Let Muslims choose their own committee

The right to disagree and be critical of your government is what is known as democracy, a right cher

The government is to set up a board of Muslim theologians. Once established, it will steer the more radical elements of the Muslim community away from violent extremism and issue fatwas on controversial issues such as the position of women and loyalty to the UK. This is bonkers! And everyone should know it. Who in our diverse Muslim communities would actually listen to such a board?

The suggestion that a bunch of theologians will come up with groundbreaking ideas rooted in Islamic sources, to inspire our young, is a non-starter as far as I am concerned. There is a stench of social engineering and misguided and misbegotten patronage about the project. A steering committee of the government's favourite Muslim advisers, people who themselves command little respect among Muslims, will be established. The committee will hand-pick "theologians" and weed out extremists, undesirables, and those critical of the government and its foreign policy. Not surprisingly, the whole exercise has generated suspicion. It is doomed to failure.

This government has already gerrymandered Muslims to exhaustion. Nevertheless, it is not going to find a majority in favour of Britain's foreign policy among Muslims, any more than among the generality of the population. The right to disagree and be critical of your government is what is known as democracy, a right cherished as much by British Muslims as anyone else. Handing out cash to self-appointed and self-verifying "community leaders", "opinion-formers" and reclaimed extremists will not change anything. And I very much doubt it will prevent anything, either.

There is, however, a particularly Islamic way of rescuing the enterprise. Why not let Muslim communities themselves decide who should be on the board? In Islamic parlance, such an exercise would be shura, or consultation. Muslim communities could nominate their representatives. Instead of being overloaded with beards, the board would also have women and younger people. Instead of being dominated by Pakistanis and Arabs, it would have Bangladeshis, Somalis, Turks, Afghans and Bosnians.

Moreover, it would consist not only of theologians; a board established on the basis of shura would also include thinkers, academics, community leaders, scholars and younger researchers. Most importantly, they would be people Muslims respect and trust. It would include Sufis, the government's favoured brand of Islam, but it would also include those who support the British Muslim Initiative, Muslim Association of Britain and even Hizb ut-Tahrir, groups the government describes as "extremist" and is determined to sideline. It would reveal the true diversity of Muslim communities. Extremists are an integral part of the Muslim scene and have to be incor porated into any venture that aims to transform Muslim communities. The point is not that these are the very people the government wants to influence, but that it is vital for such people to be confronted by the doubts, condemnation and disagreement of the Muslim majority.

A democratically elected board that reflects all shades of Muslim opinion would be seen as independent. Its debates would reflect the gamut of Muslim views. It would be unruly, certainly. But it would command respect. A risk-averse government may feel uncomfortable but, more significantly, so too would extremists.

There is another reason for taking this route. Any decisions reached by such a board would reflect a consensus or ijma, a fundamental source of Islamic law. The ijma of a wide-ranging board of scholars, thinkers, activists and ordinary Muslims can have the full force of Islamic law. In Muslim history, ijma frequently has been used to change, modify and reframe the sharia. There is no reason why it cannot be used in modern Britain to influence and change Muslim opinion and behaviour. The edicts of a board based on shura and ijma would have a religious mandate, and all British Muslims would be duty-bound to respect and follow them.

All this assumes the government is wise and sensible enough to trust Muslims to put their own house in order. Muslims are as eager as anyone else to get rid of the extremists. It is time for the government to prove it believes this.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire