The Citizens UK report into ‘Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All’ is overall a welcome report that should help form policies to strengthen and progress civil society in the UK. It has many excellent recommendations, albeit high level, for local authorities, businesses, statutory bodies, government, and Muslim communities, keeping to a shared collective responsibility whilst identifying equally-weighted actions for each of them. The report highlights some of the great contributions of Muslims of the UK in all sectors, as well as calling out the evolving challenges on integration, employment, political and civic participation, government policy, in mosques and Muslim institutes. In this sense, I’d argue that it builds on aspects of Dame Louise Casey’s Review in December 2016. That said, given that this is the culmination of 500 or so hours of testimonies and evidence gathering (by experts and active members of civil society), there are bound to be gaps and nuances which haven’t been properly factored in, a few of which are worth calling out.
One of the challenges of this kind of report is getting away from speaking of a ‘Muslim’ social category whilst recognising that ‘being Muslim’ is not necessarily the identity marker which believers of the Islamic faith would always want to purposefully and solely interact with the rest of society. And it would be equally misguided if the rest of the society assumes so or wishes to interact on this basis. For example, a Muslim football enthusiast who wishes to get into coaching might reasonably want to on the basis of their passion for football, not necessarily on the basis of ‘being Muslim.’ In examples like this, use of the category ‘Muslim’ becomes quite irrelevant. Whilst the report does recognise the heterogeneity of the category ‘Muslim,’ it seems to have missed the wider point about educating Muslims and society at large that self-identity is reflexive and constituted in the actions of the individual.
The report rightly recognises how the toxic climate of ‘us and them’ as well as growing anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice in society leads to a cycle of separateness and Muslims feeling that they’re being unfairly targeted for their faith. The report offers workable recommendations for the media and IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation). I particularly like the common-sense triple-check to prevent conflating faith with extremism (relevance, statistics, terminology). However, the report hasn’t identified sources of otherising and suspicion that some Muslims get away with, which are not in response to the more recent toxic climate (predating 9/11), but are borne out of world-views that have always undermined civil society.
It’s also good to see, perhaps for the first time in a report of this kind, the influence of biraderi clan patriarchy being called out, which it rightly says, in some communities, frustrates women and the young from greater participation. The report suggests that members outside of the Muslim community (MPs, councillors, statutory agencies etc.) could help remedy this. The question of biraderi clans is a good example of how a cultural phenomenon – reflecting practices imported from the Indian subcontinent, is perceived to overlap with the category ‘Muslim.’ This link between cultural and religious identities requires more rigorous research and development of nuanced frameworks to avoid cross-implanting issues of genealogical culture with those of faith. Particularly given that to what extent should third generation Muslims insist on actively, or passively, retaining their genealogical culture into the next generation remains an ongoing exploration both for parents individually and collectively as communities. The report’s call for well-paid, professionally trained ‘British imams’ who are tuned into the British experience and access to mosques for Muslim women are subtle indications that there comes a point in evaluating the continuity of genealogical culture or uncontextualised theology which require institutional enforcement.
‘Prevent’ is also called out for being ineffective in tackling extremism and radicalisation, which the report recognises as being seen by Muslim communities as ‘very real problems’ and requires a more trusted framework, for better buy-in, collaborative effort and participation. Whilst not calling for an outright scrapping of Prevent, it joins growing calls for an Independent Review, offering ideas like an Independent Ombudsman, involvement of Advisory Groups of local stakeholders etc. However, the report doesn’t identify how it’s ‘a very real problem’ or how Muslims might overcome the current climate of cynicism and pessimism to any notion of institutional intervention, or the historical reluctance of sectarian groups and competing national organisations to work together for mutual benefit. Particularly, given that intervention encouraged by Government (even if independently) is likely to be seen by some as colonial and tainted with suspicion. The history of malpractices of Prevent and politicians’ unhelpful use of ‘inflammatory rhetoric’ doesn’t help, which has been called out as ‘the broken relationship’ between Government and Muslim communities ‘on both sides.’ Moreover, conditions of fragmented authority and post-modern conscientization can be difficult barriers to effecting policy, regardless of who is implementing it.
The report does well to highlight ‘unconscious bias’ in attitudes towards employability. A Muslim-sounding name, it calls out from BBC research, is offered three times less interviews than an English sounding name. It’s even worse for women, the report claims – often passed over for jobs they’re well-qualified for. Overall, it impacts confidence and exacerbates ‘aspiration ambition deficit,’ income inequalities and social mobility issues in Muslim communities. Sometimes, as the report finds, to the extent that women have resorted to ‘removing their hijab to find work.’ Given these and other issues, the report calls for, amongst other things, better mentoring schemes, outreach programmes and employers to take action.
The report recommends that Boy Scouts and Girl Guides should be used (amongst other things) to consciously bring together young people of different cultures and faiths. However, on the ground, scouting has in some places become stratified as ‘Muslim scouts’ as opposed to before, where there was usually a mix of kids from different communities. This traces to a more fundamental question about the way we design initiatives for civil society and whether we give enough thought to the wider society, for fear of ‘betraying our own traditions.’ It’s a bit like policies that didn’t encourage immigrants to learn English, and fast forward 30-40 years, we’re seeing the disconnection between the young and older generations.
Finally, there are many gaps in the report. It’s surprising that there’s hardly any mention of online strategy not just in respect of preventing radicalisation, but for creating fruitful narratives for consolidating shared values and civil society. Moreover, there is no mention of best practices for religious education and curricula in maktabs. Nor are there any recommendations overcoming sectarianism which, more so, struggles to contextualise to British life (mentioned only in context to ‘persecution’ in the report), and racism against black Muslims by Asian Muslims.
One of the running themes of the report, is for diversification of voices and engagement. However, unplanned diversification doesn’t automatically guarantee quality or right outcomes for civil society. And, at least in the short term, may only attract the already ‘activated’ or ‘politically-aggrieved’ rather than the currently disinterested, who possess great potential to contribute meaningfully towards civil society given the right social environment and platform. Thus, for this report to be useful, it requires greater planning, institution-building, strategic roadmaps, and funding – all of which is in scarce supply. But one thing is for sure, it’s in UK Plc’s interests to unlock the British Muslim potential, as the report recommends.