An attack on the idea of communities

In the past couple of weeks, three events led to much heated discussion about the idea of “communities” in the West, and “community leaders” in particular: a Policy Exchange report (PDF) suggesting, among other things, that Muslim organisations were unrepresentative and that the Government has “been listening to [Muslims] in the wrong way”, a speech by David Cameron comparing “those who want to separate British Muslims from the mainstream” with the BNP, and a statement by Independent Jewish Voices, “a group of Jews in Britain from diverse backgrounds, occupations and affiliations who have in common a strong commitment to social justice and universal human rights”, against what they see as the misrepresentation by established Jewish community bodies of Jewish opinion as being in support of Israeli policy. The full list of signatories is here.

The IJV statement led to an outpouring of comment articles in the Guardian (and no doubt other broadsheets) as well as on the paper’s comment blog (the full list of them is here). Among the first was this, from Brian Klug, who alleged that both the Israeli leadership and the Board of Deputies of British Jews presented a “united” Jewish opinion in support of the Israelis’ actions in Lebanon, which in his view was misleading. Abe Hayeem confirmed that censorship and vilification of Jews who campaign against Israeli oppression in the occupied territories goes on and that “the [pro-Israel] lobby can operate at the highest levels of city government”, as demonstrated by an incident involving Richard Rogers, whose position as an architect for a publically-funded conference centre in New York was put in jeopardy when his partnership’s premises were used to launch Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine. (He also mentioned the well-known email harrassment campaigns and the “SHIT List”, the swear word being an acronym for “Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening”.)

CIF also aired a number of articles critical of IJV. This one, from Linda Grant, alleged that IJV are out of touch with Jewish life in the UK, and that many British Jews have family connections with Israel. Emmanuele Ottolenghi asserted that the IJV, unlike the Board of Deputies and the Israeli government, are not elected by anyone and thus are not representative and can be said to speak only for themselves; he also observed that many of the signatories are people with high media profiles who have no problems getting their views aired.

Naturally Sunny Hundal (of Pickled Politics) welcomed this development, noting the similarities to his own “New Generation Network”, itself launched with an attack on the “system of self-appointed leaders” in the various ethnic-minority religious communities. In that particular case, only the Asian communities, not the Jewish community, were challenged, but the parallels are obvious:

The Sun newspaper recently published a picture of children holding up placards painted with racial insults. For a follow-up they may want to consider terms such as Brown Sahib, Uncle Tom, self-hating Jew or Sell-out Muslim. In case it isn’t obvious, these are more commonly used when commentators within minority groups dare to challenge their own establishment.

Except, of course, that in the case of the Muslim community terms like “sell-out” are often applied not to individuals who speak out against their communities’ supposed leaders, but to false leaders and unrepresentative “representatives” the media or politicians want to foist on us. He alludes, for example, to a “whispering campaign” against Taj Hargey, linking to this article at Islamophobia Watch, which is actually run by non-Muslim Marxists. Still, the fact about Hargey is that he was an unknown until John Ware dug him out of obscurity for his attack on the MCB: when I tried Googling him, I found hardly anything. He had simply not paid his dues, and was trying to make a name for himself by cosying up to journalists who were looking for dirt and for “good Muslims”, and promoting the ideas of a fractious clique of “progressive Muslims” in north America which simply cannot be endorsed by religious and believing Muslims. Some of them are anathema to conservatives of other religions also.

He is not the only one; Haris Rafiq was not exactly a household name when he set up his so-called Sufi Muslim Council. He, and his admirers in the media, did not seem to notice the fact that a substantial proportion of Muslims with Sufi tendencies are conservative (the Deobandis, for example) and not at all in support of his friends in Washington, Hisham Kabbani’s so-called Islamic Supreme Council of America. Most recently, some woman called Gina Khan was given a lengthy feature in the Times, in which she alleged that mosques were “importing jihad” and that the community had simply refused to deal with the problems its women were facing. Running through much of this is the false notion that no Muslim circles exist in which to discuss the failures of the MCB, the extremist problem and the problems women have. There are: in the past there was Q-News, Trends magazine and various websites; now there are well-established blogs, web fora and a better-established Muslim media scene. Q-News did carry features criticising the Muslim Council of Britain, for example. It has carried articles criticising foot-dragging on the status of women. It even carried a letter from one Muslim man who said he had a good mind to start his own bombing campaign against Muslims who could not be bothered with the English language, among them mosque committees who bring imams from the village back home and “British-born imams trained at Dewsbury who insist on giving sermons in Urdu”.

It has been criticised by scholars - among them, for example, Shaikh Riyadh ul-Haq who condemned (in a tape, since withdrawn, called The Status of the Hijab) their feature on a Muslim female model, and it has carried a fair amount of objectionable content over the years. However, it demonstrates that not everywhere in the Muslim community are women only domestic drudges, since two of the three editors in its history have been women, as are two of its current contributing editors and several of those who have contributed over the years. Anyone who has been to the university campuses in London will see women with their heads covered, and even their faces, and no doubt the situation is similar in Birmingham and elsewhere in the Midlands and north, contrary to the broad stereotype advanced by Gina Khan; it suggests that Muslim women, and other Asian women, can be achievers. (No doubt more could be if there was more assistance; all students have to get money from somewhere.)

