‘How should the left engage with British Muslims?’

Monday 28th September 2009, 7:30pm

Chair: Jessica Asato, Acting Director, Progress

Guest-speakers:  Rt Hon. John Denham MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government; Ed Husain, Co-Director of Quilliam; Martin Bright, Journalist and Commentator; Tahir Abbas FRSA, Visiting Professor, Birkbeck College, London (pending)


Ed Husain, Co-Director, Quilliam

–    What the left should not do:

  • Adopt the attitude of ‘take us to your leader’, and only engage with Muslim communities through self-appointed male middle-aged leaders.
  • Seek representation of British Muslims as a monolithic community.
  • Turn only to religion to address British Muslims. Besides mosque structures, there are junctures where Muslims interact with wider society: football supporters, college students, pensioners, for example. We must speak to them as ordinary humans and British citizens, and not just talk to them through the prism of religion.

–    What the left should do:

  • Engage with Muslims as citizens like everyone else. The British Muslim representative model doesn’t work for a whole host of reasons.
  • The left — and the Labour Party in particular — should be the grassroots movement of British politics that young Muslims/Asians/Brits are looking for. The Labour Party has failed to galvanize on people’s genuine concerns.
  • The left should not shy away from confronting far-right Islamist extremism. Fascism is not only a white-European problem. The left sees minority communities as those that should be protected and not criticised. This liberal paralysis ends up in doing a disservice to minority communities. Instead, the left must confront attitudes in these communities that are anti-women, anti-secular etc.

–    Overall, then, the answer is that the left should not engage with Muslims as Muslims per se, but as British citizens and ordinary humans.

–    After 12 years of Labour, the government has done many things right, but it is also worth asking where it went wrong and why Blackburn and other northern cities remain so dangerously divided along ethnic and religious lines.

Tahir Abbas FRSA, Visiting Professor, Birkbeck College, London (pending)

–    It is probably apt to see what the left has done for Muslim engagement and then look at the disparities of what it still needs to do.

–    What Labour has done:

  • The essential policy problems in relation to Muslim engagement in the current period relate to the policy errors of 2001 and since.
  • Policy sought to placate the middle classes, who were being increasingly wooed by New Labour, and focused on questions of values and identity rather than genuine economic development and policy.
  • The traditional left in politics should perhaps have taken a braver stance, but it was crushed by the weight of global pressures in relation the ‘war on terror’.
  • At the very start of New Labour, the Muslim Council of Britain engaged in a honeymoon that lasted until the events of 2001, home and abroad. Cajoled and manoeuvred, a swathe of new Muslim umbrella groups were formed in an instant and projected as the viable and acceptable face of moderate Islam.
  • With the main plank of community engagement seen through the prism of preventing violent extremism it is no surprise that disengagement is a significant issue.

–    What Labour needs to do:

  • To move forward, New Labour, ironically, has to find its centre. Tossing between left and right politics and policy-making has left an ideological vacuum.
  • It is important to move towards an agenda that brings people together rather than then driving them apart; providing equality of opportunity but also equality of outcome, economic stability and cultural intersectionality.

Martin Bright, Journalist and Commentator

–    The recent change of engagement policy has been a bitter decision within Labour circles.

–    How should the left engage with British Muslims?

  • Stop thinking of engagement as a problem and embrace the opportunities it gives for solidarity and mutual benefit.
  • Not think of Muslim communities as a homogenous bloc that we have to go out and engage with. Instead, start thinking of a complex network of interlocking and sometimes not interlocking groups.
  • Think of ourselves as on the left, and as such make strategic alliances with other groups on the left.
  • Build capacity — in particular within the Bangladeshi community, but within other Muslim communities as well.
  • Immediately stop funding for groups that cross the line into racism. End the idea that organizations on the extreme Islamic right are representative of the ‘Muslim on the street’.
  • Move away from an obsession with Islamophobia, and get to a position where we can criticise certain Muslim groups without being condemned as Islamophobes.

Rt Hon. John Denham MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

–    It is worth going back and remembering why governments should engage with faith communities at all. There are two reasons:

  • Government should be interested in things which are motivational for the people.
  • Government is interested in understanding things that shape behaviour.

–    This means that, in principle, discussions with faith communities range across a spectrum of issues and aspirations.

–    One of the difficulties we’ve got into, is an assumption that engagement with Muslim communities is only in relation to violent extremism. Even though no one in government would say that is our view, it is essential that it is not perceived to be either.

–    If it hadn’t been for the events of 9/11 and 7/7, many of the short-comings of engagement would have been tackled differently, for example engaging with Muslim voters rather than Muslim organizations. The reality is that the need to adequately respond to these attacks diverted us away from what we would have done. We are now getting things back to where they need to be.

–    We have found that by the way we labelled and organized Muslim communities, and the way on occasion that other faith communities were excluded from them, that the label was actually a barrier to participation and effectiveness. We have now changed the direction of the Prevent agenda accordingly.

