City Circle: Monolithic Communities

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Last Friday night I went to a City Circle event in London entitled Independent Voices: Challenging the Myth of Monolithic Communities, addressed by two founders of dissenting ethnic organisations, namely Brian Klug of Independent Jewish Voices and Sunny Hundal of the New Generation Network (and Pickled Politics) as well as Ehsan Masood, who writes for Prospect magazine. The blurb read:

If there is a myth of a community monolith, whose interests does it serve? Politicians who want to outsource responsibility for dealing with diverse citizens by dealing with individual “community leaders” responsible for their own flock, expected to regulate themselves and their own problems. Or maybe “community leaders” benefit by promoting themselves and their own views by making everyone follow one particular line, and who may enact measures to silence or marginalise dissenting voices within their own communities. Or do those outside these communities who seek to stereotype and stigmatise them by saying they are all the same benefit most by this arrangement? Or, or the other side of the argument, are these independent voices truly independent? Do they not merely reflect a dominant liberal consensus suspicious of difference? Do they serve to misconstrue community interests as always parochial and self-serving? Why are they often perceived or labelled as being “less religious” or “secular”? Do they have a positive agenda beyond criticising the parochial nature of community organisations? If dissent is often challenged within communities, what form does it take and is its power to marginalise overstated?

Given that the City Circle is a Muslim-run group, the reference seemed to be to the Muslim Council of Britain, which has recently fallen from grace in British political circles and experienced a lot of hostile media coverage while various “dissenting” groups have grabbed some of the limelight for themselves. At the same time, Independent Jewish Voices appeared last month challenging the supposed consensus among the Jewish community in this country in support of Israeli actions such as those in Lebanon last July; the Board of Deputies of British Jews held a rally in Kenton (north London) in solidarity with Israel, at which the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, announced, “Israel, you make us proud”. Brian Klug, who wrote the article announcing the formation of IJV, said that others felt the opposite emotion, and that the BoD should concentrate on the welfare of British Jews rather than presuming to speak for them on matters relating to the Middle East. Hundal’s New Generation Network, older by a few months, has a liberal outlook similar to IJV’s and opposes a “system of self-appointed leaders”, entrenched in their positions by the Labour government, dominated by “a narrow range of predominantly conservative opinion” and ignoring the less religious, secular or progressive.

Klug began with a joke about how the London Underground must be anti-Semitic because it did not let him get off at the station he wanted and nearly made him late, but given that he might not have been Jewish for all they know, they must be prejudiced against everyone. He described his IJV as being a core of forty or so professional people, with hundreds of signatories. He told us that the project had received a lot of support but a fair amount of vituperation as well, including some from a liberal rabbi who said that, much as he enjoyed debate, the time for debate about whether there should be a state of Israel was not now and proceeded to cast aspersions on whether those involved in IJV deserved to be called Jewish. He gave some history of the Board of Deputies, such as that it had been formed in the 18th century at a time when Jews, among other religious minorities, could not vote and had no other way of making their voices heard. Later on, he said that the BoD was not a good model for organisations representing communities today.

Ehsan Masood gave a history of the various representative groups which exist in the Muslim community, including the MCB, the Muslim Parliament and the UMO (Union of Muslim Organisations), an organisation with a mainly social rather than political function whose heyday, he said, was well in the past and which had declined to affiliate to the MCB. Although he did trace the MCB’s history back to the Rushdie affair, he did not mention the group’s predecessor, the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs (UKACIA). He mentioned that the MCB’s leadership was mostly Jama’at-e-Islami and Deobandi, while the Muslim Parliament had gone out of its way to attract Bareilawis, and an important supporter had been Maulana Abdul-Wahhab Siddiqui, whose son runs the Hijaz College in Nuneaton. He noted that the MCB, which had all but had the key to 10 Downing Street for much of its life, had seriously fallen out of favour with the government recently, particularly with Ruth Kelly’s department, and that other groupings were appearing such as the Sufi Muslim Council and British Muslim Forum which were gaining some attention.

Sunny Hundal gave by far the longest, and perhaps most animated, speech. He talked of how various community organisations had appeared recently which supposedly represented different Asian communities other than the Muslims, apparently jealous of the attention the MCB had been getting and wanting some of it, and the money that comes with it, for themselves. He mentioned that a Hindu “representative body” had complained of Hindu girls being pressurised to convert to Islam on university campuses (this complaint having been reproduced in the media: [1], [2]), and noted that this was a myth which had circulated also in the 1990s and which led to fights between Muslim and Hindu gangs in west London. He also mentioned that these groups hate each other, and have connections with their religion’s respective extremist trends including the RSS/VHP and a one-time Sikh terrorist group.

