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Azeem Ibrahim Headshot

Muslims and Government: Contrasting America and Britain

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In April, 2010 a New York Times article commented on President Obama's quiet approaches to the politically isolated Arab-American and Muslim communities. Without public fanfare, he has included Muslim leaders in policy discussions on a range of subjects including health care legislation, foreign policy, the economy, immigration and national security. These same leaders have said "they see no substantive changes on a variety of issues" but that they are "encouraged" by the extent of their consultation by the White House and other governmental agencies.

It is an unfortunate truth that in the post 9/11 era, Muslims in the U.S. have been seen as a political liability. This was demonstrated by the particularly crass action by Obama operatives at a rally, when they asked two Muslim women wearing headscarves to remove themselves from the TV camera line of sight. President Obama personally apologized to the women afterwards, but the incident was a telling commentary on perceptions at a time when public fear and ignorance were high.

Since then the administration's approach has been understated, and each publicly known outreach has resulted in orchestrated criticism from right-wing opinion-makers who complain that Obama is appeasing Islamists and extremists. White House appointments are scrutinized and criticized, including President Obama's appointment in February 2010 of Rashad Hussain as the United States Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Mr. Hussain has the full confidence of the administration, in spite of adverse opinion, and is noted for this rebuttal to his critics. "The president realizes that you cannot engage one-fourth of the world's population based on the erroneous beliefs of a fringe few," he said.

This low-key approach to relations between Muslims and the U.S. government is in marked contrast to the way Muslims are acknowledged in the UK by the British government. The British have been engaged for 30 years with Muslim communities and their growing engagement in civic and public life. The Muslim population has grown rapidly, 10 times faster than the rest of society, and by 2010, the total had risen to 2.8 million or four per cent of the British population. While both countries' perceptions are marred by a hostile press and reductionist, populist media, relations in the UK are much more mature and established than in the US.

Britain's Pakistani population, for example, increasingly educated and middle-class, is actively engaged in political life, with currently over 200 Pakistani local councilors representing the major political parties. In the 2010 election, the number of British Muslim members of the House of Commons was doubled with eight Muslims being elected. The most influential Muslim woman in British politics, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, also the Conservative Party chairperson, joined other Muslims in the House of Lords, such as Lord Ahmed, the most senior Labor peer and Baroness Kishwer Falkner, a Liberal Democrat.

New groups have recently been formed in Britain since the 9/11 attacks in response to the heightened security and counter-terrorism concerns that many feel discriminate against Muslims in Britain. The Muslim Parliament and the Muslim Council of Britain are two of the many organizations that actively represent Muslims in Britain, which include the Islamic Society of Britain, Young Muslims UK, British Muslim Forum, the Sufi Muslim Council and many others based on social, welfare, cultural, religious, women's and educational services and issues.

By contrast, since the 9/11 attacks, American Muslims have found themselves besieged by profiling, discrimination, negative media campaigns and hate crimes. American Muslims made history in the 2000 presidential election when they voted en bloc for George Bush, citing his outreach to the Muslim community. Since then, the seven-million-strong American Muslim community has adopted a more low key role in politics, changing allegiances to 27% Democrats, 25% Green party, 3% Republican and 44% saying that no party represents their interests. The American Muslim Political Coordination Council, an umbrella organization that includes four major groups in the U.S., has declared that civil rights are now its major concern and the single most important challenge for the American Muslim community.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, has made recommendations to the U.S. Congress and to the American Muslim community as a whole in its annual report about civil rights and combating bigotry. It is also offering training to improve civic engagement so an increased participation in local and national politics is to be hoped for.

Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota is the first African American elected to the House from Minnesota and also the first Muslim to be elected to the United States Congress. He is keynote speaker later this month at a conference hosted by Muslims for Progressive Values, to feature their program, Literary Zikr, which provides an alternative to the readily available fundamentalist interpretations that pervade the Internet. Literary Zikr will demonstrate, among other, things that Islamic values are consonant with values of liberty, freedom and democracy embraced by Americans. This is the sort of far-sighted program that will do much to counter the fear and ignorance that pervades public discourse, not only in the media but also in the U.S. Congress. Rep Peter King, a Republican from New York, has single-handedly done more than any other politician to damage Muslim-Western relations with his pointless and divisive hearings on Muslim extremism in the U.S.

It is a matter of grave disquiet that Congressman King, who has been a vocal supporter of the IRA in the past, should now have been invited to speak at a British parliamentary hearing on the roots of violent radicalization among British Muslims. It is a serious error of judgment on someone's part, and a distasteful departure from British standards of intellectual excellence and fair governance.

Let us hope that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic will heed the fundamentally British characteristics of equality, respect and fairness to prevail.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a fellow and member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.

More of Dr. Ibrahim's writings can be found here.