Do they know what representation means at all?

A still of Emma Barnett, a young white woman, wearing headphones and speaking into a large red studio microphone. Behind her is a back-lit pink backdrop with he words "BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour" on it. A caption reading "How many female imams are there?" appears at the bottom of the image.
Emma Barnett

Last Thursday the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour (10am, Radio 4) interviewed Zara Mohammed, the new secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain and the first woman to be elected to that role, and a clip has been widely shared and criticised on Twitter as the BBC presented it as a ‘gotcha’ in which Ms Mohammed was unable to answer a question from the presenter, Emma Barnett, about how many “female imams” there were in the UK. (The answer is none; an imam, in the sense of a prayer leader at a mosque, has to be male.) Zara Mohammed did not give a straight answer, and although she hinted at the fact that this is not actually part of her role at MCB, she did not say that very clearly, to the point where people have accused her of being evasive, though this is not a fair criticism when the question is a loaded one, intended to make a point about Islam itself rather than elicit information. Barnett had previously stated in an interview with Sylvia Rothschild, a female Reform rabbi, that as an Orthodox Jew she does not believe in female rabbis, though her views may have changed since that interview in 2014. The interview can be heard on BBC Sounds here and starts at 9:24 and runs for about 13 minutes. (More: Aisha Murray on YouTube, Aurelia magazine, Samayya Afzal @ TRT World.)

I’ve listened to the whole interview and most of it is not as confrontational as this particular section; Barnett could have been harsher in the discussions on Muslims who claim the MCB does not represent them, including self-styled ‘moderates’ such as Qanta Ahmed who claimed as such in an article for the Spectator, and on the ‘strained’ relationship between the MCB and the government which have refused to engage with them since at least Cameron’s time; fashionable right-wing opinion holds that the organisation is dominated by ‘Islamists’ and there were attempts to cultivate “dissident voices”, often people with sectarian agendas. (Barnett said that the government had been approached for a statement and had not given one.) On the other hand, there was not a huge amount about what the MCB actually does and Barnett mentioned that she would talk about the pandemic at some point but they didn’t. She asked about the size of their membership; Zara explained that its membership consisted of about 500 affiliate bodies such as mosques and charities, rather than individuals. Again, this is the sort of thing Barnett should have researched before conducting the interview.

In the section about “female imams”, Barnett first asked her about the Muslim population of the UK (she replied 3 million; Barnett responded that this is what she thought it was) and then asked her how many women imams there were. Zara asked her whether she meant prayer leaders or chaplains and Barnett responded, “well, you tell me” as if she was supposed to remind her of her own question. Zara told her, “my role is making sure that we include our affiliates, particularly women, in the work that we are doing in making sure that our structures, as well as the work we do, are truly representative”. Barnett reminded her that there had been female ‘priests’ and rabbis for some time in this country (in fact, there are women vicars and deacons in the Church of England and female rabbis in some liberal branches of Judaism, but not in the Catholic church and not in orthodox Jewish communities whether ‘modern’ or Haredi). Zara told her, “I think my role isn’t really to adjudicate or examine that part of spirituality”. Pressed again, she said, “I think what’s really important for the Muslim Council of Britain, the work that we do, actually is that … it’s not about defining or going into these types of questions regarding spirituality but actually looking at how we can benefit our communities, especially given the pandemic and the role that everybody needs to be playing”.

That’s a rather round-about way of saying that the MCB are a representative body; they are there to represent the Muslim community, not to dictate to Muslims. If you want to compare it with any similar religious body, it has more in common with the Jewish Board of Deputies than the Church of England’s General Synod which did authorise female vicars. It’s not a theological body and its members are, for the most part, not religious scholars or theologians. It doesn’t have the power to reform Islam, least of all for the satisfaction of outsiders, nor even to dictate to affiliated organisations how they should run themselves. Zara Mohammed seemed intimidated by Barnett’s line of questioning, which is why the impression may have been given that she “could not answer” when in fact she knew (and I suspect Barnett did as well), but any representative of the Muslim community is going to face loaded and hostile questions so they had better get prepared. The simple answer should have been that the MCB does not dictate to Muslims in the UK, cannot change Islamic law, cannot legislate for women imams, that it’s not in the job description and that’s that.

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