A bold step in fraught times

In September 2015, Citizens UK, under the leadership of its Executive Director Neil Jameson,  took the forward-thinking step of establishing a Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation and Public Life.

Between October 2015 and January 2017, the Commission – headed by the Rt Hon Dominic Grieve MP, QC and 13 other eminent individuals with a record of public service (almost half with a Muslim heritage) – conducted a series of public hearings, roundtable discussions and closed sessions. The Commission also received written submissions and established two ‘focus groups’ to serve as a sounding board, one the ‘Muslim Leadership Group’, and the other the ‘Youth Leadership Group’.   According to Dominic Grieve, the process involved 500 hours of listening! The Commission’s report, The Missing Muslims: Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All,  was launched on 3rd July 2017 at Westminster Cathedral Hall, subsequently receiving well-deserved coverage and appreciation in Muslim civil society.

Neil Jameson notes in the Report’s introduction, ‘This Commission is absolutely not about seeking ‘special treatment’ for British Muslims. Rather it is an ambitious and timely attempt to find ways of encouraging full and active participation in public life for all communities , challenging the systems and narratives that threaten this, and promoting the many examples of good practice by our Muslim communities that the Commission has heard up and down the country.

Muslim civil society owes a debt of gratitude to the Commissioners and those responsible for the Commission’s organisation, for an assessment that is both frank and sympathetic.  Some of the hearings and evidence collection sessions were conducted on mosque premises. Although there were instances where the Commissioners would have benefited from a better-informed briefing prior to such visits,  mosque leaderships were faced with challenging questions which hopefully would have led to some reflection and constructive  institutional learning on their part.

The Report holds out an optimistic vision of the future for Muslims in Britain, but calls out for urgent action on a number of fronts:

  • for local employers to commit to name- and address- blind applications, and for more to sign up to the ‘Business in the Community’ initiative
  • for the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to consider providing guidance on accurate reporting on Muslim issues, to ensure that faith is not being conflated with extremism
  • for the Government to reassess the way in which it engages with Muslim communities, and not to boycott some bodies because of the views that are held.
  • for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to set up administrative systems to look at anti-Muslim prejudice.
  • for the Government to convene an independent review of Prevent, and consider the appointment of a Prevent Ombudsman
  • for Muslim umbrella bodies to introduce voluntary standards for mosques and Islamic centres, with particular stress on participation of women in decision making, and access
  • for mosques to invest in British-born imams who are to be paid a decent living wage

It was appropriate for the Report to be launched at Westminster Cathedral Hall. As noted by Bishop Paul McAleenan at the start of the proceedings, and by Neil Jameson towards the end, such efforts seeking social justice and fairness in society are inspired by CST – Catholic Social Teaching. Pope Francis has been an outstanding religious leader in placing issues of social equality at the forefront, for example the encyclical Evangelii Gaudium stating, “Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. ”  Bishop McAleeenan remembered the prejudices he faces in his youth in Northern Ireland, for being a Catholic – “a discrimination based only on faith” – and he could detect a similar grievance raised by Muslims today. He noted that “it had taken a long time for acceptance that a person could be a good English person and a good Catholic.” He also made reference to the Troubles, when Northern Ireland was confronted with violence. It was a time when Catholics had to bear the brunt of State surveillance and also a heavy-handed RUC and army regime.  Again, this was an aspect of the Northern Ireland Catholic experience which Muslims can relate to.

The Commission’s work is a bold attempt to reach out to the British Muslim population in times that are fraught with political and religious tensions. The Report needs to be read and discussed, not least by those responsible for mosque affairs, particularly to ensure womens’ voices and concerns are given due consideration. The Commission’s 500 hours of listening should be put to good use.