It’s lonely at the top so the saying goes, but as those working at the charity British Muslims for Secular Democracy know too well, it can be quite lonely- sometime even dangerous- in the middle too.
The charity formed in 2006 by Nasreen Rehman and Yasmin Alibhai Brown is not a theological group but raises awareness of secular democracy. Secular democracy refers to the separation of faith and state, so that the shared public space is ensured and no faith exerts an undue influence on politics. ‘Procedural secularism enables different voices to get a fair share of the public sphere without one getting more or more favourable attention. We hold that this is the best framework for Muslims and other faiths to get full religious freedom.‘ explains Director Tehmina Kazi, succinctly.
British Muslims for Secular Democracy brings together a diverse group of Muslim democrats from a variety of sects as well as ethnic and social backgrounds, with no judgement on their religiosity. Non Muslims are equally welcome as supporters. By raising awareness (amongst British Muslims and the wider public), of democracy, the charity contributes to this shared vision of citizenship and public space.
In addition to promoting civic engagement and democracy the British Muslims for Secular Democracy has contributed to the more theoretical debate about secularism. Whereas ideological secularism is best observed in France and Turkey, where we see for example headscarves as well as any symbol of religious identity banned in public places, the secularism promoted by BMSD is best described as procedural. In this model the state remains neutral; different faith groups and those of no faith have the same opportunity to express their voices in the public sphere.
‘We don’t endorse the hardline French type of secularism’ explains Director Tehmina Kazi, ‘but rather what is known as procedural secularism, which was highlighted in Cambridge University’s “Contextualising British Islam” report. This means that different religious and non religious groups have a voice and are accountable equally rather than one voice getting all the airtime. We encourage religious understanding and harmony, respect for different systems of beliefs, and encourage an understanding and celebration of the variety of Muslim cultures, values and traditions which are present in British society.’
To complicate matters, many anti- religionists as well as Islamophobes, (from both the left and the right) conflate secularism with atheism – which might make an organisation like British Muslims for Secular Democracy seem perplexing and contradictory. How can one have a faith identity whilst promoting secular democracy? What such hardline secularists fail to appreciate is that secularism is simply a separation of religion from the state. Secularism is not the same thing as atheism and a faith identity and secularism are not mutually exclusive. As Kazi, says, ‘You can be just as comfortable with your British identity and totally integrated at the same time.’
As such BMSD is a highly unique organisation; a Muslim group with no theological position, and a political group with no political agenda. Its neutrality backed by a faith identity marks it out as an anomaly amongst Muslim and wider faith movements. Equally it stands apart when compared to other political or civic engagement movements because it is a neutral actor but one with a faith identity.
In a complex and highly competitive environment the importance of dialogue and debate, of diversity of opinion and perspective, can easily be overlooked. Strengthening the democratic public space whilst combating those who would seek to dominate it, is undoubtedly a difficult enterprise in practice, and one which many who are rooted in ideology and agenda find not only untenable but inconceivable. Consequently there are those who have accused the charity as a nebulous organisation with vague aims.
The political landscape at all levels is marked by heavy factionalisation, resolutely held positions and often diametrically opposed visions of the ideal polity. Where BMSD stands and what it defends is a territory where all and any ideologies and sides- and crucially those of none- can share, coexist and even cooperate. Rather than stamping the public sphere with its own version of a zero- sum game, ‘those who are not with us are against us’, British Muslims for Secular Democracy promotes the better alternative of a win- win game, where and when all voices contribute to the polity.
This is vital because it not only ensures a diverse package of resources for tackling issues and meeting challenges, but because it ensures that the polity is invigorated and reinvigorated by that diversity. It addition to preventing any variety of extreme of sectarian monopolies, secular democracy prevents democratic stagnation and is a useful antidote to the democratic deficit.
As for accusations that its work is therefore vague, the body of evidence of its endeavours to promote secular democracy is wide ranging, multidimensional and impressive.
The core of the charity’s work focuses on publicising the benefits of living in a democracy and how British Muslims can become more successful democratic actors.
