‘Introducing the grassroots perspective" (MINAB) - by Dr. Sibtain Panjwani

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An article on the institution of MINAB and the issues of extremism and social cohesion it aims to address

Following the establishment of ‘The Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board’ (MINAB), it is perhaps worth reflecting over its origin and the issues it aims to address. There have already been criticisms levelled at MINAB with regards to its constitution and potential operation. This article is not designed to fuel these criticisms but rather, to contribute to the discussion on the role played by British Muslims and the government to socio-political issues concerning extremism and social cohesion. 

To its credit, MINAB has taken the first step in trying to set standards to tackle these issues amongst British Muslims. By its existence, it has sparked discussion on how British Muslims have a duty to introspect on religious practice and propagation. At the same time, however, one needs to critically analyse this duty which appears to be a presumption, rather than a point for serious grassroots debate.

A brief look at MINAB’s origin

It is important to ponder over Tony Blair’s 12-point plan after 7/7. Point 11 is relevant for our discussion: “To consult on a new power to order closure of a place of worship which is used as a centre for fermenting extremism, consult with Muslim leaders in respect of those clerics who are not British Citizens and to draw up a list of those not suitable to preach and who will be excluded from our country in the future.”[1]

MINAB was launched on 27th June 2006 with the aim of the government to work closely with MINAB to ensure it meets the challenge of being responsible for mosques and imams. It arose out of one of the various working groups [2] and advisory bodies set up after 7/7 to investigate this very issue which included representatives from the British Muslim Forum, the Muslim Council of Britain, Al-Khoei Foundation and Muslim Association of Britain. MINAB arose out of an alliance of these four organisations.

MINAB has committed itself to making early progress in five core areas: the accreditation of imams; the development of leadership skills for imams and mosque officials; progress in the inclusion of young people and women; improvement in the governance of mosques; and supporting mosques to contribute to community cohesion and to combating extremism [3]. In its June 2007 session, the UK Parliament decided not to legislate on this stage because of public institutions willing to take on the responsibility of closing a place of worship. The above is worth reflecting over…

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[1] House of Commons Hansard Written Answers, (pt 0027), 6th June 2007

[2] Working Group on Imams and Mosques

[3] House of Commons Hansard Written Answers, (pt 0027), 6th June 2007

 

Whilst it is understandable that any confirmed terrorist should be dealt with under the measures of the law, government and police, it is somewhat volatile and chaotic to simply close a place of worship and conduct a McCarthy type witch-hunt of Muslim clerics. For Muslims, a mosque represents a holy sanctuary to obtain nearness to God. Closing this down would only fuel Muslim angst against a British government who, at least in the perception of a notable amount of grassroots Muslims, have designed polices to subjugate Muslims internationally. And, what is a cleric? Is he/she a ritual Imam, preacher, scholar or all three? What would Muslim communities do without their clerics? How would one accurately and effectively enforce such measures?

It is necessary to seriously consider these questions at a grassroots level before any widespread institutional investigation and standards are created. The problems which the United Kingdom face with regards to extremism are multi-faceted (ranging from the role of the media to government polices to religious interpretation) but concerning the role of Muslims, it is important not to consider them as one unified body. Some may blame extremism on the government and media whilst others would be more introspective on religious dissemination. My position is that having accepted that British international and national policies would have natural repercussions on Muslims (and indeed any other faith or non-faith group); perhaps the role of Muslims lies in working through its concerns at a grassroots, rather than institutional level. There is certainly an issue of clerics understanding a different culture at a humanitarian rather than divisive level as well as the need to develop and market newer theories of religious interpretation. However, these are not the sole causes of extremism and those that practise extremism labelling themselves as Muslims represent a dogmatic minority

Extremism should be considered as a broad philosophy historically practised by many countries and persons as a negatively animalistic reaction to that which they fear or have a deep-rooted grievance against. It is not merely associated with a particular religion or group but rather, a basic human fear propelled by theological manipulation or influence and a negative use of animalistic instincts. In this sense, perhaps extremism is a product of a human condition and not human nature.

The issues MINAB aims to address

It is commendable that MINAB aims to deal with the aforementioned issues and has begun the process of tackling extremism, at least from the perspective of mosque regulation. The background to this process was the task force set up by the British government after 7/7, which aimed to arrive at a framework through which the government and Muslim communities could work in partnership to help prevent extremism. They were to set up a forum on an informal basis with members invited for their expertise and experience rather than as representatives. Among them was a Working Group on Imams and Mosques. This Working Group made four recommendations:

1. An inclusive, independent and fully representative National Advisory Body/Council of mosques and imams.

2. The setting up of the National Resource Unit (NRU) for the development of curricula in madrasah/mosques and Islamic centres which complies with the diversity and school of thought in the Muslim community overall. 

