Reimagining British Muslims
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Saturday 19th September 2020
Analysis

Tuesday, July 21st, 2020

This is the third in a series of articles which have sought to analyse the progress the community has made across sectors in the United Kingdom. The first was an analysis of the progress made against the recommendations that were put forward by groups of Muslim community leaders in 2005. The second is a review article on the issue of gender which cuts across many themes that affect the community. This is the third analytical piece and I will review the state of play in the community today in 2020, identifying the ways in which things have improved but also that which still needs to be bettered.

By far the most important fact to recognise when studying British Muslim community organisations is the lack of formal authority across the sectors. There is no unifying board or authority in most sectors, and any attempts to form such bodies are completely dependent upon the voluntarism of the people involved, meaning organisations can choose to join or leave such bodies. Ultimately, this is because the overriding decisive driving force in the community is the market, not the state or any community attempt to form something that has state-like authority.

It is the appeal to the market – i.e. to Joe Muslim as a consumer or donor – that has driven many of the key developments in the community in the past two decades. Some of these have been commercial, but as with most things that have an element of religion in them the formal entities have been a mix of commercial and charitable enterprises: some being more commercial, some less commercial. The main sectors in the British Muslim community are the education, mosque, halal and charitable sectors. It would be the guess of this writer that each sector has value in the hundreds of millions though this needs to be calculated.

A brief overview of the recent historical development of the community could point to three phases:

1980 – 2000 – a time of identity assertion and political campaigning: issues around multiculturalism, identity politics, the Rushdie affair, the Muslim youth groups

2000-2020 – a time for community start-ups and the establishment of community institutions e.g. MCB (1997), MINAB, MEND, Tell MAMA, Faith Associates, many of the larger charities, marriage websites, satellite TV channels, travel companies, halal food monitoring (such as HMC and HFA), Islamic finance institutions (such as ar Rayan Bank and HSBC Amanah finance)

2020 – start-up phase coming to an end, and community organizational landscape needs to be rationalized and streamlined as we look to the future. The finishing line for this particular analysis is set at 2030.

This audit of community assets will do two things: it will review the state of play across the board and ask what gaps remain in 2020? And then it will look forward to 2030 to see what needs to be addressed in order to face the challenges that lie ahead.

The first article in this series highlighted the progress made against the recommendations of the Preventing Extremism Together working groups in 2005. There has clearly been some progress in some areas more than others. For example, there are some outstanding mosques in the United Kingdom which provide an incredible all-round service. However, these remain the exception. There is a general all-round improvement in the sector and there is a considerable amount of work that still needs to be done. MINAB – the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board – is still functioning, however, it has only recently been revived. Between the MCB’s work with mosques, Faith Associates and MINAB there is a considerable amount of work happening in the mosque sector but there needs to be some rationalization to the structure and processes. Ultimately, there should be one mosque co-ordination body across the country. At the local and regional level, there should also be mosque and Islamic organization co-ordination bodies (i.e. Council for Mosque structures) and these already exist in many areas but the organisations vary in size and structure quite considerably. Some Council for Mosques organisations for example have an office and staff employed, while others are not much more than websites or facebook pages. This needs to change to help each local area prepare for the coming challenges which will most likely be substantial.

There has also been some improvement in the anti-Islamophobia field. This is needed as it is clear that there are people that are actually funding anti-Muslim activities in the UK. It is very important for the community to challenge such attempts to stir up hatred wherever they occur. Three bodies: MEND, Tell MAMA and the MCB’s media monitoring committee have been set up to do this in the past decade or so. Their effectiveness is variable and again there needs to be some streamlining of such approaches as two are reliant upon community resources, Tell MAMA has been recipient of government support.

In the charity sector, twenty years ago there were two or three major charities, now there are several that have over ten million pounds worth of annual income. It is unclear why new charities are being set up and how they are making more of a difference to those in need. The work of development is specialized and can achieve impact, some global charities are even working to eradicate poverty. Again, there needs to be a discussion around streamlining, accountability and professionalization.

There have been two major initiatives set up by community organisations to help improve community relations: Open Iftar and Visit My Mosques (run by the MCB). Both have been taken up across the country by mosques and community organisations as British Muslims have responded to the call to reach out to their neighbours.

A major development that is similar in thinking is the increasing attention that British Muslim charities have made towards ‘local’ or ‘UK-based’ needs. The National Zakat Foundation which has also been recently set up made this case clearly that zakat should be spent in the UK. The floods in Cumbria saw many British Muslim charities (especially those in the North) organize to provide food, supplies and support to those in need; and the response of British Muslim charities to the Covid 19 crisis has been substantial and was clearly of importance to the national response as a whole. Another development is the establishment of philanthropic organisations that are seeking to support causes in the United Kingdom. There are several family trusts that have been set up now and many are focusing some of their efforts on projects in the UK.

What this shows is that money is not the problem in finding funds for British Muslim projects. Rather it is the allocation of funds to the right kinds of projects, and to streamline our projects to ensure that there is little wastage or duplication. There essentially needs to be a needs analysis by all the key stakeholders and commissioners in the UK. We need to identify our priorities for now and our priorities heading into the future. Looking ahead, 2030 seems to be a good finishing line to aim towards. The main challenge that we will face is the demographic challenge. It is possible that population projections will be affected by Brexit and by a changing class profile. As more of the community becomes middle class, average family sizes will become smaller and so the numbers of Muslims will increase at a lower rate. But nevertheless, there will be a considerable shift in numbers with Muslims forming large minorities in many major British cities: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, Blackburn and Leicester. It will be important in these cities for local leaderships to emerge to tackle the various challenges that will arise due to a shifting demographic.

What is required between now and then is the mainstreaming of good practice. In each sector, whether this be in mosques, schools or charities, there are examples of best practice. For example, in each major city there will now be at least one or two mosques that our outstanding. In each major city there will be at least one or two secondary schools serving Muslim children that are outstanding. What is required now at the local level in each city is the spreading of this best practice across the sector. This can only happen through transparency, accountability and co-ordination.

However, there is another shift that has occurred in the past ten to fifteen years which makes this much more possible. There has been a generational shift across most organisations including at the national level such that the leadership of most organisations is now held by second generation Muslims i.e. power is held by those who in many cases have been arguing for the above for the past decade or more. To put it simply, it is within our gift to mainstream good practice. With the kind of changes that are occurring at the moment, this will become necessary.

So essentially, this analysis is a call to all Muslim leaders to take a step back and review our institutional landscape. We should then check this against what we wish to see in 2030 and rearrange our institutional landscape if that is what is required in order to ensure that we are best prepared for the challenges to come.

This is the third article in a series of three articles which review the Muslim community organizational and institutional landscape. This is an overview as MuslimView relaunches itself to set the terms of debate about how we proceed. We welcome responses and alternative views. We will be proceeding nevertheless to work through many of the issues that have been highlighted in these three pieces.

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Atif Imtiaz

Atif has been involved in Muslim community life since the late eighties. He is a student of social psychology, his...
read more about Atif Imtiaz