The MCB Public Affairs Committee held its Fringe Meeting at the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth on 26 September 2007. The meeting heard from Competitiveness Minister Stephen Timms MP and Government Whip Sadiq Khan MP as well as from Rushanara Ali, Associate Director at the Young Foundation, Frances O'Grady, Deputy TUC General Secretary and Muhammad Abdul Bari, Secretary General of the MCB. All charted the highs and lows of the community in the past ten years and proposed options for the future.
|Stephen Timms, who was also recently appointed as the Vice Chair for the Labour Party responsible for Faiths Liaisons, argued for faith to be recognised as an integral consideration in public policy. `We need in our party input from people whose values and motivations are shaped by faith. We can see faith being influential, creative and making a growing contribution in a positive way to our national life. The values that come from faith, our shared values, are important in shaping our policy as a party and helping us for the future. I hope to find ways of strengthening the input of faith from the MCB, the wider Muslim community and other faith communities.' Stephen Timms also spoke of the need for reframing the discussion around integration. He said `where we move towards is a position where nobody sees a conflict between being a 100 per cent British and a 100% Muslim.'|
|Rushanara Ali, Associate Director of the Young Foundation and also the Labour Party's Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow, noted the successes the Muslim community has had in addressing social policy concerns and the Government's ability to respond to the issues raised. In the last ten years an important social policy framework has been established to recognise the challenges faced by British Muslims. This has enabled positive government engagement, including the incorporation European Directive on Religious Discrimination into UK law, thanks to the lobbying of organisations such as the MCB.|
However Rushanara Ali also noted the important challenges faced by the community in the 9/11 and 7/7 context. British Muslims have experienced unbearable scrutiny and pressure, and are obliged to consider important questions including the balance between security and liberty. The challenge for the Government is the need to establish trust especially amongst young Muslims who care deeply about foreign policy. She argues however that with dialogue, a lot of these issues can be addressed. She also argued that the 9/11-7/7 context opened up a discussion around integration and identity which has placed considerable focus British Muslims and their identity. But this provides an opportunity where "we can fashion a new identity where Muslims are seen as equal citizens, a stronger sense of mutual support amongst us all." She also spoke of the "need to think more creatively how we live together and support each other as citizens. Too often the challenges of tackling extremism and radicalisation can be seen as a 'Muslim problem', but these are challenges that we must work together as a society to confront and address.''
|Sadiq Khan, Member of Parliament for Tooting and a Minister in the Government Whip's Office, charted the favourable developments for the British Muslim community for which we can all be proud of. In the decades prior to 1997, British Muslims faced the inequitable situation where there were no state-funded Muslim faith schools. This inequality has been addressed since 1997. In addition, the government has responded positively to engagement with the Muslim community and adopted a positive public policy agenda that recognises the needs of the community.|
Sadiq Khan concurred with the rest of the panel of the challenges the community faces after 9/11-7/7. `The community has held its breath every time an atrocity has taken place, fearing the loophole in hatred now exploited by far right groups and the culture of suspicion generated by the media.`
He also noted tensions the Iraq War created for all of British society, be that in the Labour Party or within the Muslim community. `We should recognise this elephant in the room, acknowledge it and move on. Whatever our deeply held views are, it should not cloud our commitment to work with each other.'
Sadiq Khan ended however on a positive message, saying `Muslims present a challenge and opportunity'. More than half of Britain's 1.25 million Muslims are below the age of 25 and are born in the UK, they are an untapped resource who have demonstrated their potential to contribute to the dynamism of Britain. The British Muslim community's diversity and the MCB's lobbying was crucial in leveraging the Olympics in London. In addition, the MCB's promotion of Islamic finance has led to London becoming the largest centre outside Dubai for this multi-billion dollar industry.
|The Trade Union Congress' Deputy General Secretary, Frances O'Grady, observed the `obsessive discussion around integration, as if integration is a one-way process of Muslims integrating with 'us' whoever us is supposed to be. This kind of discussion misses the real barriers that keep communities separate. We have to address real, material barriers.'|
Frances O'Grady referred to TUC research which cited the hurdles faced by some sections of the Muslim community. Research in 2002 reported that Pakistani and Bangladeshi men, on average, earned Â£150 less a week then white men. In 2005 another report showed that it would take 50 years before we closed the race gap in terms of jobs, pay and opportunities. `We have to think hard of what that means for this and the next generation' she said by addressing issues unique to the community, gaps in aspirations and the `very real barriers that emanate from within and without the community'. This included getting `tough on prejudice and discrimination that pushes too many people on the margin.'
She also spoke of the need to tackle inequalities within the Muslim community, between men and women and in sections of the private sector where there is a `culture of non-compliance in the minimum wage'.
Frances O'Grady also suggested new proposals, including addressing child poverty in those communities that make up a bigger proportion of children than others; the government's successful Sure Start programme should address how Muslim mothers can make better use of them; and a new obligation on the private sector to promote and enforce race equality.
|And finally, the MCB Secretary-General, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari re-iterated the successes and challenges of the community through the prism of `opportunity and turbulence'. Opportunity came in the guise of British Muslims being able to stand up, be counted, and become part of mainstream Britain. State-funded faith schools, the election of Muslim MPs, the adoption of legal safeguards for Muslims, all of which were positive developments that demonstrated to the community that they do belong. Turbulence has been characterised by the violence that has resonated since the terrible atrocities of 9/11, and most seriously of 7/7. But turbulence did not only exist within this context. Muhammad Abdul Bari also outlined the challenges in the development of our community. `In the ability for our young people to excel, or as Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Monday, to 'rise as far as their talents can take them and then the talents of each of us should contribute to the well being of all.' '|
Muhammad Abdul Bari also sought to challenge the prevailing cynicism that exists amongst opinion-formers. `From our religion and social experience we have learnt that a community can only progress when the whole nation prospers. We sink or swim together. We know there are prophets of doom who are busy spreading panic about how problematic the Muslim community is. Polls are commissioned by some of them only to find faults with Muslims, raising the level of Islamophobia, which is now gradually becoming mainstream. These cynics conveniently forget objective and independent surveys from organisations like Gallup, who reported only a few months ago that Muslims in London have almost twice as much confidence in the Government as the general public and are noticeably more trusting of the judicial systems, election and the police.'
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari concluded by saying that as MCB entered its tenth year, there existed an opportunity for the organisation, its affiliates and the Muslim community to take stock and seek out progressive ways to develop for the future. `The MCB has undertaken some soul searching on our performance, with a view to moving ahead with a clear direction. In this last decade our community has matured a lot and our young people are coming forward to take the leadership role in the community. Of course, there are newer challenges lying ahead. But we are realistically optimist and we are moving ahead.'