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Dear Madeleine Bunting

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

Dear Madeleine

A hallmark of your contributions in the Guardian and The Tablet over the years has been the underlying idea that a culture cannot survive if it remains an isolated island. It needs to interact with other sets of values and ideas, learn from them and be enriched by them. This starting point has made you sympathetic to the new influences on the traditional British way of life: you have given short shrift to politicians who wave the race or asylum card and wrapped the knuckles of The Sun over its appalling coverage of Tariq Ramadan and his plans to take up an academic post in the UK. Your recent involvement in the Guardian Muslim Youth Forum and participation at City Circle meetings has also made you well-liked within the Muslim community.

Your more recent article in The Guardian ('Muslim voices have been lost in the rush to make headlines', 10th October 2005) raises three sets of important issues: the Government's ability to cope with the challenges that lie ahead; the internal problems that beset Muslim community; the Commission of Racial Equality's 'unhappiness' with Muslims. You seem to be alerting us to several policy developments.

Madeleine, you say that you welcome alternative narratives: let me also explain why the language and tone of some of your observations - on 'Muslim elites' and 'class polarisation', the 'lack of representativeness of the Muslim Council of Britain', and mosques with their 'legion of problems'- is simplistic. Just as we cannot be passive about the policy developments that affect us, similarly it is important that our sympathizers are not missing out on the subtleties and nuances within the Muslim community.

We are grateful that you have placed in the public domain details of the government orchestrated 'taskforce groups' that were set up in August 2005 and which convened a couple of times over a six week period, including over a week-end in Windsor. The participants - about 100 Muslims, "barristers, business people, local politicians" - were told to come up with concrete proposals that would have an immediate or short-term impact on extremism and radicalization. These are being presented to Home Secretary Charles Clarke in October. It is interesting to read about the makeshift and hasty organizational arrangements: "something had to be seen to be done, and quickly". As you point out, the outcome seems fairly innocuous - the really popular demand for a comprehensive inquiry into the root causes of the July bombings that would also cover aspects of foreign policy was shot down by the civil servants present.

You do not hold out much hope in the Government's ability to rise to the challenges. You note that the contemporary problems need to be tackled through "delicacy and patience", but what we get instead is "some kind of posturing". Too much policy is "made on the hoof". On the other hand, you also alert us to government's ambitious plan - "a giant project of social engineering" to bring about "a profound shift in the culture and mindset of the Muslim community". There is surely then a contradiction - how can politicians conditioned to reacting to immediate demands also work towards a master plan or blueprint? This is where we fear a number of interlocutors will step in. Instead of a judicial inquiry into the roots of violent extremism, we will get instead a 'commission on integration' operating under the influence of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). The CRE chair, Trevor Phillips is a keen social engineer, ever ready to indulge in finger wagging and admonishment of the Muslim community and point out the errors of their ways: whether it be our love of faith schools, the desire to live in our neighbourhoods or sense of allegiance to the world-wide Muslim community.

Getting back to the Taskforce groups, I was drawn to your observations that "a subplot" of this exercise was the government "searching for new allies among a younger generation and amongst women", and that "a stream of complaints about the lack of representativeness" of the Muslim Council of Britain had finally "percolated through to the Home Office".

The Muslim community is well aware that Government, notwithstanding its frustration with "the internecine factionalism of minority community politics", would much rather not have to negotiate with one representative voice. The history of the trade union movement is full of examples of employers seeking to break the monopoly of a powerful labour movement and there is a parallel here.

You seem to suggest that New Labour is playing the politics of a 'King's Party' - seeking out a more acquiescent and pliable group. Muslims in Britain have worked hard since 1994 to establish an authentic, independent voice to represent their interests - the Muslim Council of Britain. It has many claimants to its paternity, from Michael Howard when serving as Conservative Home Secretary to New Labour when it came to power in 1997. The truth is that it was a community motivated development in the mid 90s following the networks that were created after the Rushdie affair and the Balkan crisis. It has reached sufficient profile to be a convenient punch bag for the glitterati, but that type of criticism comes with the patch. The MCB is well aware that it probably only has about 40 per cent of the country's mosques as affiliates, and it is making conscious efforts to be more inclusive. It is the best that the community has at the moment and represents an enormous investment of creative hardwork and volunteers' time and effort. Why should the Muslim community throw the baby out with the bathwater and start all over again?

However you too, Madeline, seem to have some sympathy with the view that the Muslim community should not have a strong, successful central leadership. You quote with approval, "as one Muslim perceptively pointed out, the strategy of classical colonial rule: appoint a headman to keep the natives in order". The community needs a central negotiating authority on a vast number of issues - why deny them this institution? It is true that well-respected Muslim academics have argued that "the risks of such a leadership being incorporated in the British establishment are very great". But times have moved on. Muslims now have the confidence to enter a dialogue without selling out, and can defend their corner.

For example, one of the participants in the taskforce groups was Inayat Bunglawa, MCB's media officer. Henry Grunwald, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, lobbied the Home Office for Bunglawala's removal on the grounds of his pro-Palestinian statements. Apparently the MCB then made it very clear that if Bunglawala was considered unacceptable then all the individuals with an affiliation with the MCB - probably four or five of the 100 - would pull out. At the end of the day it was not the MCB that had to back down. This experience offers the Muslim community some hope that continuing political engagement pays off.

You also describe the participants as an "elite establishment". Clearly there were distinguished Muslims there: Professor Tariq Ramadan, Yusuf Islam and Hamza Yusuf to select from the few names that have entered the public domain. Most Muslims in the community would be very happy to have these individuals as Muslim voices. There may be a few individuals put out by not being invited, but on the whole the community was well represented. The typical Muslim activist would of course give a lot of thought before participating, but if invited, it becomes a matter of civic responsibility to convey the voice of the community to the best of one's ability - the notion of 'amanah'.

Your remarks on the MCB and the 'elite' nature of the taskforce groups suggest to me Madeleine that you ought to be speaking to a greater cross-section of community activists. You also observe that the participants reflected a 'widening class polarization in the community'. This is a curious thing to say - clearly the need was for articulate individuals with institutional affiliation. Are we so exotic to be above the emergence of socio-economic differences?

Finally, a word on our mosques. You seem quite adamant that "these are not institutions that can sponsor the kind of community-wide engagement needed, let alone bring back the alienated youth back on track". The reality is that the network of 1100 mosques form the most effective means of reaching out to the grass roots. If there is a message to be disseminated, there is no substitute to the Friday congregations. Of course, there are numerous mosques that are distinctly unwelcoming to women and children. But there are others that serve as beacon institutions. It is an easy option to categorise mosques and imams as part of the problem; the need now is to make them part of the solution. Efforts are already underway - not at some government initiative but through the community's own efforts. Keep in touch with authentic Muslim circles, Madeleine!

Yours sincerely

October 2005