Article: The Grand Myth of 'Muslim Community' in the UK

Published by Christian Today, 26 January 2014 

It is a common language. Many people in the UK, including some Muslims, use it. It saves time and energy in media conversations and most importantly helps to fit a thought into 140 characters of Twitter wisdom. Yet it is horribly misleading and potentially harmful.

It is misleading because there is no such thing as "the Muslim community" in the UK. There are Muslims for sure. Yes, Islam as a shared religion with its religious holidays and activities link Muslims, but they are not a single community. There are countless diaspora networks, some small neighbourhoods where people of similar ethnic origins live in close proximity, and a lot of different mosques and myriad Muslim organisations.

Migration patterns might give more numerical precedent or visibility to some groups, but substantial numbers of British Muslims are just like substantial numbers of British Christians. They dwell in multiple networks at work, school, personal life and religious involvement. They might or not be attending a local church (read mosque). They might be praying on their own, listening to sermons on line, and may be dropping in at a church for special days like Christmas and Easter (read Eid).

Some might be Anglicans (read Muslims that are in organised denominations with formal clerical structures), or like free Evangelicals (read mosques centred on a single minister). Some are like the Emergent Christians, (read Muslims who are on a spiritual journey and find it difficult to fit into a formal mosque). Some might cherish their ethnic heritage, go to family reunions, or it might be that they are a nuclear family and really have no enchanting large weddings but a civil registry and no 'exotic' migrant background.

 This poses some serious questions on people we see on our televisions as 'community leaders' and 'spokespersons' for Muslims, or our perceptions of an organised and organic block called 'the Muslim community'. In fact, we mostly see British Muslims with Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins put in such roles, but never British Muslims with Cypriot, Nigerian, Turkish, Somalian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi, or Syrian origins. There are rather a lot of them too. Not many of us know why someone calls themselves a sheikh, or why they are called a 'leader' and whom it is they are leading or who is following them.

We would not dare to think that a single Anglican vicar could speak for Anglicanism, let alone British Christianity. And rightfully, we would laugh if someone referred to a 'British Christian Community'. We Christians believe in the 'holy catholic church' with a small c, and being members of the Body of Christ. But we do know that the theological belief and aspiration in no way captures the reality. Christians come in all shapes and sizes, in all political and theological views, with many cultural backgrounds. Christianity becomes the umbrella for all of us to remain under, made possible by certain theological basics we share.

That is the same for Islam and Muslims. Yes, Islam speaks of an umma, and unity of Muslims. But while Muslims might see a global affinity with other Muslims, in reality, umma is only an elusive longing at best. In reality even though there is an umbrella of basic tenets of faith in common, Muslims are as fragmented and as disconnected from their co-religionists as anyone else in the world. Differences of language, politics, culture, theology and personal differences are very real.

When we apply to Muslims what we would never apply to ourselves, the issue goes beyond being simply an intellectual failure. We are effacing and dehumanising up to 3 million Brits who are Muslims, lumping them into a tiny box that is not there, burdening them with a responsibility for all other Muslims which we'd never place on ourselves for all other Christians out there.

We want the world to be simple. We want to be able to have clear lines. We want to be able to have a structure where we can go to engage. Thus, we burden British Muslims with our own shortcomings, demanding apologies from them for things they have nothing to do and asking them to "sort their community out" when the community they are part of is actually the British Community, which includes you and me, thus, ironically, burdening us with a lot of sorting out too.

Turkey and Iran: Preserving a lucrative partnership

New essay by Ziya Meral on Turkish Iranian relations in report "Post-Nuclear: the Future for Iran in its Neighborhood", European Council on Foreign Relations

Turkey and Iran have once again found themselves facing parallel challenges in the form of the group that calls itself Islamic State (here ISIS) and its implications for both countries’ security policies as well as interests in Syria and Iraq. These developments have led to some suggestions that Turkey and Iran could explore and co-operate on areas of mutual interest closely.

