Monthly Archives: June 2008

The next ten years: an open letter to the MCB

As the Muslim Council of Britain marks its first decade, it seems an appropriate moment for reflection. As the largest Muslim umbrella body, it still remains primus inter pares among an increasingly large alphabet soup of representative bodies. The British Muslim Forum, the Sufi Council of Britain and British Muslims for Secular Democracy have all emerged in the last three years since 7/7, as well as a plethora of Muslim commentators and other bodies that seek to reflect the government’s “rebalancing” in 2006 of its relationship with Muslim communities to emphasise counter-terrorist imperatives.

Most of these new actors endorse either an implicit or explicit critique of the MCB and its style of community activism, and have positioned themselves more assertively on the contested issue about what to do about “extremism”. In the moral panic over “Islamism”, the MCB has too often fallen into the trap of refuting the aspersion of guilt by (ideological) association with violent extremism rather than framing its own proactive narrative on terrorism, and so other Muslim actors have stepped into this vacuum. Yet there will no returning to politics as usual by going around the problem of terrorism (nor, indeed, the war on terror). Even on the bread-and-butter issues, too little has been done about the shocking deprivation found in the last national census – figures that the MCB helped us to obtain but did not campaign hard enough to get changed.

Once the darling of the political establishment, the MCB has become just another voice at the table. The government has appointed a plethora of internal and external Muslim advisors, has rapidly developed its own national network of local contacts, particularly with respect to preventing violent extremism (PVE) funding, and set up its own panels to deal with imams and mosques, women and young people. Rightly or wrongly, the PVE rationale now drives or influences all aspects of government policy on Muslim communities across no less than eight departments, including the Department for International Development! And the major mosque-associations – including the MCB – seem poised to be effectively pushed back into civil society to manage imam training and run mosques through the mechanism of MINAB.

Organisationally the MCB appears ill-equipped to handle such momentous challenges in terms of its grassroots networking, institutional weakness and democratic health. After thirteen years, if one includes its pre-launch consultation phase in the 1990s, its strategic decision to rely on its affiliates has meant that it has done less grassroots networking than Respect did in a mere three. Even if it ups the ante in this regard, hundreds of Muslim organisations now seek representation elsewhere and, as such, developing effective partnerships is probably now more salient.

The MCB’s chief posts are still all voluntary and unpaid. Many of the MCB’s affiliates are much better staffed and resourced than the body that seeks to represent them. There is a backroom administrative function but no high-profile Chief Executive, Head of Policy Research, Chief Press Officer or any other of the personnel one would expect in such an institution. A greater push on core private funding is needed here.

Finally, the MCB is now reconsidering its overly-complicated election process that somewhat disadvantaged larger regional mosque associations in favour of some smaller national groups. A simpler one affiliate-one vote system of direct election of the executive positions and, importantly, of the Secretary-General is needed. With a direct mandate for a full-time paid position, any affiliate member should be able to put someone forward for the top post with nominations and be able to campaign openly for three months on a manifesto. Elections are supposed to be unpredictable affairs, but not so with the MCB, which has just re-elected both Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari and Dr Daud Abdullah as his Deputy for a second term. Where is the urgency to connect with that half of Britain’s Muslims under the age of twenty-five with more fresh faces in executive roles?

The next few years will be critical to the MCB’s long-term health as a relevant and dynamic organisation. In recent times, some of its prominent affiliates have looked far too close to active party political campaigning for comfort, particularly with Respect and Muslims4Ken, a strategy that was avoided by the Council in the 1990s, although mere party membership has been better handled. This association with the old left is hardly the best positioning for a non-party political institution preparing to deal with any incoming government that may very well be Conservative.

With all these challenges ahead, the biggest one may well be that of internal expectation from a young community that is looking for relevant and substantial leadership (beyond the usual pieties of “Muslim unity” and “Muslim interests”) and is alive to all the other opportunities for engagement that are now open to it.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article originally appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 46, July 2008.

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The Long March of the Conservatives

For the first time since 1997, the Conservatives suddenly look to be on the electoral march. A resounding victory in the local elections condemned Labour to third place and its lowest share of the vote since 1918: the Conservatives gained ground in Labour heartlands in Wales and the North, capped by Boris Johnson’s win as Mayor of London over Ken Livingstone.