Questions were allowed after this, and I started off by making the point that of some of the new anti-MCB “representative bodies” were motivated by their own agendas and were established by complete unknowns trying to make names for themselves. I think I also said that the hostility to the MCB being motivated by an anti-religious agenda on the centre-left. I soon ground to a halt (not for the first time), was asked if I had a question, and said no. I can’t remember all the questions, but another was about whether religiously-defined groups were shutting themselves out of other forms of campaigning, such as for the environment. I can’t remember all the questions or, for the most part, the answer to the latter question. I do remember that, in addressing my point, Sunny Hundal brought up money and said that this is what the new pretenders to community representation were after.

I must admit that I had not thought of money as a possible motive for people to set themselves up as community leaders, but it still seems to me that personal or sectarian agendas are behind the three new groupings which have sprung up in the last year or so. The so-called Sufi Muslim Council, for example, is heavily associated with the pro-Karimov crowd surrounding Hisham Kabbani, and the so-called Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, is dominated by the anti-hadeeth agitator Taj Hargey. As for the British Muslim Forum, anyone whose main complaint with existing community groups is that they are dominated by religious people and their concerns at the expense of progressive, secular opinion will be sorely disappointed by it: its board of trustees consists wholly of Bareilawi ulama. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does not make them representative of the Muslim community - even the religious within it - as a whole. It is unclear even how active they are; their website is rather neglected, particularly the forum which contains a lot of obscene spam. (The MCB, whatever the inclinations of its leadership, does in fact serve Bareilawis as well: at the time of writing, there is a diary entry on their front page for a mawlid event in Birmingham, hosted by the Minhaj ul-Qur’an leader Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri featuring nasheeds from Muhammad Afzal Noshahi.)

One of the questions which was raised - but not really answered - during the City Circle event was whether the “independent” voices such as those of the IJV and NGN are less religious and more representative of dominant liberal opinion, as is commonly observed. In both cases, the answer seems to be yes. While we as Muslims appreciate the stance on human rights taken by the IJV, it does appear that many of its signatories are secularised people of Jewish ethnicity with a long left-wing history. I very much doubt that Leon Rosselson or Eric Hobsbawm have darkened the door of a synagogue in any recent decade, if ever. Were it not for the Holocaust, in which people were identified as Jews on ethnic grounds even if they were practising Catholics, nuns even, some of these people would not care to identify themselves as Jews. While some of the groups involved in the upsurge of anti-MCB sentiment are actually religious, a lot of the dissenting voices are indeed secularist, and secularists from Muslim backgrounds have never had much trouble getting published: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (Isma’ili, but she still claims to be Muslim), Tariq Ali, Sarfraz Mansoor, Kenan Malik, to say nothing of neo-cons from the same background like Amir Taheri. They have an outlet in the mainstream press, even if not in the press run by the communities they often attack.

The MCB does take a strong interest in promoting the needs and positions of religious Muslims, because there are actually quite a few of us and if some people do not want to practise Islam as much as they can and do not need anyone to advocate on their behalf, that is their business, but the MCB is there for those of us who are practising, and their list of affiliates is substantial and well represents the diversity of practising Muslims; the BMF’s list of members, like its board of trustees, consists mostly (perhaps entirely) of Bareilawi institutions. Not all Muslims may support the political ideology of Jama’at-e-Islami - in fact, its founder, Sayyid Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi, has been attacked in Deobandi publications, to the extent of being called a heretic - but if it was clear that the likes of Bunglawala, Iqbal Sacranie and others could not rise above their politics and that it was getting in the way of representing the Muslim community as a whole, the community would have done something about it, or made serious noises about it, before the recent flurry of hostile media coverage.

I made the point to the chair (and CC’s director), Yahya Birt, that perhaps there should have been a representative of one of the religiously-based community organisations, such as the MCB, at this meeting to provide some balance to it. I was told in response that none of the “alternative” Muslim groups, like “Muslims for Secular Democracy” or the “Sufi Muslim Council”, had ever been represented, but that the MCB had been. This was not the point, however: the meeting was all about an attack on groups like it. Given that it has been in existence for ten years, and that its roots go back much further, I question whether comparing it to the Hindu and Sikh groups which have appeared more recently is appropriate: it does not, for example, busy itself with circulating myths aimed at fomenting hostility to another religious community. They could, perhaps, have defended the idea of an organisation to represent Muslims as Muslims, rather than Asians across (and outside) religious lines. After all, not all Muslims are Asians. I think it valuable to debate the issue on Muslim “turf”, but somebody from one of the groups under scrutiny would have added some balance.

(See also this and this article; more: Pickled Politics.)

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