–    I am not coming here to criticise my predecessors — they responded to 9/11 and other events, and did what was right at the time — but we have to move on.

–    We have critical-, non- and naive-engagement. Non-engagement means not agreeing with an organization’s views, and therefore refusing engagement with them.  But if you don’t create space for critical engagement, you end up only talking to those that you agree with. There must be limits with those who do break the law, but otherwise we have to recognise that most situations are resolved through engagement with those with whom you don’t necessarily agree.

–    Those are the principles with which we must treat the Muslim communities — indeed, other faith communities and politics as a whole. If we are not prepared to do so, the problem will get worse rather than better.

Martin Bright

–    I do not have a problem with dialogue; I have a problem with funding. The government was extremely naive to see the MCB as a representative organization rather than one with a particular ideological position. As long as you are aware of that, I have no problem with dialogue with them; although I have some issues with funding it to the extent it was funded.

–    I also have a problem with constantly referring to foreign policy when talking about home policy. You may need to have dialogue with some unpleasant organizations abroad, but this is not the case in the UK where there are vast numbers of organizations and individuals that you can talk to instead. Would it be right to fund extreme British right-wing racist organizations?

John Denham MP

–    We work very closely to ensure that we don’t fund organizations that we do not wish to fund or support. Actually, we don’t have a strategy of funding faith organizations, but of funding activities. Year by year we are learning to do this better. But lets not leave the impression that we have a massive funding programme of all of these organizations.

Highlights of speakers’ responses to questions

John Denham MP

–    The point about international events is that we are learning they have effects on the streets here. The reason you need to bring people together is to prevent the international issue spilling over to disagreements between communities in Britain.

–    I am sceptical of measuring employment rates by faith, as I don’t believe it necessarily shows what is going on. Other factors have a massive effect. By all means let’s engage by faith, but only where faith is the problem.

–    The question is whether secular values need separately representing. My instinct is that they probably don’t because faith communities bring a dimension to the issues that we talk about that can be different from general secular values.

Ed Husain

–    I have a list of organizations that CLG have funded, where funds have gone extreme Islamist groups. In terms of there being an ‘indirect’ government connection with MAB, this is through MINAB (a government advisory body), on which MAB sits. It is well and good to say we’re learning, but 12 years on how much more learning do we need before we get it right?

–    The issue about the Muslim and Jewish communities in Britain being treated separately is correct. I am not convinced that the next Israeli-Palestinian crisis will result in the government speaking to all groups involved in one room. The government prefers to see these communities as safe monolithic blocs to be addressed separately.

–    Other factors explain more about unemployment than faith. Nearly 10 000 Muslims are in prison now, which is disproportionate. But they are not in prison because they are Muslim — if anything, they would have broken tenets of their faith to commit the crime.

–    In being ahead of Europe, Britain is still behind on one issue. Large numbers of British Muslims still go ‘back home’ to get married, in comparison to France where roughly 30% marry from among French non-Muslim communities. We are not there yet in Britain, and until we get there it is delusional to think about integration. There is much to do.

Tahir Abbas

–    This issue about intersectionality between race and religion is very important. English converts experience a penalty in the Labour market that is a function of their religious classification rather than their racial category. It is therefore important to bear in mind that there is a disadvantage than can be characterised by religion. It is used in the census as a useful tool because it helps us allocate resources and understand the nature of our communities.

–    9/11 did shift the parameters of discussions surrounding Muslim communities. However, it is also true that reports published did focus on ideas of values and identities and not socio-economic disadvantages. Denham’s report did move forward on that front.

–    The European dynamic is very important. Britain is ahead of the game in terms of how we treat our Muslim minorities. We are far better in terms of the engagement process, however limited it is.

–    Intergenerational disconnect is a real problem. This is to do with mobility, cultural and theological issues that create gaps between the generations. This vacuum is sometimes filled by ideological messages from outside — Salafi radicalism, for example. It is a sociological phenomenon in terms of underdevelopment. Over time we would expect a normalisation but it is yet to come.

Martin Bright

–    There is a problem with conflating foreign and domestic policy. There is a risk of over-emphasising the relationship of communities in this country with their perceived ‘homelands’. This is extremely problematic. I am not underestimating the emotional effect that Palestine has on British Muslims. However, why is the same passion not projected onto what is happening in Bangladesh, for instance? There is an over-emphasis on certain issues.

–    YMAG and MWAG have potentially been more below the radar than they should have been. I really hope that the change of policy which John Denham is engaged in will not mean that they are flushed away but are made more representative and robust. It is a better way of engaging with grass-roots than other strategies they’ve used.

–    There are huge issues with anti-ghetto rhetoric by far-right parties in Europe. However, in Britain we have always seen ghettoes as fragile communities that cluster together for support; as something healthy that people need to move on from. The example of East London can continue to be a positive model of immigrant communities living together and helping each other before moving on.