At a joint fringe organised by Progress and the Quilliam Foundation the question of engagement with British Muslims was debated in depth. Four key messages emerged (articulated right at the beginning by Ed Husain, author of ‘The Islamist’):
- you don’t engage with British Muslims as Muslims (every Muslim is like everyone else – an individual with their own interests and preoccupations);
- don’t just go through mosques to engage (just as no-one would try and reach the white working class just through Church of England vicars);
- don’t rely on self-appointed “community representatives”; and
- don’t shy away from confronting “brown fascists”.
The central point for me – as someone who spent the best part of thirty years trying to build community cohesion in London – is that engagement with any community only flows from building a relationship with that community over a long period. You cannot just be “fair weather friends”.
There is no point in a local councillor asking for people’s support at election time – he or she needs to be seen to working in their interests and listening to their concerns all the time and not just in the four weeks before a council election.
The same applies in building community cohesion: it is offensive (and certainly counter-productive) just to talk to a community when you are worried about violent extremism; you have to build a long-term relationship based on addressing the issues that matter to that community and then you are in a position to have a serious dialogue on more difficult issues.