It was reported on Wednesday that the Home Office Security Minister, Tony McNulty, admitted that the government had made mistakes in its response to the 7/7 bombings.
He said "the rules of the game haven't changed", as Tony Blair had asserted, and that it was wrong to "rush headlong into looking at legislation instantly and with very short shrift".
While making these startling admissions, he also said that the Government was wrong to speak to the Muslim Council of Britain as if it were the only voice of British Muslims. He said the MCB should not have been elevated to "an exclusivity that wasn't warranted".
If one did not know the details of the discussions between the MCB and the Government, when reading these statements as reported in the media one would be forgiven for assuming that there was a causal link between the mistakes made by the government and its conversations with the MCB.
What is missing, of course, from this discussion is that the MCB never claimed exclusivity to represent the Muslim community. Nevertheless it remains the largest representative body of Muslims in the UK and, more importantly, it opposed all of the draconian legislation - most of it deeply erosive of civil liberties - proposed by the Blair regime. In fact, the MCB demanded a public inquiry on 7/7 but the government continues to reject that proposal.
So what does "speaking to the Muslim community" actually mean? In the days of Empire, when you invaded a country the protocol was to seek out the leader, issue instructions to him via a translator and then force him to spread the message in the local language to all his subjects. "Do as we say and you will not be punished" or "we will not give you any more morphine to quell your pain" (e.g. Lobengula). This is where the old adage of "take-me-to-your-leader" is rooted.
In modern day Britain, when the government wishes to communicate messages to its citizens, it employs the entire battery of modern communication methods at its disposal including television, print media, radio, satellite, text messaging, internet and even booklets delivered by post to every home in the land. However, when the need to communicate messages to the Muslim community arises in Britain, the approach, rather strangely, seems to revert back to the old "take-me-to-your-leader" pantomime.
In his discussion, Mr McNulty also praised the former communities secretary Ruth Kelly for "recalibrating" the relationship with the MCB. Judging by what has happened since Ruth Kelly's "fundamental rebalancing", it seems that "recalibrating" has meant that if the leader refuses to accept the government's terms and conditions then he is made to stand outside in the cold while the "Empire" favours a new leader (such as the Sufi Muslim Council). Eventually the old leader will soften his position and will slowly be allowed to have one foot in the door until he learns to play ball.
I am not sure if this is exactly what happened to the MCB, but it seems to be precisely what Mr McNulty is implying when he thanks Ruth Kelly for her "recalibrating" and the new and "profoundly different" response from the MCB in recent times.
Understandably, I can hear the leaders of our community lament: "We are a community under siege", "our young men are turning to violence", and "the government is threatening to stop talking with us". "What can we do? We have to play ball."
But is this the only way to deal with the challenges we face as a community? Especially when we live in a country that prides itself on 21st Century democracy, where the principle of interaction between the people and government is via the ballot box? I think, as a community, we need to reassess our responses and priorities.
If somone's primary objective is to be recognised by the government as a leading voice for the Muslim community, then by pursuing this goal he will inadvertently empower the government to choose voices from among us and play one voice off against another, which is what seems to be the current strategy.
However, if his objective remains, as it should be, to defend the needs of the community and to secure the community's support for that voice, irrespective of whether he is allowed in the door or not, it would not matter in the slightest if the relationship is calibrated by the government to Pavlovian perfection or not.
In fact, there are thousands of both Christian and Jewish community representative organisations in this country and of those only a few speak to the government directly. But this does not mean that the vast majority of these organisations do not communicate their wishes vigorously and influence policy on the ground. In the age of modern communication, statements, reports and press releases to the media are equally effective.
The Urgent Need of the Hour
In recent times, Islamophobia has reached endemic proportions in Britain. If something of this sort had happened to the Jewish community, the reports, statistics and press releases - demanding that the government take responsibility and do something to stop it before it spiralled into a holocaust - would have flooded the country regardless of whether Jewish representatives were invited to meetings at 10 Downing Street or not.
Our representatives should not be globe-trotting as ambassadors of Britain when they are hardly being allowed to be ambassadors of the Muslim community to the government here. Moreover, they should not be distracted with the launching of programmes that are instigated to reinforce the myth that "mosques are potentially implicated in terrorism" or at least "responsible in some way for security problems we now face".
Historically, the position of the MCB was to oppose the government's attempts to place the blame for terrorism at the door of mosques and Muslim institutions. Apart from Abu Hamza's activity in Finsbury Park mosque where the mosque committee's requests for government help to deal with him fell on deaf ears for many years, mosques in the UK have been fighting their own battles against "extremists".
In response to a recent government request for advice, the MCB Secretary General was keen to point out that: "British Muslims could assist in improving relations between Britain and other nations around the globe, particularly those that have large Muslim populations". Indeed, this may be so, but what about the palpable volcano of tension building within the average Briton against Muslims in the UK? Who is responsible for maintaining this relationship? Where are the studies, reports, conferences and publications calling on MPs to deal with this tidal wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in their respective constituencies?
If the current trends of Islamophobia continue to spiral, then I am afraid I can see nothing but the potential for a repeat of some of the worst chapters in European history - a new holocaust - but this time against Muslims. Concern over this danger must take top priority in the minds and actions of all those who consider themselves representatives of the Muslim community. If not, they would be deceiving themselves by pursuing other goals and failing in their responsibility to the community, with the most unfortunate of consequences.
Speaking to "chosen" Muslims in chambers is not the miracle panacea to address the dangers of our time. What we need is responsible representation demanding, in public, uncompromisingly genuine change of direction - a change away from the Neocon social policies that are designed in essence to exacerbate tensions between Muslims and their neighbours in Europe and North America, even when disguised in the most benign of cloaks.
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