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Good and bad Muslims: New UK report reinforces a false narrative

The independent Bloom review on faith engagement falls short of scrutinising the government's longstanding prejudices against Muslim civic activism
Muslims queue outside Manchester Cathedral in England for an Iftar (breaking fast) event during Ramadan, on 29 March 2023 (Reuters)

In emphasising the dearth of religious literacy in the British government and the public sector, the recently released Bloom review seeks to raise the game when it comes to the state’s engagement with faith. 

The independent review, published last month, challenges the government to take religion seriously by recommending the institution of an Independent Faith Champion to take the lead on consulting fairly with faith groups and establishing oversight. 

The report by faith engagement adviser Colin Bloom expresses concern about poor levels of religious literacy, and this is not misplaced. But his recommendations fall short of scrutinising the government’s longstanding prejudices against Muslim civic activism, and as such, it could serve to entrench the draconian reach of the state in regulating minority faiths and containing dissenting perspectives. 

Setting the tone for the rest of the document, the review’s foreword presents a curiously simplistic typology of three different categories when it comes to faith or belief. Bloom’s “true believers” and “non-believers” are the good guys - “sincere, peaceful and decent”, and thus deserving to be taken seriously by government. 

In contrast, “make-believers” are portrayed as insincere trouble-makers, guided by some form of self-interest and employing subterfuge to unfairly exert their influence - a problem and a threat for government and communities alike. 

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This is a judgment on which voices can be regarded as legitimate or representative. The problem with this framing is that it relies on subjective descriptors, which when handed over to government leave their interpretations reliant on specific implied notions of peacefulness, decency and sincerity - namely, ones that comply with the politically charged parameters laid down by the state. 

For a government whose ministers have long been proponents of a hawkish nativism, and indeed continue to champion such agendas, there is little doubt that in today’s highly securitised and xenophobic political climate, critical and dissenting Muslim civic voices will be classified as a threat to peace - as subversive and illegitimate disruptors.

The language of 'peace'

The repeated calls in the review for government to reinforce a distinction between Islam (or “peace-loving Muslims”) and Islamism only underline this reality. It has long been a feature of post-9/11 political discourse that a conditional acceptance of Muslim civic actors is predicated on their being “peaceful”, or unproblematic to the prevailing direction of political travel. 

Thus, the “true” Islam of the majority is peaceful and docile, whereas “activist” Muslims who seek to question political arrangements or to effect change are disruptive, even extremist, Islamists. 

And so, in a by-now-familiar fashion, the language of “peace” is used as a foil for the promotion of quietism towards an aggressive state agenda, where handpicked peaceful (read: compliant) voices are held up as agreeable interlocutors and exemplars, and critical or dissenting ones are excluded and demonised. 

Minority faith communities do not need to be told (again) that their contribution to the country is vital and thus makes them worthy of recognition

Recommendations to extend the reach of the state in a range of civic domains should be considered within this context. Heavier regulation in the name of “safeguarding” by a state that has a track record of suspicion towards Muslims raises concerns. That the focus on safeguarding and greater state regulation appears largely focused on minority faiths only underscores this issue. 

Although there is much talk in the Bloom review of fair engagement with faith groups, it offers little by way of directly assessing who should be included and how this would be decided. 

On the question of state engagement with Muslims, the huge and persistent elephant in the room remains how and why successive Conservative administrations have continued to shut out and actively demonise the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). 

A tired and lazy justification that has long been recycled relates to the council’s allegedly inadequate condemnation of extremism - a double standard to which other religions are not held. It is laughable to think that such charges continue to be levelled without scrutiny, against a group that has gone to great lengths to chronicle its efforts to condemn terrorism.

Convenient platitudes

In Britain, there is a longstanding, implicit policy of variable engagement between the government and minority faith communal and representative bodies. For years, the annual dinner of the Jewish Community Security Trust has been a regular fixture in the home secretary’s diary; meanwhile, public figures are rebuked for dealing with the MCB.

While some commentary has hailed aspects of the Bloom review as a critical call for action from the government in everyday areas where Muslims experience exclusion and discrimination - for example, on allowing sharia-compliant student loans - these are long-overdue measures that have been repeatedly ignored or shelved.

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And, although necessary, their inclusion could be read by some as barely consolatory, in view of how Muslim public life now stands to be increasingly regulated and restricted by the expanding reach of the state. 

In a similar vein, while anyone familiar with community life in contemporary Britain knows the indispensable roles played by so many people of faith in serving and helping others, minority faith communities do not need to be told (again) that their contribution to the country is vital and appreciated, and that it thus makes them worthy of recognition. 

There is ample appreciation of these facts among Muslim organisations who are rather crying out for better resources, capacity building, and genuinely equitable engagement.

Reassurances that a “vast majority” of British Muslims are viewed as loyal, law-abiding and integral to the nation offer very little, if such reassurances are laced with the conditionality that their politics are unproblematic to the state’s political agenda. 

While these platitudes might have for decades provided convenient and reliable content for official messages put out by politicians on Eid and other formal occasions, British Muslims today are more alert than ever to the hostile civic environment within which they operate - and if the Bloom review is anything to go by, things are only going to get worse. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Khadijah Elshayyal is a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, researching digital Muslim spaces, and author of Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, activism and equality in Britain (IB Tauris, 2019).
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