Grounds for optimism if Government can choose wisely
Center Initiative on Violence Against Muslim Women Endorsed by Shiraz Maher
by Shiraz Maher
The Times [London]
September 25, 2008
It might seem perverse, but there are grounds for cautious optimism in today's revelations about domestic violence in the Muslim community, because they come from within the community. Irfan al-Alawi, an Islamic scholar and director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism, is taking the brave decision to "name and shame" imams who condone violence against women.
This is the kind of response from within the community that we need if these problems are to be eradicated.
Worryingly, it seems that among those who, by their silence or their failure to act, are condoning domestic violence may be the recipients of government grants intended to promote community cohesion. If so, the Government must consider its role in all this. It cannot wade into the quagmire of Islamic theology, nor should it. But it can facilitate those grassroots initiatives that are building the consensus for a genuinely progressive and liberal British Islam.
Getting this wrong can have serious repercussions. Any official representation immediately lends organisations credibility for their views by suggesting that the Government regards them as both legitimate and valid. It also establishes the group as acceptable leaders for the community by making it an interlocutor for grassroots community engagement.
So far the Government has failed to choose the right partners. After the 7/7 terrorist attacks, the Government created the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, which is supposed to regulate prayer halls and preachers. But two of its four stakeholders are the Muslim Association of Britain and the Muslim Council of Britain, both reactionary Islamist groups regarded by ordinary Muslims as being part of the problem.
There is no suggestion that mosques involved with the national advisory board, the Muslim Council of Britain or the Muslim Association of Britain condone domestic violence, but they can still be viciously sectarian in other ways.
During a trip to the United States, the Muslim Association of Britain's founder, Kemal Helbay, told an audience: "Do not take Jews and Christians as allies, for they are allies to each other." Are these really the kind of men we want to regulate our mosques and imams?
Grassroots change within the Muslim community is happening, albeit belatedly. New voices are emerging to challenge the established narrative and to recast a form of Islam that is truly progressive.
Empowering them will be vital to ensuring their success. The Government has struggled so far to develop a coherent set of criteria to identify suitable partners. What is clear, however, is that an objective yardstick is needed with which to measure the groups it chooses to engage with and promote before any more harm is done.
Shiraz Maher's pamphlet, Choosing our Friends Wisely: Criteria for Engagement with Muslim Moderates, is published by Policy Exchange next month.
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