British Muslim Stars Rising

Who would have thought that in the year that the number of British Muslim parliamentarians almost doubled, Muslim Londoners would also face the joyous prospect of having two Muslims compete in the upcoming London Mayoral election? Could there be a better signal of the strides made in British Muslim achievement and integration?

The candidacy of Sadiq Khan, current Labour MP for Tooting, and Syed Kamall, an MEP for the London region and Leader of the Conservative Party in the European Parliament, for the Mayorship of London says something about the growing ease with which minorities navigate the world of politics and the confidence London exudes as a melting-pot city.

While Muslims committing acts of terrorism, at home or abroad, command the majority of media attention, there is a different British Muslim visibility on the rise. One which actually does represent the majority of British Muslims and coheres with the faithful rendering of their religious belief; to do good for the benefit of oneself and one’s society.

Muslims did not feature heavily in the election debates this year, foreign policy was notably absent from public debate and not all party leaders were as receptive to the idea of visiting a mosque and engaging Muslim voters. Moreover, not all the party manifestoes addressed specific commitments on tackling Islamophobia or the problem of media bias and better press regulation. The Labour and Liberal Democrat parties were more forthright in presenting a vision of inclusion and integration. Nevertheless, the election outcome saw the number of Muslim MPs rise from 7 to 13. A huge turnaround given how slow political parties have historically been to address the privileged pathways to politics and the under-representation of BME individuals in safe seats.

The increase in the number of Muslim women MPs in 2015, with the arrival of Nusrat Ghani and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, is also to be marked. And not just because the two women represent the broadening of political representation; representing the Conservative Party and the Scottish National Party respectively. With the 2015 parliament showing an increase in the number of female MPs (up 7% to 29%) and BME MPs (up 2.4% to 6.6%), it is pleasing to note Muslims make up a (small) proportion of both. As politics strides towards greater inclusiveness and representation, it is hoped Muslim representation will stay on par too. The early indications are not as satisfying as they could be, but the trend is moving in the right direction.

Then there is the spectre of Muslim sportspeople whose inclusion in national or premiership teams are a source of immense pride given the role of sport in defining and representing the nation and the people.

The number of Muslim footballers playing for Premier League clubs has attracted negative and positive coverage. Headlines about footballers rejecting the customary bottle of champagne for being crowned ‘Man of the Match’ recede in the face of news about football clubs accommodating Muslim players and supporters with the use of, for example, prayer room facilities. Feature pieces on how Muslim footballers cope with gruelling training exercises during Ramadan often conveys the essence of the month of fasting; faith, discipline, and fortitude, in a way some scholars would struggle to get across to non-initiates.

And then there is the culture of inclusivity evinced by club supporters who have rounded on those malcontents who have posted photos of Muslims praying during matches. It is great to see the language of sport build bridges and heal divisions.

The appointment of the first British Muslim female to the Football Association’s Council is another milestone achievement. Rimla Akhtar of the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation, like the England cricketer Moeen Ali and Olympic-winning athlete, Mo Farah, show that sports, like business, politics and media, can transform the way minorities are viewed. While challenges certainly remain in tackling diversity and discrimination in sport and indeed in the visibility of Muslim women in public life, what these examples offer is a means by which to transcend the negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims by presenting the subject in ways which the dominant narrative often ignores. Muslims being the ‘best of British’ is a trope seldom seen or heard.

Take, for example, analysis of media coverage of Mo Farah whose Olympic Gold winning performances have entranced Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Research done by academics at Lancaster University on the media coverage of Mo Farah during the London Olympics found 330,000 words used in articles published in the print media in August 2012, but only 23 mentions of ‘Muslim’. When one thinks of the premium Farah himself has placed on his Muslim faith, and his British identity, the absence of this in media coverage is a disservice to him and a silent nod to the prevailing depiction of Muslims as disloyal to Britain.

It would seem an innocuous thing, to make prominent an athlete’s religious identity but when Muslims consider the foregrounding of the racial or religious characteristics of those engaged in criminal behaviours, is it unfair to seek the representation of Muslim champions as ‘Muslim’ champions?

The burden of representation in a climate of intense suspicion around Muslims and Islam can be something of a double-edged sword for Muslims in the public eye; whether politicians or sportsmen. Do they have to carry the weight of their communities on their shoulders to prove that the majority of their co-religionists are just like them? And who is seeking the assurance — the Muslim community, grateful to have someone whom others celebrate as one of their own, or the majority society, who find in these examples affirmation of their tolerance and the opportunities advanced by society to people from minority backgrounds?

Fraser Nelson in a column for the Daily Telegraph once wrote of Britain’s Muslims being “truly one among us” stating that Muslims were modern Britain’s “success story”. The affinity British Muslims display towards the British state and to a British only national identity is undisputed. Their pride in being British is evident in statistics as wide-ranging as opinion polls and census data.

But if British Muslims are “truly one among us” would we be fishing around for evidence of Muslims advancing in political office, or Muslims being the most generous among charity donors, or Muslims representing their nation in competitive sports to prove this “success story”?

There is a danger in celebrating outliers as representative of the normal distribution. Muslims making strides and becoming more visible in the public sphere for the right reasons should not eclipse our assessment of the condition of the many. At a time when 1 in 3 Britons professes to harbouring racial prejudice and analysis of data from the British Social Attitudes survey by academics at Manchester University shows that while other forms of prejudice toward minority groups is falling, anti-Muslim prejudice is going the other way, we would be naïve to judge a “success story” based on the illustrious examples of the few. We would be equally myopic to judge Britain’s “success story” against the condition of Muslims in France or Germany. With historical factors, nationalisms and state structures being so different as to present a variable geometry, simple assessments over burqa bans or restrictions on headscarves and long skirts in state schools on the European continent and the comparable absence of these illiberal measures in the UK doesn’t really stack up to a “success story”.

A Muslim Mayor of London would be a marvellous, awe-inspiring achievement. Sadiq Khan himself has said the election of a Muslim mayor in the capital would send a clear message to “show the haters in Iraq and the haters in Syria what sort of country we are: a beacon”. I would like to hope such a message would travel near, and far. Celebrating a Muslim Mayor of London, indeed celebrating all those whose visibility in the public sphere attests to the confidence with which British Muslims assert their faith in their personal and professional lives, should not be something we do with an eye on those who make it to the top but with an eye on all those who should, rightfully, be able to follow their lead.

Shenaz Bunglawala is Head of Research at MEND – Muslim Engagement & Development; a non-governmental organisation tackling Islamophobia and enhancing British Muslim participation in politics, media and public life.