Author: Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari
Publisher: The Cordoba Foundation
Release Date: 2013
Pages: 40

This paper, by a former Secretary General of the The Muslim Council of Britain, is a timely ‘wake up call’ to community organisers and activists within British Muslim civil society. Dr Anas Alitikriti of the Cordoba Foundation, London, in his preface to the essay notes that it “provides a much needed mapping exercise and draws a way forward”. This is accomplished in various ways. Firstly, here is someone holding up a mirror to Muslim organisations and workers, in a spirit of internal critique and constructive criticism, pointing out the malaise and blemishes but also the good points; secondly, there are suggestions on a wide variety of tactics and strategies to take us out of our state of ineffectiveness to becoming valued members of the wider society, individually and as a community.

For example, in a section headed Ineffectiveness of Movement groups in the Muslim minority context,Dr Bari observes,

“In the aftermath of centuries-old Muslim stagnation, the 20th century Islamic movements were seen by many to emerge with an inspirational vision of Islam – to revitalise the ummah, reclaim the spirit of Islam and re-establish the just social order for the benefit of humanity. Their message captured the imagination of countless talented Muslim activists of their time and was able to create a buzz in some parts of the Muslim world. One of their most important achievements was their ability to bring into their fold Muslims of all ages and from various trends, particularly from amongst the young; there appeared for some time a unity of purpose in Islam-inspired socio-political activism and in the beginning the speed of progress they were making was quite impressive.

However, over decades and for probably structural reasons, some of these movements seem to have lost much of their steam. A mixture of complacency and overconfidence appears to have thwarted their progress and inertia has taken over. They are seen by many as elitist and exclusivist, not people-oriented. Their vision may still inspire many today, even in the European countries; but the groups that originated from the mother movements have so far been unable to contextualise the vision with timely structure and strategy. Lethargy seems to have crept into some of these groups. With ineffective leadership and borrowed methodology their appeal to today’s activists in Europe is narrowing.”

This was written before the traumatic events in Egypt in August 2013, and while Dr Bari’s critique may or may not have been made with the Ikhwan in mind, his appeal for greater imagination and efforts to become broad-based were presceint.

In the section, The Way Forward, Dr Bari adds,

“It is time we step back and start afresh, with a penetrative mind and profound thinking, free from our preconceived mindsets and cultural inhibitions. It is imperative our frame of reference remains the exemplary life (Seerah) of our beloved master Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and his worthy companions. We need to see the big picture now as they saw then, beyond our immediate situation, and create an emotional attachment with people we are living amongst and be the catalyst of positive change wherever we live. Our plan and action have to be much wider than what we have been doing so far within our small world; our aim has to be very high indeed.”

The bond between spiritual values and activism needs to be strengthened,

” our connection with Allah and the Qur’an has become incredibly weak. Consequently, many Muslim activists in modern Europe seem to be very weak in the Islamic character which is very much needed to serve people. For a Muslim, Islamic faith demands in our character constant God-consciousness (taqwa); the pinnacle is Godliness (Ihsan). We may be community activists, religious leaders or scholars (Ulama), political activists, academics, professionals or business entrepreneurs; but we have to ask ourselves whether love, mercy and truth penetrate our hearts? If not, then mere recitation of holy words or ritual practice would be meaningless.”

At present there are various competing narratives seeking to position Muslims in Britain within the national endeavour. There are two which are unacceptable because they hark back to the colonialist mission civilisatrise. The first is the neo-con one, favoured by the likes of Michael Gove and Melanie Phillips: ‘Britain has become a decadent society, unsure of its values, allowing itself to become colonised by the arrival of large numbers of Muslims in Britain. Muslims at best want to live separate lives and at worst make the country to Shariah law. The solution is that if Muslims want to live in Europe they should assimilate and become invisible in the public sphere.’

The second narrative to be challenged is more sophisticated: it appreciates the potential of Muslims to contribute to spiritual, ethical, and educational renewal for British people generally; however Muslims should not worry so much about matters of fiqh and legal rulings. They should be shariah-lite and promote their own ijtihad, to allign Muslim values more closely to the best of European values. The narrative here is that Europe, as the heartland of civilisation, can also sponsor an Islamic revival.

Dr Bari’s essay provides an authentic counter-narrative. Becoming invisible or allowing others to tell us our religion is not an option: We, (the section of Muslim civil society not seeking patronage from either the British Government or foreign governments), recognises our achievements and problems. It is no mean achievement to have established the mosques, community organisations, charities, schools and businesses we find today. Our youth are a strategic asset to the nation as are our spiritual values. Young Muslim women are doing extremely well in education and many are taking up professional careers. Initiatives such as the Muslim Council of Britain have emerged as coalitions within Muslim civil society. However we do have internal weaknesses and external enemies. Our levels of socio-economic deprivation and educational underachievement are shocking and we have a poor image in society. The priority is to build internal capacity and a well-grounded leadership.

Dr Bari is to be commended for making an effort to map out where we stand and so are better placed to seek ways to change our condition.