The extent of discrimination against Muslims in the public sphere and mainstream media is a significant obstacle to the participation of Muslims in politics. Such hurdles are by no means subjective but proven by a range of research endeavours which have for instance analysed press coverage of Muslims, and found that 95% of coverage relating to Muslims in any given week was negative. Kazi explains that hindering many Muslims from becoming outspoken and active is ‘ …they fear that they will be misrepresented. They worry that the media’s Islamophobic agenda will mean that any views from Muslims will be heavily edited.’ BMSD has also submitted contributions to the Levinson Inquiry concerning the widespread and discriminatory practices relating to Muslims by the media.
The work of British Muslims for Secular Democracy in tackling Islamophobia has been stellar and multidisciplinary. Tehmina Kazi is on the advisory board for the Tell MAMA project, which records anti Muslim hate crime incidents. The first of its kind, people can email, post to Facebook as well as chat live with counsellors from anywhere in the country, and the initiative has been widely taken up. Kazi is also a trustee of Hope Not Hate which mobilises against the politics of hate. It widely references and publicises human rights and the rule of law not only because it is morally preferable to violation, but because it is more effective. As Kazi explains, ‘Equality and human rights legislation is the best safeguard for freedom of religion and this is already evident in such things as prayer rooms in schools, halal food in prisons. And if our freedoms are violated we have recourse.’ By engaging with marginalised Muslim communities, BMSD helps to identify root causes of deprivation and social exclusion, and empower these communities to work towards a solution.
If challenging the establishment and the normalisation of Islamophobia was not daunting enough, British Muslims for Secular Democracy also has to challenge not dissimilar barriers within the Muslim community itself. That fear of Islamophobia hinders many Muslims from engaging in their community let alone the wider political sphere, but is equally matched by a more subjective fear of what their community will say. ‘This is especially true if Muslims speak up about controversial issues, they fear they will be isolated’ admits Kazi. To help Muslims develop democratic confidence, across London, BMSD has delivered democracy and citizenship workshops in Muslim communities, deprived neighbourhoods and for asylum seekers and new immigrants.
BMSD also responds to key issues in the Muslim community with similarly practical endeavours. The publication of the BMSD booklet, ‘Advice For Schools. Brief Guidance for Handling Muslim Parental Concern’ is useful, applied knowledge for educators and parents alike in on how to negotiate and accommodate faith identity and needs in schools whilst ensuring that students are protected and enriched by their education.
That publication was not however universally welcomed. Ummah Pulse accused BMSD of attempting ‘to break the sacred bond that parents have with their children.’ Research into the cross community issue of Forced Marriage was met with characteristic silence and denial, which did not stop the charity from continuing to campaign against the practice and set up a new initiative on it. The charity also equipped young people with the skills to make a documentary film to bust a few myths about Muslim women, the hijab, their rights and choices. In line with its defence of a shared public sphere, BMSD has actively pushed for the Arbitration Bill, highlighting the misogynistic practices of some Sharia councils.
A more recent and far more disconcerting example of the courage with which the charity is willing to defend the public sphere concerns the case of Dr. Usama Hasan. Dr. Hasan, a scientist and imam in East London, wrote, to the astonishment of his congregation and wider community, that he believed Muslim women were allowed to uncover their hair in public and that Islam and evolution were compatible. For that he was ousted from his position at the Mosque and subjected to death threats. British Muslims for Secular Democracy not only defended Dr. Hasan’s right to free speech but promoted the importance of such critical debate even on challenging topics. For those efforts, Director Tehmina Kazi received threats of her own.
Such events highlight the charity’s other key endeavour, to combat extremism and defend those who may be at risk of any number of forms of extremism. As witnessed in the case of Dr. Hasan, extremists seek to dominate the polity with their singular ends and silence opposition through intimidation and violence. To this end BMSD has held a number of counter demonstrations in coalition with other organisations, against Al Mujahiroun, (later transformed into Islam4UK) who call for the Islamicisation of the United Kingdom. A similar coalition between BMSD and other religious and non-religious groups planned a counter protest against the Muslims Against Crusades’ plans to burn poppies on Remembrance Day in 2011. Such public activities were simultaneously a statement that those who seek to undermine the values of democracy will find themselves robustly challenged, as well as a statement of unity, that those with diverse social and religious backgrounds can share and benefit from the values of a liberal state, equality and religious freedom.
