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Community Leaders

Time to Democratise our "Leaders"

Walk into any local Labour Party branch meeting, in any one of the many densely populated Pakistani constituency wards of England and you’ll realise something breathtakingly afoot.

An overcrowded room; almost entirely male-dominated with the usual suspects; a few unrecognised white faces exuding a sense of self-importance; an unequal mix of young and old with the latter in ascendancy; - all flocking together like cattle and following each other around sheepishly trying to work out where to sit. 

So, what is afoot here, you may retort?

Well, armed with a good pair of roving eyes and an eager beaver set of ears you’ll discover that those who percolate the seats and there is a fair few of them speak little or no English. We’re not kidding either when we say that they are probably the majority of those in attendance. This can’t be true for the younger contingency, surely not? Yup, with their nonchalant facial expressions and their indifference to the procedures underway, it is absolutely the case that they have been simply dragged to the occasion and understand very little English. Upon closer scrutiny and the odd probing in the ethnic vernacular, this contingency of attendees perhaps aged between 20 and 25 reveal themselves as recent arrivals to the UK.

OK, so who cares its local democracy in action, right? You’ll be wrong on that point too. Once the proceedings get underway in earnest, the entire exercise in democracy degenerates visually and almost effortlessly into a cultural gathering reminiscent of the typical Pashtun ‘jurga-council’, proverbially tucked away from the rest of us through that most ephemeral of British quirks, ‘sensitivity for Britain’s protected minority cultures’!

As for the ‘facilitators’ (or the branch committee members) they are only too happy for this shoddy display of local democracy to take place. Are we being a tad unfair perhaps to these bastions of democracy? Absolutely not. To the triumphant claps and cheers that ordinarily accompany the successful concluding of local party business, our facilitators, mostly white middle aged men and their appointed surrogates from the Pakistani community; these obsequious few incidentally speak perfect conversational English with perhaps a hint of a foreign accent and are all too happy that their constituents have been empowered. Of course it’s a farce and some could cynically argue, as we evidently do, that far from its obvious failings there is an obvious rationale for this entente cordial, it inevitably predisposes certain interests to guaranteed positions which otherwise would require some clever politicking. 

So where are the young professionals? By this we mean those young, upwardly mobile Britons of Pahari (Hilltonian) descent that have graced many a university library in the pursuit of respectable careers that hopefully have given them transferable skillsets. Their absence however goes unnoticed and is an intriguing facet of this whole affair. Mindful of the fact that they actually exist and are sufficiently concerned about the problems that go unaddressed within their communities; it is an abiding truth that they have been disenfranchised by their less able counterparts from their own communities who feel threatened by their presence within the local labour party. The gatekeepers to these local branches have been more than complicit in keeping them out, after all an articulate, well-spoken educated ‘Pakistani’ (as we have been ethnically categorised) is more of a threat to such narrow self-servile interests than the ‘established community leaders’ who are more than happy to offer a nod and a wink in support of their generous political benefactors. 

Okay you may ask does it really matter. You might not be wrong in your sensibilities. Most Britons have given up on politics or at least a certain type of politics that overwhelmingly draws its inspiration from the political parties, with the same old political mantras and the same old broken promises. With recent revelations of MP expense scandals and their impotence to deal with greedy bankers and voyeuristic journalists, who could blame you… right? You would however be sorely misguided if you thought it didn’t matter.

Our communities are part of a much wider trajectory that affects everyone in the UK irrespective of ethnic or religious background. The state of the economy, the quality of state education and health care, welfare provision, crime, immigration... etc., etc., obviously affect us all. There are of course more parochial problems with which come cultural sensitivities that most mainstream politicians have been unable to deal with for a host of reasons. Putting aside unfamiliarity with the underlying dynamics that shape our communities (a breech that many pseudo-experts have been more than happy to fill), there has been an unhealthy tendency to shy away from such problems for fear of being branded racist. 

