I was eighteen years old and had recently finished my A-Levels. The tragic events of 7/7 had just happened. I was angry. Why would these people do this to their fellow citizens? What sort of belief motivated them? It certainly wasn’t mine or any of the Muslims I knew. But it suddenly dawned on me; there was nobody I could tell. I was born and had lived my whole life in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and yet I didn’t have relationships with anyone that was not like me in some way. I had no non-Muslim friends.
It wasn’t because I didn’t want these relationships. It wasn’t because I had avoided them. I had simply never had the opportunity. I had been to Islamic schools throughout my educational career thus far, and my mosque and community had provided me with all the social networks and support that I needed. I saw no reason for it being any other way. I was very wrong.
The reality is that many of our Muslim communities are in a similar position. Different communities have arrived and developed differently throughout the twentieth and twenty first century. But many (not all of course) have a similar trajectory. They work towards setting themselves up, eventually developing a centre, and providing the services their community needs. There is nothing wrong with this of course. But in doing so, they begin to isolate themselves from the rest of British society. In some ways, the larger and stronger the community, the more isolated it becomes. It begins to provide everything an individual member may need. Your teacher is a Muslim, your dentist is a Muslim, and your butcher is a Muslim.
The concept of community is fundamental to Muslim life, one that I am not attempting to challenge here. But there must be a way to avoid the isolation that comes with it. Some mosques have open weeks where they invite their neighbours and the public. Others engage in interfaith dialogue with other faiths and traditions. These initiatives are good, but they are, in my opinion, very limited. They begin building relationships on the fact that we are different, and do not really engage people’s interests or similarities. Instead, I have found a better answer: community organising.
In 1950s America a man named Saul Alinsky walked the slums of Chicago bringing different communities together and getting them to work on making their neighbourhoods better places. Seventy years later, the model now known as “community organising” has spread throughout the United States and beyond. It has become even more popular since the rise of a community organiser to the Presidency of the United States of America, Barack Obama. But how can community organising affect the Muslim communities in the UK now?
Community organising is about bringing different groups together and getting them to work on the common issues that affect them. It begins not by the fact that communities are different, but that they are similar; they are made up of citizens with common issues and problems that they need to deal with. It is through this process that meaningful relationships are built between the communities. If we think about it for a second, the real relationships we have with people who are not necessarily from our tradition usually come as a result of a shared experience. They are our classmates or work colleagues or people who we’ve had a common endeavour with. Community organising provides this shared experience. At the same time it does not undermine the identity of the individual community. It recognises it, respects it, and works to develop the capacity and leadership of individual communities to bring about change. A stronger community makes for a stronger alliance of communities.
If all this sounds a little bit abstract, then we merely need to look at the example of London Citizens, the largest alliance of communities in the country that uses the community organising model. It consists of over 140 communities in membership, working on issues of low-wages, safer streets, affordable housing, and the overall role of civil society in democratic governance. They allow communities to engage as citizens and bring about change to their neighbourhoods. Most importantly, they provide communities with the opportunity to engage with others and build meaningful relationships without losing their identity. It is time for Muslim communities to engage.