The Wrong Shoes, or Notes on Muslim Representation in Europe

Single partner contacts between European governments and minoritised communities come under the microscope from Arzu Merali

Dedicated to Nick Park, Wallace & Gromit and all Muslim organisations and associations.

Slightly less painful than giving birth and only slightly less stupid than getting into a cab alone in Sofia and driving to the mountains (not to be done by a woman travelling alone in any country) is walking any distance in a pair of 4 inch heeled shoes.Pre-middle age has seen me breaking, in the last two years, my lifelong habit of not wearing any shoes in which I could not run away from a racist, a rapist, a drunk and more recently an Islamophobe. My sad fashionista 30 something years are roundly condemned by my flat and dowdy 20s. The flat soled decade was vindicated by my physiotherapist Ali, who in his ‘Manage your pain because the NHS no longer cares’ occupational therapy class a few years back, berated all women who wore heels as exacerbating our bad backs.

These lessons in minor chiropractic and osteopathy came back to me as I walked from Augustinehof Hotel to the Heinrich Böll Stiftung for a roundtable discussion on “Muslim Representation.” A ten minute walk turned into The Odyssey as I walked in lonely agony along central Berlin streets – beautiful streets with galleries and cafes and restoration work to some of the city’s more historic and somewhat decrepit architecture. These were streets in the heart of the German capital, minutes away from its new train station – a feat of such architectural and social significance that even I had seen something about it on the Europhobic British news. Yet I was the only non-white face, walking down a street parallel to one known to be a meeting place of cross cultural experience – Indian and Chinese restaurants sat along side a Turkish convenience store (Turkish by ownership rather than content) and various bars and eateries.

Hobbling along under the dual torture of crippling footwear and kilos of BMEG* reports in my rucksack and obligatory WH Smith carrier bag (travelling gear of the hapless British tourist), I was overtaken by a green hijab clad convert (who, I jealously noted, wore sensible brown pumps). She turned out to be Carla, a participant at the same event from Austria, whose foot pragmatism ensured that she left the same hotel as me much later and arrived at the venue (having got lost) still much earlier. She was to talk about the ‘successful’ model in Austria of Muslim representation – the creation of a single contact partner organisation for government to negotiate with – something that I was about to lambaste as inappropriate and unrepresentative based on the British experience. My networking and social skills are pretty poor as they are – this looked like it was going to be another event where I left with less friends than I turned up with.

I spoke second, and it wasn’t to criticise the Austrian example as I had little inkling of what goes on there, aside from the issues aired by other participants about the one body failing to represent Shias and others. However my history of Muslim organisation from circa 1992, was not on my part to be some sort of stinging retribution of the MCB – a further spat in the internecine warfare that characterised relations between Muslim organisations in the near past. A relevant example was IHRC’s campaign in support of journalist Faisal Bodi after his critique of the one contact partner myth in the UK in The Guardian, led to a letter from Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) media secretary Inayat Bunglawalla calling for his removal as a contributor. In retrospect such spats seem quite healthy, but whilst contemporary can seem painful.

The critique I presented in Berlin was of the more generalised idea and that never ending trend of aspiration amongst Muslim organisations to become the “sole voice” of Muslims in a minority situation – situations that are increasingly characterised in Europe by ethnic, generational and sectarian diversity. Being the “sole voice” is an aspiration in the British experience or experiences of the last 10 -15 years has shown to be an expectation by government not for true representation, but for exactly the unrealistic, inevitably unrepresentative, opportunistic and cynical reasons.

Interestingly, Carla pointed out a historical plus point in the Muslim – Austrian history i.e. the recognition of Islam by law in 1912. To start off my presentation I had to clarify that in the UK, Muslims are not recognised either as National Minority nor under the Race Relations Act 1976 (our most comprehensive legislation to protect minorities, which cover the Jewish, Sikh and to a lesser extent Rastafarian communities). Although new laws against religious discrimination in the workplace had been enacted since end 2003 in order to meet the demand of an EU directive, there had been no government commitment to ensure this legislation had any meaning in practice. There is no legal aid available for victims, and legal costs are generally prohibitive. Unions and employers have been provided little if any training to understand the issues or responsibilities involved in eradicating discrimination based on faith.