It is not a figment of anyone’s imagination that domestic violence, honour-based crimes, child abuse in Mosques and Community Centres, radicalisation of impressionable youth, increasing criminality within certain sectors, structural gender imbalances among other issues actually exist within our communities. These realities are not defining characteristics of our community by any stretch of the imagination and do not define the ‘values’ to which each of us subscribes individually. They do however exist and anyone who argues otherwise is either ignorant or simply delusional. The actual extent of these problems, their various causes and remedies outside the journalistic dribble of sensationalised stories and BNP rhetoric are discussions that can be had but their blanket denial cannot be entertained. There are of course more mundane matters of litter, antisocial behaviour, planning applications, waste disposal, community lighting, and disputes with your local Council and so on and so forth.

And so who do we turn to in such matters - our elected Representatives right?  And so if you happen to live in a constituency ward that has a large Pahari-Mirpuri demographic presence, it’s likely (but not necessarily) that your representative particularly at councillor level is going to be a Pakistani, and possibly a non Pahari-Mirpuri. If he or she isn’t from that background, it’s no big deal, as long as your elected representatives are keen, willing and able to represent your concerns, you have been empowered democratically. If you feel that they’ve failed your constituency, you exercise your grievance at the next available election where you give them the boot! Ethnic tokenism however exists and it would be a mistake to make light of this as we are now learning to our own cost. The dynamics of this reality are seldom linked with the principles of democracy and community empowerment. The ultimate losers are members of our own community.

Political parties depend on reliable vote-banks in demographic enclaves for the electoral success of both their local and parliamentary parties.  For the traditional custodian of immigrant rights (albeit perceived), this has meant that the Labour Party relies on the ethnic vote or the vote of ethnic minorities within these demographic enclaves, right? And so the local labour party recruits from your community and if we were betting people, we would hedge our bets on the claim that your local representatives selected by the party for the post of Councillor and elected in safe-seats (the majority becoming smaller) were probably drawn from a willing pool of ‘community leaders’. Of course they are designated as such given their connections with that most outward of community platforms, the local mosque or community centre. These centres are male dominated institutions run by individuals who probably couldn’t spell the word ‘democracy’.

Do you think it still doesn’t matter? Well if you judge the vibrancy of your community issues on how well managed your Mosque or Community Centre is then we have no doubt that you would be appalled by the associated leadership in your community. And yet the same people who are mismanaging your community centres are being elected time after time to public offices with a lamentable track-record in governance issues.

Are we being a tad unfair here? Ok, let’s look at just one problem that has become a characteristic feature of after-school classes in Mosques and community centres. Our community leaders or elders as they are known manage these spaces and should theoretically be directly responsible for whatever goes on within such classes. The buck ultimately falls with them, you would no doubt agree?

Child abuse is a very serious problem within our Mosques. If you don’t accept this fact then there’s not a lot we can say to convince you. Your probably one of those guys who believes 7/7 or 9/11 was a conspiracy? In any case, when cases come to light, the perpetrators are quickly moved on to assume the mantle of religious guidance in a different Mosque up the road or in a neighbouring town. The victims are either accused of being delusional or their parents are accused of having dubious morals to the extent of unfairly maligning the ‘integrity’ of the local Mullah. After all what does a 6 year old child know, right? Kiddy-fondling can be interpreted in all sorts of ways and the Mullah, in this instance, was merely showing his affection to the child, wrongly interpreted by her irreligious parents as sexual abuse! And to those whom we entrust the welfare of our children, our community leaders, how do they respond? They visit the victims in their homes and impress upon them the need to hush up, after all too much is at stake here, not least the honour of the 6 year old girl! No one is going to marry her if it subsequently emerges that she has been tainted! There are of course Pakistanis who still think this way and rather than challenge an absurd world-view, our community leaders profit from it to save their own ‘reputations’, ostensibly to protect the reputation of the Mosque. Their altruistic interventions are merely to preserve the honour of ‘Islam’!!! We kid you not, there are deluded people who buy into this rhetoric.

