As we near the third anniversary of the London bombings, it’s a good moment to reflect on whether housing organisations have done enough to engage with Muslim communities. We are all aware that there has been a backlash against Muslims, made worse every time there is a new incident or the press has an anti-Muslim scare story. Now even a sensible debate about a cultural issue such as Sharia law has become impossible – as the Archbishop of Canterbury found recently – despite the fact that high street banks are perfectly happy to offer mortgages that comply with Sharia.
Muslims are the largest faith minority in Britain, with 1.6m people at the last census – now thought to be at least two million. They come from a diverse range of backgrounds – not just from old Commonwealth countries like Pakistan or Bangladesh, but increasingly from the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, despite their numerical strength, there is evidence that many Muslims feel isolated from mainstream life. For example, a recent JRF study found 39 per cent of recent Muslim migrants had experienced some form of discrimination. As one said, ‘It used to be because you’re Pakistani but now it’s because anyone who’s that colour is Muslim, apparently’.
So housing and regeneration practitioners working with Muslim communities are likely to find their task more difficult than it might have been a few years ago. Not only are many of the communities still deprived (for example, joblessness among young Muslims aged 16-24 is 28 per cent); many have become more marginalised over the last few years through a combination of poverty, discrimination and feelings that they are under suspicion from police and other authorities.
CIH, working with the Matrix Partnership in Birmingham, decided to produce a new guide to engaging Muslim communities, to give a brief introduction to Islam, share experiences between practitioners and offer guidelines on how to involve Muslims in housing and regeneration programmes. Fortunately – and slightly to our surprise – we found that many housing agencies are already doing constructive work, often in very imaginative ways. It is encouraging that housing professionals haven’t been put off by the anti-Muslim rhetoric and seem if anything to have redoubled their efforts.
There are some interesting differences in approach. For example, one has been to identify deprived and marginalised communities, and target action and resources specifically at them, with the aim of helping them to break down their isolation. This is the background to the ‘Reaching Out’ project in North London, run by Metropolitan and London and Quadrant housing trusts. They appointed a Turkish-speaking project worker, which led eventually to the setting up of a Kurdish and Turkish Residents’ Association (KATRE), which ensures community ownership of the project and now employs the worker. The two HAs are keen to replicate the project. Work has already started in two other areas using a similar approach. Bringing two HAs together enabled them to pool resources and approach the communities in a unified way.
The Reaching Out project won a Housing Corporation Gold Award last year. Two of this year’s Gold Award winners offer a contrasting approach. Both work with Muslim youth, but in a context where they work with young people generally and create no special scheme or facilities for Muslims.
Ashram HA’s ‘Bend it Like Birmingham’ project involves over 300 young people on a weekly basis and has 66 volunteer workers. The volunteers gain coaching qualifications which might lead to jobs in sport. The scheme targets a deprived neighbourhood in which there are several communities (including Muslims) which have tended to lead highly segregated lives.
Old Ford HA also works with young people, this time in Tower Hamlets. It has resisted calls for facilities aimed at particular communities, and its sports programmes positively work to bring communities together. There are targeted services – for example, Arabic classes – but by holding them in a centre open to all the aim is to encourage participation in the wider activities available.
A different approach has been pursued in Brighton, where an isolated community of Muslim women in the Moulsecoomb area was targeted, as a follow up to the East Brighton NDC programme. The box shows the approach adopted by consultants PEP, who had a very open agenda and have been successful in breaking down the women’s isolation.
All twenty examples in the CIH guide are of work with very different Muslim communities, whether long-standing Pakistani communities in Bradford or more recent Somali communities in Birmingham or Sheffield. The examples illustrate a point which is in danger of being lost in the attack on ‘multiculturalism’ and on the funding of groups that are based in single faith or ethnic communities: if funding is only used to help groups which are already working with other communities, it might worsen the isolation it is aiming to reduce. Neither the Reaching Out nor the Moulsecoomb projects would have happened if they had only provided general funding or facilities for their neighbourhoods. The isolated Muslim groups simply wouldn’t have turned up.
This doesn’t mean that one approach is right and another wrong. It means that the government and local authorities have to develop a degree of trust in bodies operating at community level, to take the decisions that are likely to work. The long-term aim must still be to encourage communities to interact and for neighbourhoods to be more cohesive. But the first steps might be to help isolated communities build their self-confidence. This might mean working with them separately until they have a solid base from which to engage with other communities. An isolated community has to shape its own route towards greater integration, even if it is getting outside help.
Moulsecoomb Inclusion Project, Brighton
PEP was commissioned by Brighton and Hove City Council to work with an isolated community of Muslim women. They set up a small team of two community workers and an interpreter, which made contact with about 20 women through a combination of door-knocking, working through the local school and word of mouth.
The team worked with the women to identify their needs and the best means of coming together. Through close links with other agencies, the project was able to offer the women access to English classes and also help with their ‘Life in the UK’ test. They also undertook first aid training, tailoring, exercise and swimming classes; the latter with support from the local swimming pool when it agreed to have women-only sessions.
The initial aim was to gain the confidence of the women, then to help them feel confident about working together as a group, to overcome their isolation. They have now reached the point where they hold lunchtime meetings. The women cook lunch and meet with local services including the police, drugs awareness workers and housing officers.
Written jointly with Azim El-Hassan
Original article: Inside Housing