Way back in the late 6th century BC the ancient Athenians experimented with a form of direct democracy whereby every citizen (women and slaves didn’t qualify) was entitled to vote on matters of state governance and legislation. Estimates vary but best guesses put the voting Athenian population at around 30,000. While by no means a complete disaster, this episode in the history of ancient Athens served to highlight some of the flaws inherent both in the direct democratic paradigm as well as in democracy conceptually.
At around the same time across the Ionian Sea, the Roman Republic was formed following the overthrow of the last monarch, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. Initially ruled over by two elected consuls it eventually provided for a legislative council, the senate or to give it its full name – Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR). A key differentiating feature between the Roman and Greek democracies lay in the Roman model’s limiting of participation in the legislative process to a select group of individuals who had been elected by the citizenry to represent them and their views. This form of governance known, naturally enough, as representative democracy was gradually adopted across post-renaissance Europe and subsequently as a result of European colonialism exported across the globe. Today most nations function under some variant of representative democracy.
The problem though with democracy, and more fundamentally the concept of collective decision making, is that unless there is unanimity of thought amongst the participants, at least one person’s opinion must necessarily suffer the ignominy of being rejected. Given that it’s axiomatic that no two individual’s views are ever perfectly aligned, irrespective of their ideological or social propinquity, we must accept the inevitability of some form of “oppression of the majority” if perpetual stalemate is to be avoided. That is to say that those who hold minority opinions in the collective, will of necessity have to yield and defer to the opinion of the majority on any given issue. In a representative democracy the question of just how representative the representatives actually are is an additional factor that must be weighed. It can, as is too often the case, transpire that the decisions taken by elected representatives bear little relation to the wishes of the very people who elected them.
Minority communities and the need for representative organisations
Before moving to consider the question of who speaks for British Muslims, we must first accept the predicate assumption that a British Muslim community exists and thereafter whether this putative community requires representative groups. As to the first point, that the media overflows with articles and opinions on anything even remotely related to Islam and Muslims – from Shariah finance to halal pizzas – attests to the existence of such a community. It really is a case of res ipsa loquitor. The insinuation that unless 2.6 million people convene and collectively sign some sort of ‘Declaration of Existence’ they can’t be recognised as a distinct community is patently absurd and not worthy of discussion let alone rebuttal. Those who posit such suggestions, or whose statements allude to such a position, betray their ulterior intent by doing so. What they desire is the deracination of the Muslim minority, thereby relegating the term “Muslim” to merely a convenient shibboleth for the practitioners of quaint oriental religious rites.
The Muslim community (i.e. those citizens who identify themselves as adherents of the religion of Islam) is but one of several constituent, often intersectional, sub-groups existing within the enveloping 60 million strong British society. It should be borne in mind that these sub-groups – or communities if you will – do not necessarily equate to ethnic minorities groups but rather any group of individuals who feel in some way distinct from the rest of society. There is often a great deal of overlap between many of these communities e.g. a member of the disabled community can also be a member of the Muslim community or the Afro-Carribean community or even all three.
I really don’t want to spend another a page justifying why these communities need specific representation as I believe the point to be apodictic. Women didn’t attain the suffrage by individually writing to their local MP requesting it, rather they formed a representative group to fight for what they felt were their legitimate rights. Members of the disabled community have formed groups to advocate and agitate for their interests. Similarly with the Afro-Caribbean and other ethnic communities, not forgetting of course the various religious communities e.g. the Board of Deputies of British Jews. It is an unfortunate truism that minority groups within any society inevitably experience a degree of discrimination and disadvantage, hence the need for organisations to represent and defend their legitimate concerns. Although I use the term “representative group” a more accurate description for many of them might be “advocacy group”.
One can only conjecture as to why those who seem to have no issue at all with the parallel existence of such sub-communities (and their associated representative groups) within British society are so concerned about the existence of a Muslim community. I fail to recall the last time anyone seriously suggesting that there was no such thing as a Jewish community or that the Board of Deputies should be abolished or even ignored as irrelevant by government policy makers.
But do these representative groups actually speak for the communities they claim to represent?
And so we come full circle to where we began. If a representative or group of representatives do not speak for every single member of the community they are representing does that render them otiose? What recourse do those who feel alienated by the same people supposedly representing them have? As the exordium should have made clear, these questions strike at the fundamental basis of representative decision making – they are not unique to a particular scenario and certainly not unique to the case of the Muslim community and its representative groups. After all how representative of the nation’s sentiment was the Parliamentary decision to back the invasion of Iraq in 2003? Not very judging by the unprecedented scale of the anti-war demonstrations that presaged it. Do European equality and human rights legislation represent the views of every last Briton? Well judging by the 900,000+ votes the BNP garnered back in 2009 and the recent surge in support for UKIP one might reasonably surmise that many, many Britons feel somewhat aggrieved by the decision of their representatives to enact such laws. Does this mean therefore that Parliamentary representation is oppressive and should be disposed with? Should we revert back to the Athenian model of direct participation and subject every decision to a full plebiscite? As previously explained even under such a model many will inevitably still be left feeling aggrieved.