3. The establishment of continuous professional development program for imams.

4. Highlight and promote good practice amongst mosques, Islamic centres and imams in the UK.

The promotion of the diversity of thought through madrasahs and Islamic centres is perhaps the most crucial of these recommendations because it is concerned with opening people’s minds to new ideas and the existence of different Muslim practices. In this way, Muslims can learn from and be more inviting to each other. Whilst this is a challenging task (since it involves breaking deep-rooted religious and cultural traditions), it is a commendable aim. The professional development of Imams is also important and perhaps easier to accomplish because its success can be achieved through merely funding Imams to attend courses (probably ranging from language to professional skills to interfaith).

However, what is lacking amongst these recommendations and aims is a greater understanding of the needs of grassroots Muslims. The consultation process conducted by MINAB is a primary example of this. MINAB sent out 1202 questionnaires throughout UK and organised 11 public meetings attended by 424 people representing various Muslim organisations. The concerns raised were that there was unjustified blame and persecution on Muslims, that this attitude must change and the Muslim community must be made part of British society and not be alienated due to its beliefs. Secondly, the survey revealed that 92% of the responses to the questionnaires supported the creation of MINAB [1]. However, this is doubtful as subsequently it was discovered that only 72 forms were returned out of 1202. Therefore, it is now felt that more consultation is needed aiming the grassroots organisations. In November 2007, MINAB published a draft constitution and core minimum standard document for consultation among Muslim organisations [2]. Consultation period is now extended to May 2008 following which the final documents will be formulated.

It appears that MINAB’s consultation process was not thorough nor inclusive of grassroots voices. This is a great failing because it means the very grassroots problems which MINAB aims to solve are without the wholehearted support of Muslim communities. This is in addition to the criticisms already raised about Article 8 (g) [3] which gives a monopoly of power to the founding members over the organisation for a period of 42 years.

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[1] ‘Minab’s mosques may not be so moderate’, www.telegraph.co.uk, 30/11/07

[2] MINAB Draft Constitution

[3] “Each founding member may, to the end of 2050, appoint by nomination no more than six persons to serve as members of the Executive Board, and thereafter the Executive Board shall comprise of 50 elected, and up to 8 co-opted members.” [MINAB Draft Constitution, Article 8 (g)] Also, see ‘Formal response to the Draft Constitution as part of the consultation exercise in relation to MINAB’ by Shabbir Lakha.

 

The grassroots perspective

In light of the important start made by MINAB to address the issue of extremism, I submit that my aforementioned point of elaborating on Muslim grassroots’ needs is essential. By grassroots I mean the average Muslim living, contributing and enjoying all the natural rights he/she has in this country. Indeed, we all fit into this category but we must venture into the basic heartbeat and needs that all human beings require. These are not merely associated with ritual worship, propagation and educational standards within centres. Perhaps far greater than these is the need to be financially stable, to have a shelter over one’s head, to raise a family, to be educated and enjoy a comfortable and peaceful life. And all of this within the social and community ties of a multi-cultural country. At the very least, all human beings require this standard of living.

Not having this basic requirement would create many problems from the feeling of inequality, ignorance, social isolation, anger and ultimately, unhappiness. These are the very fears which can be manipulated either by ideological indoctrination and/or negative use of animalistic instincts. Extremism, therefore, has its roots in human beings failing to help one another in each other’s happiness in this life. I submit that MINAB should interact with the government to push the case for an improvement program to reduce social depravity, housing shortage and unemployment suffered by Muslims. Perhaps the government can create a climate of opportunity so that British Muslims are given equal opportunities to reduce their own deprivations. In this way, there will be a climate of change created where British Muslims will be fully active, working towards their own development as British citizens and arrive at a position from within their own experiences. Therein may lay the success for all British Muslims who inhabit this island and would be attached to it in personal and collective ways.

In this manner, deep roots and ties would be planted for the average Muslim which would create a sense of longing in this country. This would be truly understanding grassroots Muslims at their core. Even simpler than that, a local interfaith program bringing Muslims and other faiths together or social programs in community centres where all are invited would perhaps have a far-reaching effect in creating peace within and between different faith and non-faith groups, than any institutional standard. Touching the livelihoods, hearts and minds of people and making them belong in a climate of security is, I feel, the start of a solution to reduce extremism. And it can only be accomplished by working through the lives of the grassroots Muslim community.

 

Dr. Sibtain Panjwani has occupied various positions in local Muslim centres as well as voluntary and charitable organisations, such as the World Federation of KSIMC. He currently gives lectures at Islamic College of Advanced Studies on Islamic Ethics, Contemporary Bioethics in various institutes and writes various articles for journals and magazines.

 
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