Having worked with faith communities for well over a decade now, there are strengths within all faith groups and there are, it has to be noted, some structural weaknesses within them. The de-centralised nature of advocacy and faith leadership within Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities means that localism has been a strong part of faith leadership and to some degree, local communities are able to relate to, engage with and fully understand their local faith leaders. Such localism no doubt resonates beyond these faith communities and into political policies and it provides a degree of variance and flexibility to the variety of voices that speak for and advocate on issues related to these faiths.
Yet, whilst these localised networks may have worked well in the by-gone pre-digital age, (before the Internet and twenty-four hour news networks), they are unable to develop a coherent voice on issues that are some of the most pressing in the global political arena today. For example, one of the charges that are levelled at Muslim communities has been, 'who speaks for Muslim communities?' Others have stated that 'Muslims do not speak out when terrorism is undertaken in their name.' This latter charge, it must be noted, usually comes from those who seek to blame Muslim communities as a whole, which in itself is ludicrous as though a British Muslim in Manchester is responsible for the actions of a group like Isis. There are others who also make the latter charge, who truly believe that Muslims do not speak out enough, yet, blissfully unaware that what has developed are a coterie of 'go to people' with comments on Muslim communities, with little or no community traction or theological understanding of Islam.
Which brings us back to the core thrust of this piece. One of the strengths of communities is when they have some form of authority figure who can speak out, with the backing of members of that community. Whilst the impact of messaging from such a figure may have to compete with others in a digital age where comments and blog pieces usually create a haze around what is relevant or truthful, it can nonetheless be a voice of reason with some gravitas and relevance.
For example, the Chief Rabbi - Ephraim Mervis, is a great example of how a leadership role can help to shape opinion and inform people. The Chief Rabbi's comments and thoughts on anti-Semitism after the recent Gaza crisis hammered home the fears within Jewish communities about anti-Semitism and the spike that the Community Security Trust had reported. What Muslim communities lack, is some form of religious authority who can also speak from an informed position which is fed into by various Muslim communities. On issues of anti-Muslim bigotry, for example, a counter-part within Muslim communities to Ephraim Mervis would help to get the message across that anti-Muslim bigotry, like other forms of hate and intolerance, is unacceptable in our society.
The last time that a Muslim equivalent was talked about, was during the time of the late Dr Zaki Badawi. Those discussions seemed to fall away after his death and need to be rekindled at a time of difficult pressures on British Muslim communities when national and international events are projected onto all British Muslims by virtue of their co-religionists. It is time that a Chief Imam or Grand Mufti be appointed from within Muslim communities who can also undertake similar duties to the Chief Rabbi and this has also been raised by Parliamentarians. Eric Ollerenshaw MP recently made the case and re-iterated the need for a Grand Mufti for Great Britain, citing the example of the Grand Mufti of Bosnia.
As long as Muslim communities do not have the equivalent to a Chief Rabbi, sadly, there will be a space in the social sphere which will be filled by those who are less interested in the welfare of Muslim communities, and more interested in making a name for themselves. Now is the time to grab this challenge with both hands.