The Dr. Hasan incident in particular reflects the commitment to and understanding of, how crucial it is to challenge sectarian attitudes, regardless of from where they originate. Even amongst themselves, organisations like BMSD do not necessarily agree with one another on everything. Their solidarity with those who face persecution by extremists is not however conditional upon acceptance of a certain political or religious line.
The courage and willingness to challenge injustices perpetrated against the Muslim community as well as hardline Muslim conservatives has often led to a backlash from the community. But extremist politics oftentimes lead to strange bedfellows. Leftist liberalist organisations have found common ground oddly enough with hardline conservative Islamic groups. In a complex interplay, they have the shared objective to bash the right wing which they view as the fight against imperialism. These expedient alliances are equally quick to attack anyone who disagrees, and in their warped logic, progressive groups such as British Muslims for Secular Democracy come under fire. Hence, such fronts, whilst confronting the extreme right wing ‘…simultaneously try to disempower Muslim activists like myself.’ describes Kazi, ‘I have received a lot of flack from vicious bloggers, and had spiteful, vengeful comments posted on Facebook’
The rampant and deep seated misogyny in politics of all colours has also been exposed by the efforts of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Efforts from the far left, extreme liberalists and from hardline Islamic groups have tried to silence Kazi and degrade her arguments by focusing on her gender. ‘I have been accused of being a sell-out, and some people have said I can’t represent Muslims because I don’t wear hijab’ says Kazi, ’The trustees have had criticism and there has been much speculation on what I wear, including (false) assertions that I must wear short skirts!’ On all fronts, the concept of a feminist Muslims is an oxymoron or antithetical.
The thoroughly reasoned approach and an inclusive, and highly diverse organisation, has been at times ruthlessly criticised by both the far right and the far left, by non Muslim Islamophobes and Muslims alike. At times the charity finds itself in a double bind, pincered between factions, at once backlashed by the Muslim community as well as from liberalists, isolated between factions within factions. Danish journalist Nancy Graham Holm, called BMSD and its cohorts, who can be found throughout the globe, ‘lonely progressive Muslims’ describing them as trapped between multiple political fronts, with the unenviable task of defending the polity so that all can participate.
Though still a young charity, director, Tehmina Kazi has raised the profile of British Muslims for Secular Democracy whilst informing and contributing to the debate on a range of topics. A popular speaker, she has been a guest on CNN, Channel 4’s 4ThoughtTV, and BBC Radio 4, among others. Her speaking engagements have included the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society and the Women of the World Festival. Kazi’s articles and commentary are published in many outlets including The Guardian. Her reputation for calm delivery and thorough analysis has also seen her submit evidence and consultations to key pieces of legislation. The efforts of Kazi and British Muslims for Secular Democracy are finding resonance and even admiration and accolades from a diverse cross section of organisations. In 2011 Cosmopolitan Magazine shortlisted Kazi for the “Ultimate Women of the Year Awards” 2011, in the “Campaigner” category. And last June she was the Winner of the Syeda Fatima Award for Tolerance from the International Imam Hussein Council, a Shia organisation. In September 2012, Manwar Ali of JIMAS affirmed his support of secular democracy. This year the efforts of British Muslims for Secular Democracy have been realised in the shortlisting of BMSD for the Secularist of the Year Award, a nomination it shares alongside such notables as the Dalai Lama.
The recognition and resonance reflects British Muslims for Secular Democracy’s unique capacity to cut across factions and co opt a range of viewpoints and identities. It also reflects the range of its work and capacity to engage with local communities and international spheres, working with grassroots organisations as well as the political elite, debating even as it contributes to more abstract theory. This deftness is essential explains Kazi, ‘to support a balanced voice in the middle, that calls for toleration on all fronts and the courage to tackle injustice in our communities as well as further afield.’ To promote civic engagement and the value of democracy requires responsiveness not only to the changing needs and pressures of British Muslims but a dynamic political landscape.
Its future may at times be lonely and a fine balancing act, but with plans for continued grassroots activism, new debates, introducing new methods of civic engagement, and ongoing efforts to showcase Muslim culture in the UK today and confront intolerance and extremism, British Muslims for Secular Democracy are assured of a lively and wide ranging influence. At the heart of its work, facilitating discourse and raising awareness of democracy reflects not only the charity’s belief and vision, but the reality that individuals can effect change; that empowered people, regardless of faith or political affiliation, can be a force for good.