The Trouble With Community

What on earth is a community? How do I get to meet one?

I have something of a community: a motley crew of friends, family, colleagues, shoulders to cry on, power-tool lending neighbours, and shopkeepers who supply me with banter and confectionary.

However, I am not sure I would appreciate it if you picked one of these individuals at random and decided that they were to speak for me, or worse, that they were going to control resources allocated to me.

But this is indeed the experience many people from diaspora subcultures have when the media or the government try to interact with them.

As a journalist you often find yourself hunting for a pithy quote that will signify the views of a whole demographic. I write about religion, and I recently had the impossible task of isolating the perspective of Bristol’s Muslim population.

It is impossible because of course there simply is not a single perspective. I can quote a local imam say, and he will become – as far as my article is concerned – the voice of the community. But this will be despite the fact that perhaps the majority Bristolian Muslims are personally or theologically opposed to him.

Islam in Britain is a complex network of different movements, many of them unrelated to any other – and yet this diversity is constantly obscured as the media peddles it’s confused generalisations.

Furthermore, it is often in the interests of Islamic organisations themselves to claim that there is a single, coherent Muslim community. So perhaps we can forgive the blunders of government agencies as they grope around trying to get a hold of it.

In 2004, Reading council decided that it was time that Reading’s Muslims were due a proper mosque. They provided a 125-year lease on some land for peppercorn rent.

They entrusted the building of the mosque to one particular group, a Deobandi sect who run a small masjid in a converted town house, but they included caveats that said that the project must be done in concord with the rest of the community. Much of that community adheres to Barelvi Islam.

Jamme Masjid3 (1)Jamme Masjid/photo Wilf Merttens

In Pakistan, Barelvis follow traditional localised practices, such as praying at saint’s tombs, whereas the Deobandis are reformers who seek to reject what they consider to be non-Islamic influences. In the UK the division can be obscured, but at times it rises to the fore.

In Reading the tussle that the new mosque initiated has seen both groups make repeated bids for the hallowed title of The Muslim Community, and, sometimes in the same breath, reject the notion that it is possible for them to share a single mosque.

To this date there has still not been a brick laid.

I am not saying Reading’s Muslims are more divided than any other supposed ‘community’. This is humanity; we are a community when we need to be, then we are merely this or that faction.

Bashir Choudri (1)Bashir Choudri of Jamme Masjid/photo Wilf Merttens

This tendency is described by the (typically poetic) Arabic saying: ‘Me against my brothers, me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world.

Reading council responded to my questions recently with a statement that explained that it was committed to ‘community cohesion’.

However, in a report they themselves commissioned last summer, anthropologist Roger Ballard warned the council that the objective of one coherent community, however well meaning, ‘cannot be imposed by legal and administrative fiat.’

Muslims have that wonderful word ummah to describe the ‘community of believers’. This giant community’s reality is proved spectacularly every year at the hajj, as an incredible diversity of people all worship side by side.

However, this does not mean that there is one homogenous Muslim community in Reading. Ballard ends his report with the recommendation that the council simply make it clear that it would: ‘welcome applications for planning permission from all religious communities’.

A version of this piece was first published at www.lapidomedia.com.

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