Citizen Ali

Arzu Merali examines how equal citizenship has been denied Muslims, and the challenges that poses for a supposedly new politics in the UK.*

In 2004 the Islamic Human Rights Commission ( began an eighteen month project to articulate British Muslims’ expectations of the government to those in power, as a way of addressing what had hitherto been a top-down ‘discussion’ of citizenship – where the government, policy makers and thinkers told citizens and with distinction and discrimination it told Muslim citizens, what was required of them. It was hallmark doublespeak that invoked egalitarian norms of citizenship but actually espoused good, old fashioned values of subjecthood – at least where Muslims were concerned.

Presumed to be ‘different’ in their loyalties and love (or lack thereof) for Britain, Muslims were being told how to integrate and where their loyalties should lie. IHRC surveyed 1125 Muslims across the UK on various issues ranging from political representation to Muslims schools, the media and student life. In addition to this quantitative research qualitative work was undertaken to interrogate the findings. The first set of results were published in November 2004 as Dual Citizenship: British, Islamic or Both? — Obligation, Recognition, Respect and Belonging. Its findings are telling – they challenge not only the discourse of government but the expectations of activists Muslims and not, ourselves included.

In response to the question whether it is possible to be a good British citizen and a good Muslim, only 22% of the respondents came across a significant contradiction between the two. The rest either did not see any serious contradiction between these two (46.1%) or saw some similarity as well as deviation (31.8%). The ambiguity of the concept of being a ‘Good British Citizen’ could be one of the reasons for rejecting it, the other reason could be the incorporation of the atheistic as well as Islamophobic and racist culture with the notion of ‘British Citizenship’. Many of those questioned stated that British culture was inhospitable to religion per se, others saw institutionalised racism and Islamophobia as inherent in notions of what a good British citizen might be. As with many BME communities, unease at the resurgence of nationalism, the popularity of the St. George’s flag with all its connotations of race hate and a deep sense of unease at Muslim profiling through anti-terrorist laws and policing, were cited as causes of concern for the future and the now.

Respondents also saw huge disparity when it comes to political representation. The vast majority of those surveyed believed that it was necessary for British Muslims to be represented in Parliament and the Government (86%). Indicating that the majority of Muslims still trust the political institutions of the State as capable of influencing their lives for the better. Only 6 percent believed such representation would not solve any problems, and less than 4 per cent believed that British Muslims should not be involved in the State.

Less than 10 per cent of those surveyed believed there was at least sufficient representation of Muslims among current MPs and Lords. Over 30 per cent believed there was no such representation with over half of those surveyed regarding it as nominal representation with no practical power. It suggests that an overwhelming majority of respondents (83.1%) felt that Muslims do not have the sufficient political power to affect their lives in Britain, in turn, implying that political power was a valuable and effective force for change.

This faith in the political process was further demonstrated by the response to the question: “is it necessary for British Muslims to have a voice and representation in the British Parliament and the British Government?” The majority of respondents felt that it was necessary for Muslims to participate in the political process:

It is clear that the overwhelming majority of respondents expressed their deep faith in democratic values and commitment to the political process, and not only for the Muslim community but as one respondent put it: ‘all minorities should be represented to avoid a breach of civil liberties’. They want the Muslim voice to be heard in the decision making process of the country where their ‘specific needs’ would be reflected. The only critical voices were those frustrated by the possible compromise made by Muslim representatives who were ambitious for power:

“Only if they do not sell out or compromise.”
(Male, 38, Burnham-on-Crouch)

A striking note of concern given the four Muslim MPs subsequent capitualtion on the new anti-terrorism bill at the end of 2005. A further concern was the inability of mainstream politics because of its current prejudice against Islam to incorporate the Muslim voice:

“Necessary to have a voice and representation in Parliament but afraid that parties will clamp down on any dissenting comments especially when justified.” (Female, 22, Manchester)

“What’s the point, they would only be token figures and not be taken seriously-they’d end up in the enemy camp”
(Female, 43, London)

Steve Biko – an ideologue of the anti-apartheid movement and inspiration to many of my generation and I hope since – once wrote that, ‘the essence of politics is to direct oneself to the group that wields power.’ He goes on to unpack the psychology of white liberals whose efforts against apartheid involve their association and discussions with black South Africans. Why, asks Biko, do they spend their time talking to those who are oppressed when they know the problem is white racism, when they know that the police and army can control black protest that the security forces have deeply infiltrated the black community? Shouldn’t they address their concern to government?

It is why IHRC focussed this report and project at articulating Muslims’ expectations – whatever they were – to the government. It is why all of us need to reflect on how we address issues of political marginalisation – of white working class men, the 40% or so of the British electorate who failed to vote at General Election time, and the Muslims who despite years of very high turnouts now disdain the political process. If people are disenfranchised the onus is on those who disenfranchise them to change.

Like Biko we don’t believe that superficial change is of any use – if Muslims become just another lobby amongst many, others will continue to be marginalised or maligned in the corridors of power.

Our report surmised that whilst Muslims needed to continue to engage with the political process, this effort alone would not be sufficient to ensure either adequate political representation or truly equal citizenship for Muslims in the UK. Amongst issue flagged as sites of dislocation between (amongst others) Muslims, was a lack of thorough consultation between government and the communities. The diversity and complexity of the Muslim communities in the UK was not reflected in consultations, and the gender, ethnic, sectarian and other dynamics of the Muslim community was not reflected at this level. Likewise government needs to engage with Muslims in consultation on all issues and not just minority or Muslim specific issues. The recent taskforce exercise that effectively equated Muslim social problems with terrorism is a case of bad normative practice which will ultimately lack legitimacy and effect.

The government further needs to respect Muslim meta-loyalties and open up its foreign policy to a more robust debate that all citizens including Muslims can participate in. The much maligned solidarity of Muslims with other Muslims beyond national boundaries is neither unique to Muslims as a confessional group or indeed a bad thing.

Raising awareness of Islam for all and encouraging Muslim participation in the political process are also key to ensuring equal citizenship, particularly when as our subsequent report showed, 80% of Muslims surveyed said they had experienced Islamophobia. The government’s reluctance to tackle Islamophobia in a systematic manner, can at best be described as denial. The results of this survey showed that at the very heart of Muslim marginalisation was not a perceived lack of affiliation or love for Britain – in fact the findings showed exactly the opposite. The site of dissatisfaction amongst British Muslims was their feeling that both government and wider society did not respect them as equal. No amount of internal transformation will change that – as Biko said that rests in the hands of those who wield power.

Arzu Merali is one of the founders of IHRC. This was originally published in New Politics alongside articles from Sadiq Khan and Asghar Bukhari, both in print and on-line in March 2006. As IHRC notes in April 2007, the Gallup poll of Muslims and mainstream communities in London, Paris and Berlin mirrors IHRC’s findings.

Image adapted from Alan Parkinson via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED