The Suffocation of British Muslim Civil Society Space

by Omayma El Ella

In the run-up to the General Election it is important to consider the political engagement or lack thereof of the major parties with minorities in this country. From a Muslim perspective, the majority of that engagement has been predominantly centred on “counter-extremism” via the PREVENT programme. As with most minorities, Muslims are viewed as a problem and engagement with them is premised on the assumption that they have not integrated well enough and that they need to be modelled on some abstract ideal of the “Moderate Muslim”. Until that is done, the larger parties seem to view actively seeking the Muslim vote as a somewhat futile endeavour. With nearly 3 million Muslims in the UK and at least half of them eligible to vote, their participation could seriously tip the balance in the elections; Youelect estimates that the Muslim vote could influence results in 32 constituencies. Many Muslims have a vested interest in participating in light of counter-terrorism legislation, foreign policy, institutional Islampohobia and economic marginalisation. Yet these very issues are the reasons why there is widespread Muslim apathy towards and even opposition to voting. A high-ranking Muslim Tory minister even resigned from her position at the Foreign Office because of this government’s foreign policy.

According to the latest poll conducted by Comres, 95% of Muslims in the UK feel loyal to this country and 93% feel that its laws should be followed. The poll also suggests that almost half of British Muslims believe they face discrimination because of their faith and that Britain is becoming less tolerant, while the same percentage feel prejudice against Islam makes it difficult to identify as a Muslim in the UK. Journalists of the ever growing click-bait form of media were quick to point out that 27% felt some sympathy for the motives behind the Charlie Hedbo attackers. The very fact that such a poll was even commissioned specifically on Muslims is in of itself a great tragedy and an indicator of just how much of a fifth column Muslims are perceived to be here in the UK, and the nation-wide discourse on Muslim extremism and “otherness”.

Let us not forget the social and economic inequalities that exist in this country that always seem to get left out of mainstream Muslim-extremist narratives. There has been a 50% rise in long-term unemployment for the youth of BAME communities, and Muslims are increasing in prison numbers rapidly. A report last year funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust pointed to the lower economic status of Muslims in this country leading many to a life of crime to support families, coupled with discrimination in the justice system, as factors in the surge of Muslim prisoners. Muslims also face the worst discrimination in the job market according to the data of the Labour Force Survey, which showed that 76% of Muslim men were less likely to have jobs of any kind in comparison to their British white counterparts, and for Muslim women the percentage is slightly lower, at 65%. Muslims are also less likely to be hired for managerial and professional roles despite being qualified.

mq1This relentless pressure on Muslims to prove their loyalty and the manufacturing and ordering of their civil engagement has largely been driven by misguided establishment strategy, that has for the most part deployed divide and rule tactics within the UK Muslim community – pitting “good” vs. “bad” Muslims against each other in whom they engage and whom they fund. This strategy also extends to non-Muslim entities where pressure is exerted on who they can engage and fund from the Muslim community. This is clearly illustrated by what Cage is going through now, the HSBC decision with Ummah Welfare Trust, and what the Muslim Council of Britain has been going through for years, not to mention DCLG’s latest decision to include a “no-lobbying” clause in their grants further undermining the ability of charities to put pressure on their government. What is especially disturbing is the marriage of McCarthyist media politics with UK government decision-making. The very fact that Muslim charities and civil society organisations are shunned because of disingenuously written articles and open source websites speaks volumes concerning the power and influence their authors hold. The unfounded allegations and spurious accusations made toward Muslim charities all form part of this nexus of malignancy, ignorance, fear and suspicion that further marginalises a group that has no real influence in the corridors of power.

The effects of this can be seen in the siege mentality of some Muslim NGOs – the constant apologetics, the sycophantic cosying-up of some to the government, and the disengagement of Muslims from the political landscape in this country. Whenever Muslims try and explain – anything really – they are apologists. When they try to get involved in various advocacy initiatives, they are said to have a hidden, nefarious agenda. And when they are silent, they are complicit in whatever “Muslim owned” heresy has been sold by the media.

Arguably, one of the major impediments to cohesion in the UK is the sheer inability of the establishment to acknowledge their biases, prejudices and privilege when dealing with minority groups or to understand the simple fact that, like all marginalised groups in this country, Muslims need to be heard, listened to and respected. The effects of institutional bias and the micro-aggressions leading to the constant need to justify your very presence and views feeds into a narrative of “otherness” and “unwantedness”, which in some cases manifests itself as extreme behaviour pertaining to views that further that otherness and attempt to suppress an inferiority complex via a counter-narrative of superiority. That usually exhibits itself in the form of joining groups that consolidate that belonging, such as far right groups, criminal gangs, and this year’s most notorious bad boy, ISIS.

