With Communities Secretary Eric Pickles pushing a tough new government approach to British Muslim organisations, the former head of the Muslim Council of Britain argues the time is ripe for rapprochement.
Writing on the Conservative Home blog recently, former Conservative MP and now journalist Paul Goodman exclaimed "Go for it, Eric!" at the news that Communities Secretary Eric Pickles had announced a new integration strategy from the government. This strategy re-emphasises a Coalition policy that the British Government will no longer talk to umbrella Muslim organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).
I believe this is a serious error of judgment.
Even prominent Conservative and Telegraph political columnist Peter Oborne pointed out the flaws in this strategy as early as 2008, making a strong case against the negative treatment of Muslims in a report he wrote with James Jones, 'Muslims under siege: Alienating vulnerable communities'. This was underlined last summer in a working paper of the Institute for the Study of European Transformations, examining how the demonisation of 'suspect' Muslim and Irish communities has influenced counter-terrorism and other policies.
There is room for optimism, however. President Obama declared that the War on Terror was over in 2010. The US withdrew its forces from Iraq on 31 December 2011; it is ending its combat role in Afghanistan as early as in 2013. We now look to Tahrir Square - epicentre of the Arab Spring - as a symbol of ordinary people's struggle for dignity and optimism.
Here in Britain two mega events, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 , that are going to showcase the best of Britain this summer and have the potential to kick-start our economic recovery. With around one third of Londoners from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities and more than 300 languages spoken, London will prove it is truly a world city.
Prior to the terrible atrocities of 7/7, British Muslims were generally seen as a force for good. Sadly, the negative depiction, initiated by a fringe group of far-right organisations, became a hallmark of political and media discourse: to the extent that Muslims are now seen through the prism of security and suspicion. In the forefront of this suspicion are mainstream Muslim bodies including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the British Muslim community's most democratic and representative organisation.
With a relative underachievement in education and disproportionately high levels of socio-economic deprivation - the last thing the community expects is to be demonised by the press and alienated from wider society.
We in Britain feel proud of our model of dealing fairly with people of diversity. But, successive governments' anti-terror legislation and the maligned Prevent Strategy were seen as flawed by mainstream Muslim groups; they now feel that they are being punished for their disagreements.
Political pragmatism brought two different political parties into a coalition in 2010 during a difficult period. Internationally, the US and Britain are even talking with the Taliban after a decade of fighting. It beggars belief that a British government avoids working 'formally' (or even talking) with mainstream Muslim bodies, which are part and parcel of British society. Where is the age-old British tradition of agreeing to disagree?
There is certainly a perception in some quarters that the Conservative Party is disconnected with Muslims. But that does not wash: we have a Conservative Muslim Forum (CMF), for example, which aims to increase Conservative Party's membership among the Muslim community.
Muslims are fast-learning the nuances and reality of British politics. As businesspeople, entrepreneurs, members of the working class, middle class and aspirational, they are 'bedding down' within society. There is no mass desire for an 'Islamic caliphate', nor any call for death penalties, punishment of homosexuals or forced marriages by the vast majority of law-abiding Muslim citizens. Although still under-represented in the Westminster village, we now have a presence in the Conservative Party and among the Liberal Democrats, too, as well as Labour. Our internal diversity demands we work with all political groupings.
We should remain focused on the actual threat of violent extremism, wherever it originates. That is exactly what the vast majority of Muslims and Muslim organisations have been doing. It is something I have personally confronted during meetings across the country, when handful of extremists has attempted to disrupt events.
There will be differences of opinion and approaches in tackling this. But the constant demonisation of Muslims and their institutions by the media, and the lacklustre response by the Westminster political class to anti-Muslim intolerance, is not helpful. The time is ripe now for a reappraisal of the place of the Muslim citizen in Britain. As the Arab Spring brought hope to one part of the world, let 2012 bring a political spring vis a vis Muslims in Britain.
* Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). The views expressed in this article are the author's own.