Of course the Conservatives still have an electoral mountain to climb, a swing of 6.5% nationally to gain an overall majority in Parliament. Yet the momentum is with David Cameron, while Labour seems to be suffering the usual malaise of third term governments, being perceived as tired, out of touch and out of ideas. The proposal to get rid of the 10% tax band, rising fuel and food prices, falling house prices, the collapse of Northern Rock and the global credit crunch have all dented Labour’s strong record. Suddenly, after a decade-long boom, people feel insecure and have made their feelings clear at the ballot box. What we don’t know yet is whether the next general election for Gordon Brown will be a rerun of 1992 or 1997: will he be able to rally Labour support to keep a reduced majority, or go down to a Conservative landslide?

Just as New Labour sought in its first term to reassure voters as to its fiscal prudence by tying its spending to the Conservative’s budgetary plans, Cameron has similarly tied himself to some of Labour’s spending plans. As Labour became trusted with neoliberal economics, the modern Conservative party seeks to emulate the Clintonesque-Blairite third way, weaving neoliberalism with welfarism. It seeks to be trusted not to dismantle the welfare state, to be convincingly post-Thatcherite. There is, David Cameron has said recently, such a thing as society.

Of course Muslims might wonder how the question of Islam in the post-9/11 world would be treated under a Conservative government, say from May 2009. The evidence thus far is that the party is thinking out aloud in various directions. Cameron himself spent a week with a Muslim family and had positive things to say about his experience (although he was unsurprisingly alarmed by the conspiracy-itis he encountered at a mosque he visited). Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Attorney General, has argued at length about the deleterious effect anti-terrorism legislation has had on Britain’s proud tradition of fundamental civil liberties, on the proposed ID cards or on the extension to detention without charge or trial. And Iain Duncan Smith has done genuinely creative and thoughtful work on social exclusion, an issue that ought to exercise Muslims thoroughly given that our average unemployment rate is more than three times the national average.

There are also a variety of strategies proposed for dealing with “extremism”. Analogies are commonly drawn with the Cold War. Michael Gove, the author of Celsius 7/7 and the Shadow Minister for Housing, analyses Islamism within the framework of twentieth century totalitarianism, and argues strongly for confrontational ideological warfare against Islamism itself, and not just al-Qaeda, which is regarded in this analysis as its violent anarchist fringe. Charles Moore also recently argued that the Conservative party has sufficient distance from Muslim communities to lead this charge against British Islamism, as it is not entangled like New Labour in Muslim identity politics. Just as in the 1980s with trade unionism, the Conservatives now seek to take on the “Scargills of Islam“.

It has to be said that this is a rather worrying trend, not because Muslim political activism that galvanises a faith-based identity politics is somehow wholly beyond criticism, either internally or externally. It is not — for as it claims to represent Muslim interests, it should be held to account for the validity of those claims. Rather, the point is that when it comes to dealing with violent extremism, targetting Muslim political activism in Britain will have no perceptible impact on the “men of violence”. Muslim activists are really policy strawmen, being easy targets to knock down while the real action lies elsewhere.

The other issue lies with the rancorous debate around Muslim integration. This has been held hostage to fears of terrorism and (admittedly) a dislike of small-“c” conservative Muslim values. What is needed here most of all is a division between security and integration policy imperatives, and a realisation that as Britain will remain very diverse, multiculturalism needs to be reinvigorated with a greater emphasis on responsibilities, participatory citizenship and an inclusive nationalism.

Recent conservative thinking has so far been wide-ranging but is not yet fully-formed on British Muslims. In any future scenario, no true political virtue can be made out of an acknowledged distance from Britain’s Muslim communities.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Books and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 45, June 2008.

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Conversion and Betrayal

Today we live in an age when the boundary between two allegedly monolithic entities, “Islam” and the “West” appears to be rigid, politicized, ring-fenced. So the question arises as to the motives of converts to Islam. Are they converting to faith or to an anti-West political cause? Such questions get asked after terrorist incident involving converts like Richard Reid, Don Stewart-Whyte, and Germaine Lindsay.

