The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was created after three years of community consultation in the 1990s, with the encouragement of John Major’s Government.
It was modelled on the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Accordingly, its members are other organisations (“affiliates”) and not individuals.
For most of the 1997-2010 Labour Government, relations between the MCB and the Government were reasonably good, albeit with some spectacular fallings out. Apart from the occasional contacts with Liberal Democrat ministers mentioned on the MCB’s website, the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition and the subsequent Conservative Government have studiously ignored the MCB. In my view, this is a mistake.
About the MCB
The MCB claims about 500 affiliated organisations. Its transparency was never great (e.g: no accounts on its website) and at some stage the list of local, regional and national affiliates the MCB used to publish on its website has disappeared.
There is no other Muslim organisation remotely approaching it in coverage. During the periods of falling out, the Labour Government regularly tried to “big up” other Muslim organisations as replacements for dialogue, but the exercise was always risible.
As explained in my website’s 2011 article “The Muslim Council of Britain’s Need for Constitutional Reform”, effective control of the MCB has always been held by a small number of organisations who act together. That article did not discuss ideology, but the organisations I listed were broadly intellectual followers of either Abul A’la Maududi or Hassan al-Banna (respectively founders of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood.)
From the beginning, the MCB has been dominated by Muslims of South Asian and Arab ethnicity, with relatively little participation by other ethnic groups even though they represent a growing (though still minority) proportion of British Muslims.
The MCB’s achievements
Despite always being desperately under-resourced, the MCB can be proud of many things. I will list just a few.
In the early days of Islamic finance in the UK, technical specialists who were also closely involved with the MCB played a major part in helping the Government to understand Islamic finance and how to remove obstacles to it in the UK.
Perhaps its greatest single achievement was the inclusion of a question about religion in the 2001, and subsequently 2011, census. Accordingly, policymakers have a good handle on the number of Muslims in the UK. Equivalent data does not exist in countries such as the USA or France, where one must depend on surveys that often produce wildly different results, or use estimates from immigration and ethnicity.
More recently, the MCB’s Miqdaad Versi has done an outstanding job tackling patently inaccurate media reporting about Muslims, despite operating on a shoestring. Visit My Mosque Day has been running for several years and is the kind of initiative that would not happen without an umbrella body to coordinate it.
The MCB’s failings
As a close observer of the MCB, I believe its fundamental problem is that it spends its time following rather than leading British Muslims and impairs its effectiveness by trying to keep the entire spectrum of British Muslims happy.
For example, the MCB’s objectives, set out in Clause 2 of its Constitution and the way it describes itself on its “About” page, are domestically focused. That is what one would expect, and its leadership has in the past told me the MCB avoids foreign issues. However, that is selective.
Using Google to search the MCB website for the word “Israel” returned 274 results, many of them highly critical. Conversely, a search for “Taliban” had only 14 results. All were about refuting claims that British Muslims supported the Taliban or were neutral references in extracts of other material. I could not find a single unequivocal condemnation of the Taliban. Nor do I recall ever seeing one in any MCB material.
On many issues of great importance to British Muslims, the MCB has nothing to say. For example, searching found nothing about the problem of Muslim religious marriages and divorces. There are only four occurrences of “nikah” (a religious marriage contract), none of which mentions the growing problem of “nikah only” relationships with no civil marriage, or the problems Muslim women have getting religious divorces.
In my view, the MCB’s greatest failure has been its consistent determination to ignore or downplay the religious motivation of terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and of individual terrorists such as the 7/7 London bombers. It has consistently railed against the Prevent policy, but offered nothing useful to help address the problem of radicalisation – because, in my opinion, it is in denial about its reality.
The benefits of talking to the MCB
At present, apart from any “back channel” contacts that may or may not exist, the Government can only challenge the MCB on its failings via “megaphone diplomacy.” It really would be much better to do so face-to-face.
At the same time, the MCB is a meaningful conduit for the Government to learn about the views of its many affiliates. Also, the MCB does have some useful things to say, albeit interspersed with other things that are less useful. Ministers should quite capable of distinguishing between them.
Ignoring it does not help Government to achieve its own objectives. For example, just because the MCB is currently hopeless on radicalisation does not mean it cannot be encouraged to help in tackling the problem of Muslim religious marriages and divorces.
From June 2008 to June 2010, I was an elected member of the MCB’s Central Working Committee and chairman of the MCB’s Business and Economics Committee, placing me on the periphery of the dozen or so “wider leadership team” although not one of the key officers. Since then, our relationship has been friendly but relatively distant (I get invited to their annual Muslim Leadership Dinner in what I suspect is the last wave of invitations) and I donate £100 p.a. to the MCB Charitable Foundation.