How have Muslims engaged in governance and how well do governance processes engage with diverse Muslim groups? These questions have been of political concern for a variety of reasons over the last two decades. They have been driven by a shifting equalities agenda that has increasingly addressed the experiences of religious and Muslim – as distinct from ethnic – groups, by increased recognition by government of the role of faith and faith groups across policy areas such as welfare delivery or urban regeneration, by shifts in integration and community cohesion policies, and more controversially by the security and counter-terrorism agenda. In relation to the latter, under the ‘Prevent’ strategy, government set out to engage and partner with Muslim groups to address the causes of violent political extremism. The reception and delivery of Prevent have been highly contested, and have varied widely at the local level.
A research team set out to examine how engagement through Prevent has been conducted locally in Bristol– the project is working with Muslim communities in Bristol to explore Muslim participation in local democratic life and the impact of Prevent on local state-Muslim engagement.
Phase 1 began with a study of Building the Bridge - a local forum of Muslim representatives and statutory agencies that was established in response to Prevent.
Working with a steering group of Muslim women activists in Bristol, the next phase of the project has involved co-producing research that focuses on spaces and mechanisms for Muslim women’s effective engagement in decision-making.
In Bristol, Prevent was re-branded and re-shaped as ‘Building the Bridge’ – a local civic forum that brought together diverse Muslim community participants with Bristol City Council, the Police, and various statutory agencies. The research found this enabled genuine collaboration between public authorities and Bristol’s Muslim communities. Building the Bridge provided a new political opportunity structure for Muslim participation in local governance that addressed some of the deficits regarding Muslims’ political representation in the city. It enabled Muslim participants to raise public authorities’ awareness of community concerns and facilitated a critical dialogue about the implications of local political and policing practices. Importantly, it assigned agenda-setting powers and formal leadership roles to Muslim representatives, and facilitated the engagement of young people, women and mosque communities in the city. For a period of time, Building the Bridge created a regulated form of community engagement, some of which has continued even after the withdrawal of central government funding.
Findings of the research of phase 2 on spaces for Muslim women's engagement established that Muslim women in Bristol have a strong vision for how public, community and religious spaces could be more inclusive.
The research findings of these phases have been fed back to Muslim communities and local authorities in Bristol to inform the development of this initiative into the future.