As human beings we crave recognition of our efforts. Whether it’s a pat on the back or something more, it’s always nice to be recognised from our peers, teachers or senior managers at work. So it seemed this was no different in the recent AVeryMerryMuslimChristmas report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims highlighting the work of Muslim charities in the UK. This was British Muslims being showcased for the charitable value that they contribute to British society. The context, however, wasn’t so clear cut. It got me thinking. Why would politicians and members of civic groups suddenly want to become bastions of the collective effort of Muslim charity organisations from soup kitchens feeding the homeless to the likes of NZF – institutional zakat distributors?
Now, before we go into this further, I just want to clear up a couple of things. As far as numbers go, the Muslim charity sector overall is very impressive. At the last analysis, Muslims as a faith community punched well above their weight. During Ramadhan, for example, British Muslims as a whole in 2016 donated money at a rate of £38 per second, or £371 per individual over the year. In A Survey of Charitable Giving in the British Muslim Community in December 2014 by the independent organisation Cause 4, it was found that 48.9% of respondents gave at least £20 per month on average to charitable causes, which equates to over £240 per year and 22.4% of respondents make an average monthly donation of at least £50, which equates to over £600 per year. Yet, in the NPC’s Money for Good report, the average donation for mainstream donors (whose household income was below £150,000) was £303 over the past 12 months. All of this clearly shows that there is a significant portion of the British Muslim community who are not just willing to but actually do donate higher than the average amount. For a diverse community that consistently comes among the lowest socio-economic classes, this is a very significant display of compassion.
Secondly, there is currently a vigorous debate among British Muslims, including its most erudite scholars, about how Muslims should engage with cultural elements of Christmas, which is in many respects a religio-cultural festival that is not intrinsic to Islam. But Muslims as minority populations, and arguably, living increasingly in a Makkan context must face and deal with this question. It’s a reconciliation that remains unfinished and arguments and positions are varied. Certainly, it isn’t helped by the fact that the politics of identity are much thornier, fragmented and more complex today than in the 80s and 90s when we grew up happily singing ‘Kumbaya my Lord’ or ‘In His Hands’ hymns in school assemblies. This article isn’t about this debate or the identity boundaries that might define whether, or in what contexts, we can say ‘Merry Christmas.’
My argument is a little deeper and goes at the very heart of principles that we apply to ‘how’ we engage with the public in the politics of cultural self-assertion of our ‘Muslimness.’ The APPG for British Muslims is about celebrating the contribution of British Muslims to Britain, and Christmas being a period of happiness and fun seemed the right kind of ‘Norman Tebbit immigration test’ to engage with. The downside is that by so overtly linking Muslims to Christmas in the run up to Christmas you run the risk of being accused of cultural encroachment – the ‘creeping Shariah’ type, which is difficult to placate in today’s social media wars. Though I am a little wary that those Muslim charity workers who despite their love and hard work for Britain, refrain from engaging Christmas given its roots in the doctrine of the Trinity, might have unwittingly become the sacrificial turkey. That said, on balance, I think it was a bold judgement call.
After all, unlike those who argue that AVeryMerryMuslimChristmas is a social media ‘slogan’ for politically-corrected ‘good’ Muslims and that, worst still, Muslims need humanising, the reality is that in the realm of public self-assertion, there is always a need to make the case for something, rather than simply expecting the world to automatically recognise or accede to a certain moral value. A very painful example of this is the lack of pro-EU PR campaigns in the decade leading up to Brexit. Positive things don’t just happen out of thin air or inaction, which is why we elect people to govern and rely on civic bodies to help shape policy in order to correct failure in our society.
Nor does the report, as some have argued, necessarily have to include ‘all’ charities or mention people stripped of their citizenship because while allegedly doing charity work they were allegedly deemed security risks. The reality is that this report was never meant to be exhaustive. In fact, the report focuses on charity work done in Britain. And on that note, we know very well that the overwhelming majority of charity donations from British Muslim leaves the UK. Thus, the idea that Muslims have somehow overcome negotiating multiple attachments to local, national and transnational belongings is not yet true. This happens even for zakat donations despite the Prophetic imperative to spend it locally.
These points aside, my main contention is that it is questionable whether the AVeryMerryMuslimChristmas report itself passed the ‘trustworthy test.’ Self-exaggeration is an un-Godly tactic in the politics of self-assertion. As cultural anthropologists like Stuart Hall have noted, “it is only through relation to the Other, the relation to what it is not, to precisely what it lacks, to what has been called its constitutive outside that the ‘positive’ meaning of any terms – and this its ‘identity’ – can be constructed.” In other words, in the context of the wider non-Muslim charity sector (worth approx. £39b annually and 760,000 paid employees), Muslim charity is miniscule, and the claim that Muslim charities are a ‘fourth emergency service’ to Britain during Christmas seems a self-exaggerating claim. Unchallenged claims of greatness can often be perceived to deny the real achievements and cultural pride of others (in this case non-Muslims), which lead not only to a breakdown of trust but also to culturally-ingrained grievances that incite equally embellished counter-claims. This is exactly the kind of politics we need to move away from in order to win the hearts and minds of those who don’t want to see integrated and successful Muslims.
The APPG could have avoided this, if they contextualised the report to the wider charity work of non-Muslims – even mentioning that there are some 167,000 registered charities in England and Wales (most of whom also go quietly about charity giving and volunteering). They could have also been much more explicit about the annualised numbers quoted to remove the impression (due to the title of the report) that it all happens in Christmas, something which Sadiq Khan recognised in his tweet where he made reference to ‘…and throughout the year.’
 Hall, S. (1996) Who needs identity? in S. Hall and P. du Gay (eds.) Questions of Cultural Identity, London: Sage.