Who speaks for Muslims? 18 May 2014

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

Nawaz’s 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 Yes, Maajid Nawaz is about two decades out of date.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 towards 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.

There are many organisations with both the legitimacy and expertise to represent British Muslims in the media. The foremost of these included the Muslim Council of Britain, a broad based representative body modelled on the Board of Deputies of British Jews. It is clearly not possible for a single organisation to be ‘the voice’ of British Muslims, who are simply just too diverse to be reduced to a single monolithic viewpoint, but organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, the al-Khoei Foundation and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies can be an important avenue by which authentic Muslim voices (note the plural) are heard.

These organisations do not have spiritual or religious authority however – to confuse them (as many sometimes do) as simply the Muslim version of the Church of England is a significant error. Without an official priesthood, Islam operates much more like non-conformist chapel Christianity – each mosque is independent, and each Imam has his own sphere of influence and religious authority exists in pockets and bubbles, not a clear top-down hierarchy.

Some individuals of course have greater influence than others. For example, Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad (also known as Professor Tim Winter) has been repeatedly ranked as one of the leading and most authoritative scholars in Britain. Mufti Muhammad ibn Adam, a much younger Pakistani British-born and British trained Imam is also holds significant sway amongst the British Muslim population.

Between organisations and individuals, then, there are many who can speak for British Muslims. It is rare however for them to be heard, simply because the attention in mainstream media and popular broadcasting is directed elsewhere. Certain voices, Maajid Nawaz being a prime example, are given disproportionate attention by elements in the media. Anjem Choudary, leader of the extremist group ‘Islam for the UK’ is another such individual.

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 issued by the umbrella bodies that represent British Muslims, and no British Muslim scholar will hesitate to condemn any act of terrorism. The problem therefore, goes back to those in control of the microphone – it is about who is heard, not who speaks.

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. A dangerous radical, with a small following, is given prime-time opportunity to speak for Islam on three different channels!? Not only does this leave an absence for those all important, and authoritative Muslim voices that condemn extremism, but it also gives him legitimacy and validity. There is not a single mosque in the country at which Anjem Choudary could speak, yet he is repeatedly given the type of prime-time coverage that would make the Archbishop of Canterbury green with envy.

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

This article is from Issue 7 of On Religion – a quarterly magazine that provides informed commentary and coverage of religion in the UK. To get more articles like this, and support our work, please subscribe to our print magazine: –

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

A graduate of Religion and Theology BA and a Masters in Islam in Contemporary Britain. Abdul-Azim is currently completing a PhD on Islam in Wales.