Do you still think it doesn’t matter? Ask yourselves why in most Mosques and community centres, where Mullahs teach your children the rudiments of your faith, that there are no child safeguarding policies? Hardly any of the teachers have been CRB vetted, have you wondered why? These are spaces managed by men and where the overwhelming majority of Trustees are also men with deeply ingrained patriarchal values. They are not very educated and the rationale for such policies is beyond their comprehension. Equality legislation does not apply here despite these organisations receiving hundreds of millions of pounds every year from the taxpayer. Why else are they registered as community centres and yet they offer little benefit to the community other than providing a sanctuary for religious worshippers? And yet they receive funding from local authorities whilst excluding women from their midst, almost 50 per cent of their own communities if not more. Of course they offer services and women-directed provision such as sewing classes and cooking courses, hardly revolutionary stuff but essentially provision that meets their own expectations of the roles deemed proper for women. Some are more creative and offer ESOL classes but crucially the aim of such provision is to maintain a steady stream of revenue that can be used for the upkeep of the Mosque. There are countless cases of child abuse where the perpetrators continue to teach in Mosques and community centres the full length and breadth of this country. The community leaders have been actively complicit in making these ‘cases’ disappear. Rarely will they contact law-enforcement agencies even when prompted by others. There ‘values’ are not our ‘values’, but the values of a people whose mind-sets belong to an age that has long passed us. Child abuse cases are not priorities for them. And yet because they run Mosques and community centres, they are initiated into the ranks of a political class that seeks guaranteed vote-banks. In effect they inoculate our communities from the transformative change that is so badly needed for the status quo remains in their favour. They and their ilk are happy with the ways things are.

We would surmise that roughly 80 per cent of Mosques within the wider Muslim community cater for about 20 per cent of their congregants, and that’s restricted to those who are even allowed access. We haven’t even factored in nepotism, corruption and other social ills that our communities constantly bemoan.  We’re not even looking at the type of rote education our children receive, all lined up, back to back like baby-chickens reading verses from the Qur’an in unintelligible Arabic. Literally, these scenes are reminiscent of a medieval pedagogy.

Even according to their own religious standards, they fail ironically. Reading verses from the Qur’an requires a certain devotional etiquette; it demands initiation in the discipline of ‘Tajweed’ (a religiously mandated discipline that teaches the art of Quranic recitation). How many are even aware of this discipline, despite having in their midst numerous practitioners? What about these enormous class sizes? What about this new fad where our children are draped in Saudi attire now, a kind of uniform for Mosque attendance. These types of dress codes have nothing to do with Islamic pedagogy but the obsession of ignorant people keen on imitating those they deem proper Muslims. When has hijab ever been a religious duty for non-pubescent girls especially when we are told that the hijab protects women from the prying eyes of men?  And now we have Mosques demanding little girls attend their classes draped in black burkas. According to their own precepts, when have little girls been sexualised in this way? This has absolutely nothing to do with Islam. 

The point in mentioning these realities is to hit home the pervasive truth that we have some of the worst people leading our communities politically. Drawn from the circles of Mosques and community centres, they are unable to provide effective leadership within their own institutions and yet political parties find it expedient to offer them wider platforms. Not only do they fail miserably in representing their constituents, who otherwise could benefit immeasurably from such political input but they inoculate our communities from real ‘change’.

For a related articles on grassroots democracy read "Community Power & Grassroots Democracy, the transformation of social life, edited by Michael Kaufman & Haroldo Dilla Alfonso": please click on the 'Download PDF' button to read the entire book.

Individual views espoused in this article/paper do not necessarily reflect the views of the Portmir Foundation and have been included to represent the variety of different opinions that may exist on a single issue. In accordance with our democratic charter, the Portmir Foundation values debate in a spirit of mutual tolerance and understanding, even when such views contradict those of the Foundation. 

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