Muslim groups made an unlikely appearance in the briefing war among the candidates. Simon Perfect examines the problems in government–Muslim relations. 20/07/2022
In the brutal pace of the Tory leadership race, most of the focus has been on the economy (who’s a real fiscal Conservative); trans issues (who’s more ‘anti–woke’); and Boris (how much distance to put from him). With all that to chew on, religion hasn’t had much of a look in – until a couple of days ago.
As part of an apparent effort to discredit (former) candidate Penny Mordaunt, the Daily Mail’s cover story on Monday 18th criticized her for her engagement last year with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the largest umbrella organisation of mosques and Muslim groups in the country. In February 2021, then Paymaster General Mordaunt tweeted congratulations to Zara Mohammed, the first woman to be elected secretary general to the MCB, and at age 29 one of the youngest leaders of a national–level religion or belief group. Mohammed’s election, on a platform of empowering Muslim women and young people, was generally warmly received by religious and political figures. But Mordaunt’s tweet, and her subsequent meeting with the new Secretary General, was criticized by government insiders at the time for breaking the Conservatives’ long–standing policy of non–engagement with the MCB. A year and a half later, that engagement was again being raised by her opponents (seemingly apropos of nothing) as evidence of her “dodgy judgment”.
I’m not particularly interested in defending or criticising Mordaunt. My interest is in what this says about the place of Islamic civil society organisations and public figures in our politics.
The background to this controversy goes back over a decade. Founded in 1997 to be a cross–community voice for Muslim issues, the MCB now has around 500 fee–paying members (mosques, schools, charities) that it seeks to represent; and its main activities today include advocating for Muslim concerns and capacity–building and training programmes among its members. Its establishment was broadly welcomed by New Labour, but by 2009 relations had soured. That year, New Labour broke off cooperation following accusations linking MCB to extremism, and the MCB’s criticism of Labour’s foreign policy. The deputy director of MCB at the time, Dr Daud Abdullah, had signed (in a personal capacity) the Istanbul Declaration – a deeply controversial document supporting Hamas’ “jihad” in the recent Gaza war, and calling on Muslims to oppose both Israel and the “sending of foreign warships into Muslim waters”. (Gordon Brown had offered to send the Royal Navy to help stop arms smuggling into Gaza). In signing the declaration, Abdullah was accused by the government of calling for global attacks on Jews and violent retaliation against British forces – accusations he denied.
The upshot was that Labour broke off relations with the MCB. But the suspension didn’t last long – contact between MCB leaders and government ministers resumed soon after, continuing sporadically under the Coalition government. It was from 2015 and the election of the Conservative government that formal engagement significantly declined. The MCB has described this as a “quasi–boycott”, and that approach was advocated by a Mordaunt opponent in the Daily Mail article, speaking of a “government ban on the MCB” that she had seemingly violated.
So why does this matter? Firstly, it’s distasteful that some MPs and their advisors see fit to feed the tabloids old controversies about Muslim organisations and public figures, without context, as a way of scoring political points. Here Muslim groups are being used in an instrumentalized way, without their concerns or interests being listened to.
Secondly, we can see that the ‘extremism’ accusation is both very sticky (hard to shake off once applied), contagious (you can be accused of it by association with others), and easily manipulated. In this intervention Mordaunt’s opponents, and the Daily Mail, sought to imply that the current MCB is sympathetic to extremism, based on the decisions of its leaders in the 2000s. But regardless of the legitimacy of the original accusations, as Zara Mohammed herself pointed out she was a teenager when the initial breakdown in relations occurred. Its office–holders and national council are now much more diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and denomination; and it plays an important role in raising Muslim concerns nationally, training Muslim women in mosque leadership, and encouraging good relations between mosques and their local communities through its ‘Visit My Mosque’ initiative. The evidence of extremism is thin. Of course the MCB has been vocal in criticizing government policies (and Islamophobia within the Conservative party), but so have other national–level religion or belief groups. It’s no reason to avoid dialogue with an organisation that has lots to offer in terms of social cohesion.
Thirdly, this story reminds us that when it comes to Muslims in particular, the current government is very reluctant to engage with groups that challenge parts of its agenda, or its interpretation of ‘good citizenship’. The government will always have to make judicious decisions about which groups to engage with and which not to, and clearly some will always be beyond the pale; but it appears the range of acceptability for Islamic groups is very narrow. Individual politicians of Muslim heritage like Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid can make it to the top of the Conservative party, but as sociologist of British Islam Dr Stephen Jones notes, “virtually no Muslim organisation has a formal relationship with central government” now.
The few relationships were thinned even further in June, when the government dropped its independent advisor on Islamophobia, Imam Qari Asim MBE – after Asim made a Facebook post condemning the controversial film The Lady of Heaven, which many Muslims have deemed offensive and dangerous for Sunni–Shi’a harmony. In its dismissal letter to him (which he claims was posted online before he received it), the government argued that by “involvement in a campaign to limit free expression”, he was undermining our “democratic values and freedoms”. Now many would disagree with Asim on this issue; personally I don’t support the censorship of artistic products, though I recognise many Muslims’ strength of feeling and respect their right to protest peacefully. The vile anti–Shi’a hate speech at some of the protests must also be condemned (as Asim clearly did, despite the government suggesting otherwise).
But the government’s decision on Asim is troubling. Little progress has been made on establishing a workable definition of Islamophobia since Asim was appointed in 2019, which he claims is due to lack of interest from ministers. Moreover, how ‘free’ should speech be in different contexts is hotly contested; generally we don’t imply that someone who wants certain restrictions on expressions they find offensive (which would include a large proportion of the population) is a bad citizen, extreme or un–British. Even if I vigorously disagree with them, all Britons have a right to peacefully contest the current parameters of free speech, and they should not be deemed bad citizens when they do so (indeed, full citizenship means being able to contest such parameters). It’s concerning that Muslims seem to face an extra test of legitimacy that doesn’t apply to others – that they should drop concerns about free speech or social conservatism to be seen as good citizens. And it’s concerning that the government is unwilling to work with Muslims like Asim or the MCB when they don’t align exactly with its views.
Ultimately, the change of prime minister offers a chance for the government to move on from Boris Johnson’s strained relationship with British Muslims. If the new PM is serious about building dialogue with these communities, it would be a good idea to move forward on finding a workable definition of ‘Islamophobia’ – one which captures verbal abuse against Muslims as people, but protects free speech on Islam itself. Taking meaningful action on Islamophobia within the Conservative Party would be a priority, as would engaging more with Muslim civil society groups of goodwill, even if those groups are critical of particular policies.
Such an approach would go a long way to rebuild Muslim trust in the government, and prove that it is moving on from its own “dodgy judgment”.
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