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Book Review: Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari’s British Muslims, Citizens – Introspection and Renewal

bari_british Muslims

Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari is an experienced community leader with a vision for Britain as a humane society that accommodates plurality. It is an appeal to people of moderation willing to work together for the common good.  His thoughts on the meaning of citizenship in contemporary Britain have taken shape in the post 7/7 period when many ready judgements are passed on  Muslims from the outside, but fewer opportunities  for a critique and reflections from the inside featuring in the national conversation.

Among Dr. Bari’s first essays on the subject was a paper, In Defence of Shared Values, delivered at Las Casas Institute, Oxford, in 2009, which noted

Our faith demands active encounters. In the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, God tells us ‘O mankind. We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, so that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most God-conscious of you. God is All-knowing, All-aware’. How wrong are we to interpret and employ our ‘otherness’ to create division and discord while the primary purpose of this ‘otherness’ was nothing except to enhance awareness and understanding […] we must commit ourselves to continuous dialogue that is not dominated by extremists, on either side. And there must be a basic acceptance, on all sides, among individuals and among groups that Britain has a set of organic values which are arrived at through consensus and accommodation, not through diktat and bluster.

His essay Meet the Challenge, Make the Change – A call to action for Muslim civil society in Britain, published by the Cordoba Foundation in 2013, clarified these notions of  ‘active encounters’ and the means for arriving at ‘consensus and accommodation’. Not dissimilar to the Catholic community’s vision of faith-inspired activism (CST, Catholic Social Teaching), he proposed a model of personal and social transformation:

As activist Muslims subscribing  to the vision of an all-inclusive and universal Islam, we should indeed go back to the drawing board, brush up our thinking and move closer to the society we are living in. We should be able to act with tsunami-like energy and drive, as the Prophet’s companions did in their time, to work for the harmony  and good of all. We must purify our intention from, wittingly or unwittingly, treating ourselves as a ‘tribe’ – ethnic , linguistic or any grouping – whatever that might be. We should not be seen as playing the victim card for our inabilities […] It is indeed critical that activist Muslims see the bigger picture, broaden their horizons and endeavour to work for all, rather their own ‘tribe’ or group. It is essential that we learn how to ‘join the dots’ of our individual and group activities. This altruistic approach and practice will not go unnoticed by the wider society for long; the image of Islam as a catalyst for positive change and Muslims as an inclusive community will be gradually recognised.

In this latest essay, British Muslims, Citizens – Introspection and Renewal, Dr. Bari moves further along his intellectual journey, building on these conceptual outlines towards practicalities – what is meant by ‘going back to the drawing board’ and ‘joining the dots’,  the ‘altruistic approach’ and acting as ‘a catalyst for positive change’?

The essay does not propose a return to the practices of an earlier, sanctified era:

Some dogmatic scholars, albeit small in number, advocate that the community should maintain its “purity” by isolating itself from modern society which is full of permissive values and social ills. Some of them are resistant to Muslims participating in wider society, as they think this will dilute their religiosity. Young people are thus, according to them, supposed to bury their head in the sand like ostriches and retain their ‘purity’. They do not have the foresight to recognise the fact that their approach is a recipe for disaster.

Dr. Bari instead focuses on nurturing a love of knowledge and a spirit of intellectual inquiry, through efforts both in the family and institutional settings:

There must be significant investment in building our young people’s lives, especially in this pluralistic environment. The focus should be to enhance their general knowledge and build their character on the one hand and increase their contextual knowledge and understanding of Islam and society on the other, so that they can not only safeguard themselves from the permissive influences of materialism, but are also able to flourish despite its pervasiveness, and are [also] able to confidently contribute to the common good of society. Imparting this knowledge and understanding to our children should be the number one, immediate and ongoing, priority for all parents and they should start this from an early age of their children.  This parental effort needs to be complemented in the mosque, community centres and organisations […] the need for a deep-rooted spirituality has never been greater  […] Muslim students in educational institutions and voluntary community organisations should try to arrange study circles to gain deeper knowledge of the Islamic sciences and the contemporary world. Only a knowledge-based community or nation can maintain its dignity in this world.

At a time when the Government’s ‘Prevent’ policy for tackling anti-terrorism is very much in the news,  the decision-makers in the corridors of power ought to take account of this ‘narrative’,  from the perspective of a well-wisher and admirer of all that is best in British society:

…Young Muslim men are by far the most stigmatised section of our society. They are under enormous pressure from many different directions. Young people, boys and girls, are impressionable and often vulnerable to the allurements around them. With the adult society being unable to provide moral leadership on many fronts, the moral bankruptcy of our political class as illustrated by the recent MPs’ expenses scandal to name just one example, young people feel disillusioned with and disconnected from the adult world around them and some take a rejectionist attitude. In the case of young Muslims, anti-Muslim rhetoric from the media and political class make things worse for them, as they are the ones who face the brunt of it, in the educational campuses and wider society. The traditional over-protective nature of the Muslim community and mosques contribute to their disillusionment.  They are often inhibited from taking up community responsibilities and do not feel a sense of ownership in community responsibilities and initiatives. Their talents are not sufficiently recognised in their own communities, and thus, some waste their energy in the superficial pursuit of alternate realities whilst a small but significant proportion of others sadly become engaged in anti-social behaviour or criminality.

Dr. Bari’s analyses have manifold implications for community work, from the provision of good parenting guidelines to capacity building and professionalism within Muslim civil society.  This is a  wide-ranging and readable essay, that lives up to its title, and most importantly, contains a passionate appeal for greater opportunities for young men and women in the community’s institutions.

 

M. A Sherif, July 2015

 

British Muslims, Citizens - Introspection and Renewal
Muhammad Abdul Bari
Consilium Publishing Head2Heart
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