'Community leaders' - it's an interesting term that I've grown increasingly used to whenever minority communities are under the spotlight. They seem to spring up everywhere, whenever the news cameras turn up to talk about local issues and problems that the media feel warrant more scrutiny this time because of 'wider implications', or whenever the government wishes to do business with minority communities on issues such as social cohesion, religion or in the case of my own local community, counter extremism.
I've never quite understood who appoints them, where they came from and how they came to represent a diverse range of views and opinions within minority communities like my own. Many of you may have heard of the British sitcom 'Citizen Khan', a show based on the charismatic, loud and dedicated individual called Mr Khan who appoints himself as a 'community leader'. Behind the comedy however lies a more serious issue, namely the need for an identifiable and accessible elderly man who can be relied upon to solve issues within his own local community. Yet the problem with placing such an emphasis on one individual such as Mr Khan, is that the other actors have a more peripheral role to play, their voices are not considered as a 'true opinion' of the community nor can they be relied upon to get things done. Not so much of a problem for sitcom, but this very problem translates into reality for minority communities up and down the country.
The dissenting voices of younger individuals for example, who will be most affected by key decisions affecting such local communities, along with anybody else who isn't a typecast community leader, old and male, are overlooked. The emphasis on dealing with community leaders by the government, a rather lazy approach in which the desire to make dealings with minority communities more manageable, has led to the view that minority communities are all homogenous blocs in which all agree on the issues that affect them and on how they should be resolved. It has usually meant a strengthening in the influences and voices of conservative elements within those very communities.
I recall some of my own experiences, reading the news about incidents in the local community, finding the all too familiar line that community leader (insert name), had a comment or statement to make about the incident, the comment usually fitting nicely into the overall narrative or agenda that the particular newspaper wished to pursue. Although on many occasions the question that myself and many others would ask is, 'who appointed him 'community leader'? I don't agree with what he's just said'. Or let us take the Prevent scheme, the government's flagship counter extremism programme that treats an entire community as suspect. More often than not, it has resulted in strengthening the role of religious leaders as opposed to dealing directly with the root causes of extremism.
The notion of community leaders may appear harmless and informal, yet it is inherently anti democratic, for they are unaccountable and self appointed. Informal though it may appear, it gives added clout to individuals whose views are perceived to have more legitimacy. Minority communities are not monoliths, every individual has his or her own opinion on every issue, framed by their own experiences. If the government wishes to address the concerns of individuals within such communities they should stop dealing with self appointed leaders, convenient though it may be, and deal directly with the individuals, giving them a better idea of the diversity of opinions that exists within such communities.
In an age of identity politics, an emphasis on community leaders who represent only one view serves to highlight and harden differences amongst communities, marginalising dissenting voices that we are most in need of hearing from.