Engaging with the ‘Muslim community’ is an extremely complex process and one that requires a great deal of critical thinking and meaningful endeavour on all sides. Not least because of the fact that the ‘Muslim community’ clearly does not exist. Despite this, Government and others – including some from within the ‘Muslim community’ – continue to perpetuate the idea that such a homogenous entity does exist.
Nonetheless, even when this engagement has been initiated the complexities identified and the meaningful engagement required has clearly not always occurred. Instead, many initiatives have seen groups and people thrown together largely because of their proximity to the organizers or those holding the purse strings of a given event rather than what capacity they have or more importantly, what they can contribute. Unfortunately, Government, local authorities and numerous other institutions and organisations seem to always do this and persist – to the detriment of all – to talk to none others than the same old ‘usual suspects’. This has been particularly evident when ‘Muslim’ issues have required to be addressed. It is no surprise then that the perennial question that has been required to be asked is to what extent do the ‘usual suspects’ offer the ‘representation’ required for this increasingly complex community of communities (isn’t that what Parekh described Britain as rather than the Muslim community?).
‘Representation’ has been the traditional means through which national and local government have sought to engage with black and minority groups in the past. In doing so, Government engaged with minority communities using the very simplistic premise that by employing ‘representatives’ they were in some way putting a safety net in place that ensured that those influencing policy represented the diversity inherent within the local population. However, this approach has been shown to have many drawbacks. For example, if the rationale for representation is to hear all voices, then representatives from all groups should be provided a legitimate platform from which to be heard. If this is the case, then one must ask whether those from the ‘fringes’ (extremists, radicals, fundamentalists and so on in common parlance) should also be given the opportunity for representation? Of course, those in authority would categorically say ‘no’ given that those on the ‘fringes’ might go against the decisions they wanted to make. Of course what is not widely announced is the fact that ‘representation’ works best when those looking for ‘representatives’ find ‘representatives’ who agree with their own way of thinking. And of course, that means being selective about the ‘representatives’ rather than about the alleged benefits of ‘representation’.
More often that not though, ‘representation’ is used to advocate and lobby on behalf of the views and interests of those groups and organisations invited to ‘represent’ and rarely for the wider community they are alleged to offering a voice for. Such a process has also tended to encourage groups to play up their victimhood and reinforce homogenous cultural identities in a bid for public funds and social authority.
What is troubling is that if the same criticism of the methods of ‘representation’ can be applied to the way in which Government has sought Muslim representation over the past few years, then it could be that some of the consequences of this have been not only the encouraging of a more aggressive Muslim identity but more importantly reinforcing the view that a single, homogenous Muslim community exists. In many ways this reflects the ‘silo’ approach to dealing with BME (black and minority ethnic) groups and the wider issue of equalities where people are only ‘allowed’ one relevant identity at a time.
Focusing on single identities makes the task of bringing a diversity of people together all the more difficult. Focusing on ‘Muslims’ rather than the issues therefore can also promote a grievance culture that reinforces division and competition in preference of strengthening the kind of social cohesion Government wants to see. Wrongly emphasising Muslim identities also makes those other communities believe that any perceived ‘problems’ are far from theirs and so responsibility and blame remain squarely fixed at the doors of Muslims and no-one else.
A new approach is now required in the way in which communities and groups are involved – not represented – in decision-making and other similar processes. By focusing on traditional – and previously rejected modes of representation – so such processes are flawed whereby critical opportunities to engage with disengaged and marginalised communities is being squandered. We should be extending and strengthening our shared understandings, going beyond over-simplified and stereotypical forms of ‘representation’ and ‘identity’ to really begin to engage and address the issues facing British society today in a more coherent and cohesive way. To do this, ‘silo’ approaches of representation need to be rejected, the ‘usual suspects’ need to be questioned and those that have the capacity to bring value to the various engagement and decision-making processes need to be driven forward.
To do this, new issues based approaches are desperately required. Such approaches should recognise and respond to the differences within Muslim communities – and indeed all other communities – but not to the extent where faith and associated identities become the sole determinant in who and what is incorporated. This should be as transparent as possible, opening up the engagement processes for all those with the necessary capacity to be as actively engaged as they want to be. To do so, it is necessary to be confident about taking the debates and processes – whether positive or negative – away from the usual suspects and the self-interested ‘representatives’: to bring the debates out from behind closed doors and into the wider realms. More importantly, it is necessary to ensure that those who can influence change and add some value to are actively sought and accommodated irrespective of who or what they are rather than who or what they claim to ‘represent’.