Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance

Update: August 2017

The ‘Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance’ project was a large project within the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society programme that ran from June 2010 to January 2013.

The project was led by Dr Therese O’Toole (PI), with Professor Tariq Modood (CI) from the University of Bristol, Professor Nasar Meer (Research Consultant: now University of Edinburgh), Dr Daniel Nilsson DeHanas (RA, now King’s College London) and Dr Stephen Jones (RA, now Newman University, Birmingham).

The project explored modes and practices of state-Muslim engagement from 1997 onwards, from the New Labour to the Coalition governments, in the fields of equalities, faith-sector governance and counter-terrorism policies, at the national level and in three local areas: Birmingham, Leicester and Tower Hamlets. It was based on extensive policy analysis and 112 interviews with key actors from government and Muslim civil society organisations. The project is the most comprehensive study of state-Muslim engagement in the UK to date.

Further details about the project’s key findings, outputs, public events and follow-on projects are below.

Key findings

Over the last three decades, Muslims have become increasingly politically visible. Such visiility has entailed increasing focus on the place of Muslims and Islam within the West, reflected in (often fraught) public and media debates on Muslim identities, allegiances, rights and claims-making. But, as our final report highlighted, the political visibility of Muslims in the UK, particularly under the New Labour government, was also an outcome of Muslim activism – in lobbying for state recognition of Muslim distinctiveness and seeking inclusion within governance – as well as institutional innovation in the ways in which government recognised and engaged with Muslims in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  

Below is a summary of some of the key findings in our report.

1          It is often argued that the state’s engagement with Muslims under New Labour was effectively securitised as a consequence of the government’s counter-terrorism agenda. Our research found engagement with Muslims occurring across a range of policy domains, which at times were in tension with another, but that New Labour’s engagement with Muslims was not confined, or reducible, to security concerns.

 2         State engagement with Muslims was evident across three policy fields: equalities and diversity; partnerships with faith and inter-faith-based bodies for the purposes of welfare and service delivery; and security and counter-terrorism. Our research showed that different logics in these policy fields meant that engagement differed across them, whilst overlap between policy fields sometimes led to tensions – particularly where they overlapped with the security agenda.

 3         The increased focus on engaging Muslims in governance was significantly shaped by Muslim activism. This was sometimes contentious, especially in relation to questions of representation and the eligibility criteria for those groups with whom government was willing to engage. Nevertheless, Muslims were, for a time, active and effective within governance. Since the Coalition government, this engagement has receded.

 4         Such engagement paved the way for a more sophisticated engagement with Muslims on the part of government, matched by increasing recognition by government actors at national and local levels that the ‘take me to your leader’ approach that characterised earlier modes of government’s engagement with Muslims was unwanted and unworkable.

 5         There was under New Labour a move towards recognising the diversity of Muslim civil society and greater flexibility in working with ‘democratic constellations’ of Muslim organisations and interests. The research identified a need for more transparent and accountable mechanisms of representation though.

6          Questions of Muslim representation were mired in often unproductive debates on the eligibility criterion for those groups with whom government will engage, and particularly on confused and inconsistent positions on whether government should engage with Islamists or ‘non-violent extremists’. Our research found that attempts to base engagement on simple binaries between extremist and moderate unworkable and unproductive.

 7        Contemporary debates about multi-culturalism often characterise it as buckling under the weight of over-bearing demands for public recognition and accommodation by Muslims who simultaneously adopt an isolationist stance with regard to integration into British society. We found that Muslim claims for recognition and accommodation were typically voiced within a commitment to a shared civic and national paradigm – and there was widespread support for this among Muslim actors.

 8         There were continuities, as well as differences, between New Labour and the Coalition on the question of multiculturalism: with both engaging in anti-multiculturalist rhetoric, although this has been more pronounced under the Coalition government. We found that continued commitment at the local level, albeit unevenly, to accommodating ethnic and faith-based identities – notwithstanding national government and media narratives on the death of multiculturalism.

 9         Muslims have often been a lightning rod for disquiet about the challenge to secularism that the accommodation of Muslim difference in the public domain entails. But, we found Muslims were typically allies with other faith actors in supporting a religious presence in governance and public life.

 10      There was substantial variation at local level in the governance of diversity, logics of engagement with Muslims and faith and inter-faith groups, articulation of equalities agendas, and the implementation of Prevent.

Image included courtesy of Forward Thinking.

First working paper

For a general introduction to the project you might like to read our First Working Paper.

Final report

Download our final report, "Taking Part"

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