British Muslims wary of state-funded board of Imams
Saturday, July 19, 2008
By Asim Siddiqui


The plan to appoint a government-funded board of Imams to pronounce Islamic opinions on issues pertaining to British Muslims is an interesting one.

It is too early to say how this will play out among British Muslims. In general, it is not the role of the state to interfere with religious matters: they should be left to develop by the religions themselves. It is presumably the fact that they are not being developed fast enough in the case of Islam that some Muslims, and the government, have opted for the state-sponsored approach.

I believe two conditions need to be met before such a venture can have the necessary credibility, or speak with any authority. Firstly, the board must be inclusive of all the main traditions within Islam represented among British Muslims. Secondly, it must not be merely “technically” independent, but demonstrably so.

The former condition is crucial. The opinions the board reaches must be the result of genuine discussion and reflection amongst the scholars so that the judgements can be truly presented as a consensus (known as ijma in Islamic jurisprudence).

This would indeed be a welcome step forward. The latter condition is important for obvious reasons: the board must have the freedom to discuss any issue it sees fit, and make judgments that the government may find uncomfortable.

However, any failure to meet these two conditions will ensure the venture has limited appeal outside Muslim academia. It is also worth reminding ourselves that we live in a secular state, not an Islamic one, so Muslim citizens are free to ignore any judgments that this board arrives at.

Because almost all government engagement with British Muslims is now driven by the counter-terrorism narrative, it is difficult to see this as a genuine desire to promote the much-needed development of Islamic thought in and of itself.

But then why should the government spent public money on this project? Ministers are not promoting the development of Hindu or Sikh thought in the UK, for example. The desire to wrench Islamic theology away from the extremists is the only real driver behind this enthusiasm.

The plans reflect the failure of Muslim institutions to rise to the challenge of developing a compelling vision of Islam relevant to secular Britain. The government is intervening – or being “invited” to intervene – because of this failure.

In their defence, Muslim groups have spent so much time and resources on fire fighting that precious little has been available for self-critical introspection – so perhaps any help here may be a good thing.

Theology takes decades, even centuries, to evolve. Unfortunately, this process cannot be condensed to meet the short-term aims of political timetables. The announcement of the board may meet the immediate need for good headlines, but it is less likely to allow Muslim scholars the time and space to answer some of the most pressing issues of our time.


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