Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari: Taking a reasoned approach

OU alumnus Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari talks to Yvonne Cook about his new role as secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain
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Moderation doesn't make headlines. Reason is not news. So there may be a hard task in store for Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, the new secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, whose approach to his role exemplifies these unfashionable virtues. Abdul Bari, a special needs teacher with a PhD in physics and a certificate in management from the Open University, assumes the leadership of Britain's largest and most representative Muslim organisation, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), at a time when the Muslim community is in need of positive publicity as never before.

The day of our interview brings news of Muslim worshippers in Manchester being attacked. Yet when I ask Abdul Bari about the problems - or what he prefers to see as "challenges", of his new role, the first thing that he talks about is not veils, religious disputes or media hostility, but social and economic deprivation.

Just the previous day the MCB and the Mayor of London launched a joint report, Muslims in London, which reveals that Muslims are one of the city's most deprived groups. More than 70 per cent of Bangladeshi and Pakistani children in London are living in poverty and unemployment in the Muslim community runs at three to four times the national average.

"When a community is underachieving, it is young people who have the most difficulty," says Abdul Bari. Engaging young Muslims in community activities is one of Abdul Bari's key projects for his two-year term of office, which began in June this year. He wants to see young people "at the heart of mainstream Muslim activities" in mosques and Muslim youth and community centres. His current job, working for the borough of Tower Hamlets as an advisory teacher of behaviour support, convinces him that the young need what he calls an "anchor" in their own communities.

"I want our young people to be confident with themselves in their own community and their activities, so that they can engage fully with wider society," he says.

"Young people are impressionable; they are vulnerable. They can act in and become isolated, or they can act out and go in for anti-social behaviour, juvenile delinquency, even radicalism and extremism. This can happen if young people are not engaged."

Key to this process of engagement are Britain's mosques whose leaders and scholars still have tremendous influence, he says. One of the MCB's current initiatives is to try and support individual mosque centres in this work.

Abdul Bari is a great believer in education. Born in Bangla-desh, he came to Britain to complete his physics PhD but then decided life in the lab was not for him and switched to teaching. It was then he did a certificate in management with the OU, paying for it himself, because he was too busy classroom teaching to study full-time. "I wanted to do a management course because of my role in the community," he says. "I have some leadership background from my own individual experience, and from my Islamic background, and I wanted to compare how I should be doing from the secular perspective." The management course is coming in useful now, he says, as the MCB is developing its own leadership development programme for young Muslims, and contributing to a leadership for social change programme run by Exeter University.

In the East London Mosque, says Abdul Bari, 60 to 70 per cent of the mosque volunteers are young people. London has by far Britain's highest proportion of Muslims, just under 8.5 per cent of the population, as opposed to just under 3 per cent in the country as a whole. The East London Mosque is now the core of the new London Muslim Centre, inaugurated in June 2004. The centre provides a focal point and Islamic study opportunities for London Muslims, but also offers services such as IT training and English classes to the local community, non-Muslims and Muslims alike. The MCB, likewise, has a dual role, albeit nationally, says Abdul Bari.

"The Muslim community is very diverse; it consists of many communities, some who are successful economically, some who are struggling. One of the things we have to do is bring all the Muslim communities together. The second is to work for the common good; that is in the MCB's constitution. We fight for the Muslim corner but at the same time we work for the betterment of the whole society in terms of respect, family values, and fighting antisocial behaviour, discrimination and inequalities."

The MCB works with other faith groups as well as with community-based organisations, such as Telco - The East London Communities Organisation - that campaigns, among other things, for a "living wage" for London citizens.

Abdul Bari is keen not to overstress the alienation of the Muslim community. "It is not universal," he says. "If you talk to Asian-African Muslims, from Kenya and other areas, who have started their life in this country with, probably, a good education and good economic background, you will find they are relatively in a better position, integrated, in good jobs.

"If you talk to someone from the [Indian] subcontinent, you will get a different picture. When people come from rural backgrounds, with little education, they feel very vulnerable in a cosmopolitan, technological, postmodern society."

Inequality in jobs, housing and health is nothing new for the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community, which makes up by far the majority of British Muslims. But conditions for Muslims have worsened recently, Abdul Bari admits.

"In the last few months, after the anniversary of this terrible atrocity [7/7], things are moving in a very negative way. Rather than taking the community as a part of the solution, many people in the media and the political establishment consider the Muslim community as a problem community.

"Mainstream Muslim organisations are being demonised by certain very right wing media commentators and some media outlets."

He is confident though, that there is resilience in the Muslim community. "We have to address the issue in a very robust way. We can engage in discussions, we can bear criticism, there is no problem with this."

He dismisses the much-touted "clash of civilisations". " Civilisations don't clash, they complement each other." But do not British Muslims - as the hullabaloo over the wearing of the veil demonstrates - sometimes find themselves at odds with what has become largely a secular society?

"Faith groups in general have these issues," Abdul Bari says. "Debates have to be conducted with a holistic approach, with respect for each other, without inciting any hate against each other."

He quotes the old dictum, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". "If we cannot celebrate other people's achievements, at least we can respect or tolerate them."

THE POLITICS OF CO-EXISTENCE

While media coverage of Islam often seems to generate more heat than light, the Open University has come up with a new course on Islam in the West which should stimulate a more measured and reflective debate.

"If people from different walks of life look in some depth at these issues, and at how Muslim society can be authentically Muslim and at the same time be a constructive presence in Western society, it can counteract stereotypes that see only Islam and jihad, terrorism and suicide bombers," says Dr David Herbert, the academic in charge, who is a senior lecturer in religious studies at the Open University.

Among those expected to sign up are professionals - police officers, teachers, social workers, even journalists - who find it relevant to their own work.

University-level Islamic studies have traditionally been something of a specialist preserve, but this course is aimed at an unusually wide audience - including Muslims who want to reflect on their own experiences, as well as those with no background in Islam at all.

The course, entitled Islam in the West: the Politics of Co-existence, starts by introducing the different Muslim traditions that have been brought to the UK, the rest of Europe and the USA. It goes on to explore how the various different Muslim communities have developed in very different ways in the different countries.

"It will look at the issues raised for Muslims living in the west, and by Muslims living in the west - issues such as Islam and democracy, the 'clash of civilisations' and alternative perspectives on that," says Herbert. The final part of the course is written from a Muslim perspective.

The course comes as research by another group of academics suggests that most British Muslims feel they are demonised by the media and that Islam is unfairly represented as violent religion.

The research says that Muslims are afraid to voice any criticism of, for example, government security policy, in case it is interpreted as support for terrorism.

"The media tend to present polar opposites: extremists versus moderates, " says Dr Marie Gillespie, an Open University senior lecturer in sociology. "You don't get to see the vast majority of ordinary Muslims going about their normal lives, fairly integrated, with jobs, in communities, getting on with their neighbours."

Islam in the West: the Politics of Co-existence is open for registration from January 2007. For enquiries email arts-faculty-enquiries@open.ac.uk, title e-mail AD252.

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