Such examples reinforce the view that conversion to Islam is an act of joining an anti-West political cause rather than one of the world’s great religions. If conversion to Islam was dubbed “turning Turk” to the Elizabethans and the Stuarts confronting Ottoman naval power; “turning Terrorist” is its twenty-first century variant.

It can be observed that cultural boundaries between these two so-called worlds can, with time and circumstances, grow more or less rigid, or conversely become more or less permeable, with conversion seen as less threatening, as less remarkable. John Walker Lindh, dubbed “the American Taliban”, provides an iconic illustration of the tensions around conversion today.

Lindh converts to Islam in 1997, and sets out for the next few years to master Arabic and to memorise the Qur’an, in trips to the Yemen and secondly in Pakistan, to a simple madrasa in the NWFP. Exposed to the idea of global jihad, he signs up with Harakat al-Mujahidin for basic training in May 2001 and is then sent to Afghanistan in  to fight jihad there. In June 2001, Lindh, now fluent in Arabic, is sent to one of the Arab traning camps, al-Farooq, run by Bin Laden. Fighting for the Taliban he idealised against the Northern Alliance, Lindh never fires his gun once. He is shortly captured and incarcerated at a basement in the Qala-i Jangi near Mazar-i-Sharif. Of 330 men, only 85 come out alive, Lindh included. Lindh comes to global attention in a CNN interview just after he is captured but not yet in full American custody, as “the American Taliban”.

At the end of his trial, all charges relating to terrorism were dropped and Lindh was charged with carrying a rifle and grenades for the Taliban, for which he was sentenced to 20 years, and forbidden by a court ruling to speak Arabic in prison. In his final court statement Lindh repudiated terrorism, and al-Qaeda’s ideology and approach.

Lindh was the first prisoner to be “Abu-Ghraibed”, to be photographed naked and bound, blindfolded with the word “sh*thead” written across it, to be denied access to the Red Cross or to a lawyer. His was the first test case for the Bush adminstration’s creation of a legal state of exception by which international and constitutional rights were suspeneded.

Frank Lindh, John’s father, says that his son was born Muslim, always focused and disciplined from a young age. Throughout his journey to and through Islam, Lindh comes across as driven, but also as passive, as innocent to the complexities of the wider world around him. Lindh comes across as a majdhub, drawn to faith, to good practice, almost as if by a bestowal of Divine grace. He has an idealism, a divine foolishness, a fatal incuriosity for the practicalities of the world and the messy realities of politics. Tom Junod’s remarkable prison portrait leaves the unmistakable impression of itmi’nan, of Lindh being at peace with himself, in serenity at his lot in prison, reliant upon his Creator and constantly prayful. He is never known to miss the fajr prayer or to fail to offer his tahajjud devotions in the night. As the prison librarian he devotes himself to ancient Arabic texts. As a constant target for violence and abuse, Lindh cannot afford to leave himself in unsupervised parts of the prison. As Junood, puts it, despite being described as a global villian, as a modern-day “renegade”, “in response to what America has done to him” Lindh “has become more Islamic — more himself, and a better Muslim.”

Lindh is portrayed as an insider, the innocent American abroad, naive to political realities, touched by a simple profound faith of the heart, that divorces his intentions from his acts. But Lindh is also an outsider, one who has took up a task and a choice that few converts have: the cause of jihad on behalf of the Taliban. He is the terrorist, one for whom the basic dignities  and human rights afforded a prisoner of war and a citizen were suspended.

Lindh’s story indicates that choices away from liberal self-enlightenment can only be seen as acts of betrayal. But betrayal of what? Of enlightened morality and sound reasoning, as conversion enacts a reversal of the process of reformation and enlightenment. Such a choice might have been seen, in kinder times, as naive or eccentric, but today are seen as subversive, defiant, traitorous. Converts to Islam must be deconstructed as moral persons to make safe the boundary around liberalism (and indeed Islam), marked by words of rejection and acts of violence, such is the dangerous ambiguity of free choice, of acceptance and betrayal, that the convert represents.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 44, May 2008.

