Zara Mohammed has just been elected head of the Muslim Council of Britain – one of the most sensitive jobs in the UK. Here, she talks to Neil Mackay about racism, terrorism and whether she might one day be Britain’s first female Muslim prime minister
IF a novelist wanted to create a character who confounded every lazy stereotype about Islam in Britain, they would probably invent Zara Mohammed.
This witty, whip-smart 29-year-old from the southside of Glasgow is now the spokesperson for the UK’s 3.5 million Muslims. She has just been elected leader of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) – the first woman to hold the position, the youngest person to hold the position, and the first Scot to hold the position. When it comes to her triple crown, it is the first for Scotland which makes Mohammed most proud, she says.
The simple act of a woman being elected to lead Britain’s Muslims immediately clashes up against one of the most abiding criticisms of modern Islam: that women are subservient to men.
The irony for Mohammed is that within the MCB, if anything has held her back, it wasn’t her sex – it was her age. She faced hardly any sexism when running for secretary general, but constant questioning over whether she was old enough to take on one of the most sensitive jobs in British society. Mohammed is an agent of change. She is a woman ready to recalibrate not only Muslim society in Britain, but the relationship between white Britain and Islam. Prepare to hear a lot more from her in the coming years. After a few hours in her company, it is hard not to imagine that you might just be chatting to Britain’s first future Muslim woman prime minister. She does have that habit of collecting firsts, after all.
The Islamic student
How does a young woman become the leader of Britain’s Muslims? She found her feet as an activist at Strathclyde University studying law. In 2016, she became the first woman to lead the Federation of Student Islamic Societies – yet another first. Mohammed was soon travelling the country as a student leader and was quickly talent-spotted by the MCB.
Initially, she was unsure about getting involved – the MCB seemed too old, not something for a young woman like her. But the leaders persisted and she signed up. Soon she was elected assistant general secretary.
Those who know her say she has “unstoppable energy”. When there’s an MCB meeting in London, she’s up at 4am and on the train from Glasgow to Euston station. She would always be first at the office, arriving before the shutters went up. Prior to her election as leader, she helped direct the MCB’s response to Covid, dealing with foodbanks, vaccinations, the pain of bereavement and grief, restrictions on funerals and religious festivals like Ramadan, mosque closures, rising unemployment, education worries, travel disruption to the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, the impact of the virus on poor communities and frontline NHS staff.
With her leadership skills forged in the fires of the pandemic, MCB members began telling her to run for general secretary. “You’re exactly what we need right now,” she kept being told. Realising the power such a post held, and the change she could wield, Mohammed went for it.
Sexism and racism
SHE faced little sexism but there was a lot about her age, “a lot of questions about whether I was experienced enough – could I handle the pressure”. There were also a few raised eyebrows about a Scot running a UK-wide organisation. Scotland was seen as too remote. Her inexhaustible energy, though, soon silenced her critics.
After she won, there was pretty much universal support from within the MCB. The real attack came from outside and usually from white voices. “There was this idea of ‘can a Muslim woman lead’ – that I was just a puppet, that this nice little thing had just been put in there and the men were really still controlling it,” she says.
She has faced enough sexism and racism in her life for the slurs not to faze her. “I think it’s about time we stopped stereotyping and homogenising British Muslim communities,” she says, “and that we also wake up to the reality that we’ve changed.” Not all Muslims are patriarchal, not all women are in the kitchen. That’s a “very dark” view of Muslim life in Britain, Mohammed says.
Now she is leader, Mohammed plans to shake things up. Her tenure as general secretary won’t be a quiet one. She knows that a young, independent, headscarf-wearing Muslim woman will unsettle racists. “That gives me particular joy,” she laughs.
Mohammed isn’t into pushing phoney propaganda, though. She accepts that Muslim communities have “got issues” around women, but adds “all communities have got those issues. I’m here to challenge and change those things”.
Apart from continuing to help Britain through Covid by co-ordinating how Muslim communities respond to the pandemic, top of Mohammed’s agenda is making the MCB reflect the UK of 2021. “Women and young people are underrepresented,” she says. Mohammed immediately brought eight women onto her national council. With Black Lives Matter on her mind, she also wants more Muslims from Africa front and centre. At the moment, there’s a “perception” that Muslim Britain seems overly represented by south Asian countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mohammed’s new head of education is from the Nigerian diaspora.
MOHAMMED is also readying herself for a drawn-out fight over Islamophobia in Britain. She is not going to be quiet. Mohammed isn’t a woman to be messed with – long before she had any public profile, she was facing down racists regardless of the risks. Pre-pandemic, Mohammed was on a bus in Glasgow when two refugees were being verbally abused.
