How the MCB can uplift the fate of British Muslims

The Muslim Council of Britain is the UK's longest-running body that seeks to represent British Muslims in public discourses. It's always had huge potential to be a force for good, but for decades its leaders have struggled to make the mark. However, the newly elected leader, Zara Mohammed, represents an opportunity to break from the past and not only reinvent how and what the MCB works on but with it British Muslim renewal. Read on for more.
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I want to firstly congratulate Zara Mohammed on her election to the important role of leader of the MCB (Muslim Council of Britain). As the first female holder of the office, it’s even more of an achievement, which is well recognised.

There was a sense of relief when Zara won the race, beating the more seasoned campaigner Imam Ajmal Masroor by 47 votes (107 vs 60) and a massive 72% share of total votes. Whilst Imam Ajmal is a leader in his own right, who makes a good contribution to represent Muslims in the UK, it’s likely that he would have struggled to provide the kind of situational leadership that Muslims need today.

However, the challenge is no less daunting for Zara. Realistically speaking, being young, female and inexperienced has inherent risks in the kind of work that the MCB must get on with. But some will rightly see this as a good combination for bringing “something” new and fresh into the politics of public representation. Zara could become an important role model for women. Her presence will at the very least give confidence to all those Muslim women negotiating the dilemma of maintaining Muslim identity—vis-à-vis the hijab—against the background of social pressure to conform to dominant norms that generally rile against it. But of course, we shouldn’t overplay this, too. There’s been plenty of Muslim women who’ve achieved stardom as social media influencers off the back of making the hijab look cool but then gave up on it, throwing away the very thing that they stood for.

For others, those inherent risks might be a step too soon given that Muslim communities face significant headwinds into the third generation. The idea that Zara’s appointment is reflective of the demographic and intergenerational shift in the Muslim population towards a younger demographic, does not in and of itself spontaneously guarantee an improvement in leadership or outcomes for Muslims, of course.

But what the MCB achieves or doesn’t under Zara is important. The MCB represents 500 or so affiliates comprising an eclectic mix of mosques, charities, single-issue groups and community organisations. If they were all charities, this would represent perhaps 16% of the 3000 or so charities listed under a search for “Muslim” in the Charity Commission register. While this is a relatively small number, it is still, arguably, the biggest, consistently most-active and by far the oldest (conceived of in 1994 and came into being in 1997) cross-sectional Muslim body in the UK.

Numbers aside, being the biggest and most politically engaged—decoupled from the intrigues of intra-Muslim politics—can make for easily thinking of the MCB as the defacto leaders of British Muslims. That of course goes against the MCB’s own official position of representing only its affiliates. A subtle but important distinction is also to be made in “representing” versus “leading.” The latter applied to the MCB would only be true if it means “foremost,” and certainly not if it means an “authoritative” representative body. But, granted, it can’t be helped inasmuch the MCB can subtly play on it too.

As an outsider looking in, the MCB’s democratic mandate from affiliates is not necessarily what might seem at face value. For example, the MCB doesn’t have a consistent track record of working with affiliates to define bottom-up builds of what areas to tackle and how to tackle it. A good example is the infamous definition for Islamophobia, which, having worked with the likes of the APPG on British Muslims and the Runneymede Trust, was thrust upon affiliates a day before it was published and simply told to get behind it. Hardly consultative. “Consultative builds” for practical reasons are of course not easy to do generally, so perhaps it isn’t reasonable to hold the MCB to this standard.

Alternatively, from an affiliate perspective, membership does hold symbolic weight. Without any representation many Muslim organisations would simply be voiceless; Muslim institutions are still weak and underdeveloped. Thus, it can be reassuring to hear mantras like “A strong voice for British Muslims,” and “Stand up with the MCB.”