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Sheikh Google vs Wiki Islam

The digital age is crucial to reshaping religious authority among Muslims today. The mass media and the internet have changed the way in which religious teachings are disseminated and indeed how religious disputes are projected and replicated to a vast audience. This is not new but arose two hundred years ago when the ulema began to write treatises addressed to the literate constituency of the Muslim masses through the medium of print. Since then the ulema, and the reformers who now contest their authority, have cultivated constituencies of opinion through the mass media.

Yet while the disagreements of opinion formers help define the scope of public debate, Muslim publics exert considerable influence too. By asking questions they have the power to set the agenda, while, in preferring one religious authority over another, they naturally reflect the existence of a competitive market for religious ideas. Religious debate is now primarily conducted through the mass media as everyone understands its power to reach millions rather than through the more traditional face-to-face method. This drive for mass access has created a global religious public sphere into which all scholarly and non-scholarly disagreements get projected.

The nature of the mass media has changed for good. Whereas it used to be hierarchical, elitist, linear and declarative, it is becoming individualised, demotic, non-linear, and interactive. In the age of print, television and to a lesser extent radio, there used to be an editorial process and a relatively high economic cost to media exposure, but, in the digital age, samizdat multimedia has become the norm and not the exception. Anyone can now publish and project their views globally. They can claim to speak for Islam, issue a “fatwa”, proffer advice, and provide counselling or spiritual guidance. Religious leaders struggle too to project any measure of decorum or scholarly expertise in religious debate in the new media, for it is difficult to be both player and referee in the same game.

Rancorous dispute has gone from street corner discussions in the early nineties to all being preserved in glorious binary digital code, archived and available for retrieval and redeployment. Electronic fatwas and sermons struggle to define a precise audience; they must ignore any original context of time and place to speak for “Islam” globally, for Muslims everywhere, in soundbite format. This loss of context, allied, to bricoloage culture, is injurious to intellectual expertise, proper deliberation and intra-religious pluralism.

The nightmare scenario is that Sheikh Google will lead the unified madhhab of the virtual umma in which a billion-plus, atomized Muslims project their subjective musings, screaming inanities into the ether in a dialogue of the deaf. Sheikh Google’s umma would be protean, individualised, samizdat, postmodern, unregulated and without any agreed standards in interpretive technique. All differences would become mere subjectivity, reducing everything to the will for recognition manifested as the narcissism of small differences.

Yet is this not a rather dismal prognosis, the bias of the conservative to the peril rather than the promise of the new digital age, predicting chaotic mediocrity rather than creative renewal? Charles Leadbeater in his new book We-Think argues that the better future of the internet lies with its emerging ability to harness mass creativity and innovation if it can garner responsible self-governance.

One success story Leadbeater cites is Wikipedia, a prime example of open-source creative collaboration. In 2007, Wikipedia had six million articles in hundreds of languages; its total cost was 1.5 million and it only had five paid employees. It has a small committed core of volunteers alongside hundreds and thousands of other members of the public. In March 2007, Wikipedia was the eleventh most popular website, the Encyclopedia Britannica, 4,449th. Wikipedia has 250 million words, Britannica, 44 million.

But what of accuracy? Is not Wikipedia the repository of conspiracy theorists, gossips and amateurs as well as experts? A study by Nature magazine surveyed forty two corresponding articles in both and found 162 factual errors in Wikipedia and 123 in Britannica, so the difference is less than we might think. Yet Wikipedia, with greater resources of peer review, has been shown to correct itself more quickly. And it is – unlike Britannica – making the inheritance of human learning available to the world for free.

So rather than Sheikh Google, Wiki-Islam provides a better possible future for Islam online, amenable to its unchurched nature. Creative collaboration between scholars, experts, intellectuals and Muslim publics would allow for the social and intellectual process of ijma and ijtihad to become dynamic, relevant and infinitely refinable. The internet is no panacea: real-world conditions of authoritarianism in the Muslim world, the war on terror and intellectual conservatism may stymie unlocking the true potential of Wiki-Islam. But a crucial first step nonetheless to unlocking that potential is to recognize the collaborative creativity the digital age offers to the Muslim.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 43, April 2008.

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