In September 2015, I was invited to chair the Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation and Public Life. The organisation, Citizens UK, which organised the Commission, wished to explore how the Muslim community could become more engaged and take part in public life.
Citizens UK began its work in 1989, with the aim of developing more participation in public life by the people of the United Kingdom, and strengthening the civil society institutions from which they come. Schools, colleges, universities, voluntary associations, trade unions and faith groups are all involved, across the country.
With around twenty fellow commissioners, we visited towns and cities to meet and talk with individuals, community groups, members of civil society institutions, the business community, education and government bodies. The Commission was prompted by concerns that Muslim leaders are retreating from involvement in public life, fearful of being tarnished as extremists. If groups feel excluded from taking part in civic life, it can only weaken our national life.
The report (published in July) was in preparation at the time of a murderous series of attacks in Manchester and London and this has placed a further stark emphasis on the potential divisions. If there is mutual suspicion and mistrust, then it makes it all the more essential to take action to get people involved, for, without that, we cannot have a strong and cohesive society.
Polarisation within society is the greatest danger and we should address this, whilst acknowledging that there are no simple labels to define groups within our society. There are barriers such as deprivation and lack of opportunity, but there are also barriers of perception about what individuals can and should be achieving. Gender imbalance in public life is not, after all, confined to any one faith: the Fawcett Society reported in July that only one in three local councillors is female.
The Commission proposes a series of actions to get more people involved, with a balance of recommendations. Some need direct action by government; others involve participation by business; whilst others will be achieved by communities themselves and civil society as a whole.
This article was first published in the Bucks Free Press on 24th August 2017.