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The hijacking of Islam?

To those concerned by recent events,

The hijacking of Islam

The atrocity in Tunisia, at a hotel I once stayed in, is terrifying and deeply depressing. Muslim communities feel the pain of those who have lost loved ones. This is Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, and the fact that people have committed murder supposedly in Islam’s name has shocked us to the core.

For it is Muslims who are the biggest victims of Isis. They fight the jihadists in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and it is they who hourly die brutal deaths at the hands of Isis. The soul-searching of Muslims in the UK and beyond is now at fever pitch – the question they ask constantly is: what more can they do?

A “not in my name” march is planned after Ramadan; loud voices on the streets and in the media condemn violence and extremism, but still more is expected. This is where the conversation begins to dry up and the deficit in Muslim leadership is starkly evident. In the UK there are 13 Muslim MPs, including eight women, but they do not speak for the faith, rather for their constituents. Imams, with a few excellent exceptions, don’t see their role as anything more than prayer and looking after a building, the mosque – the imam of Dibley is not so different from the vicar in that respect.

Larger representative groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain have little credibility either with the state or the communities. In London Muslims make up 10% of the population, and represent more than 50 nationalities – compared with just a few in the north of England. There are also many different strands of the faith: the biggest mosque where I used to live was Ahmadi, a branch of Islam whose adherents aren’t even allowed to go to Mecca. The faith splinters: it has developed tribes who have different homelands and cannot even agree on the dates of religious festivals.

The government, through largely focusing historically on “representative” groups has failed to build capacity in grassroots organisations. Muslims are mostly under 25, female and from low-income backgrounds, but the “leaders” are much older, male and middle class – they don’t speak for typical Muslims because they aren’t typical Muslims.

We face some real challenges that go way beyond the threat of jihadism. In 2014, 14% of prisoners in British jails were Muslim – more than 12,000, of whom fewer than 200 were inside for terror-related offences. One in four young people in youth custody or secure homes are Muslim. Muslims are disproportionately involved in the drug trade and child sexual exploitation. What worries me deeply is that communities don’t have leaders capable of rising to these challenges. That said, many don’t think it is helpful for communities to have any “leaders”, because it encourages the authorities to lazily go to these usual suspects rather than to engage more widely.

In tackling the deficit of Muslim leadership, we need – to use an economic analogy – to cut and invest. The first thing to cut is the communities’ focus on victimhood. Yes, Islamophobia is real, and anti-Muslim hatred touches thousands. I have suffered it several times in my career. However, you should not be defined by the things that are done to you, but by the things you do. Look at other examples of groups of immigrants who have embedded themselves in the UK, such as the Jewish and Irish communities. Their leaders focused on their strengths, and decided that victimhood would be remembered a few days a year at most. Yes, there should be memorial days, such as that for the victims of Srebrenica (11 July), but it shouldn’t define your whole identity.

The second thing to cut is this reliance on unrepresentative leaders. We need more women’s and young people’s voices to be heard. For several years now I have made it a rule not to attend an event or meeting where there isn’t a mixed audience. Next to be cut is the instinct to put each other down. Too many climb the ladder and pull it up after them. The mentoring schemes are plentiful, but the turnover of mentors is overwhelming. How else are we going to nurture and develop the next generation? Give them the tools to meet their aspirations before extremists suggest another way.

When I talk of investing, I’m talking to those who have more to give. Islam has a long history of charitable giving; it’s one of the five pillars. Organisations such as Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid are internationally renowned. But in this country there are several Ramadan appeals, as there are every year, for funding the building of mosques. The Qur’an talks of this as being a blessing, but when you have more than 100 in Bradford, for example – of which more than half have congregations of fewer than 50 people – would the blessings not be greater if the money raised was used to take someone out of poverty, give them an education and protect them from harm? Developing communities is not the high priority it should be. Examples such as a mosque in Bradford that decided to use the money to employ a youth worker instead of building a dome are rare but welcome.

We have talent. We contribute billions to the UK’s GDP. We have ambitious youth. What we don’t have is the right leadership. Issuing a press release when something terrible happens is no substitute for action on the ground to build capability and to give the young the voice that is stifled by their elders.

Republished with thanks, Guardian Media


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