Who speaks for Muslims? 24 March 2014

That was the question set by Newsnight on 24th March before a six-minute video presented by Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam infamy. The video was followed by a debate chaired by Paxman between Nawaz, journalist Mehdi Hasan and Twitter pundit Mohammed Ansar.

The debate and video itself is worth a watch – though it is unlikely to illuminate anyone. Maajid Nawaz, for the main part, continues to present himself as the enlightened Voltaire of British Muslims. His video featured heavy criticism of the ‘community leader’, a defunct term that perhaps had relevance during the Salman Rushdie Affair of the 1980s but has largely been substituted following the emergence of broad-based representative bodies such as the Muslim Council of Britain. Yes, Maajid Nawaz is about two decades out of date. The debate was heavily skewed to a non-issue of a cartoon posted by Maajid Nawaz on Twitter, meaning the actual question fell by the way-side.

It was nearly at the end of the debate that Mehdi Hasan answered the question with brutal honesty. As Mehdi recounted, only hours before Newsnight went to air, academic and journalist Myriam Francois-Cerrah was dropped in favour of Mohammed Ansar – eliminating an important voice from the panel and creating an all-men affair. Who was responsible for this decision? The Newsnight producers.

So back to the question… Who speaks for Muslims? For the main part, the editors and producers of newspapers and television shows. In reality, it doesn’t matter who is doing the speaking, but who is given the microphone to be heard.

Certain voices, Maajid Nawaz being a prime example, are given disproportionate attention by elements in the media. Anjem Choudary is another such individual. The same can be seen in newspapers and decisions about what is news worthy.  The overblown debacle about segregation at universities in the UK is a good example. As our Fathima Khatun argued, the fact that optional gendered seating became the representative issue of sexism on campus, and not the misogynistic lad culture highlighted as a problem in a report by the National Union of Students, reveals that decisions about news stories are rarely based on news worthiness.

A question I’ve been asked numerous times by non-Muslims is “why aren’t there any Muslims condemning terrorism?” The implication is usually that the lack of condemnation provides tacit support for violent extremists. I’m never quite sure how to answer them, because there are countless condemnations. After the killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby, Imams such as Ibrahim Mogra to umbrella bodies such as Muslim Council of Britain, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, the Islamic Society of Britain, all expressed condemnation and outrage. So why aren’t they being heard? And who is being heard instead?

The same month that Lee Rigby was killed , it was Anjem Choudary who was invited on to Newsnight on the BBC, Daybreak on ITV and Channel 4 News to speak.

So who speaks for Muslims? Whoever the producers and editors decide speaks for Muslims, and to pretend otherwise is naivety.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.