I reject the notion that the antics of Taj Hargey, in particular, and the protest of the IJV are morally equivalent. Among the IJV’s signatories may well be people who are Jewish only by ethnicity and some who reject the legitimacy of the state of Israel itself, but most object only to the silencing of critical voices and to the vilification and harrassment of those who protest against Israeli oppression. It certainly is not a vilification of ordinary Jews, an assertion that a lot of Jews really are in a conspiracy to rule the world from Jerusalem or a call for a ban on Jewish slaughtering methods. Hargey, on the other hand, dishonestly promotes a doctrine rejected by Muslims - the notion that Islamic law comes from the Qur’an alone - as being authentic, as with this article in the Daily Telegraph:

Although Muslims regard the Qur’an as the primary and inviolable foundation for Islamic legislation, radical preachers from a variety of denominations here and abroad persist in propagating an extreme millenarian vision of the faith that is not predicated upon the sacred scripture, but is founded on the reputed sayings (ahadith) of the Prophet Muhammad.

Compiled some 250 years after the prophet’s death, these subordinate pronouncements and practices usurp the authority of the Qur’an. The intervening years provided sufficient opportunity for forgery and fabrication.

Other press releases by his so-called Muslim Education Centre of Oxford (like this one) promote the same falsehood. The belief puts whoever holds it outside Islam. Now, one should not expect outsiders to concern themselves with Islamic doctrinal issues, but it is quite another matter when a non-Muslim advances his concocted ideas as being the “true” Islam while bad-mouthing the generality of Muslims in the circles of unknowing, yet powerful, outsiders. This is treachery itself. Among MECO’s press releases are some statements criticising the Danish cartoons and the invasion of Iraq, but it does not change the fact that Hargey has set himself outside the Muslim body, asserting that its practices and concerns are baseless, intending that those in power will listen to him and not to the rest of us.

Soumaya Ghannoushi, reacting to the Cameron speech and Policy Exchange report, had these fears:

So the Muslim will, under the Tories, have to face the state as a naked individual, without the protection of any community organisations, or lobbying groups to defend his/her interests. What other communities take for granted is thus deemed unacceptable and declared forbidden for Muslims. The truth is that, beautiful as it is, the notion of equal abstract citizenship is meaningless to the resident of a housing estate in Tower Hamlets, who is five times more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation than his “equal” fellow white citizens, four times more likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to have no qualifications, live in social rented accommodation, and suffer from ill health. In the real world, the equal citizen is little more than a sweet myth.

She noted that the report “lumps scores of vastly divergent positions together, democrats with theocrats, reactionaries with quietists, defenders of women’s rights with those opposed to them, all under the vague and misleading title of ‘Political Islam’” and that, as for the 37% of young Muslims who “expressed a desire to live under Sharia law”, what most Muslims understand by Shari’a is such things as eating Halal food, marrying according to Islam and having access to interest-free mortgages.

And this is what many Muslims look to community organisations to secure for them: allowances for religious needs in the education system, the workplace and in other areas of life, as well as a “talking head” to voice Muslim opinion. It does not mean we have to take orders from the MCB. That this organisation has its faults is well-known; it was dismissed by one writer in Q-News almost as soon as it was launched on the grounds of its leadership being made up of the same faces which keep appearing in the Daily Jang and condemned by letter-writers as having been hatched within the Home Office. However, quite unlike the “Sufi Muslim Council”, or the rump “Muslim Parliament” (or that organisation at any time in its history), let alone Taj Hargey’s “progressive” outfit, with its boasts of its media connections, it has some electoral legitimacy. Its list of affiliate Muslim organisations runs into the hundreds and include mosques, schools, ethnically-based groups and other organisations from right across the country; its committees and working bodies are elected by these affiliates. So naturally, it represents activists and the religious, who are those who are most in need of representing as Muslims, rather than on the basis of ethnicity or other distinction.

Much of the hostility towards the MCB, and other groups representing religious communities, comes from people hostile to religion itself and to anything a religious group might want, and there has been more than one attempt to deny the notion that a Muslim community might exist to talk to anyway. It’s true that the Muslim population is big, that we have many disagreements among ourselves and that, as you might expect, we do not all know each other. However, we have common beliefs and customs and by and large, when we meet and recognise each other as Muslims, we give each other the salaam and if we can talk about nothing else, we can talk about religion. This is part of what makes us a “Muslim community” and why people don’t talk of “the white community”, except perhaps where there is a white community which is not a local majority. As a religious community we have some needs which are not shared by the majority population but which really harm nobody to accommodate. If some of us choose not to be religious and thus do not need these things, this is their business. People attract the hostility of the Muslim community when they publically attack its values and claim that “real Muslims” do not wear hijab, do not care about halaal meat, are happy to shake hands with the opposite sex and do not care how foreign policy impacts on our brothers and sisters - by blood and by faith - overseas. These are the Uncle Toms, and minorities through the ages have had to deal with them.

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