Clearly no pushover, Mohammed is also politeness personified and she resists being rude about the man who was intimidating the refugees. “I think you would call him … I don’t know if I should say the word,” she hesitates and then spells out: “J. U. N. K. I. E.”
“I’d prefer to say he was a challenging individual,” she adds. “He was bullying them. He was shouting … being really aggressive and sweary. Everyone was minding their own businesses and looking really uncomfortable. In my head I was like, ‘I’m not happy about this, should I get involved?’. I could hear my mum in my head saying ‘don’t do it’.”
Mohammed stepped in, though, to protect the two refugees and the man left the bus with his tail between his legs. “It was unacceptable,” she says. “I won’t stand for a society where you can bully people.” She realises, though, that there’s an element of danger in speaking out.
The UK’s current “culture wars” worry her – the febrile atmosphere where every issue related to race becomes instantly polarising and toxic. “There’s people who constantly want to create division, to perpetuate stereotypes – they take it further and further until it becomes extremism,” she says.
“There’s a global pandemic of Islamophobia. From the Uighur concentration camps in China to what just happened in Canada.”, she says. Four members of a Muslim family were killed in an attack in Ottawa earlier this week. “It’s even here in Scotland – an arson attack on a mosque in Bishopbriggs, Nazi signs on a mosque in Elgin. We’ve got our fair share too.”
Mohammed sees herself as a bridge-builder between white and Muslim communities. “Islamophobia isn’t going to be resolved by Muslims. It’s not a Muslim problem. It’s a societal issue.”
SHE moves on to the issue of “politicians perpetuating stereotypes”, and sighs when she speaks of Boris Johnson referring to Muslim women dressed as “letterboxes”. Mohammed points to a recent internal report finding no “institutional” Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, despite Tories being criticised for prejudiced language.
“Can we really have meaningful political participation if parties don’t own up to their issues and rectify them? There has to be change,” she says.
“Are we still going to perpetuate these tropes that lead to Islamophobia, marginalisation of minorities and the stigma that we’re the other, we’re ‘something else’?”
Mohammed would like to see Conservatives adopt a clear definition of Islamophobia and “actually engage and understand the people they represent”. She deliberately draws back, however, from making comparisons with anti-Semitism and the Labour Party. “It’s never wise to do a comparative exercise,” she says.
The persisting trope that Muslims aren’t “loyal to Britain” is also crushed by Mohammed. She loves Glasgow, she loves Scotland and she loves Britain.
“It’s our diversity which makes us great,” she says. She doesn’t say it – why, after all, should she have to prove it – but it’s clear Mohammed knows the hard work by British muslims during Covid proves beyond question just how much the community does for the UK.
SHE is wary of “Scottish exceptionalism” and the idea that Scots are so much kinder and gentler when it comes to ethnic minorities than the rest of Britain. “We’ve our history, too – colonialism, the National Front, the BNP,” she says.
Migration patterns were slightly different in Scotland, though. In Scotland, many Muslims came from families in Pakistan which were educated, wealthy, urban, and mostly settled in Glasgow. In the English midlands, many were rural, less well educated, poor, and moved to former mill towns. It’s a generalisation, but in some cases, migrants in England therefore found integration less easy.
Glasgow, specifically, is “more welcoming”, Mohammed says. The city embraces diversity and the recent anti-deportation protest in the southside of the city proved “Glasgow has a really good heart”. Nevertheless, Scotland is far from perfect. “I’m third generation, and I still don’t see representation … our civil service is the least diverse in the UK.” When it comes to the top jobs, Mohammed’s generation “has gone to university, got the degrees and you know what? We still can’t get in. Sometimes you don’t even get the interview”.
Mohammed isn’t afraid to discuss terrorism and radicalisation. But she looks at the issues the way many Irish people looked at IRA terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s: only a tiny fraction of Irish people were involved in terror, the vast majority rejected violence, and all Irish people were sick of being tarred with the same brush.
WHILE she is fearless about addressing the issue of terror connected to Islam, she is clear that Britain also has to face up to white terror from the far right, which is increasing with frightening rapidity across the west.
Neo-Nazis and Islamist extremists “feed each other”, says Mohammed. She’s a vocal critic, however, of the UK’s Prevent programme, intended to tackle radicalisation. It fosters a “culture of suspicion” that’s focused too much on Muslims, while white extremism is becoming ever more prevalent.
