Growing up in the East End of London exposed me to two significant trends in British Muslim life: isolationist or reactionary. All too often as a teenager searching for identity in London's melting pot, I came into contact with Muslim organizations that either isolated themselves from the material trappings of wider society or those that would react to what they saw as injustices against the global Muslim community. In my youth, I saw advantages and disadvantages to both. Undoubtedly, both shaped who I am today. Even as I grew beyond them, I learned that we British Muslims must forge a homegrown identity for ourselves, one that is inclusive, respectful of difference, and eager to reach out in cooperation.
I believe in this strongly, because I have learnt the limitations of reactionism and isolationism. Muslims in the UK are often in the spotlight for the wrong reasons and the way to challenge this negative caricature is through engagement, not only because it is good for the Muslim community, but because it is good for Britain. If we are to prevent radicalization, Muslim disenfranchisement, and a generation of disengaged youth left vulnerable to fundamentalist ideology, we must find a way forward, and engagement and mutual cooperation lie at the heart of the answer.
A case in point are the protests I led on the street of the East London against a pro-war member of Tony Blair's cabinet, Stephen Timms MP, a decade ago. But despite the initially fractious nature of my engagement with him, he took the time to listen to me, understand me and work with me. We developed a friendship that has continued for over 10 years up to the present day. He recognized the disaffected youth element in me had the potential to be transformed into a positive force in British society and although he had every reason to give up on me he chose not to. Many years later even after he was stabbed by a young woman radicalised online, he maintained that engagement was the only way to tackle such problems. To my knowledge he remains the only British politicians that was a victim of homegrown Muslim terror. It showed me that while there is always a legitimate place for dissent and criticism, to effect change there must simultaneously be a willingness to listen and engage. By doing so, I found that both sides can experience a positive transformation in their views of each other.
Ultimately better understanding and a willingness to learn will lead to better engagement. Take the recent controversy surrounding the Riverine Centre, a.k.a the "Mega Mosque," spearheaded by a conservative movement called the Tableeghi Jamaat, which began in South Asia. The proposed mosque is located a stone's throw away from where I grew up, in an area that has the largest concentration of Muslims in the UK. The Tableeghi Jamaat is a conservative missionary movement, apolitical and quite seclusionist (quite opposite to what I am!); I may not agree with their conservative ethos or their perspective on social engagement, but I know this: they have not espoused any extremist tendencies and have in fact pledged that the mosque will be inclusive and open, a facility that welcomes female worshippers and non-Muslims. All too often, Muslim groups that deviate from a certain definition of a socially acceptable behavior are reflexively deemed to be deviant and potentially threatening. It is critical to correct and clarify misconceptions that unfairly and falsely demonise those, like the Tableeghi Jamaat, that though different, are undeserving of such aspersions. The Tableeghi Jamaat are taking steps to become more inclusive and we must encourage this. Engaging with them, and thereby getting them to engage with mainstream society, can only be good for the UK and for British Muslims. That is a powerful lesson, and one that is hard to refute or deny. And I advocate the importance of an inclusive interaction as someone who has engaged with the opposite end of that spectrum; with MPAC, a political (and arguably reactionary) Muslim organization that is the polar opposite of Tableegi Jamaat's apolitical and spiritualist nature.
MPAC is politically orientated and unapologetically staunch in its vocal criticism of the government, especially foreign policy. Attracted by the organizations conviction and commitment, as well as playing on my youthful idealism and a desire to get bring about change, particularly in democratizing the British Muslim community, I became involved with the organization. At the time, I felt the best way to get my voice heard was through strong, old-fashioned activism, but I left after a year due to differences on vision, strategy and tactics. A decade later, my perspectives have evolved and certainly MPAC has moved on with its agenda and focus, one that diverges from my own thinking.
While some may perceive MPAC's position as troublesome and even offensive, a difference in opinion is still an insufficient reason to marginalize such movements even further to the fringes. Such an exclusionary strategy inadvertently creates a climate of fear and otherness that ironically facilitates those intent on exploiting it to spread radicalization. In the arena of engagement, there will be voices that are deemed odious to some. Indeed with the benefit of hindsight and experience, I can firmly say that I too am one on those that now find MPAC's approach disagreeable and problematic, particularly when they have gone on record to ridiculing such things as the Holocaust, a historical tragedy that should inform our attitudes to humanitarian tragedies today.
But it is exactly the need for such engagement that allows for these views to be expressed, debated and comprehended in their proper context for there to be any chance of progress. After all, MPAC exists because so many young Muslims feel their voice is not being heard. If we find what they say abhorrent we must tackle the root cause of that grievance; lack of economic opportunities, poor educational achievement, Islamophobia, police discrimination and grievances over Britain's foreign policy in the Muslim world.
Engagement is hardly a matter of pragmatism, it is an ideal, a vital cornerstone of British values in fact: openness to differences of opinion and views within reason, and the continuous willingness to accept challenges. It is in no way British, or correct, to push groups and organisations to the fringes simply because they are different, provided they do not incite people to acts of violence or hate. Creating an open, diverse and inclusive society is the only way we will move forward together as a society. Incidentally, these are also Islamic virtues and demonstrate yet another node of commonality which British Muslims can and should bring to the arena of engagement.
Wise politicians like Stephen Timms have recognised the transformative power of engagement. A committed Christian and all round political nice guy, he now enjoys the highest majority of any MP in Britain and represent a parliamentary seat with the third highest Muslim population in the UK.
British Muslims appear to be in the midst of creating a new reality. Many are mindful of their unique place as conduits to worlds that do not readily seem to be harmonious or compatible. At the same time, their situation is a difficult and complicated one. They receive pressure from movements originating in the Muslim world, from governments obsessed with viewing them through the lens of countering violent extremism, from Islamophobes who are determined to eradicate their place in the West and from radicals who are obsessed with recruiting young Muslims to fight in foreign wars in which they have no investment whatsoever. Yet, despite these challenges, British Muslims have the ability to understand the role they can play in promoting and producing greater social cohesion. They can be invaluable and indispensable partners in this effort provided they are included in such an endeavor. Reaching out and engaging with the leaders driving these new authentic realities will hold the key to a peaceful future.