Dilwar Hussain: Never mind what we are against. What are we for?

Dilwar Hussain denies the charge by 'Panorama' that his organisation feeds extremism
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The Independent Online

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was criticised by the programme for not taking responsibility for extremist preachers. This is like saying the British Medical Association should take responsibility for Harold Shipman! In a newspaper article, even an internet service provider owned by Muslim partners came under fire for hosting a website which linked to another that contained something disagreeable. As though any internet service provider can police all the links from its sites ad infinitum.

This inquisitorial climate could be alienating the very people who need to be won over if there is any hope of preventing another attack on our country. One of the main threads in the Panorama programme was the so-called contradiction between being British and having a connection with fellow Muslims across the world. In an era of globalisation, having a connection with groups outside the frontiers of the nation seems perfectly normal and understandable. The notion of ummah is a bond of common faith and belief. Such bonds are commonly seen among others, be it in the Catholic connection to the Vatican, Jewish connection with Israel, or the way in which other ideas such as socialism have global networks. Sadly, the programme took a perfectly ordinary and innocent fact of life and conveyed it as something sinister and somehow contradictory to being British.

Muslims in Britain live under a social contract with the state, just like other citizens. There is a clear allegiance to the state. The Prophet Muhammad once said that a Muslim should be helped whether oppressor or oppressed. People asked: "How do we help the oppressor?" He replied: "By stopping him." The Koran reiterates this message: "Stand up for justice ... even if it be against yourselves, your parents or closest of kin." In the wake of the Madrid bombings, the MCB wrote to mosques and organisations in Britain urging them to report any suspicious activities to the authorities. Another fact that was left on the BBC's cutting-room floor.

The continuous questioning of Muslim loyalty only plays into the hands of those who say that Muslims will never be accepted, so why bother. Just like the parents and grandparents of many Muslims in this country, my grandfather fought in the Second World War as a subject of the Crown. He faced the brutality of a Japanese prison camp - and he did all this with honour and pride. What right does anyone have to question our loyalty and patriotism? Yes, young Muslims today are more defiant than their parents were, but this may be a sign of greater integration rather than anything else. Did we assume that integration would deliver a passive, voiceless minority that would disappear into oblivion? There is a striking parallel between the riots on the streets of northern cities in 2001, the "black riots" of the 1970s and 1980s and the "Battle of Cable Street" in London's Jewish neighbourhood in 1936. All had at their roots in the phenomenon of discriminated minorities encountering bigotry and prejudice, and saying "enough is enough" - a sign of communities that were coming of age.

As the Muslim community comes of age and becomes more rooted in Britain it must continue to face the challenges it has already begun to fight. For example, there has been considerable development in debates around embracing British political life. One challenge is that we cannot allow our faith to be hijacked by extremist identity politics. Instead of saying what Muslims are against, we need to articulate a vision of what Muslims are for. For a number of years, Muslim organisations and religious leaders have been challenging extremist tendencies that view people of other faiths with disdain, which say that Muslims cannot be British or that they shouldn't vote. This self-critical debate needs to continue and become stronger. Unfortunately, the current climate tends to narrow the scope for such debates as the psychology of self-defence takes over.

As a nation, we need to provide a vision for democratic participation to channel the legitimate frustrations and anxieties faced by many people in this country. When two million people march in London and this has no influence on policy, there is a serious democratic deficit. But it's not just about the big issues. An interesting model to compensate for such a deficit is provided by the Citizen Organising Foundation and its affiliated bodies, Young Citizens in Birmingham (comprising mainly Muslims) and The East London Communities Organisation. Such "broad-based organisations" manage to bring together thousands of volunteers from different faiths (and none) to work for issues of common concern.

The idea is to teach politics through action and to show that individuals can make a difference if they organise themselves. Such movements are vital, for they bring hope back to politics; they show that citizenship and civic engagement can be meaningful. The constriction of the civil space as legislation encroaches on civil liberties is of great concern to Muslims, but to many others too. By showing that humanity has such common allianceswe can send a clear message to extremists, of all shades, that we will stand together, united as a nation.

Dilwar Hussain is a research fellow at the Islamic Foundation, Leicester. He is co-author of the book 'British Muslims Between Assimilation and Segregation', 2004, and is on the Home Office's new committee tackling radicalisation and extremism

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