At this point the objection could (and inevitably will) be raised that politicians are elected while these community representative group’s leaders are, for the most part, not. That may be true but then representative groups are not empowered to enact legislation or enforce their diktats over anyone who doesn’t voluntarily submit to their authority. On the other hand I cannot choose to ignore the law of the land as voted upon by my parliamentary representatives – even though I reject them. Doing so will result in my prosecution and some form of retributive sanction. If one feels that a particular community group doesn’t speak for them or accurately enough represent their views, they are at liberty to establish their own along with any others who share this sentiment. They must then begin the campaign to effectively disseminate their views and garner support just like any other group. It is much akin to a member (or group of members) of a political party resigning their membership and establishing a rival one – one where the collective position comports more closely with those of its constituent members. How much traction you receive in both cases will be commensurate to the popularity of your views amongst the target community and if they happen not to be all that popular then don’t be surprised that it will be precious little.
All said and done who does speak for Britain’s Muslims?
So if no one individual or group speaks for all Britain’s Muslims does that mean any attempt to ascribe a common position to them must automatically fail? In a word, no.
I recently read a blog piece by failed journalist, Iram Ramzan (@iram_ramzan) where she stated: “So who does speak for Muslims or Islam? The answer is a resounding – no one.” While it may be a great punchline it nevertheless is ultimately a useless platitude; it ranks about as useful in respect to formulating policy as the statement “nobody speaks for Britons”.
Of course in the real world, decisions do have to be taken and policies need drawing up. We’ve already discussed the limitations and drawbacks of the various methods of deriving consensuses but all said and done the “nobody can speak for everyone so let’s not make any decisions” approach simply doesn’t pass muster.
The reality is that certain political stances, values, social mores, moral precepts etc. do have widespread, indeed majority, acceptance amongst the 2.6 million strong Muslim community. Halal slaughter provisions, a general aversion to licentiousness coupled with the desire to protect their children from it, Shariah finance, opposition to government foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel – just some of the issues on which there is broad agreement in the Muslim community. Other examples one might cite are: revulsion towards blasphemous cartoons of the prophets, rejection of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle and the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab (and somewhat more contentiously the niqab). I believe that it is an incontestable truth that all of the above examples I have cited are normative positions in the Muslim community. I challenge anyone to canvass the major Muslim population concentrations in Britain and come back with findings that show otherwise. On these issues and others most Muslim groups concur and speak in unison. They can be said in all honesty to represent “the Muslim view”.
So what then to make of the bleating of those Muslims who seem want to cry “he/she/it/that doesn’t represent me” at every turn? In a nutshell – not much. Such people, who seem mostly of the ‘cultural’ Muslim variety (or ‘non devout’ to borrow a certain individual’s phrase) are, of course, free to coalesce and form their own group to lobby against the provision of halal meat, the right to wear hijab, voluntary gender segregation and in favour of zionism, military interventionism in Muslim lands etc. When push comes to shove though, they are aware that they are in a tiny minority; for while thousands of Muslims from all corners of the country will happily turn up at relatively short notice for a day of protest against the publication of insulting cartoons of the Prophet (saw), I doubt even 50 Muslims (and no, ex-Muslims and non-Muslims in general don’t count) could be relied upon to turn up for a demonstration in favour it. It really is no different to the small – but proportionally much larger – section of the white British community that are in favour of racial discrimination. They are a minority who, in a democracy, are of course entitled to their view and to seek to advance it but until such time that it gains widespread traction they cannot complain of being “marginalised”. That the majority of the white British community regard them with disdain and varying degrees of revulsion mirrors well the majority Muslim opinion towards their own fringe elements e.g. Maajid Nawaz, Ghaffar Hussain, Tarj Hargey etc.
Mainstream Muslim groups are a vital part of not only advancing the legitimate rights of Muslim citizens in Britain but also a mechanism to protect the community from those – and there are many – who seek to oppress it. Yes, I also feel they get it wrong at times, and on many issues I also disagree with them (e.g. the call for Muslims to participate in parliamentary elections) but I would never in a million years seek to devalue the sterling work they have done over the years or advocate that governments completely ignore their advice. I do think they should become more transparent in their functioning and allow for more direct participation from community members, including women; similarly with mosque committees.
Regarding the media, if it is genuinely interested in getting the word from “Muslim street”, needs to seek out and engage more with grass roots community activists – and for heaven’s sake first check out the credentials of any claimants to such a title! Providing an inordinate amount of coverage to people who have precious little support or relevance as far as Muslim affairs are concerned is a sure way to mislead an unsuspecting public. Though I disagree with her views on many issues I would happily concede that someone like Salma Yaqoob, for example, is representative of mainstream Muslim thinking and has a proven track record of community activism. So as you can see I do not for one moment presume that all Muslims follow my line of thought and I do not demand that rival opinions be silenced (would be nice though). What I do demand of the media is that they give the lion’s share of coverage to the type of people who are genuinely reflective of large sections of the community and not to fringe characters who speak for fringe minorities. Also those with vested interests in playing up certain issues ought to be introduced with a suitable disclaimer.
So who speaks for Muslims? Each and every one of us does and it’s about time more of us stopped being silent and spoke out. With the advent of social media it’s never been easier so there really is no excuse. Whether you feel you’d rather speak out alone or in tandem with like-minded individuals what is important is that your view is heard. So come on my fellow Muslamics, getting speaking, typing, tweeting and shouting…I want to hear from you…and hopefully so do some of those responsible for running this country.
May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon our master Muhammad, the seal of the Prophets.