It's time to move on from the idea of British Muslim "community leaders"by Ehsan Masood / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
Some years ago, Azhar Hussain, a technology entrepreneur from south London, came up with what he thought was a winning idea to improve the sometimes troubled relations between Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbours. His local mosque was situated in a deprived, mixed-race neighbourhood, and he suggested to its trustees that they set up a bursary that would pay for a young person to go through university. Crucially, it would be open to all, not just Muslims, the aim being to show that Muslims are not just interested in themselves. But the idea was turned down. The trustees, Hussain told me, couldn’t see beyond the fact they would be paying for someone from a rich country like Britain to go to college. The fact that their modest investment would lead to better community relations wasn’t really the issue. It was, all too predictably, a singular failure of vision.
A similar lack of vision was apparent in the response to news of the recent alleged terror plot. Britain is gripped by an understandable fear of a possible 9/11-style attack. Far too many Muslims blame government foreign policy. The government believes that influential Muslims aren’t doing enough to clamp down on extremism within their communities.
One of the problems we face in the search for better community relations is our insistence on sticking to the idea of the “community leader.” In a modern democracy, the idea that there is such a thing as a community leader and that he has the ability to prevent extremism among “his people” continues to be an important plank of government policy. But it needs rethinking.
Each time there is news of Muslim terrorism, ministers invite television cameras to film a cavalcade of mostly male Muslims who appear to have been summoned to explain themselves to government ministers. Astonishingly, Muslim peers and MPs such as Shahid Malik and Sadiq Khan allow themselves to be cast in this role. I try to imagine what must have been going through the minds of ministers in these meetings: there are these Muslim leaders, who act as a kind of authority on their young. If they tried harder, reminded them of their responsibilities to society, ordered them to attend lectures by moderate imams, their wayward young would come to heel.
Such a picture is hopelessly out of date. To begin with, high-profile Muslim leaders must accept that they have very little…