Dr Khadijah Elshayyal traces the history of Muslim representation politics in Britain, what it achieved and its distinct limitations.

In doing so, she explores the costs of a politics centred on acceptability and developing a public ‘unified platform’ in an era of securitisation, as well as the future of Muslim political organising in Britain.

This article is published as part of CAGE’s new series of expert essays ‘Perspectives on the War On Terror‘.

What mental images are most readily generated, when mention is made of Muslim political engagement in the UK?
If the content of our news cycles is anything to go by, the chances are that ‘community leader’, ‘angry mob’, and ‘death threat’ will feature highly.

So familiar are they, that one can be excused for thinking that news coverage and public commentary on Muslim activism often start off with these images as a template, or a skeleton for their narrative, seeking only to fill in the gaps with finer details relating to when and where incidents have taken place.

Recent events at Batley Grammar School provide us with one such example.
In covering the dispute, the orientalist trope of ‘Muslim rage’ was relied upon by the media and public commentators, to animate our understanding of Muslim activists and protesters.

A racialised spotlight was shone on the ‘foreign’ attire of some of the protestors, on the Arabic chants that were used, and, along with a sprinkling of imaginative embellishment, we seamlessly have an unreasonable ‘mob’ who need to be told that ‘violence’ is not the answer, and that because ‘no one has a right not to be offended’, they should understand that they cannot demand special treatment ‘here’.

“I would also like to posit that, as long as the establishment remains the primary focus of address, there will always be an internal hierarchy of Muslim voices within the realm of representation and activism.”

It is possibly the most widely recognisable and longest enduring act in the theatrics of formal representation to state, media and society, for British Muslims.

Media commentators go through well-worn motions, wondering what it is about Islam and Muslims which makes it so unable to handle critique or ridicule? Politicians take to admonishing Muslim activists – laying out to them what the acceptable and unacceptable ways to behave are – always with the underlying implication that Muslims should be grateful for the relative political freedoms that they enjoy in the UK, as compared with the countries of their heritage.

And Muslim representatives take their positions, issuing statements and demonstrating their ‘reasonableness’ – this can take the form of declarations of loyalty, of adherence to ‘British values’, a denouncement of protestors as ‘anti-prophetic’ in their manner and their demands, and a distancing from them, a call to understand the incident as ‘unfortunate’ or ‘badly judged’ and to respond through compassion, dialogue, forbearance and outreach.

But where does this well-rehearsed theatrical come from, and more importantly, why does it persist?


Formal representation: a coveted but elusive goal

During the late 1990s, UK multiculturalism policy was in its heyday. The Blair administration had positioned itself as a progressive partner of marginalised and minoritised communities, a strategy which paid off at the ballot box.

Many of these communities had experienced years of disregard towards their advocacy by successive Conservative administrations, and so they welcomed the recognition that they were promised by New Labour.

Championing a model of ‘active citizenship’, New Labour invested in developing relationships with ‘faith communities’, and in doing this, supported an emergent ‘faith sector’ which, for the first time, represented official affirmation from the state of a place for representatives from diverse faith communities as formal stakeholders in civic society 1

From the perspective of these communities, the prospect of achieving equal treatment through state accommodation and inclusion, as well as some potential towards attaining eventual parity with the privileges enjoyed by the established church2, was a strong motivator for investing in developing relations with the state, whose ministers were, for their part, receptive and willing to reciprocate.

In this context, though very much a community endeavour, the newly formed Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) courted the government and was in turn courted by it, gaining quasi-official status as the voice of UK Muslims in all matters relating to policy and representation.

It was a veritable watershed moment in the journey charted by Muslim activists who had been angling for the establishment’s ear for decades.
These were activists and organisers who had dedicated themselves to the cause of acquiring respect for Islam and Muslim communities in the public space – carrying as they did, the scars of racist violence on the streets and in their neighbourhoods, discrimination in the workplace, and the education sector.

Further, they were weary of attitudes from interlocutors within local and national governance which were not just aloof to their needs and the difficulties they faced, but were often structurally complicit in their exclusion.

Emboldened by their recent experiences of organising on a unified national platform, these activists were also spurred on by their frustration at how their concerns had previously been dismissed or misconstrued by the political and media establishments.

It seemed uncontroversial that a unified voice would finally give Muslim concerns the requisite power to be heard politically, and notable initial gains in this regard were indeed made.

The achievement of political respect and respectability were earmarked as vital goals for Muslim advocacy, in its struggle for equal and fair treatment by government and public institutions.

‘Umbrella bodies’ – local, regional and national organisations which sought to bring together diverse and disparate Muslim voices on a unified platform – generally had the establishment as their primary target audience.

There was, and remains, great appeal to the idea that speaking as one voice was a powerful, efficient and effective way to achieve political impact. During its first decade at least, the MCB epitomised this conviction, as its chief focus was addressing the establishment – be it national and local government, the civil service, or media outlets and commentators.

Realising that the political establishment was not neutral – the prospect of having a direct channel of access to it offered up a major opportunity to finally be ‘seen’.

“Muslim activists were weary of attitudes from interlocutors within local and national governance which were not just aloof to their needs and the difficulties they faced, but were often structurally complicit in their exclusion.”

If we consider the legacies of Britain’s colonial relationship with the countries to which its Muslims traced their heritage, then it becomes clear that this was about much more than simply a minority religion being acknowledged publicly by the state.

This is not to mention the momentous feat of simply getting such a range of ethnicities, cultural, political and theological tendencies from across the UK onto one shared platform.

Perhaps the organic path of this journey of representation politics was disrupted by the huge impact of 9/11, and the subsequent mushrooming of a security state obsessed with containing a Muslim ‘ideological’ threat to liberal freedoms.

