Integration matters to all of us. We all want to live together well in Britain, sharing values and opportunities with fellow Brits – an aspiration that is strongly shared by Muslims and others alike.
The “Missing Muslims” report, commissioned by Citizens UK and chaired by Dominic Grieve, former Attorney-General, is therefore a timely and valuable addition to the literature about Muslims in that it recognises the huge contribution of Muslims, makes useful recommendations to achieve greater integration and avoids the trap of conflating religion and ethnicity. The report follows an 18-month Commission that listened to a wide range of voices politics, business, faith and civic society.
The report makes 18 practical and inexpensive recommendations- aimed at government and local authorities, civil society and the business sector and British Muslim communities. The report does not seem to seek ‘special treatment’ for British Muslims, rather it is an ambitious and timely attempt to find ways of encouraging full and active participation in public life for the Muslim communities.
There are three recommendations of the report that really stand out for me.
First, the government needs to adopt a workable definition of anti-Muslim prejudice and legislate against it. Following the atrocities at Manchester Arena and London Bridge, attacks against Muslims went up fivefold, and last week there have been reports of a number of acid attacks on Muslims. Members of my own congregation and some friends have been assaulted, even children called “terrorist”, “bomber” on school playgrounds and petrol bombs have been thrown at mosques.
The 2016 hate-crime action plan, set out by the government, and assurances by the Home Secretary following the Finsbury Park attack are commendable steps but there is still a difference in how, as a society, we talk about attacks on Muslims, as opposed to attacks on other ethnic or religious minorities.
It is therefore more important than ever that zero-tolerance is shown towards anti-Muslim hatred by making it illegal. I am acutely aware of the complexities involved in legislating against anti-Muslim hatred because unlike Jews and Sikhs, Muslims are not one race. However, a working definition of anti-Muslim prejudice could be informed by the definition of anti-semitism adopted by the government in 2016. Legislation will act as a deterrent to bigots but more importantly we need to change civic attitudes towards Muslims through education.
Recently, I have held some workshops between our mosque and a local church, and it is sad to learn that most people are still either in denial of anti-Muslim hatred or are unaware of the impact it has on young Muslims. Anti-Muslim hatred is a notable obstacle to integration and participation in public life.
The second important recommendation is for the Government to develop an integration strategy. There seems to be significant scepticism across British society about the integration, and even the shared allegiance, of fellow Brits. This has resulted, at times, Muslims not sharing equal status or access to equal opportunities. A member of my congregation applied for the same job – one application filled in with a Muslim name and the other with an English name. He had positive replies from employers on the application with an English name but never heard back on the other application. Similar experiences are shared by many young Muslims across the country. The government and the business sector must help to identify and break down the barriers to equal opportunity.
Of course, integration cannot solely be achieved by governments’ actions. We all need to pay attention to the places where our society looks more fragmented. No community should become segregated or cut-off – whether that’s because of a lack of contact with people from other backgrounds, or not speaking fluent English, or because some people don’t want them to be part of our shared society.
The report acknowledges that integration is a two-way street, which requires both British Muslims and other ethnic groups, including the majority white British population, to find ways of engaging across ethnic lines. Following Louise Casey Review last year, it is hoped that the an integration strategy, the government is currently being formulated, will set out the positive role that the state can and should play in achieving social and economic integration.
It goes without saying that protection from anti-Muslim prejudice and greater integration requires meaningful engagement between the state and parts of the Muslim community, including those with whom the government may disagree. Both parties need to proactively address the ‘broken relationship’ to develop a more united, cohesive and stronger nation.
Thirdly, the cluster of recommendations made to the British Muslim communities focus on Muslims investing in their mosques and Imams, capacity building and improving the governance of their institutions. The recommendation for Muslim umbrella bodies to introduce voluntary standards for mosques and Islamic centres is critically important, although enforcement of such standards is going to prove extremely difficult without mosques recognising the importance of those standards for the Muslim community.
Stronger safeguards, better governance and more access for women to these institutions is long overdue. If we except equal opportunities in society, we must provide similar opportunities to our young men and women in our institutions.
It is hard to disagree with the recommendation that mosques must invest in British-born Imams, pay them decent living wage and equip them with pastoral skills so they are able to deal with the challenges facing British Muslims. Many of my colleague Imams have opted to become a Chaplain in a hospital or a prison due to lack of an appropriate salary package offered by a mosque. The sermon in the mosques must be in English. English language is a common denominator and a strong enabler for young people to understand the rich tradition of their faith, count and be proud of their British Muslim identity.
It must be noted that lack of investment in religious institutions and faith leaders, and adopting of voluntary standards or English language in sermons are not challenges unique to Muslims, other faith minorities are also lagging behind in this regard. There needs to be consistency when seeking change amongst minority groups.
Young British Muslims, like the rest of young people – must feel that Britain is their home, in which they do not have to fear an anti-Muslim attack, where they have an equal stake and same chances as everyone else in our shared society. The report argues that rather than marginalising the Muslim communities, the society needs to recognise that unlocking a fuller Muslim presence in and contribution to British public life could help to reduce perceptions of increasing polarisation within British society.
The success of the report will be judged by effective implementation of the recommendations but there is no doubt that a change in attitudes is needed to unlock the potential of “missing Muslims” from public life.
By Qari Muhammad Asim
Senior Imam – Makkah Mosque, Leeds