While such efforts and regional developments do bring the two countries closer, this essay argues that a brief look at the history of relations between the two countries, particularly during the last ten years, reveals a pattern of similar moments when both countries faced shared challenges and sought to work closely, which only revealed deeper differences and conflicts of interests and produced primarily mutual economic benefit. It argues that Iran and Turkey continue to walk a tightrope between the prospects of major diplomatic fallout caused by opposing policies and interests in the Middle East and the benefits of maintaining good bilateral relations.

Download the Report which includes the essay here:

Most Britons with migrant origins are natural Tories. Here’s why the Conservatives are losing them.

Published by

29 October 2014

It is that time of the political calendar once again when politicians try to outbid each other in what is now horribly dull and repetitive public discussion on migration. Whilst voices from the business world have continually raised their concerns about the adverse effects of such politics on the British economy, and academics have demonstrated serious problems with the figures and hyperbole casually thrown into discussions to incite hysteria over migration, not many have asked what the Conservatives might be losing in this process.

Attempts to appeal to cohorts concerned enough about migration to consider voting for UKIP is not surprising. Thus the appointment of Sir Andrew Green to the House of Lords and the careless comments made by Michael Fallon did not really shock or awe any of us. If anything, we have been underwhelmed. Yet, what has been increasingly shocking is the continual short-sightedness of such moves, and that the Conservatives still do not recognise what they are losing in this process: the substantial number of votes that they could attract from British citizens who are naturalised or with migrant origins.

For those whose understanding of contemporary Britain and its myriad communities and citizenry is outdated, the main constituency of the Conservative Party might still be imagined to be the archetypal “English” voter. But the reality is that a significant portion, if not the majority, of naturalised citizens and their children have values much closer to traditional Conservative ones than to those of any other party.

This is particularly so for those of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Eastern and Southern European origin. 

Voters from these backgrounds tend to be much more socially, religiously, culturally and politically conservative. The legends of “benefit cheats and tourists” blind us from seeing that the vast majority of Brits with migrant roots have had to work incredibly hard to make their home in the UK, and to advance the wellbeing of their family.

Therefore, they highly value hard work, and appreciate the safety nets provided by the British welfare system – since their experiences in their respective countries of origin make them acutely aware of the UK system’s uniqueness in the world. 

And, ironically, if you want to hear the harshest stands on migration, access for new migrants to public funds, the importance of ensuring new migrants respect and cherish the UK, and limiting of number of migrants who can be naturalised as citizens, you need look no further than British voters who were naturalised, or who were born to parents who were migrants.

This means that Conservative Party should appeal to a substantial percentage of such voters with its current platform. The reality is that it is not able to. Many answers can be given as to why this is the case. Clearly, the party still has a long way to go in having voices from such backgrounds represented, and a lot of homework to do in understanding these communities. 

Yet even if the Conservative Party were to address these concerns, the language and tone of migration debates would always be a hindrance for the large number of voters who feel inclined towards traditional conservative values but cannot bring themselves to vote for a Conservative candidate because the rhetoric excludes them.

Often migration discussions lapse into xenophobia, scapegoating and the demonisation of migrants, which in turn makes Brits with migrant roots feel distanced and targeted. It is all the more discouraging that migrant voices are completely absent from discussions on migration, and that most discussions are held as if there are no migrants in the room and somehow migrants don’t hear what is being said about them.

The outcomes of this range from the UK missing out on attracting global talent to British businesses, migrants struggling to integrate and feeling alienated from the British society (which creates fertile ground for radicalisation), and a significant number of Brits feeling that they have no voice in the future of their country. Beyond the domestic context, it is also costing the UK diplomatic capital by underutilising the potential of its own diverse population as natural bridges for global outreach for British government, businesses and culture.

There is a way to discuss the migration issue – which is not only a British challenge but a global one, with identical arguments unfolding all across the world – without alienating migrants and British citizens with migrant roots. If the Conservative Party were to crack that code, it could gain more votes by attracting these rather than by alienating them.

This is a painful but necessary process for the Conservatives. The Conservative Party needs to re-read its voter base, take this challenge seriously, alter its public language on migration and move beyond seeing potential candidates with migrant roots as peripheral window-dressing rather than as integral parts of the future of the party, just as they are integral parts of the future of United Kingdom.

