Muslims in Britain

The Issue of Intellectual Leadership

The July bombs in London have dominated discussion of British Muslims in 2005. But, says Tahir Abbas, even more important than the social problems of young Muslims is the quality and character of Muslim leadership

Central London Mosque, Regent's Park (photo: Arian Fariborz)
Tahir Abbas: There is little if any sense of a pan-Islamic British Muslim identity, and sectarian divisions are endemic

​​It is evident that the events of 7/7 have exposed a number of problems for Muslims, ones internal to their social and ethno-religious worlds as well as for their relationship with British society. As much as they are about young south Asian Muslims who are alienated, disaffected or marginalised, they also relate to a central issue with four distinct aspects: leadership.

First, there is a conspicuous lack of intellectual leadership among Muslims in Britain.

True, there is quite well-developed thinking of a philosophical, ideological and empirically-derived kind; but its different strands do not relate to each other very well. The empirical is devoid of the intellectual. The philosophical lacks grounding in the lived experience. The ideological has become either too progressive or, indeed, regressive to be able to make sharp, critical thinking a foundation of real change in social relations.

There is a need for more scholars in this country who are interested in the study of a British Islam, and they need to emerge from every ethnic and cultural background. The conditions for this are ripe: the higher-education system in Britain is in transformation, as the "baby-boomers" retire, and there is a real opportunity for a younger generation of intellectuals to emerge.

Second, there is an observable dilemma in relation to political leadership.

In the concentrated Pakistani hinterlands and cities in the English midlands (for example, Birmingham and Leicester) and north (for example, Bradford and Blackburn), Muslims have suffered repeatedly from a single problem: clan-based, kinship-orientated leadership. It is a system that has been promptly exploited by the major political parties. Sure enough, it has resulted in representation in local and national assemblies – but it has been a disaster for the south Asian Muslim communities who are often represented in these ways. The postal-voting scandal in Birmingham unearthed in 2005 confirms this.

There are few Muslim women being encouraged to come forward to stand for election (Salma Yaqoob of the leftwing Respect party is one). This needs to change: after all, women represent at least half of the umma. The situation has been a shameless failure of both representation and participation. There is a need for a comprehensive transformation of politics. The involvement of women, the eventual elimination of the biraderi system and the broadening of political agendas are crucial here.

Third, there is a genuine Islamic theological vacuum in Britain.

There is little if any sense of a pan-Islamic British Muslim identity. Sectarian divisions are endemic, and can lead to genuine inabilities to work with each other let alone with majority society. There is little if any space for internal criticism – we need to be honest about our failings and deal with them without always passing the buck elsewhere.

The responsibilities of intellectuals

The onus is on the religious leaders to ensure that what they say and do reflects the interests of the many. To do that they need to better understand their roles and responsibilities in capturing the imagination of younger British Muslims, directing them towards an Islam that encompasses every aspect of who they as British citizens without this being seen as a compromise of what and who they are as Muslims. The training of imams, and its regulation, are both important in this regard.

At the moment, as some young Muslims enter higher education and join Islamic societies, their horizons are often narrowed: the opposite ought to be happening. The responsibility of influencing the minds of the young in an enriching way tends to be left to people like Tariq Ramadan and Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, eminent intellectuals but also outsiders (Ramadan is Swiss, Yusuf is American) who do not have the institutional support to make their voices heard as strongly as they deserve.

Ethnocentrism, disconnection

Fourth, there is an Islamic cultural black hole in our society.

Until recently there have only been disparate attempts to fill it, which tend to be ethnocentric and relatively disconnected from each other and certainly from younger Muslims. In 2006, the Festival of Muslim Cultures will help to improve matters by highlighting the long and impressive history of Islamic art and music in a series of events across the nation.

But much more needs to be done to ensure that the traditions of the past can be transmitted to future generations, helping to ensure that young British Muslims can fuse different customs and behaviours with an ever-evolving concept of Britishness. This will release latent creative energies for the good of the many.

There has been a major intellectual shift in recent years, from a focus on race to one on religion. This is not an absolute by any stretch, and the importance of race as a social reality and principle of thinking is testified by the case of black teenager Anthony Walker, brutally slain in July 2005 by white youths simply because of his colour.

In addition, the continued issue of deaths in custody and the general problems faced by African-Caribbeans in the criminal-justice system confirm that racial inequality and discrimination is still very much "alive and well" in Britain.

The Salman Rushdie affair, 9/11, and 7/7

Nevertheless, there is a perceptible shift in perception of what the major "race relations" problems of this country are. Again, the experience of Muslims as well as the religion of Islam appear to be at the centre of a host of issues – crime, education, health, housing, unemployment, graduate employment, local area tensions in relation to regeneration, vilification in the media, national and international issues of terror, violence and extremism, and multiculturalism itself.

This overall trend has undoubtedly been developing at least since the Salman Rushdie affair of 1989, was reinforced by the events of 9/11, and now has been confirmed in the most dramatic and immediate way by 7 July 2005.

The big social-policy questions today all relate to Muslims, although New Labour as part of its third-term legacy is increasingly concentrating on other domestic issues such as education, health, energy, pensions and Europe. The current analysis suggests that we are relatively underdeveloped as a British Muslim minority community. This is no understatement – it is again revealed by 7/7.

These four concerns in relation to leadership do indeed intersect – but they all need attention as part of the integrated development of a British Islam. While the state continues to undertake institutional measures against racism (ethnic, racial and religious), and increasingly monitor and act upon the social and economic exclusion of Muslims, we Muslims have our own responsibilities.

There is a very long way to go to realise the ideals of equality, diversity and unity that the state must deliver – and it must. But, more immediately, we have to look hard inside ourselves and also begin to make some of those changes from within.

Tahir Abbas

© Tahir Abbas 2005

This article was originally published on

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