The best analogy I can think of that equates the experiences of minorities growing up in the West is that of abusive parents. Abusive parents that feed you, clothe you, and provide you with an education but at the same time belittle you, scorn you, and project all their insecurities and fears onto you. You either grow up eager to please constantly seeking validation and never really getting it, or you rebel and create or join some kind of sub-culture and look for belonging elsewhere. Most of us are somewhere in between, navigating our way in a system that we know is deeply flawed in many ways yet attempting to make our place in it nonetheless. Some of us are just trying to prove that we are not bastard children and that we really are part and parcel of the fabric of this society, and we have a say in how it is created and how it evolves. And no, for all you out there who are smirking, that that does not mean normalising beheadings and forced marriages.

The proverbial sheep in wolf’s clothing, “multiculturalism”, has for a long time been splitting at the seams and not for the reasons many seem to think – that “tolerance” has gone too far and that is why we have so many “uppity” minorities rebelling against the “superior” English way of life. It is in fact because of the myth that minorities can contribute to creating norms and a value system in British society; the kind of contribution that extends beyond the mere inclusion of exotic culinary delights as part of British cuisine or the fetishisation of an Oriental meditative exercise. Instead, what we have is a national narrative of culture-making that is all about accepting the superiority and ownership of the nationalist British discourse by the majority demographic and the elite.

Despite what mainstream media may have you believe, there is a plethora of Muslim activists and civil society groups up and down the country mobilising their communities to tackle issues of homelessness, poverty, education, anti-discrimination, and humanitarian disasters abroad. They comprise a spectrum of age, ethnicity, gender and religious interpretative associations. Sufra, Tauheedul, Al-Mizan, Nour, Made in Europe, and Inclusive Mosque Initiative are but a few. All of them engage in some form of active community service. Some of them voice criticisms of civil and foreign policies and some do not. For those that do, if these Muslim activists cannot voice criticisms without being tainted with the brush of radicalism and extremism, in what space can they do so? This constant media depiction of those from minority backgrounds as inherently evil and removed from any complex lived realities further entrenches power structures that facilitate racism, stereotyping, and marginalisation. This all leads to the sense of disfranchisement and powerlessness, further consolidating for a minority that their needs are best served elsewhere.

XMASWhat is even more damaging is that far from the majority of Muslims or any other group in this country actively endorsing violence and extremism, their efforts to counteract such sentiments and foster a sense of belonging and inclusion in British society are continuously eroded and undermined by government approaches to creating “the good Muslim”. Being an activist is only applauded and praised when you are criticizing the failings of your own community.

This article is not a polemic to erase internal issues that affect minority communities and remove all responsibility for those matters, but rather to stress that we need to recognise that those problems have to be looked at with the full recognition of where the balance of power really lies and of the wider socio-economic and racial context. We need Muslim activists. We need Muslims to feel like they can transform politics and society. And that goes for ALL groups in this country, especially those who already do not benefit from class, race, gender, ability and sexual orientation. We need all these overlapping groups to work together to figure out how we can collectively create a better society that is not based on exclusivist Anglo-Saxon notions of “British values” that occasionally throws a token multicultural bone to minorities. We all need to identify what privileges we do have in relation to other groups, and if we act and use language in ways that marginalize others. We need to control our own narrative, our own space and our own stories. And finally, we need elites to stop dictating to us who we are allowed to be. If we are serious about diversifying political and civil inclusion, there is no other way.

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Omayma is a Swedish born Policy and Research Officer at the Muslim Charities Forum (MCF), and holds a BA in War Studies from Kings College London and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS. For the past 6 years she has worked in the private and charity sector on a variety of humanitarian and development issues and her work has taken her to the post-conflict environments of Sri Lanka, Libya, Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Central African Republic. Her current research and advocacy work is centred around the issues of counter-terrorism legislation and its effects on humanitarian aid, governance practices of the Muslim charity sector, and conflict transformation and Islamic norms.The views expressed here do not represent the views of the MCF.  @omayma_ella

‘The Other Political Series’ curated by journalist Kiri Kankhwende is your go to alternative to the colourless mainstream commentary ahead of the General Election in May 2015. #OtherPolitics highlights issues and perspectives that are being overlooked in the election debate and presents different angles on some well-trodden issues.

 

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