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Government must help unlock the potential of British Muslim civil society

(Mercy Mission)

4 min read

Representing one of Britain’s most diverse communities, I see every day how people pull together when needed.

In recent years, there has been an unprecedented need for civil society to step up, and strong local communities have been our first line of defence. 

Yet civil society sometimes feels fragmented between one-size-fits-all models and more creative and bottom-up ways of addressing problems. So, I was proud to welcome Mercy Mission’s inaugural report, The British Muslim Civil Society (BMCS) Report 2023, with colleagues on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. Its intensive research, covering the breadth of a vibrant and growing Muslim community, makes a huge contribution to debating the future of civil society. 

We can and must foster a voluntary sector that is rooted in the concerns and capabilities of the people it serves

It preserves vital lessons from recent years. Civil society has responded to the pandemic; advocating for vulnerable people, delivering food and essentials, and supporting a landmark vaccination drive. In my own community, the Qadria Jilania Islamic Centre operated foodbanks and other support throughout Covid-19, whilst the British Muslim Heritage Centre opened its doors to homeless people. As living costs surge and austerity bites, community organisations play a crucial role in absorbing the cost. And in emergencies like the Grenfell Tower fire or the Manchester Arena bombing, civil society also stepped into the breach.

Civil society is an addition, not a substitute, to public services which have suffered untold damage after a decade of austerity. But as well as helping manage crises, our voluntary sector is at the heart of building happier and healthier communities and bringing people together. Nowhere is this more true than in the Muslim community – in Greater Manchester we have seen street iftars open to all; vibrant interfaith events and huge mobilisations of charitable giving. The BMCS report makes a powerful case for public services and civil society alike to engage the huge potential of British Muslim civil society. 

There are now 3.9 million Muslims in England and Wales. This population is young, bears a disproportionate degree of the national economic burden, and will continue to do so in the coming decades as Britain’s population ages. Forty per cent of Muslims live in the most deprived 20 per cent of council areas. A social burden attends the economic one - Islamophobia has reached record heights in recent years. But surveys in the report highlight a recurring theme beyond inequality and social exclusion – the extent to which British Muslims are driven to contribute out of a sense of civic duty arising from their faith. Our faith calls on us to serve our neighbours of all faiths and none. 

Take faith buildings – our mosques serve a vital civic role beyond worship. When properly resourced they have been places for warmth and shared meals and celebrations; community cohesion, interfaith work and civic engagement with marginalised groups; centres for charitable giving; and places to coordinate emergency response. This is just one example of work we should foster.

The report also calls for Muslim civil society itself to think in a joined-up and long-term way. There are important reflections for this sector, from Muslim women’s inclusion in civil society organisations and spaces – including more women on the boards of mosques and charities – to support for the Muslim youth sector to address the rising needs and aspirations of a growing, young Muslim population.

The report calls for a renewed, serious commitment to involving British Muslim civil society in the heart of strategic decision-making as we head into another year of huge national challenges. Whether through the Faith Covenant – which calls on local government and religious groups to work more closely in addressing crises – or by encouraging successful Muslim businesses to create philanthropic foundations, British Muslims can find new ways to empower civil society when Britain most needs it. It’s time for government and the voluntary sector to commit to serious, long-term engagement and realise the community’s potential.

In the words of Lord O’Donnell: “Charities are like Heineken – they reach the parts others can’t”. The report shows what British Muslim civil society is capable of when resourced and engaged, but the conclusions it draws are relevant to all our communities.

In a time of ongoing difficulties, we can and must foster a voluntary sector that is rooted in the concerns and capabilities of the people it serves.


Afzal Khan, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton.

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