Kalim Siddiqui’s understanding of the Muslim Parliament as “a minority political system”

In 1998, Iqbal Siddiqui, project co-ordinator of the ICIT and a former Member of the Muslim Parliament, wrote a series of three articles on Dr Kalim Siddiqui’s vision for the Muslim Parliament. The articles were published in the Crescent International. This is the second article of the series.

(Crescent International, August 1-15, 1998.)

The inauguration of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain on January 4, 1992, was greeted by a frenzied attack from the British media and establishment. For some days, Dr Kalim Siddiqui was the most hated man in Britain, attacked by Conservative government ministers and opposition leaders alike, and vilified in the press. But Dr Siddiqui, who had experienced far worse while championing the Muslim case during the Rushdie affair, quickly turned the establishment attack back on themselves. It demonstrated, he said, precisely why British Muslims could not depend on the mainstream political system, but had to organize outside it to pursue their unique and particular interests. It also served, he said, as a ‘big bang’ to put the Muslim Parliament on the political map and create energy and momentum for the development of the embryonic Muslim Parliament into a genuine community political system.

The inauguration of the Muslim Parliament was the culmination of a process of preparation which had started soon after the publication of The Muslim Manifesto, the foundation document of the Muslim Parliament, at a Muslim Institute conference on ‘The Future of Muslims in Britain’ in London on July 14, 1990. In his keynote speech at this conference, Dr Siddiqui said that:

Ideally we would like every Muslim to be part of what may be called ‘The Muslim Manifesto movement’; realistically, this may not be possible. Nonetheless, we want to achieve the widest possible consensus and participation in the range of institutions that are proposed in this Manifesto… The Muslim Manifesto at present is only a broad framework within which every sector of the community has to develop its ideas and proposals to meet its own needs… The Muslim Manifesto movement has to grow into a comprehensive and all-inclusive range of community institutions.

This reflected Dr Siddiqui’s realization that effective Muslim action in Britain would require the creation of “a minority political system for Muslims in Britain” in place of the hundreds of existing organizations, mostly small (even single person) through which well-meaning Muslim ‘leaders’ tried to do what they thought was best for a community which had no say in their decisions.

Over the next eighteen months, Dr Siddiqui and his colleagues travelled the length and breadth of Britain working to achieve this consensus and participation. Among his key co-workers and advisers in this work were his Assistant Director at the Muslim Institute, Dr M Ghayasuddin (who was appointed leader of the Muslim Parliament for a three-year term following Dr Siddiqui’s death); Mansour Ansari, of Atlanta, US, an old friend of Dr Siddiqui, who came to London to attend the 1990 conference and stayed on to become the Manifesto Movement’s unofficial Development Director; Haroon Kalla, of the South African Kalla family who had supported the Muslim Institute since the early 1970s; and the late Maulana Abdul Wahhab Siddiqi, founder of the Hijaz University College, who had helped draft the Muslim Manifesto, and became one of the Parliament’s first Deputy Speakers.

The key task facing this group was to do the thinking, planning and grassroots work required to add flesh to the bones outlined by Dr Siddiqui in his 1990 speech. Dr Siddiqui understood that a high public profile was not sufficient; adding substance to the public relations success required a great deal of hard work, at both the centre and in the community. This realism was one of his greatest strengths. The immediate task, however, was to identify the men and women who would make up the membership of the first Muslim Parliament. The community infrastructure was not in place for elections, so it was decided that Muslim Manifesto Groups be established in various towns and cities, and sectorial groups for particular sectors of the community, such as women, youth, doctors, businessmen and scientists/technologists. Muslims from these areas/sectors who had come forward to support the movement were asked to organise these groups, assisted by Dr Siddiqui and other members of the core group, and along firm principles laid down by him.

These principles were simple: the movement and groups should be broad-based and inclusive, with no sectarianism, nationalism or racism; members should agree with the objectives and ethos of the Muslim Manifesto; and no members of mainstream British political parties should be permitted to join, to ensure that the needs of the community should be the main consideration in the groups’ work, rather than party political considerations. The groups were also encouraged to work in a structured and disciplined way rather than being based on individuals and personal effort. This was a key part of Dr Siddiqui’s effort to ensure that the Manifesto movement and the Parliament was institutionalised rather than maintained on an ad hoc basis.

This last was also a major plank of Dr Siddiqui’s strategy. He understood that the Muslim Parliament needed to be established and become independent as quickly as possible, and its principles institutionalised to ensure that they survived as long as possible, regardless of the failings, weaknesses or limitations of the people who may be involved at any future stage. Already he was thinking of a time when he would leave the Parliament and return to the intellectual work of the Muslim Institute which he had left incomplete. He recognised that the Parliament’s close association with himself in the public perception was a weakness, not a strength; a strong institution, he said, lends credibility to its people, while a weak one draws credibility from them.

