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U.K.: Government Tries To Jump-Start Efforts To Integrate Muslims Into Society

The British government is creating a new commission to speed up the integration of Muslims into mainstream society. Chaired by a government minister, the commission wants to work closely with existing mainstream Muslim organizations. Specifically, it will advise on how best to achieve integration, while respecting the needs of worshipers to live in accordance with the demands of their faith and culture. British Muslim groups are cautiously supporting the plan. But they also say the integration process must evolve naturally and cannot simply be ordered by the government.

London, 18 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Repairing relations between Britain’s Muslims and non-Muslims in the wake of the July terrorist attacks on London is proving difficult. A planned integration process appears to have stalled, as some Muslim communities have reacted to increased scrutiny by becoming more isolated.

The government says it wants to change this situation and is creating a new commission to speed up the integration process. It also wants Britain's 1.6 million Muslims to be more involved.

“I don’t think that the British government or any official institution would like to see them isolate themselves," Ali Noorizade, the head of the Arab-Iranian Studies Center in London, told RFE/RL. "Unfortunately, recently -- after 9/11 [the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001] and other events -- the finger was pointed at the Muslims. It helped them become more and more isolated from the mainstream society.”

Noorizade said the overwhelming majority of Britain's Muslims come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. Many of them have found that clustering together is easier than integrating. He also points out that more militant believers do not approve of Muslims mixing with non-Muslims.

Others stress, however, that the government must aim to overcome these problems. They say it should get active on several fronts, if the real goal is to achieve a tolerant multifaith society.

“We have to make that possible and make it easy by tackling the causes of division in our society," Imam Ibrahim Mogra, chairman of the Mosque and Community Committee at the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) told RFE/RL. "We have to tackle Islamophobia. We have to tackle anti-Semitism. We have to tackle racism. But that is the government’s job to do, and that will help communities to come close together.”
“We hold the position that the government cannot force people to integrate. We have to allow people to integrate naturally and organically, and that will need time.” -- British imam

The government has made an effort to listen to Muslim advice. It has abolished several task forces made up of community leaders, experts, and Muslim members of parliament in order to broaden support for the new commission. And it has appointed Hazel Blears, the Home Office's deputy minister for crime reduction and counterterrorism, to lead it.

Nevertheless, some Muslim organizations still complain that they have not been consulted.

Ali Noorizade believes the government should talk to Muslim communities directly and find out why many are afraid of integration. “I think we have to look at the issues from a different angle," he said. "First of all, there must be more dialogue between the government with the real representatives of this society. I mean, why are they scared to integrate?”

Imam Mogra also stresses that the integration process has to be voluntary and cannot be enforced by government directives. “We hold the position that the government cannot force people to integrate," he said. "We have to allow people to integrate naturally and organically, and that will need time.”

Mogra said the MCB’s support for the government is not unlimited. He stresses that his organization will support the government in its efforts as long as it believes those efforts are beneficial to society -- “if people’s liberties, civil liberties, and the freedom of expression and of faith are not endangered in any way whatsoever."

Mogra added that the government should consult with several experienced interfaith organizations that have been working to promote the widening of intercommunity relations and better integration into society. The MCB is a member of the Interfaith Network U.K., which also includes Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and others. Mogra said the network has been very helpful.

Others say Muslim communities must participate in the integration process much more actively in order to promote the ideals of what it means to be a British citizen. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui is the leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain and the director of the Muslim Institute. He told RFE/RL that Muslim religious schools should play an important role in this “responsible citizenship education.”

“Of course, madrasahs need to teach a lot more than citizenship courses, and the whole curriculum of madrassahs needs to be steadied and broadened," he said. "There is no doubt about that.”

Siddiqui said he is not sure whether the government has made up its mind about what exactly it wants to achieve, or how it wants to go about it. But he said that when the opportunity arises, his organization will collaborate with the new commission.