Because of securitisation, the very notion of Muslim representation became inseparable from the task of allaying liberal fears of an ideological or cultural threat emanating from Muslim communities, and the performance of overt affirmations of loyalty to the nation.

Thus, it soon became that any form of public pronouncement by Muslim organisations, in particular, ones expressing political dissent, had to be prefaced by a disavowal of violence or extremism.

Such was the intensity and pressure of the moment, that Muslim representatives felt they were left with little choice but to channel their attention and resources into putting out constantly recurring fires – or else to risk losing their hard-won ‘respectability’.

This variously took the form of presenting accessible theological arguments against the use of violence, demystifying Muslim communities or institutions; dispelling misrepresentations that were circulating about religious teachings; endeavours to ‘humanise’ Muslims through coordinated demonstrations of active citizenship; and celebrations of ‘ordinariness’.

The common strand between all such activities being that there was a redoubling of focus on the same primary audience – the political and media establishments. It seems fair to say that the centrality of this focus has endured, and has left a lasting and perhaps indelible mark on the psyche and aspiration of British Muslim representation politics.

Speaking with Muslim activists engaged in representation, there is a real sense of how much of a staggering ordeal the post-9/11 years were. In some ways, it is as if many have only in recent times been coming up for air, finally having the space to think much more critically about who their primary audience is and what the implications of seeking an ‘at all costs’ unity or consensus will be.


Has obsession with a ‘united voice’ been a distraction?

Twenty years on from 9/11, we have young Muslim people for whom the very fact of their existence, from the moment of their birth, has been necessarily a political statement.

The so called ‘9/11 generation’ do not have the luxury of choosing whether or not to engage politically – for them, it is existential, and a matter of survival.

There are already plenty of indications that this generation has limited patience for pursuing a politics of formal representation, let alone prioritising it over grassroots organising and capacity building within community spaces.

Of course, these two fronts are not mutually exclusive.

The MCB has itself expanded its community-focused work significantly over recent years. We are, after all, more than a decade on now from the collapse of any formal consultative relations between the government and the MCB – an active policy that has been reiterated and reinforced by the current government on several occasions.

The ‘faith sector’ which New Labour had created and sustained has been rendered a shadow of its former self. Government engagement with faith organisations is now unapologetically differential and conditional3, and seems, to all intents and purposes, to be entirely aligned with its own increasingly transparent ideological commitments and associations.

For Muslim voices, in these ever more securitised times, their access to any audience with the state is subject to their compliance with its securitisation agenda – and therefore, given the widespread opposition within communities to this agenda – such conditionality undermines and sabotages from the outset any intra-community discussions, let alone possibilities for intra-community organising or solidarity.

Activism beyond marching, petitioning and lobbying

So, with all of this in mind, I would like to put out some questions for consideration here:

Does the primacy given to gaining establishment respectability and recognition come at the cost of impoverishing our capacity for solidarity and broad-based community organising? How can the notion of ‘unity’ in the Muslim community be understood in a more multi-dimensional way?

“We might conclude that the ‘honeymoon’ period of representation and recognition in the 1990s was an aberration – rather than the optimal model of dialogue and representation that activists should strive to return to.”

Of course, it is naïve not to appreciate that strategic calculations and realpolitik will influence necessary and sometimes difficult decisions about priorities, content and approach of Muslim representation  – perhaps particularly so, when representative organisations remain in the most part, run on limited resources and through the dedication of committed volunteers.

But such decisions also cannot be separated from a critical appreciation of how the political structures that are addressed by representatives or activists are constituted. The legacies of colonialism which the formation of a platform for unified Muslim representation through the MCB had to contend with have not left us.

In fact, the model of minority representation to the state, notwithstanding its countless achievements, is itself characteristic of colonial governance.

If this can be recognised, then surely Muslim activists should undertake to analyse and understand how divisive and oppressive features relating to class, neoliberalism, nationalism and the persistent language of empire remain embedded within our political and media spaces.

I would also like to posit that, as long as the establishment remains the primary focus of address, there will always be an internal hierarchy of Muslim voices within the realm of representation and activism. There will always be decisions to be made about which Muslim voices are dispensable and which are to be rallied around – and securitisation will continue to play a central and inescapable role in such calculations.

The parameters for such calculations and decisions are set by the political elite and the media – Muslim representatives have only to slot themselves into this pre-determined outline.

This raises a further conversation which, in my view, has yet to be given its due. What can a Muslim political advocacy look like, that addresses Britain’s Muslims themselves and their institutions, with all their diversity and disagreements, their rivalries and their richness?

Future prospects

In recent months, Faith Engagement Adviser, Colin Bloom, concluded his evidence gathering for a review of the government’s engagement with faith organisations.

Although this exercise has yet to publish any findings or recommendations, if the recent run of outputs from quasi-governmental agencies, reports and investigations give us anything to go by, then we can expect that this review will at best give backing to the existing approach of differential and conditional engagement.

The public legitimacy of Muslim organisations and individual activists is already at the mercy of the state’s subjective and precarious assessment.

Perhaps, considering all of this, we might conclude that what some have referred to as a ‘honeymoon’ period of representation and recognition in the 1990s was an aberration, a blip, a departure from the norm – rather than the optimal model of dialogue and representation that activists should strive to return to, even at great expense.

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Dr Khadijah Elshayyal
Dr Khadijah ElshayyalAssociate Fellow, University of Edinburgh
Khadijah is an Associate Fellow at the University of Edinburgh specialising in contemporary British Muslim history, and also teaches at the Centre of Islamic Studies, Hamad bin Khalifa University, in Doha.

Her research interests lie in the political and cultural activism, advocacy and representation of Muslims and other minorities in the UK.

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)