I fear we protest too much, self-centred as we are. In the wake of Parliament’s vote to permit military action in Syria, BBC Question Time invited Maajid Nawaz to join the panel along with Nicky Morgan, Diane Abbott, Caroline Lucas and Jill Kirby. The inclusion of Mister Nawaz prompted immediate consternation online: “Couldn’t the BBC find another Muslim voice?” protested one of our many vocal activists.
I instantly wondered what it must be like to be a Sikh or Hindu living in Britain today, or to be of Chinese or East European heritage. Where are their voices in the clamour for representation?
Over the past year and beyond, Question Time has featured numerous Muslim contributors on its panels. Two weeks ago, for the second time this year, the journalist and commentator Medhi Hassan sat on the panel. Other Muslim voices over the past year have included the politicians Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and Humza Yousaf. Others of Muslim heritage, who do not actively subscribe to religion in their personal lives have also contributed to the programme.
Now the contributors may not be our kind of Muslim — whatever that means — but individuals of Muslim heritage appearing in 25% of all episodes or making up 5% of all panellists is pretty good representation for a group (if we insist on identifying people purely by religion) that makes up just 4.5% of the UK population. By contrast, there are many other minority groups under-represented and consistently absent in the make-up of Question Time panels.
There is of course a hierarchy of people we really do not like representing us — the likes of Maajid Nawaz, Anjem Choudary and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown most frequently lamented — but the daily reading of the morose Muslim presence on Social Media reveals constant dissatisfaction with any kind of representation. No matter who speaks up, others will be quick to point out that they are the wrong kind of Muslim, or that they do not represent the mainstream, or that they are excluding other voices. Each of us demands that only our voice or interpretation or narrow sectarian viewpoint or political perspective deserves attention, and everything else is condemned.
We protest an awful lot for a community so divided. The truth of the matter is that we each represent ourselves. Religion plays an important part in some of our identities; for others ethnicity, class or political affiliation is more important, or not important at all. For some a love of baking, motherhood, football or mountain climbing is the overarching marker of social belonging. And even for the self-described religious, various sectarian affiliations or philosophical leanings take precedence over a simplistic unified whole.
One of the beauties of maintaining an unpopular blog, rarely read, is that it enables one to represent not the world or a whole religion or community, but personal thoughts, beliefs and sentiments. Within our community are those — of all sorts of persuasions — quick to judge others as heretics and write off their contributions without even first investigating their ideas. We do enjoy to listen to yes men, who reflect our own prejudices and views precisely. We’re not so keen on voices which challenge us and nudge us out of our comfort zones.
In my frequent forays online amongst Muslim activists, both political and apolitical, Traditionalist and Salafi, I frequently regret that I find I have little in common with my compatriots in faith. Perhaps I am too much a cynic, or reside too much on the periphery, to ever see the world through populist eyes. But that’s absolutely fine; it’s as it should be. Blind group think will lead us to disaster.
Bemoan the inclusion of an opposing voice if you must. Bewail those who do not represent you. Weep in sorrow at the amplification of extremist voices on the Left and Right. Petition those who seek to silence the voice of reason, or the voice of puritanical zeal, or of presumed orthodoxy. Protests as much as your like.
Just know that the only person who can truly represent you is you. So speak if you must.