By Tim Maby
Zara Mohammed, 29, the first woman and the first Scot to be elected secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), says she had experienced overwhelming support in the three days since her appointment.
She told a Religion Media Centre briefing that she thought the 500 Muslim organisations that elected her had shown great faith and confidence and that many felt it a good thing that she could overturn stereotypes of Muslim women in Britain. She has been an assistant general-secretary of the MCB for more than two years.
At no stage did she find that her age or gender was mentioned as an issue in her promotion: “It’s been a bonus actually, that I’ve been able to be seen as a bit of a role model or history-maker,” she said.
“The role itself is a huge challenge, so I don’t expect any of this to be easy. But then, shouldn’t we be a little bit courageous in the pursuit of making a difference? We’ve got to try, right? We’ll do our bit and do our best.”
Her previous roles, with the MCB and as head of media and communications for the Muslim Council of Scotland, had involved a great deal of work responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the best things to emerge from that was a partnership where all community groups worked together, including many interfaith groups.
In her manifesto for election she wanted to continue that community work, which she believed involved a surge in mental health issues. She expected a need to cope with post-Covid recovery.
Another prime concern for her, as a young woman, was to extend diversity and inclusion. She hoped to continue the campaign against Islamophobia, which presented daily challenges of inequality, such as women not being able to get jobs because they wore headscarves.
She said she had already been involved in submissions to inquiries as to why white men and Muslim women were the ones left behind in the employment market.
She repeated time and again the importance she placed on conversation, relationship-building and partnership, not just among Muslims, but beyond that. She was a keen protagonist for interfaith dialogue and shared activities.
With the Muslim Council of Scotland, she had been involved in regular interfaith meetings with the devolved government, including first minister Nicola Sturgeon, where she had the opportunity to challenge on social issues such as young people, unemployment, ethnic minorities and social mobility.
But in her new British leadership role, such liaison with the UK government was not immediately on the horizon. In 2009, the MCB and the government stopped talking after an elected official signed a declaration urging Muslims to resist Israeli military. The Labour government of the time called for the official to be sacked and the two sides have been estranged since.
Today, Ms Mohammed said the MCB represented thousands of Muslims: “It is really disappointing, at best, that the government hasn’t been openly engaging. We are open to that conversation.”
Invited to comment on the appointment of William Shawcross to lead a review of the Prevent programme, she said: “We’ve had a lot of feedback on that. I think the communities are really disappointed given his background and statements around Islam. A lot of people are feeling quite disheartened. I think at this point it is an unfortunate appointment.”
Asked if there was a place for “moderate Islam” in the MCB, Ms Mohammed said that it was not a theological body and represented a broad spectrum of many organisations, including Sunni and Shia. Her emphasis was to extend diversity and extend activities such Visit My Mosque, where she had often been a tour leader. She wanted to involve “not just the people who like us! We are part of society, right? Not just a faith community”.
She told Laura Marks, who has set up a joint group of Muslims and Jews, that there were many shared issues and that it was important to extend that dialogue. “Intolerance, and any kind of discrimination — these things are really divisive, and they perpetuate hatred and misunderstanding. Yes, we need to challenge all forms of discrimination and hatred — Islamophobia, antisemitism — there are plenty of them today.” Although she had not yet had time to form a team or create projects, she was going to do “a bit of listening first”.
She was in a “honeymoon period” with journalists, with many requests for interviews at the novelty of her new role. In the future she wanted a strong relationship with the media, saying it had a purpose, a reason, a job to do. The MCB’s Centre for Media Monitoring highlights complaints and corrections and produces reports on evidence of Islamophobia in the press. “It’s not just about scrutinising the reporting, but it’s also about building the relationship and how we can work better together,” she said. There was a balance, but the centre was providing platforms for the media to engage with the community.
Her aim over her four-year term would be to make an impact on Islamophobia, social issues and dispelling misconceptions. She wanted to build a diverse team on the MCB and to improve the perception of Muslims in Britain. “We’re here to contribute to society as part of society,” Ms Mohammed said.