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Beyond Inter-faith: the case for Muslim civil society to organise

by Saidul Haque Saeed, Lead Organiser for West Midlands at Citizens UK (22/05/2020)

Assalamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullah

We have arrived at the last days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, spent by many at home under lockdown as a deadly virus continues to spread across the UK. This unprecedented test has seen Muslim communities amongst some of the first Britons to rise to the challenge of responding to the hardships affecting fellow citizens in our towns and cities. Whilst Mosques and community centres remain shut to collective worship and gathering, local leaders formed teams of volunteers delivering food parcels, benefits advice, befriending support and counselling within the rules.

This amazing act of generosity by Muslim civil society continued in strength despite the immediate onslaught of fake-news and click-bait headlines by some journalists, politicians and public figures trying to single out Mosques and the community as ‘super-spreaders’ of the disease.

The Prophetic instructions to meet the rights of neighbours & those in need as well as strive for the common good were powerfully evident as Muslims were the first clinicians on the frontline to die to the virus. And from the unwavering commitment of key workers and local volunteers (most fasting from dawn to sunset) amidst the alarming rates of Covid-19 deaths affecting the BAME population.

These last 2 months have had a toll on particularly Mosques and Muslim-led community organisations as they’ve seen a drop in regular income, had to go digital overnight and are the least likely to be recipients of grant funding. Many are in some of our most economically disadvantaged Wards, so the need for their services has gone up as people are laid off work facing huge stress with no outlet to make sense of it all in person. All whilst the online hate has remained rampant.

Your options

So, if you are in Muslim civil society leadership, where do you turn for support and solidarity in your town and city?

You probably have three options:

  • Stay with your own – remain steadfast within your own community and only reach out in responding to public agencies such as the local council, police and NHS as needs must.
  • Whilst you continue to deliver services, stay connected to your local inter-faith network where a designated person(s) from your organisation represents your community in promoting Islam to other faiths.
  • Organise – build deep broad-based relationships with other civil society leaders (faith, education, union, charity, enterprise) as tested by (a) how you act together on what matters to your communities and (b) how your institutions measurably benefit from growth and leadership development.

Most do (1) and some do (1) + (2), here I am going to talk about those who do (3) - officially termed broad based community organising.

This is what broad based organising looks like:

At Citizens UK, Birmingham we are proud to have KSIMC Birmingham (Clifton Rd Mosque), Huda Masjid & Community Centre, Masjid Al-Farouq (Walsall) and EuroSom Community Midlands (a Horn of Africa diaspora organisation) in our top leadership group representing a diverse mix of local Muslim communities. They are joined in membership by highly rated community organisations who serve neighbourhoods with significant numbers of Muslim households: Aspire and Succeed (in Lozells) & Saathi House (in Aston).

A snapshot of action

Between them they’ve teamed up with other civil society institutions across Birmingham to:

  • persuade city health bosses to offer 16- and 17-year olds access to specialist mental health treatment (credit to powerful testimony & leadership by Newman University student: Sophina Khan in 2013);
  • build the real living wage campaign persuading top employers in the region to pay it (credit to powerful testimony & leadership by Abdinasir Ahmed of EuroSom Community to launch it in 2014);
  • resettle Syrian refugee families from UN camps to Birmingham in 2015 (thanks in part to Shale Ahmed of Aspire & Succeed for securing a housing provider pledge and press work);
  • pilot termly housing surgeries within primary schools in the St George’s estate in Newtown (thanks in part to the moving stories of families from Huda Masjid & Community Centre);
  • persuade the Mayor of West Midlands to launch half-price travel for students/trainees in 2017 (credit to powerful testimonies from young leaders from Aspire & Succeed);
  • celebrate news of the Commonwealth Games coming to the city launching a set of Citizens Guarantees which included homes for families and better after-school provision in neighbourhoods (credit to many testimonies including that of Chair of Youth Committee at Huda Masjid, Zeynab Ismail);
  • hosted big community iftars in South Birmingham where people may have fewer Muslim neighbours and a visit by the Law Commission on Hate-Crime to hear moving testimonies like that from Sheikh Nuru Mohammed of Clifton Rd Mosque; and
  • in 2020, months ahead of the lockdown, Clifton Rd Mosque and our newest member mosque, Masjid Al-Farouq completed their respective applications to sponsor a refugee family to their neighbourhoods.

The above itinerary is a snapshot of when Muslim civil society in Birmingham with other communities of faith and secular backgrounds won tangible change (some big, some small) on youth mental health, low pay, housing, refugee welcome, hate-crime and cost of transport. Together building the power of organised communities to be ‘at the table not on the menu’.

None of these wins would have been possible if Muslim leaders acted on their own or if they relied wholly on public agencies to do the ‘right thing’. The cost, capacity and logistics needed to persevere would have deterred many. But with the organising of people and money by a membership alliance of diverse institutions rooted in communities it was altogether possible.

Slow respectful work

Behind all of this public action is the slow respectful work of strengthening Muslim civil society from within by constantly training leaders, building experienced teams and returning our Mosques/community groups as the hub for justice and change as much as a place of worship/service delivery. We call this ‘Institutional Development’ in organising, and we aim to spend as much time to this as we do on campaigns – that’s why we seldom make it to repeat city summits and conferences.

What this looks like in practice is as follows.

1. A focus on Youth and Women leadership.

Not only do people in our member Mosques and community groups get to participate in accredited leadership training by Newman University, we also deliver in-house training workshops be it madrasah students, committee members and worshipers at a Mosque or project staff and service users at an organisation.

See examples here: 1 , 2 , 3 .

2. Business support and capacity building.

For several years we’ve teamed up with the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (at Aston University Business School) to offer access to secure funding and opportunities, with tutorials and direct support.

See examples here: 1 , 2 , 3 .

3. Neighbourhood Action.

There are often priorities arise unique to the locality of a member Mosque/community group which require neighbourhood organising and support to carry out local campaigns.

See examples here: 1 , 2 , 3 .

Your invitation

In June 2014, as national press & media gathered in the city awaiting the publishing of the first ‘Trojan Horse’ report, a group of Muslim leaders with Citizens UK gathered to tell a different powerful story with clear asks on BBC Breakfast that same morning – see clip here .

Organising is the point beyond normal inter-faith networking. It’s about Action, Leadership and Change. It’s the moment when you turn protest and lone activism to broad based power. It’s when you realise it is possible to remain independent from party politics to win change and forge your own middle way for public life, as other communities are doing the same alongside you.

The objective for all Muslims in Ramadan is to develop ‘God Consciousness’ through fasting, worship, charity and reflection. For the first time ever, we’ve had to do this without being together in Mosques and in our community projects. The ‘New Normal’ as a result of Covid-19 is asking Muslim civil society to step up and fulfil the ‘Amanah’ (trust) placed on leaders to effectively act, as the biggest recession we’ve known hits communities bringing terrible hardships.

That’s why, with the spiritual training undergone on completion of the Holy of month of Ramadan, we invite you to try option (3) and organise! Please email me at with your thoughts and interests; and I will share how you can get involved in broad-based community organising as outlined in this article.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Posted on 22 May, 2020