UK government proposes Muslim theology board

Article published on July 21, 2008
community published
Article published on July 21, 2008
The UK government is setting up a board of Muslim scholars to promote a peaceful form of British Islam but in the face of the local Muslim community’s scepticism the success of the initiative remains doubtful.

On 18 July Hazel Blears, the UK’s secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, announced the founding of a theology board of Muslim scholars and community leaders by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge “to lead thinking on Islam in a modern context”. The board is meant to discuss issues affecting British Muslims such as “what it means to be Muslim in the UK in the 21st century”, a Muslim’s loyalty to Britain and women’s rights in Islam. In order to disseminate its message the body is expected to organise seminars across the country to promote a peaceful vision of Islam and engage the wider Muslim community in the debate as well. The government-sponsored Muslim theology board is the latest measure of the UK government’s strategy to prevent violent extremism (PVE) in Great Britain, which was launched in response to the terrorist attacks on London’s public transport system on 7 July 2005. Implemented by the government Department for Communities, the PVE strategy’s goal is to complement the increase in security measures and the speeding-up of legal prosecution of terrorists and terrorist suspects, in order to win the “hearts and minds” of the 2 million strong Muslim population in the UK (ca. 3%), suspected to be at risk to turn into future terrorists. With the help of the PVE strategy Hazel Blears would like to "undermine the extremist ideology that says you must choose between being British and being Muslim." As part of the programme already 6 million pounds have been given to 200 community projects, citizenship education in mosques and leadership training for Muslim community leaders has been initiated. Furthermore, organisations like the National Muslim Women's Advisory Group and Young Muslims' Advisory Group have been asked to council the government on its actions towards the Muslim community. Over the next three years a further and impressive 45 million pounds has been promised to strengthen moderate Muslim community groups in their fight against extremist messages on the ground. The UK government’s determination to influence the Muslim community in its favour and to closely oversee these efforts is clear. Still, the launch of the theology board has been received favourably by some members of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). The official reaction of the council was largely hostile. In fact, given that the MCB is running a similar forum since 2006 it does seem quite unclear why the British government is now launching its own initiative. Not only could this duplication of efforts very well limit the legitimacy and reach of both bodies’ attempts to marginalise extremists. It could also make even more British Muslims critical of a government perceived to be “breathing down their neck” by setting up a body to influence their religious practise. It remains to be seen whether this latest measure of the PVE strategy will enhance the much desired integration of British Muslims or counteract it.