When it comes to discussing the issues and concerns affecting the Muslim community with my fellow British Muslims, talk very quickly turns to the issue of foreign policy. On social media, around dinner tables, whilst watching the news, in colleges and universities, local and national debates are usually overlooked, as talk about Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and more recently Syria comes to dominate the topic of conversation.
This does not mean that I think issues of foreign policy are less important, or that Muslims should ignore what is happening in the name of our government across the world. On the contrary, it is great to see so many British Muslims show a keen interest in foreign affairs in an increasingly interdependent world.
Instead, I am making the case for equal enthusiasm and interest over domestic issues affecting the Muslim community.
Just as issues about foreign policy arouse strong passions, argument and excitement, where young and old alike are willing to march on to the streets and make their voices heard, we should be equally vocal and passionate about the domestic challenges facing Muslim communities living in the UK. There are many barriers facing the Muslim community when it comes to educational attainment, unemployment, housing, and more generally socio-economic inequality. Yet for far too long we have allowed ourselves to become fixated with foreign policy alone.
Why should we be so much more vocal about these issues?
Because they affect our everyday lives and when it comes to bread and butter issues, the picture is indeed very bleak. Take for example a report by the Muslim Council of Britain, based on the census data between 2001 and 2011, the first of it’s kind to ask respondents what religion they practiced. MCB research showed that despite increased levels of education over the 10-year period, Muslims have a higher rate of unemployment than average. Or take the fact that almost half, 46%, of the British Muslim population resides in the bottom 10% of the most deprived local authority districts of England. The same report also went on to note that the high proportion of the Muslim prison population (13%) and the proportion of Muslims in social housing (28%) is also a “cause for concern.” It is clear that we have an obligation, both as Britons and as Muslims, to fully participate in local and national debates to address such issues.
Yet the reality is that I have heard little discussion from many of my fellow Muslims in the UK, whether it comes from community leaders or other notable figures from the Muslim community, both on a local and on a national level, about what the causes of such deprivation are and how best we can tackle them. When was the last time we heard religious and community leaders speak about tackling economic deprivation, rising energy bills and reforms to the NHS, all of which will hit deprived Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim, hardest. I can find plenty of YouTube speeches from well spoken preachers and many leaflets outside mosques about what is going on to Muslims across the globe, yet a search for addressing socio-economic inequality brings up little.
None of us can deny that there is a high degree of apathy towards the political process amongst British Muslims, especially amongst the young. Historically turnout for Muslims eligible to vote has been significantly lower than the wider population. Yet if we are to address the challenges the Muslim community finds itself domestically, for they are very grave challenges, then we must overcome the sense of alienation and disaffection from mainstream issues that affect all British citizens.
On a local level, imams, community leaders and organisations must do more to highlight socio-economic inequalities that British Muslims face and encourage others to participate in debates and discussions about how we can address this. Undoubtedly some will claim that this is not the remit of those who are there simply to address matters of theology. Yet Islamic teaching and practices also teach Muslims to be responsible citizens and to contribute towards the wellbeing of the society in which they live.
More broadly speaking however, addressing bread and butter issues will also serve to improve social cohesion as we campaign on issues that all are affected by and all can relate to. There are those who wish to portray Muslims living in Britain and across Europe and America as the ‘other’, addressing issues that will affect our collective future, will both undermine this narrative and improve conditions for British Muslims.
Yes, we are passionate about what happens to Muslims across the globe, yet this passion cannot come at the cost of overlooking important local and national debates.
You can follow Basit Mahmood on Twitter here.