Some observers, not appreciating Dr Siddiqui’s thinking, regarded the Draft Structures and Procedures he drew up before the inauguration as being unnecessarily formal and abstract. Such procedures inevitably impose restrictions upon individuals, and require more effort and discipline to follow than working on an informal basis. The latter often enables things to be done more quickly and easily; however, this work is often done less thoroughly. One problem the Parliament often faced, from its earliest days, was that even those charged with establishing and working the Structures and Procedures of the Muslim Parliament did not appreciate their value and importance. The fact that the systemic needs of the Parliament were different and more important than those of individuals within it was not always appreciated.

The demands and expectations placed on the Muslim Parliament immediately after its inauguration were the main reason that this institutional development was stunted. Dr Siddiqui referred to this in his subsequent Leader’s Reports at Parliament sessions. At the Third Session, for example, in August 1992, he said that institution building had been slowed by the efforts put into the Bosnia crisis, which had arisen in April and consumed a disproportionate part of the embryonic body’s limited time and resources. (It was to continue to do so, as the seriousness of the Bosnian situation was realized and it was accepted that the Muslim Parliament could not ignore it.)

Among the structural work which was neglected at this time was the continued development of the local Muslim Parliament Groups (MPGs–previously Muslim Manifesto Groups). In his inaugural address, Dr Siddiqui had envisaged these becoming both more substantial electoral mechanisms for the Parliament, and effective bodies for the implementation of Parliament programmes at the community level. However, this was not sufficiently prioritised after the inauguration, and the MPGs remained undeveloped, ad hoc groups of local MMPs rather than institutionalised local bodies. This was a shortcoming of which Dr Siddiqui was acutely aware, but was unable to address effectively because of the emphasis demanded by centrally-based project work, for example in the fields of human rights, education, halal meat and social welfare.

However, he tried to demonstrate the virtues of systematic working in the centre. He insisted that the proposals on education, for example, be developed as a Discussion Paper, and then as a White Paper, before detailed proposals were presented as Bills for approval prior to implementation. At each stage, the ideas were published and debated, in both the community and the Parliament. The idea was that the detailed plans should be based on the actual needs of the community, and reflect its real concerns rather than those of a few individuals.

The agendas of the Parliament were determined by an Agenda Committee chaired by the Parliament’s Speaker. On the floor of the House, the Leader was to be just another MMP. Procedural matters were to be discussed by a Procedures Committee or the Parliament as a whole, meeting in committee under the title General Purposes Committee (GPC). The first meeting of the GPC took place in November 1991, to discuss arrangements for the inauguration. It was also at this meeting that the Draft Structures and Procedures were agreed, and Dr Siddiqui was elected first Leader of the Parliament. Sub-committees of the GPC discussed specific issues in more detail, meeting as often as twice a month, with executive chairmen who were responsible for practical implementation of Parliament programs. The effectiveness of these committees varied considerably, depending on the qualities of their members and the time that Dr Siddiqui personally, and others in the Central Office, were able to give them.

While the core group which planned the Parliament before the inauguration continued to act as an informal advisory body to Dr Siddiqui, a formal equivalent was also needed. For this, the Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) was established in 1993, to be the main planning and executive decision-making body of the Parliament. This was smaller than the GPC (about 15-20 members), met more often, and discussed issues in more detail. All committee chairmen were SPC members and were expected to report on their work at meetings. SPC meetings were often long and detailed, with even Dr Siddiqui’s own ideas being critiqued at length by other members, which he welcomed.

While Dr Siddiqui’s personal status was such that many MMPs were willing to accept his judgement on issues almost without question, the advice he valued most was from MMPs who spoke their minds freely, even if they disagreed with him. All he demanded was that once an informed decision had been taken by the Parliament as a whole, or any committee of it, MMPs should take collective responsibility for it. This was a discipline he imposed on himself and on others around him for the good of the institution.

Of course, the institutions of the Parliament needed time to develop–far more time than the four years they had had under Dr Siddiqui’s unique leadership. He recognised that the extent to which the Parliament was associated with himself in the public mind was a weakness, and planned to retire from its Leadership to help it develop its own, institutional identity and standing. He also recognised that the pre-inauguration Draft Structures and Procedures, which were firm in principle but flexible in practice, needed to be consolidated on the basis of experience, perhaps into a Constitution, in order to make their principles inviolate. All these were things which remained to be done when he passed away.

Nonetheless, the principles and the ethos were in place and had worked for more than four years. The problems which the Parliament faced, particularly that of continuing without its founder and talisman, demanded that these principles–particularly those of openness, inclusiveness and institutional structural development–be emphasised and maintained. It was these principles, Dr Siddiqui realized, which gave the Parliament the potential to become “a minority political system for Muslims in Britain” rather than just another Muslim community organization.

[Forward to next article in this series]