But at the same time the “strong voice”, “stand[ing] up” brand positioning seems to imply that the MCB is focused more on acting as an interlocutor with external public institutions, and less about dealing with change and problems within. Who gets to be the bona fide go-to organisation for Government and public institutions for all things Muslim and Islamic has always been a prised goal of not just the MCB but others also. It’s a kind of post-colonial fetishizing that’s been difficult to shrug off. For a start, doing public theology in the context of modernity and as minorities living in a majority socially liberal society isn’t easy, but without this the scepticism of many ordinary Muslims is understandable. Moreover, the UK’s Muslim communities are ethnically diverse and entrenched into ethnocentric religion making it quite difficult to get traction with things. These reasons aren’t mutually exclusive. But knowing how to navigate them is important to getting things done. The reality is that at least for the next ten years, we’re likely to need a devolved shared-responsibility model whereby different organisations lead on different aspects of being Muslim in the UK. Religious identity needs are just one of many of those aspects.


Why the MCB struggled to gain traction despite being the oldest organisation perhaps boils down to two central reasons.

  • Firstly, as many security analysts might argue, the MCB has historically been lacklustre in tackling extremism and tending to be a more vigorously critic of Government. In response to the “war of terror,” for example, instead of taking on extremists—cue the list of banned groups like the Hizb ut-Tahrir, Al-Muhajiroun and jihadists who cemented anti-Western and anti-British sentiment (“home away from home” culture) among thousands of youth throughout the 90s and 00s—the MCB deflected the focus to a “defence of Islam.” By doing so unwittingly adopted a laissez-fare attitude. But, being seen to be doing the right thing was important and should have been a strategic priority. The defence of Islam need not have been at the exclusion of dealing with extremism.
  • Secondly, as a close supporter of the Labour party, the MCB has always struggled to strike politically non-partisan positions on policy and elections. This isn’t surprising given that ethnic minorities of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Somalian (etc.) heritage have generally always supported the Labour party.  Predominantly located in inner cities historically provides a good reason. And, in the absence of the Conservatives willingly extending mutual affection, the MCB merely reflected this ethnic preference. However, Muslim identity and the cause of faith cannot be tied to the fortunes of any one political party. There is no theological basis to do so, and the boundaries of left and right are vastly more complex compared to the 1990s.

The upshot is that this seemingly unresolved post-colonial reflex has thus far (into 2021) meant that British Muslims and Islam as a faith is politically aligned exclusively with the left. That in and of itself may not have been so troubling, at least at a high level. Except, what’s happened is that the alignment is based on a “victim of place and time” narrative, rather than actively exploring the potential of Muslims in their God-centred mode to champion moral erudition and bringing refreshing perspectives. Muslim “cosmopolitan conservativism” (as opposed to “secular liberalism”) has even fewer friends than it did in the 90s. And issues to do with integration and social cohesion are readily misconstrued as “Muslim issues” rather than ethnic. The obsessive and careless use of faith as primary identity for engaging in the public on just about everything—integration, jobs, health inequalities etc. etc.—instead of ethnicity has simply added to the confusion. In turn, an underlying public identity crisis—not to be confused with self-identity—among third-generation Muslims has ensued, which the MCB (and others) have unwittingly made worse.

As I have repeatedly said, overall, the evidence in British Muslims points to a largely ethnic commitment to religion, entanglement with identity politics and a kind of ethnic identity that arguably didn’t have much substance to begin with, conforming to the “old ways,” routines and expressions found in rural Pakistan or Bangladesh. People who the MCB (and quite frankly most of us) now call “British Muslim” self-identified earlier as “British Pakistanis,” “British Bangladeshis,” “British Somalis” etc. and have remained predominantly rooted in our ethnic mores. As a result, the basis of seeking public recognition as “British Muslims” needs careful consideration. Not least since it seems to dismiss the potential of our ethnic identities. But, more importantly, it necessitates looking at things through the lenses of “what does it mean to be God-centred if we’re to call ourselves Muslim?” After all, whether Muslims follow God’s guidance or the extent to which they do or don’t do so—which is, of course, a function of “being Muslim”—it still doesn’t absolve us from the basic responsibility to strive to be “Muslim to God.”

