The launching of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) last week was an initiative forged by a community that, despite the odds, is showing signs of both growth and maturity. In one sense last Sunday's gathering was celebratory - nothing more than an assembly of the converted. But the powerful call it made for "Muslim unity" may prove of real significance.
The atmosphere at the MCB inaug-ural convention was part therapy, part euphoria. It was an opportunity for the mostly middle-aged men who are mosque- and institution-oriented to meet and hug each other again - part of an elaborate ritual of self-congratulation and self-assurance. But, within a community consisting of more than 56 nationalities, questions are always going to be asked about any group which sets itself up as either an "umbrella body" or "a representative" organisation.
The idea of setting up a representative body for British Muslims has been tried before. In the mid-Seventies Dr Syed Pasha formed the Union of Muslim Organisations (UMO), a body largely of first-generation professionals interested in formulating links with the British government rather than in representing grass-roots Muslims in Britain. In the Nineties the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui set up the Muslim Parliament, which despite its name was not an elected body and which consisted mostly of first-generation activists. The MCB has therefore set out to work as in independent body beholden to no one outside Britain, and its broad-based approach and emphasis on the promotion of Muslim "co-operation, consensus and unity" should make it more appealing to the second generation of British Muslims than its rivals.
Certainly there is a pressing need, felt by both Muslims and a substantial body of non-Muslims in the country, to give British Muslims an articulate, moderate and relevant voice. This need is perhaps best pondered in the light of what might happen if British Muslims continue to cry in the dark.
Recent reports, including one by the Policy Studies Institute, have provided ample evidence of the deprivation and disenfranchisement faced by the Muslim community. Muslims, both men and women, face more prejudice and discrimination than any other community when it comes to employment and the provision of housing and health care services. Perhaps the most blatant of all institutional anti-Muslim discrimination in modern Britain is the denial of state funding for Muslim schools.
Islamophobia, as Professor Gordon Conway, chair of the Runnymede Trust report on the subject recently said, is a "real and growing phenomenon - an ugly word for an ugly reality". The pervasive hatred of Islam and Muslims across all sections of British society is a serious matter that needs to be tackled with urgency and solid commitment. Yet the Muslim community, caught in a vicious web of poverty and systemic disadvantage, is bewildered and in no position to deal with the multiple socio-economic disadvantages affecting it.
Responsible imams, community leaders and activists cannot stop the tide of young people turning to criminality and extremism. Platoons of young angry Muslims are mushrooming all over the country. Twisted and disfigured by the twin evils of racism and Islamophobia, they are bitter and resentful - potential fifth-column guerrillas for the numerous causes in the Muslim world. Idle hands and heads are also vulnerable to simplistic and demagogic slogans.
Though the media may not yet have noted the fact, the intifada in the inner cities of Britain has already begun: last summer young Muslim people were involved in at least 14 violent incidents with the authorities. "Shaping the future of Islam in Britain," Khalida Khan, a keynote speaker, told the MCB gathering, "depends very much on shaping individuals to become Muslims, in their faith and spirituality, ethics and morality, deeds, community life and most important of all, in their identity."
The building of a British Islam will have to be founded upon a new realisation - that in the UK Muslims cannot operate as if they are a majority; they have to rediscover a theology and Islamic jurisprudence suited to a minority living in a multi-faith and multi-cultural society. But they also need the help of the rest of society in combating Islamophobia, particularly at the point where it prevents Muslims and non-Muslims cooperating on the joint diagnosis and solution of major shared problems relating to urban poverty and deprivation. The alternative may be too frightening to contemplate.Reuse content