What the UK can do to advance religious freedom worldwide

Published by

29 October 2014

The developments in the Middle East over the last three years have brought home the points which many experts and practitioners have been making: persecution on the basis of religious belief and affiliation is increasing in the world. It is affecting every faith community and those with no faith,  fuelling a wide range of interrelated problems from radicalisation to violent conflict, with direct impact on UK domestic concerns such as increasing numbers of asylum applications and faith community relations.

Now, articles calling for an immediate UK response to religious freedom can be seen emerging from all corners of the political and social spectrum. Whilst these articles stem from good intentions, they suffer similar shortcomings.

Often they start from domestic political and religious positions with a wide range of unspoken anxieties about particular religions or the overall place of religion in today’s world. Most of the time they lack a grounded understanding of local contexts in which religious persecution happens, and lapse into reductionism, seeing a particular religion as the root cause of all that we see unfolding before us.

They also lack awareness of global trends and mirror-image developments in Africa, Asia, and even Europe, that make such reductions of the issue down to a single religion rather shallow. Most worryingly, such articles often ascribe no agency whatsoever to persecuted communities themselves and what they can do and how they can respond in the short and long term to address factors leading to persecution.

One can easily list the causes behind these failures; very few academics actually study religious freedom and religious persecution in the UK, let alone teach it as a course. Hardly any British think-tank has ever conducted a proper study and developed a thought-through policy proposal for the Government besides the myopia of countering violent extremism.

Religious freedom advocacy groups also play their part in this failure: the vast majority are mono-faith organisations, primarily working to advance the rights of their own co-religionists, which is ultimately counter-productive and fraught with ethical shortcomings.

Most importantly, their work is primarily reactionary. They document, lobby and raise the profile of cases of persecution with little reflection provided on the very modus operandi of religious freedom advocacy and its future. One can forgive this shortcoming due to the simple fact of limited resources, and, most importantly, chronic ignorance over these issues for decades by mainstream human rights groups, with notable exceptions such as the Minority Rights Group.

The truth is, long before ISIS brought the conversation onto centre stage, increased attention was already being given to the topic within the FCO and British Parliament. The FCO’s human rights team has increased its reporting on these issues and provided training opportunities to British diplomats on religious freedom. At the parliamentary level, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom has silently achieved what has never before happened in the UK: it brought a wide range of political figures from different faith and belief backgrounds to raise the issue within the UK political establishment.

Yet this is not enough. While there is merit in the calls for the appointment of an Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, inspired by the US model, experience from that same model shows how ineffectual this can be. Similarly, given that the US diplomatic machinery produces two sets of excellent reports every year on the situation of religious freedom in most countries in the world, there is no reason for the UK to re-invent the wheel and increase its own reporting.

What the UK government can do, and must do, is to carry the religious freedom conversation forward at home, in the EU and the wider international community. The unique contribution the UK government can make to this end is to focus its attention on the proactive aspects of religious freedom advocacy.

First of all, the religious freedom issue must be taken together with all of its interrelated aspects, from conflict to stabilization, good governance, human rights and humanitarian crises and public diplomacy. This would mean that religious freedom would not continue to be simply a conversation between the FCO and concerned Members of Parliament, but it would directly involve DFID, the Home Office and the Prime Minister’s office.

Secondly, this is a truly complicated issue that demands a wide range of expertise, ranging from specific country and issue experts, to human rights advocates, programming and foreign policy specialists. This is not simply an issue of gathering faith-based NGOs and clergymen to express goodwill. The UK must have its own mechanism in which ongoing issues are analysed and pro-active policy proposals are developed and synchronised across UK government structures.

Thirdly, the UK government must genuinely put its weight behind such a mechanism by directly allocating funds that can be deployed for strategic programmes across the world, and to enable direct access to high-level policy makers across UK state structures. Otherwise, sadly, all these well-intentioned calls for a response, and the clearly-expressed desire of the Government to increase its attention to this issue will be included in the increasingly long list of superficial conversations, when the stakes have never been higher.