That said, equally, the MCB has organised major conferences to help mosque culture improve and open mosques (Visit My Mosque Day) which has shown that they can indeed focus on internal problems. And I believe the real strength of the MCB is to play the role of a critical change-maker to develop Muslim communities internally (as well as externally). Frankly, there are few internal critical voices of reason in Muslim communities which I believe translates to perceptions externally. The latest example of this is its work to raise awareness of anti-black racism among British Asian and Arab communities which fly in the face of MCB’s concurrent secular racialization of Muslimness in the wider public vis-à-vis its support for the APPG on British Muslim’s definition of Islamophobia.

As someone who sincerely wishes well to people who want to do good, I’m mindful that “stand[ing] up” or having a “strong voice” isn’t necessarily enough for any organisation that seeks to represent Muslims. God commands proper reasoning and having a proper solving mentality to manage the challenges of an ever-increasing complex society. With that in mind, below is a brief plan of what I think the MCB would do well to check in on.

1. Adopt a God-centric view of “Muslim”

The term “Muslim” is used in different ways and for different purposes by organisations – Muslim and non-Muslim alike (see below). But how it is used and in what context it is framed into the public’s imagination including public institutions has implications for how problems / issues / concepts are perceived and owned. Below is a table that explains what’s going on.

“Muslim” used as..Type of useWhat does it signify?
An ethnic markerEthnocentric“Muslim” signifies people of the Islamic faith from Muslim countries but not necessarily a conscious “effect of” or “effort to be” Islamic in the British Isles.
The only means of identifying collective/shared ethnographyEthnocentric“Muslim” is the only agreeable shared identity marker for people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Somali, Arab, Turkish etc. heritage, arising partly out of pressure to conform to political correctness that riles against ethno-nationalism or due to the erosion of ethnonational cultural expressions. The result is that faith is perceived as the only basis for regenerating ethnic identity in the British Isles, but it isn’t necessarily a conscious “effect of” or “effort to be” Islamic in the British Isles.
A marker of religious practices and expressions imported into the UK from places of ancestral originEthnocentric“Muslim” as a marker is used like it is used in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia etc. without contextualising expressions/concepts to local conditions and variables in the UK, where these expressions are positioned as orthodox and unadulterated. It is a mix of imported indigenised Islam in ancestral lands as well as conscious “effect of” or “effort to be” Islamic in the British Isles.
A reference to doing “Islam to God” and God’s narrative of human societiesGod-centric“Muslim” is used based on a firm understanding of Islam and embraces the roles of faith and ethno-cultural identities in the right context both as experiences and politically.

Why is this important?

For starters, the convergence of different ethnic communities into an identifiable British Muslimness hasn’t yet happened, and whilst it might be in the making, it remains embryonic. In the meantime, the use of “Muslim” has been torpedoed giving the impression that Islam in the British Isles has matured beyond an ethnic affair. And since it is embryonic, the MCB run’s the big risk of attributing something to Islam and God which has no revelatory basis.

In fact, as I have articulated in Being British Muslims, “…cultural anthropological understanding of “being Muslim” dismally fails to recognise God as the central concern, and therefore doesn’t seek to understand “Muslimness” on its own terms. In turn, it means that the cultural markers of “brownness” of British Muslims such as the languages they speak (e.g. Bengali, Urdu, Swahili etc.), or the clothes they wear (e.g. the shalwar kameez, jilbab, turban, or trousers cut above the ankles etc.) or the foods they eat (e.g. chapatti, curry etc.) are readily conflated with a theocentric view of “being Muslim.” In the Qur’anic paradigm such ethno-cultural expressions have no intrinsic relation to “being Muslim” or “Muslimness.” Such markers can of course be found among non-Muslims like Sikhs, Indian Christians and Hindus too, and are more relevant to people’s ethnic identities rather than endogenous expressions of living Islam in Britain. This relation extends equally to nefarious results of ethnic commitment to religion, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), male patriarchy, forced marriages and abusive exorcist rituals to name a few.” (Being British Muslim, p.93)