“The numbers [of Muslims] are really small in terms of radicalisation,” she says, “but it’s been made out to be this huge systemic issue. What’s really not helpful is the Government approach to counter-terrorism and to feeding this monster – this idea that Muslims are this other alien force.”
The MCB is about to unveil its review of Prevent and will call for changes to the way counter-terror policing operates. School children are being reported to police for saying “Free Palestine”. Teachers and NHS staff with no understanding of terrorism are asked to watch for signs of radicalisation and “to report someone and just ruin their life”. She refers to a student researching terrorism who was reported because he was seen in a library reading a book about extremism.
“Stop labelling us as a terrorist community,” she says. “This is our home. We’re British. We cannot keep on demonising Muslims.”
Extremism doesn’t represent her generation, says Mohammed. However, the factors which risk luring young people towards radicalisation need addressed: poor job prospects, poor education, no sense of community, a low sense of self-worth. These are the same causes that lead young people of all ethnicities into violence whether they’re in Belfast, Baghdad or Bradford.
MUSLIM communities have been “securitised”, she says, with projects and groups funded by the Home Office. It creates a sense of “why am I being spied on”, Mohammed says. “All Muslims are being looked at through a security lens.” Mohammed takes issue with the book Among The Mosques, which has just been brought out by the commentator Ed Husain. Coverage in newspapers like the Daily Mail focused on claims some parts of Britain are “no go areas”, and extremism.
For Mohammed, it’s an old story and times have changed. “There’s been a good clean-up of mosque management, a lot of vetting.” She accepts there was a problem back 10 or more years ago but “it’s a non-issue now”, Mohammed claims. “Mosques have changed significantly.” She talks of the “Visit My Mosque” programme which tries to get non-Muslims to come to Islamic centres to see for themselves what’s going on inside. “We’re really trying to change the narrative,” she insists, “because what’s being said isn’t real for us.”
Just as with Irish terrorism and members of the clergy who supported violence in Ulster, Mohammed says “the focus is always on the crazy individuals”. “There’s more than three million Muslims and we’re looking at four or five people,” she says. “It perpetuates suspicion and paranoia.”
MOHAMMED hopes her own election paints a more positive picture of Muslim life in Britain than the usual tabloid fodder of radical preachers. Once the pandemic ends, she wants to physically bring Muslims and non-Muslims together. She worries that people who have never met someone who is Muslim or black have false ideas in their heads. She refers to an Ayrshire man she met who asked Mohammed who “forced” her to wear her headscarf, or the way the mood in a room changes if she’s meeting with professionals and wearing a headscarf. If people learn about each other’s cultures, stereotypes die off quickly, she believes. Equally, there are those from some Muslim communities who “are more insular … their identity and safety was connected to keeping together as a unit … they’re afraid of change”.
For Mohammed’s generation, though, cultural identity is less and less important. “I’m the least Pakistani Pakistani,” she says, “aside from food, on that there’s no negotiation, but really we see ourselves as having a global identity … We’re very individual and want to express ourselves … We want to have a different lived experience, do non-traditional jobs, have interracial marriages, travel … Many young people of my generation are going back to the mosque and saying ‘we want something different. We want you to change’. That’s what I’m here to do. We don’t want this idea that we’re stuck in our cultural identity.”
Mohammed wants to end what she refers to as “the 1900s view” of men and women among some traditional Muslims. Her election alone “sends a strong message”, she says, “that we encourage women to lead … At the end of the day, change is coming whether they like it or not”. She will be looking at equality issues around marriage and divorce, as well as domestic violence. Her view is: “There’s no point in just talking to women about this as it’s the men we need to sort out.”
FROM an Islamic perspective, Mohammed feels pretty revolutionary when it comes to LGBT rights. “Obviously all Abrahamic faiths are clear on the position of homosexuality, but what I’m really strong on is that we don’t tolerate hatred and we respect people’s lifestyles just as we expect to be respected.
“The worst thing a minority can do is punch down – how will that make society more equal? I won’t stand for intolerance.”
She is setting herself some hard targets and is bound to face resistance. “I’m here and I mean business,” Mohammed says. The one issue she won’t be drawn on is Scottish independence. She laughs and gives a politician’s answer: “I’ve no view. You’re not going to get me.”
So if she’s got the politicians’ gift for dodging a question, will she run for office one day? Does she harbour ambitions to become the first Muslim female prime minister or first minister? “Life is stressful enough,” she says. She’s married but there are no children just yet as she is far too busy.
However, it is clear Mohammed has ambitions to go a long way. She can only serve two terms as MCB leader – a maximum of four years – which means she will still be in her early 30s when the job is done. “Who knows what’ll happen then?” she says.