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Letter to Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

Dear Gordon

It was heartening to note your entry into the spirited national conversation on ‘Britishness’. Your speech to the British Council on 7th July was particularly welcoming to the ‘BME’ (black minority ethnic) constituency – 5.8 million of us, if one includes the Census’s ‘Other White’ category for the not insignificant Arab and Cypriot communities mainly in London. We welcome your recognition of the long-standing cultural and ethnic diversity of Britain based on “successive waves of invasion, immigration, assimilation and trading partnerships”. This reminded me of the Moroccan cotton merchants who had settled in Manchester in the 1850s – somewhere in the Mancunian gene pool there is the legacy of this 500-strong community .

The whole ‘Britishness’ debate set in motion by David Goodhart’s ‘little Englander’ argument - that the current diversity in Britain caused by immigration was eroding common values, and hence social cohesion – will now take on a more even keel after your intervention.

In your speech there is an appeal to cherish “a passion for liberty anchored in a sense of duty and an intrinsic commitment to tolerance and fair play”. This is surely the common agenda to which we can all subscribe to, particularly if the value of ‘fair play’ applies not only to home, but to abroad as well, thus offering a guiding principle for a foreign policy under your watch.

However what is very pressing to the BME constituency – particularly the Muslims who comprise over a third of it – is your recognition that “there should now be greater focus on driving up the educational attainment of pupils from ethnic minorities and a more comprehensive New Deal effort to tackle unacceptably high unemployment in areas of high ethnic minority populations”. Moreover we are one in “our long felt sense of obligation to the world's poor”, particularly child poverty, which is a reality not just overseas but amongst Muslim households on mainland Britain.

We need to enter into a dialogue with you to translate these aspirations into hard actions – much like the public service agreements (PSAs) demanded by your Treasury officials from the spending departments. May I offer a few suggestions?

Firstly the Muslim/BME unemployment problem. It is all very well to aspire to ‘fair play’ but the need of the hour is delivery. There is no dearth of data so let us please proceed from policy aspirations to target-setting. Take the case of apprenticeship schemes so successfully implemented in Scotland. This is an example of meaningful change – not token three month placements by a Job Centre – but three-year industrial placements with companies to gain life-long skills as an electrician, fitter, gardener, hairdresser or whatever. I believe more than 30,000 have benefited from this Modern Apprenticeship (MA) programme in Scotland. Can we not have this replicated in the Northern cities of England? Fair play means being given an opportunity.

Fair play and social justice go hand-in-hand, though I notice the latter term old-fashioned term does not feature in your speech. The TUC’s research is that “in spite of an expanding jobs market since the end of the recession in 1993, a disproportionate number of black people continue to find themselves at an unfair disadvantage in the labour market”. Analysis of 2001 Census data by the Muslim Council of Britain suggests that 69% of the Muslim population in the 25 and over age group are economically marginalised – this includes the unemployed, those in part-time employment, the disabled. There is no dearth of equally horrifying statistics – the need is not for more research, but rather action plans. Why can’t public sector employers ensure, for example, that their payroll reflects the local population mix. Take Pendle in Lancashire – it has a Muslim population of 13%? Have you asked whether even 5% of the Borough Council’s employees are Muslim? Gordon, something can be done now to ensure fairer access to mainstream employment.

Another fair play/social justice issue is to do with the below average wages for ethnic minority populations. Why is that the average weekly income for the Pakistani/Bangladeshi household is over a £100 lower than the white counterpart.

Notwithstanding this economic context, the Muslim community is doing as much as it can through its voluntary sector and philanthropic institutions. This sense of public spirit and civic duty is one of the common values for bind us. Our mosques and cultural centres, with some encouragement, are rapidly becoming providers of services to the elderly, the disabled and their neighbourhood generally. They run legal surgeries and advice centres for new businesses. Almost daily, new institutions are emerging dedicated to give young Muslims sensible steer and moral fibre, and engage them in a culture of learning and self-development. A good proportion of all this good work has been funded by the community itself – there are poignant stories of Bangladeshi ladies selling their jewelry in order to finance the construction of the London Muslim Centre (LMC) in Whitechapel. This is our effort to promote good citizenship. I hope you will soon be able to take some time out to meet Muslims engaged in projects such as LMC or the Leadership Development Programme run by The Muslim Council of Britain.

This brings me to the notion of ‘covenant’ that you raise – the two-way recognition of rights and responsibilities borne out of shared values. Since 911, we have experienced a 360 degree U-turn: Asians and Muslims were previously regarded as diligent, work-ethic oriented and studious; now they are ‘terrorist’, fanatics and not to be trusted. You should be wary of the Blunkett-type analysis that young Asians lacked a sense of belonging because of the poor English-speaking ability of their parents. This is off-target – the reality is that young persons are alienated and frustrated because of a double penalty – the Muslim penalty and the ethnic penalty.

This may sound emotive but the evidence is there. Less than a week after your British Council speech, the BBC Five Live reported the findings of a survey in which CVs from six fictitious candidates – who were given White, Black African and Muslims names – were sent to 50 employers. The candidates least likely to be called for interview were the Muslims – 9% were invited, compared to 13% of Black Africans, and 25% of Whites.

You refer to the distinction made by Jonathan Sacks between contractual and covenantal relationships. In ‘The Dignity of Difference’ the Chief Rabbi explains that “Covenantal relationships – where we develop the grammar and syntax of reciprocity, where we help others and they help us without calculations of relative advantage – are where trust is born”. He adds, “Covenants are beginnings, acts of moral engagement”.

It is interesting that in Islam man becomes a party to a covenant even before birth: this is the great primeval covenant when God assembled the souls and they testified that He was the Sustainer (The Qur’an, 7:172). The Qur’an refers to ‘mithaq’ (covenant) in many contexts – even to solemn undertakings between groups of men, between man and wife. It is one example of the shared Islamico-Judeo-Christian values that may well be useful in our times where we are searching for a rationale for neighbourliness and the rediscovery of a sense of civic duty. An example from the life of the Prophet, peace be on him, may be apt here. A belligerent lady took it upon herself to empty a heap of rubbish on him from her roof when he passed by below. Perhaps much to her annoyance, he would proceed with his business without making a remark. One day, on finding himself untargeted, the Prophet made enquiries and was told the person had been taken ill. The story culminates with the Prophet tending to a sick person and praying for her health. Islamic values therefore encourage not merely trust but the love of fellow human beings in a direct and practical way.

Your speech Gordon will I am sure be read and re-read by those trying to get some idea on what makes you tick. As the longest serving Chancellor of the Exchequer ever, you are better qualified than most to take on the top job. I am sure the Muslim community would welcome an opportunity to provide you with its take on Britishness.

Yours in anticipation

Al-Maktabi

15th July 2004