Muslim “…communities are, however, superficially judged by those on the outside to be alike due to their ostensibly shared “brownness.” Interestingly, non-religious organisations that serve a particular ethnic identity (be it a Pakistani cultural association or an Asian business association etc.) have largely evaded focus and shirked their fair share of responsibility towards enabling a more cohesive integration. Arguably, by consequence, they’ve unnecessarily amplified heat on bodies that are ostensibly to do with religion such as mosques and Islamic schools etc.” (Being British Muslim, p.145)

The MCB rarely glorifies God, nor does it celebrate Prophetic life (see their website and publications in recent years). But to do justice to “Muslim” as an identity it must explore and take steps to move from its ethnocentric take on Islam to a more God-centric one. It’s a process of negotiating Muslim culture contextualised to the UK. That process requires tough questions on how Muslims do Islam. Not engaging in this at all or doing so in a chaotic way and, instead, prioritising the interaction with the wider society is a death trap for being Muslim. It will erode any confidence in Islam as a religion to offer renewal and uplift to society.

2. Become non-partisan

History is against the MCB, but it can choose to correct course. It’s no surprise that the MCB was created by supporters of Muslim groups like South Asia based Jamat-i-Islami. Whose political worldview has been largely rejected in Muslim countries in the wake of the infamous “war in terror” and have endured terrible public relations. This isn’t necessarily an MCB-only problem. Many Muslim organisations have had similar problems with being seen to be supporting or associating in some way with questionable groups in Muslim countries for whatever reason (quite complex, not for this blog). Not least since “guilt by historical association” is a highly crass standard. However, unlike other organisations, the MCB has shunned nefarious groups in Muslim countries only to substitute it with support in recent years for the radically-left leader Jeremy Corbyn. Now, there are of course lots of reasons why that was the case. But what is most interesting to me is that the MCB didn’t really think about the damage it would do to Muslims and Islam. This support was quite obvious in the MCB’s flawed idea of a “Muslim vote” which positioned the manifesto of the Conservative Party in exceedingly biased ways.

What the MCB ought to realise is that Muslims need friends in all political parties and as volunteered leaders, they need to bring refreshing perspectives. The fate of Islam and Muslims cannot be so inextricably linked with the fortunes of the Labour party or its leaders. At the very least, believers ought to change human hearts and shun taking biased political sides that fall into groupthink and moral tribalism.

3. Step away from identity politics

“Identity politics” is a vague term, but it generally refers to the tendency of people from a shared background (in our case being Muslim) to develop political agendas and organise politically based upon the exclusive characteristics of any interlocking systems of grievance/oppression (e.g. immigrant frustrations, Islamophobia, racism etc.) that might affect their lives and come from their various identities, while also moving away from traditional broad-based alliances.

Identity politics isn’t in and of itself a negative thing, nor is it haram per se, and certainly there could be times and places where the socio-political context might reasonably warrant dialling up identity politics. Human social dynamics aren’t straightforward – we all know that.

But what’s happened is that there’s been no attempt to do any politics (policy, recognition, identity etc.) based on proper theological reasoning that draws out the God-centred basis of how we engage politics. Instead, the MCB (and most other public Muslim organisations) have simply sought to represent and defend this vague concept of “Muslimness” without really understanding the nature of this “Muslimness” and knowing how it should contextualise to the UK. With that, anything and everything goes, and particularly devastating for the MCB is that it plays into the expectant attention bias of the centre-right, including the Conservative party and state institutions, who cannot let go of the historical failures of the MCB.

Islam is a universalist religion that has the temperance to tolerate ambiguity and it always seeks to weave into the social fabric of nations and cultures that it finds itself in. If the MCB are to be an exponent of people who identify based on faith, they must work less in identarian terms. One of the best ways the MCB could do so is through better (syncretic, holistic, self-reflective, evaluative, emotionally intelligent) use of the language it adopts in engaging and interpreting socio-political phenomena. This should have implications in the way it does media monitoring for example. Unless the MCB is seen to be doing this as a starter for ten, it will be a struggle to move those who it might disagree with to a more sympathetic viewpoint.