It is against this backdrop that the New Labour government has set up a clash of civilisations between it and its claim to represent broader British society, against what it now deems an irksome and no longer inclined to vote for them, and vilifies publicly as violent and terroristic to its core. In that clash, old friends – Muslim associations and organisations to sometimes be so closely linked to the Labour project as to be sometimes indistinguishable from it have been maligned and sidelined, and old foes and those with simply no representative basis have been reinvented as moderates have been promoted as true spokespeople by a government obsessed with socially engineering not a single contact partner but a single form of Islam that Muslims in the UK should and must adhere to.

So, back to 1992, and my presentation, and an attempt, whilst I can’t pretend to be unbiased, at being neutral. 1992 saw the establishment of the now defunct, Muslim Parliament of Great Britain (MPGB), an organisation that spoke (loudly) at government, and which was maliciously described in the press at that time as seeking to segregate Muslims. This was a lie dealt with in the inaugural speech by the MPGB’s then leader, the inspirational, controversial and much missed late Dr. Kalim Siddiqui. “We are for integration,” he boldly stated, “on our [i.e. Muslims’] own terms.”

Running parallel to MPGB was UKIAC (the United Kingdom Islamic Action Committee), that has been looked on in retrospect as a lobby group pressing on Muslim issues particularly measures to protect against religious discrimination and vilification. The understanding is that circa the mid 1990s, the erstwhile Home Secretary and later Tory party leader, Michael Howard, offered those around UKIAC that the government would negotiate with a single Muslim body and that one should be organised. I cannot verify this, but of true it forms an even more salutary lesson for Muslims in minority situations, given that many UKIAC associated figures became part of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) set up in 1997, which was seen by the community as aspiring (rightly or wrongly) to that single body status. MCB is now in that unenviable category of demonised groups that the British government seeks to marginalise, occasionally with the ironic put down that it is unrepresentative – a fact that did not deter it until very recently as proclaiming as exactly the opposite in an attempt to shut out other Muslim organisations from consultation on the basis that THE Muslim representative body already sat next to government.

As I then stated I have found myself recently transformed from critic of the MCB to its defender – it has been maligned for doing the same thing it always did, with government approval. Whatever my differences of which there are many with the roads – ideological and empirical – taken by MCB over the last decade, it is shocking that they have been treated in this manner – a manner then aped by the mainstream press, resulting in e.g. the recent admonition by the tabloid press that in their guidelines for schools, the MCB had made Taliban style demands on the government. The same guidelines were not just endorsed but praised by the Chief Inspector of Schools. As a representative of about 40% of Muslim organisations – the MCB could at least argue that it represented a substantial part of Muslim civil society. To be replaced by the newly created and in vogue Sufi Council of Britain as doyennes of moderation and representation is at best bizarre, particularly as the constituency for the latter seems to consist of government ministers (maybe even 40% of them) and no-one else.

So what are the problems of the single contact partner model. I give my humble thoughts on why such a model, based on the last 10 -15 years of the UK experience this would be a bad way to go.

1. One body only, puts the minority (whomsoever they are) in a position of weakness. Previously thought as a solid way forward – a uniting around one voice concept that demands acceptance by government. Actually, as we have seen it just means it can be easily discarded by discarded when it no longer wants it, needs it or when it may have stopped articulating only those concerns that government is willing to negotiate on or accommodate.

2. The grassroots i.e. not Muslim civil society, whether member associations or not of the single body, but everyday Muslims in whose name representative bodies are supposed to speak, perceive that weakness, and therefore the single body lacks support at the grassroots level.

3. This strengthens the alienation of Muslim grassroots from Muslim civil society – something that mirrors societal dislocation in general from civil society i.e. NGOs, organisations, activists and so on, but (impressionistically) is more acute amongst Muslims.

4. Sectarian and internecine rivalry always, always becomes an issue in the constitution of any single body. Whether its based on schools of thought or lines of thought within schools of thought, or ethnic or just political rivalries, single bodies that usually comprise of voluntary committees, are more prone to being by dint of these problems less about representation and more about (internalised) politics.

