Building the Bridge: Muslim community engagement in Bristol

‌The Building the Bridge project was carried out within a major research initiative at the University of Bristol, the ‘Productive Margins Programme’ that is funded by the ESRC/AHRC’s Connected Communities Programme. The team comprised of: Therese O’Toole, Tariq Modood and Aleksandra Lewicki. Working with a Bristol-based Muslim umbrella group, Building the Bridge, explores mechanisms for Muslim public engagement in Bristol. The project included: an examination of the history and development of Building the Bridge; worked with Muslim community groups in Bristol to co-produce research exploring opportunities for and obstacles to Muslim engagement in local democracy; and created a collaborative space for communities and academics to deliberate future directions for community engagement in a climate of spending cuts.

Commentators have argued that the city of Bristol managed to turn the implementation of Prevent into a genuine collaboration between public authorities and Bristol’s Muslim communities. The collaboration created a novel multi-agency consultative body that significantly improved Bristol City Council’s engagement with minority communities.  Bristol has developed a novel participatory approach to implementing the Prevent Programme, which facilitated a hitherto unprecedented level of civic engagement between local authorities and minority communities. Here, Aleksandra Lewicki, Therese O’Toole, Tariq Modood give an overview of their research into ‘Building the Bridge’, outlining their key findings and recommendations.

Key findings:  

  • Although initiated by a nationally defined political agenda, individuals involved in Building the Bridge were keen to establish a joint understanding of locally specific problems and potential solutions. Participants in Building the Bridge felt that the forum enabled them to raise public authorities’ awareness of community concerns and discuss the implications of local politics and policing practices.
  • Bristol’s approach to implementing the previous Government’s Prevent Programme provided several institutional mechanisms for Muslim community involvement, including leadership capacity-building, agenda setting powers and representation of a variety of perspectives in an advisory body.
  • This ad-hoc organisational structure had a significant impact on the density of contacts and interactions between local authorities and the Muslim community, and thus addressed some of the previous deficits regarding Muslims’ political representation in the city.
  • The availability of funding enabled the provision of community activities, including workshops and skills development for young people and Muslim women in Bristol. Building the Bridge Building the Bridge 4 October 2014 provides evidence that there is great need for such opportunities beyond the limited scope of a Prevent agenda.
  • While Building the Bridge sought to give voice to a diverse and multi-faceted constituency and made continuous efforts to expand its reach, a few Muslim groups preferred not to get involved with the forum. Some participants expressed concern that a number of Muslim organisations received more attention within Building the Bridge than others, and its remit could have been extended with regard to ethnic and class-based diversity.
  • A currently ongoing discussion within the Muslim community concerns the role and the participation of Muslim women within Building the Bridge and mosque committees in Bristol more generally.
  • The continuation of Building the Bridge meetings and activities after the discontinuation of Prevent funding demonstrates that the organisation has potential to act as a post-Prevent democratic and consultative forum and could continue to enable community engagement with the local authority and statutory agencies in the future.

Recommendations:

  • The institutionalised relationship between public authorities and minority communities should be used to further improve the Local Authority’s and other statutory agencies’ ability to address minority groups’ concerns. A commitment to the institutionalised cooperation within Building the Bridge is required, which also implies financial support for the maintenance of the organisational structure.
  • The ad-hoc organisational structure of Building the Bridge should be further institutionalised through a regulatory framework which specifies a rotation principle and the electoral procedure for its leadership. This framework should determine the frequency of meetings and offer criteria for an improvement of the representativeness of Building the Bridge.
  • Developing this collaboration would require a new constituting moment for Building the Bridge, which includes a clarification of future aims and objectives. We suggest the future of Building the Bridge could be taken into three directions, each of which has implications for the organisations’ profile and composition. It is possible that elements of the three models could be combined with each other.
    • Model A: a countering extremism forum (a forum that draws on the Prevent legacy but is extended to challenge various forms of extremism)
    • Model B: a Black and Minority Ethnic communities forum (a consultative forum for Bristol’s established and newly settled Black and Minority Ethnic communities)
    • Model C: a Muslim forum (a post-Prevent Muslim forum that provides a democratic space for Muslim communities)

 

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