4. Work with other organisations in a mutually collaborative way to develop a strategic development plan for UK Muslims

I have now heard reliable sources from several Muslim organisations that the MCB seeks to persuade other fully-fledged organisations to come under its representational umbrella. It’s clearly an attempt to gain leverage in its role as interlocutor, which I completely understand. At the grassroots level, the MCB doesn’t have many supporters. It doesn’t have its own centre or mosque, it isn’t a minhaj, and it is made of only a few volunteers and a modest budget.  As a result, to show depth, the MCB relies on affiliates to include its logo on any media outputs. The actual work that it does off its own back is limited. But rather than use it as a strength, trying to co-opt others into the MCB’s representational framework seems a crass attempt to politicise other organisations. Many Muslim organisations want to be left alone and not be affiliated with an umbrella organisation that hasn’t delivered much value to UK Muslims nor prove the basis of this trust.

But my advice to the MCB is simply that it is far better to do small things and do them well, than trying valiantly to “boil the ocean” only to find that you can’t. The UK’s Muslim communities need support to co-create a vision for the next generation. So, with that in mind, here are some areas to work on – this is by far no means an exhaustive list and in no particular order:

  1. Unify moonsighting in the UK such that we all start and end Ramadhan and do Eid together based on the visibility of the moon in the UK. Let’s not leave the next generation a legacy of disunity on this very basic issue. The MCB is in my view best placed to bring competing parties and positions to a conclusion on this.
  2. Use the upcoming 2021 census results as a starting point for vision-setting for UK Muslims. Today there is no vision for the role of Islam and Muslims in their faith-centred identity mode. Bring a cross-section of Muslim groups, thinkers, scholars and organisations to work collaboratively on setting a development plan and vision, even at a high level. Make this a once in a generation charter.
  3. Improve diversity and inclusion for Muslim women in workplaces. With Zara heading up the MCB this should be a much easier task.
  4. Showcase Muslims in publications and media outputs in a more positive light and not simply as victims, immigrant frustrations or post-colonial reflexes. Celebrate the great things Muslims do in the UK but do it with humility and not in a patronising way or over-inflating the contribution.
  5. Focus on raising awareness of women’s issues around domestic abuse, and the need for Muslim men to play a greater role in the home.
  6. Improve inclusivity and brotherhood among different Muslim communities with a focus on anti-racism and inter-race and inter-cultural marriages between say black and Asian Muslims. Asian Muslims cannot use “Muslim” as an identity so obviously while remaining racist against black Muslims.
  7. Help establish standards e.g. in nikah certification, maktabs and certifications for mosques that live up to the ethos of community hubs. Basically, we need to drive standards and professionalism in Muslim communities, so any good reasonable idea will be helpful.
  8. Work on helping communities deal with the huge cultural conflict and issues arising in the intergenerational shift. No one seems to be working on this apart from perhaps in academia, but academics are usually not practitioners and unlikely to be personally invested in community well-being.
  9. Help bring out Shariah-compliant student loans. I am not necessarily a fan of these, but many see the current student loans as a barrier to further education or vocational qualifications. Given that education and skills are probably the biggest factors in improving socio-economic outcomes, we must do more to help get kids into higher education and upskilling.
  10. Help schools devise ways and guidance, perhaps even lobbying, to make provision for praying salah at school. No one is doing that. Even if it’s not necessarily what the MCB might lead on, it certainly has a role to tap different interest groups and organisations to help bring this about. This is as much as standing up and having a strong voice for British Muslims as anything, especially since this is a formidable antidote to the complete secularisation of schooling.
  11. Engage inter-cultural programmes across the country and bring the learning back into wider Muslim communities.

This blog isn’t meant to be a takedown but a sincere critical friend offering advice to people who seek to lead Muslims in the public. The future of Muslims and Islam is in their hands in ways they may not realise. May God help them and us.

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