Governments want Muslim communities to make greater contributions to public life. But why, then, do they persist in talking only about their faith?
If governments really want to integrate Muslims, they should stop talking about faith
British Muslims must be encouraged to make a “fuller” contribution to public life, according to a landmark report published last week. Entitled “The Missing Muslims: Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All”, the report is the result of 18 months of meetings and discussions across the UK. The main takeaways appear to be that British Muslims are “more diverse than is often assumed” and that imams should speak English.
Western governments, not only the UK government, frequently get into a muddle over their Muslim communities. Blinded by the religious assignation of the community – a label that politicians themselves welded on – governments keep talking about the Muslim community's faith, and then get frustrated when they find faith in every answer. If governments really want to integrate Muslim communities, they should stop speaking solely about faith and start seeing these millions of people as the individuals, spanning race, class and gender, that they are.
The fact is that governments don't really know how to deal with religious groups, especially a faith like Islam that is explicitly political. In the late 1990s, the UK Labour government started to engage explicitly with Muslim representatives of British Asian communities, in order to draw those communities closer to the party. In short, it was thought that by dealing with Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis as Muslims, and speaking to them through their faith representatives, it would be easier to get them to vote together.
The idea that religion represented a method of political control for citizens who were born into Muslim communities persisted well into the “war on terror” era. At various points, UK governments have tried to elevate religious umbrella groups – such as the Muslim Council of Britain – into spokespeople for the entire British Asian experience. In return, these groups were expected to follow the government line – and this was during the worst excesses of the Iraq war and a harsh counter-extremism strategy at home. When that failed, the government sought to promote an apolitical Sufi brand of Islam. When that, again, didn't take, governments looked for individuals – journalists, TV personalities – who could take on the mantle of speaking for British Muslims.
Throughout, the idea that the predominantly Muslim South Asian communities, along with Arab, European and African Muslims, could be lumped together under the umbrella Muslim persisted.
The latest report makes the same mistake. It still takes it for granted that all those born into Muslim families and communities must share commonalities, commonalities that can be exploited for political purposes. That of all the vast differences in age, ethnicity, education and outlook that these communities have, the overriding and politically salient aspect of these communities is their faith.
One of the key parts of the report calls for imams to be “British-born”, with a good grasp of British culture and language and “equipped with pastoral skills so they are able to deal with the challenges facing British Muslims”.
Did you notice the switch? The challenges facing British Muslims today are economic, educational and have to do with relations with the police, government and the security services. What do imams have to teach about those challenges? To see the problem, imagine the same sentence was used about British Christians. Suddenly, it is obvious. White Brits are not monolithically “Christian” – even though a majority of British citizens still describe themselves as belonging to an organised religion. But they have all sorts of views on their faith, all sorts of degrees of belief.
On the topics that most people deal with on a daily basis – questions about work, the education of their children, public services, the bread and butter questions of politics – only the most devout would seek advice from a pastor. Many millions would not even know the name of a pastor to consult. Stand back from the discussion around “British Muslims”, and it becomes obvious what the problem is. Whereas for other faith groups, we implicitly understand that religious representatives matter only for questions of morality and faith, when it comes to Muslims, governments assume Muslims seek guidance from the man at the mosque over every part of their daily life. Governments keep asking imams about politics and then are surprised to find that these religious leaders want to talk about religion.
This is the root cause of the malaise western governments have with their Muslim citizens. They keep seeing them as Muslims. Instead of seeking to integrate these communities into the democratic and civic structures that already exist, they seek to build parallel religious structures through which to speak to just one part of the country.
Encouraging British Muslims to play a fuller part in public life requires the same mechanisms that would get more women or more white working-class men into public life. There isn't some parallel Muslim path.
If the British government wants to talk about Islam, it should speak to religious scholars. If it wants to talk to Muslims, it should just speak to its citizens.