How the government should handle the 'Muslim Question'

Muslims should be viewed as equal citizens, nothing more and nothing less.

The 'Muslim Question', or how the government should interact with its Muslim citizens - beyond terrorism - around issues of identity, citizenship, integration, extremism, immigration and religious freedom is set to remain a vexatious challenge for years to come. Until recently the domestic approach to the 'Muslim question' can be caricatured as being populated by the 'Good', the 'Bad', and the 'Ugly'. The 'Good', patronising self-righteous liberals full of the very thing they riled against - colonial baggage - held that 'The Muslim Community' should appoint a 'chief' to speak on behalf of his (for it was always a he) 'savage' community, who could obviously not speak for themselves or establish any form of identity beyond the collective 'Muslim' label imposed upon their varying cultures and sects. The 'Bad', being the inverse of the 'Good' ironically held the same colonial baggage, and insisted that to integrate into Western society all Muslims must completely assimilate and shed any heritage from their 'alien' culture, or 'go home'.

From this simplified post-colonial polarisation emerged the 'Ugly'. These were politicised, agenda-driven Muslim umbrella groups that leapt at the chance of being 'chief' for the Muslim 'savage' while simultaneously claiming to defend Muslims against the 'Bad'. Such umbrella groups were convenient for the 'Bad' too. They provided the perfect bogeyman reinforcing gross generalisations that suited their anti-Muslim agenda.

These 'community' groups naturally emerged from those who self-identified as exclusively Muslim in politics - the Islamists - and UK-based Muslim Brotherhood affiliates were the most organised of these. The resultant affect was that through such Muslim Brotherhood front-groups like the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), or its South Asian ideological counterpart the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), the public face of Muslim British citizens became increasingly associated with the justification of terrorism abroad and attempts at supporting the codification of 'Sharia' as law. By acting as a front for the political agenda of their parent Islamist groups abroad, these 'community groups' hijacked the progress of Muslims as Britons by frequently taking reprehensible stances that had more in common with the factitious nature of Middle-East politics than anything going on in the UK.

I refer here to the likes of former MAB spokesman Azzam Tamimi and his statement that, were he in Palestine, he would engage in a suicide bombing against Israeli civilians. I challenged Mr Tamimi in a BBC Newsnight debate about this very statement. Instead of denying it, he defended it. I also refer to the recent and rather flippant praise that MAB founder Kemal al-Helbawi heaped upon Bin-Laden after learning about his death. Helbawi seemed genuinely distressed when, referring to Bin-Laden as a great holy warrior, he lamented: "I ask Allah to have mercy upon Osama Bin Laden, to treat him generously, to enlighten his grave, and to make him join the prophets, the martyrs, and the good people".

My stance takes nothing away from the brutality of the Arab despots these groups emerged from, their subsequent right to claim asylum here, or from the many excesses of the Israeli government. I also do not restrict my concerns merely to Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, or even merely to Islamist groups. However, in the context of this discussion I disagree with such groups claiming to represent Muslims in Britain when they are nothing more than an Islamist front for power-politics in the Middle-East. How one should engage with the Brotherhood inside Egypt is one thing - I shared a cell in Egypt as a Prisoner of Conscience with their current global leader and consider him someone I can talk to - but propping such groups up as Muslim 'representatives' inside the UK provided the perfect scapegoat for the 'Bad' to tarnish all Muslims with the 'terrorism' libel.

Due to this tripartite 'Good', 'Bad' and 'Ugly' post-colonial domestic arrangement Muslims were never really considered insiders, but always the 'other'. They required fifth-column umbrella representation that simultaneously narrowed their political voice in the public sphere to 'only' speaking as Muslims, while grossly generalising what it meant to be a Muslim by imposing conservative, middle-aged, male 'community leaders' over them. Add to this cocktail the Islamist ideological affiliation of these same 'leaders' (for who else would self-identify in politics as exclusively Muslim?) and the result was increasingly isolated and marginalised 'Muslim areas' across the UK with limited social mobility. But hey, what great places to grab a curry!

The truth is that just as the 'West' is not a homogenous entity with one view on foreign and domestic policy, nor are Muslims. 'Muslim' is not a political party. 'Muslim' is not a single culture. Muslims go to war with each other. There are more Muslims in India, Russia and China than in most Muslim-majority nations. 'Muslim' is not a homogenous entity.

I would appreciate, therefore, not having as a political interlocutor my local (often imported and under-educated) mosque Imam; or even worse, an Islamist spokesman who is unable to see me as much more than a member of the Muslim Internationale in Britain awaiting the return of the 'Caliphate' somewhere else. In short, my identity comprises of more than just my faith. I am a proud Muslim, but I am also a liberal, a Briton, a Pakistani, a Londoner, a father, a product of the globalised world who speaks English, Arabic and Urdu. And yes, I am even an Essex boy with a distinct gait. There are many more like me. Just as we refuse to be viewed only through the narrow 'terrorism' lens, so we should refuse to be viewed only as Muslims. The way we vote will be shaped by all these factors and more, and we would appreciate not being patronised.

The good news is that this old tripartite post-colonial domestic model may be witnessing its death-throes. There are of course shrill voices from all three sides clawing for it to come back. However, after Obama and after the Arab Uprisings, such a simplified view of the 'other' can no longer hold. And this brings us to the crux of the matter, how should government handle the Muslim Question going forward?

The cheeky ideal I am calling for is that Muslims should be viewed as equal citizens, nothing more and nothing less. Like everybody else, Muslims are to seek representation through their elected officials. Issues of employment, health, education, economy, racism or even foreign policy, have little to do with faith and everything to do with the political outlook one possesses.

However, this ideal must be tempered by reality. Firstly, some matters in policy are indeed specifically faith matters. In such cases it makes sense for government to go to a varied representation of religious groups seeking input and advice. The French secular model is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Being a Muslim is one element of this varied identity and cannot, or should not, simply be erased. Secondly, calls for other faith communities to also cease getting special political representation are inevitable and should be considered. Finally, for years Muslims have been addressed politically as a bloc, in certain cases this is now institutionalised. In part, this has led to increased isolation and even fed into the extremist narrative. So how should existing politicised community groups be engaged?

Specifically on the issue of extremism (which is not just a Muslim challenge) government should adopt a progressive, inter-departmental and pragmatically tiered, criterion for engaging community groups on a non-sectarian basis. I say progressive, because government should ultimately aspire to 'mainstream' and empower Muslims as equal citizens away from the single-identity 'community' lobbyists. I say inter-departmental because the sorts of problems that affect areas where there are large Muslim populations are not restricted to the security prism. I say pragmatically tiered because we recognise that not all undesirable elements are as bad as others. Hence, though ministers may not wish to legitimise the Islamist views of certain 'community groups' by providing them with platforms, there may be a case for police to work with the same groups if it leads to actionable intelligence preventing an act of terrorism. I say non-sectarian, because any government engagement policy must be wary of being seen to subsidise one sect, faith community or racial group above others. This would otherwise only further entrench divides within and between communities.

Ultimately, the aim of any engagement must be to encourage a more socially mobile, cosmopolitan and de-segregated Britain, where members of different communities stand together to challenge not just terrorism, but all forms of bigotry. The 'Good', the 'Bad' and the 'Ugly' will resist this, but thank God we do not live in a purely good, purely bad or purely ugly world.

Tags:Islam