UK: This system of self-appointed leaders can hurt those it should be protecting

The Guardian
It is in all our interests to challenge those who wrongly claim to be speaking for Britain's minority communities.
Thirty years to the month after the Race Relations Act of 1976 was passed, it is time we rethink our approach to race and faith relations in Britain.
The national debate has become so poisonous that space for a saner dialogue is needed. We are told that our society is becoming more more segregated, and that riots are more imminent with every controversy. But take a look at the statistics and things are not so bad.

This is not to say that there are no problems - it is obvious that there are many. But to confront these and have an honest debate we need to re-examine how discussions around these issues are framed and who gets involved.

One of the main barriers to an open discussion is the system of representation. When the first generation of African-Caribbean and Asian migrants came to this country, politicians did not make much effort to engage them or understand their concerns. In recent years, as the numbers have grown and socio-economic issues have come to the fore, politicians have changed tack. Rather than engaging with these communities locally and constructively, they want so-called community leaders to do the job for them.

During the past decade, a group of self-appointed representatives has sprung up, including the Hindu Council UK and Hindu Forum of Britain; the Network of Sikh Organisations, the Sikh Federation and Sikh Human Rights Group; and the Muslim Council of Britain and Muslim Association of Britain, all claiming to speak on behalf of all Hindu, Sikh and Muslim citizens.

Of these, the MCB is the oldest, having been set up in 1997. In contrast, most Sikh and Hindu organisations have sprung up in the past two or three years, jealous of the attention showered on the MCB. But this system is getting out of control.

For a start, there are problems specific to the structure of these organisations. They tend to reflect a narrow range of predominantly conservative opinion. They generally ignore non-religious, liberal or progressive opinions and yet claim to represent everyone of their particular faith. Any criticism, from the outside or within, is portrayed as an attack on the religion itself, making it more difficult to hold the groups to account. Worse, they largely consist of first-generation, middle-aged men who are out of touch with second- and third-generation Britons.

In a broader context, we need to ask why we still need these self-appointed representatives. Who gave them prominence? Step forward the Labour government - though the Tories had signalled a move in this direction before Blair came to power. Even in 2006 the new generation of Britons are perceived as outsiders who need their interests represented differently. The government does not want to hear mixed messages. It wants to pretend minorities are homogeneous groups who think along the same lines. It works with those groups that tell them what they want to hear. This allows politicians to pass the burden of responsibility on to these representatives and treat minorities as outsiders. Have a problem with crime? Forget the police, get the "community leaders" on television to declare everything is under control. Have a problem with terrorism? Deny the intelligence chief's suggestion that foreign policy is exacerbating the problem and tell the community leaders to sort it out.

Home secretaries from Jack Straw and David Blunkett to John Reid have sought to politicise problems of segregation, criminal behaviour and poverty into issues that are only about race and religion. Whole communities are blamed for keeping themselves separate, without local housing schemes or "white flight" being taken into account. Politicians prefer to hold a debate on the veil rather than sort out public services.

This whole system distorts the national debate. The politicians say something alarmist and absurd; the appointed community leaders react defensively. Speeches, interviews or television debates are then constructed around polarised positions. The media love putting together a shouting match. Not realising this, these representatives are set up as fall guys by politicians and the media who use them for their own objectives.

We need to go back to the basics and take a clear stance against prejudice. The struggle by ethnic minorities who migrated to this country was always for equality - to be accepted, treated according to merit and to see an end to discrimination. As times have changed, so has the nature of racism and prejudice. In setting out a forward-looking agenda we should not accept any inconsistency. It must be rejected in all forms by everyone - majority and minority groups.

Therefore it cannot go unnoticed that the Indian politician Narendra Modi, whose critics dub him "the butcher of Gujarat" and claim he was complicit in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in India, has been invited to this country twice. It cannot go unnoticed that British mosques have played host to imams who have previously justified attacks on Hindus, Christians, homosexuals and others; nor that many Sikh organisations are populated with members of previously proscribed terrorist groups such as the International Sikh Youth Federation.

This is why we need to set a different agenda to develop community cohesion. Today, a group from different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences is launching a manifesto on the Guardian's Comment is Free website for a new approach to community relations and representation. On other issues we disagree, but we are united in our desire to see an end to the political arrangement with self-appointed community leaders because it hurts those it is supposed to protect.

At the same time, we must reject the constant demonisation of British Muslims that has become the new acceptable face of racism. Recent weeks have seen the Sun newspaper blame Muslim youths for acts of vandalism that the police denied were their fault; the reporting of "race riots" in Windsor when what occurred was an attack on a Muslim-owned dairy by white youths; and many more non-stories blown up into front-page headlines purely because they involved Muslims.

All this serves only to drive liberal Muslims into the arms of the community leaders who claim to voice their fears. It is a choice between a rock and a hard place that does not help the silent majority.

There needs to be a new way forward that ignores the rabble-rousers and scare-mongers. We believe a new progressive agenda on citizenship, democracy, public debate and civil liberties is possible, but it needs others to debate and engage with us.

Sunny Hundal
Monday November 20 2006, The Guardian