5. Trying to have only the one organisation, never works, and instead strengthens government or institutions attempts to minimalise hassle or more sinisterly control agendas through the gatekeeping process. Gatekeeping is where the doors of power are guarded effectively by a department of officer in whose favour access to the influence lie. One of the better examples of consultation vis Muslims in the UK in recent years has been with the Mayor of London whose association with the Muslim Association of Britain and subsequently the British Muslim Inititiave and their various affiliates has shown an engagement with organisations that hold political positions on Iraq and Palestine that resonate better with Muslim constituencies in the UK. How far this is an attempt by the Mayor to be more interested in the representative views of Muslims an dhow far this is simply reflecting his own views on the issues has been mooted. Further the same charges of gatekeeping have been levied at his office over what is still a somewhat exclusive arrangement.

The argument that gatekeeping is about practically carries some weight, but as we have seen with the government example, there is as much and more significant ideological gatekeeping as there is bureaucratic gatekeeping. Either way the idea of representation is illusory.

6. The expectation that a single body, can be representative is (i) simply unrealistic and (ii) lends itself to the politicisation of that body towards “single issues” or to marginalised and external agendas e.g. over the issue of forced marriage. A further example is that of the Board of Deputies of British Jews which has been castigated as ‘pro-Israel’ and unrepresentative of British Jewry by many prominent Jews now seeking to establish another organisation.

What, if any, solutions are there to this situation if a single body – no matter how large its membership or constituency is, is still not able to speak authoritatively on behalf of Muslims or the minority in question?

Government and institutions need to speak to minorities where they are at. It’s that simple. It’s no use pretending that there is some likeminded majority hidden by overbearing civil society and that the lone voice you find to mirror you somehow echoes that. That is the current British experience in extremis. Then of course that means you need to consult more and wider. As details about Operation Contest emerged in 2005, in which the government proposed to socially engineer a differently minded Muslim youth than the one they felt would happen left to its own trajectory, the government simply will not let well enough alone. Muslims, in their opinion need to moulded and this needs to stop and stop right away.


Just as with the single body solution, it is counterproductive, but more importantly it is a moral question that requires a definitive answer. It is not the place of governments to determine what a minority is, nor create the minority it wants through interference, use of fear tactics, favouritism and manipulation.

Given the reasons why a single body option would be problematic for a minority, a cynic could argue that they would be the very reasons why a government would choose that route. Superficially they are seen as engaging with the community, and a majority that have little or no exposure to the minority will see it either as good measure or indeed excessive capitulation. Resonant of the days of the Raj, a government could using this method, divide and rule. If the single body cannot deliver it can be replaced by another. There is no recognised clamour at the gall and injustice of such a move.

Are there any bad reasons then for government to do this? Assuming for one moment that (some) governments may have varying degrees of ethical intent, they may actually be concerned that their one contact partner, does not have grassroots validity. It will additionally mean that it will have no effect and ultimately legitimacy amongst the people, they are supposed to be helping government serve. By encouraging one organisation over others, only increases factionalism – again maybe that serves the more cynical interests of government, however in the long run that undermines social cohesion and effective integration. Finally and more practically still is the fact that increasingly larger groups of disaffected people cannot reached. Disaffected people in this narrative are not terrorist to be feared – they are however voters and activists. Something government still need to be wary of, even in the UK.

IHRC’s research on British Muslims’ Expectations of the Government regarding political representation is telling, and I have dealt with it elsewhere (e.g. the article Citizen Ali in New Politics ) , but the normative issues I have outlined above form a large part of the narrative that was unveiled by this research. Muslims in the UK want to participate and they see mainstream political representation, particularly in parliament as the way forward. They are sceptical about the current state of Muslim representation whether at the level of civil society or in parliament. In fact many see the representation of Muslims in parliament as nominal and without any real power. If in its effort to negotiate with a minority, a government cannot or will not understand or respect that minority’s commitment to democratic processes and wishes instead to fix a model of representation on it that it would not subscribe to for other citizens, then we need to look at that model as, at best, inappropriate.

No offence to anyone, but it is time to rethink the single contact partner model, not export it elsewhere.