, without becoming ‘agents’ of government, deal with a problem that is a real issue for society? How do you deal with that dynamic? How do you, proactively, pre-emptively deal with those concerns so that we actually take ownership of a situation? The area of security and Prevent has been the classic example of something that so far has been ‘done to’ Muslims; it needs to be something that Muslims can confidently take ownership of as the agenda is far too important for Muslims to ignore, firstly for their own interest, and more importantly, for the public interest.
Dilwar Hussain is Chair of ‘New Horizons in British Islam’, a new organisation that works on reform within Muslim thought and practice. He is also an independent consultant on Islam and social policy.
 Therese O’Toole et al., Taking Part: Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance (Bristol: University of Bristol, 2013).
The image of Medina Mosque is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.