was elected secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain on 31 January 2021 – at 29, the youngest person to hold that post, and the first woman.
Huw Spanner met her online on 7 April.
Photography: Murdo MacLeod
When you were elected as the new secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, you were up against an imam (and, obviously, a man) 20 years older than you. Were you surprised that you won so decisively?1She defeated the Bangladeshi-born imam and broadcaster Ajmal Masroor by 107 affiliate votes to 60.
I mean, I definitely felt I could win but I thought it was going to be really tight. He is a senior figure in our community and people liked us both; but they liked us for different reasons, and it was really about those competing priorities. I really had to work hard to get elected.
You told the Guardian: ‘I’m about as different as it gets to the traditional leadership in our community.’2theguardian.com/world/2021 Was it a vote of confidence in you personally or more of a deliberate statement by the Muslim community?
I think it was confidence in me. I think genuinely people put their trust in me. They said: ‘Look, Zara, we like the vision, we like where you want to take MCB.’
I think the age difference was crucial, because the feedback we get is that young people are sick of not being represented, you know? It’s their future, the stakes are high but they’re not at the table. And obviously women also want to have this representation. [But] they wouldn’t have voted for me if they didn’t believe that I could do the job – and I certainly wouldn’t have put myself forward!
How did the wider world react?
The only way we’re actually going to progress as a society is when we learn to see difference as something that we can benefit from, something to be embraced
Within hours, my life completely changed and no longer was my life. There was so much attention on me in that first week, so much kind of electricity, you know – my election signalled such a change for the organisation, and this idea of something really new and fresh and exciting – I hope.
Even now I still [get] so much interest. I was featured in Vogue3vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle and on the World Economic Forum website,4weforum.org/agenda/2021 and I’ve been invited to loads of different events.
It’s not a full-time role, is it?
I think it’s more than a full-time role. It’s not a job, but it certainly behaves like one. All my extra time goes to MCB – there’s a monster of work to be done every day. [But] I really enjoy it – the structures, the systems, the process – and I love working with people.
When you were president of [the Federation of Student Islamic Societies] in 2016/7, you told BuzzFeed: ‘I discovered I love this stuff, and it loves me.’5buzzfeed.com/muslim-student-shaking-up-fosis What did you mean by that?
I was the hyper-passionate individual that would take a train from Scotland to London to Cornwall, all because I wanted to meet Muslim students and find out what was going on – and there was maybe, like, five or six of them down there, you know?
I travelled all over the country, on trains, planes, buses, coaches that would break down… It was, again, voluntary, and sometimes I’d be sitting exhausted on the London Tube, slumped with a backpack, and I’d be thinking: ‘Oh my God, what am I doing with my life?’
But when I finally got there and I met the students… They just excited me; the work excited me, and my capacity to make a meaningful difference. This is something that brings me closer to my Creator, this is something that helps me serve humanity, this is something that makes me a better person, you know.
I think that’s what really excited me about MCB: the potential for good and the potential for change is really big, not just for Muslims but for all of us. I see that as communities we’ve got a role in serving one another – and it’s the only way that we’re actually going to progress as a society, when we learn to see difference as something that we can benefit from, something to be embraced.
I see myself as an ambassador for young people generally, for women generally. I’m part of a global conversation of women in leadership, a global conversation of young people in leadership. How many young people are in my position, across all faith groups, or across… you know? So, I’ve got to do it for all of them, you know, to say: Hey! Actually, we can be trusted with this, and hopefully we will be able to make just a little bit of change.
Tradition tends to associate age with wisdom and youth with energy. What do you think a woman brings distinctively to leadership that a man does not?
Woman’s Hour was a good lesson for me, because I wasn’t prepared. I’ve got to be mentally ready – and I’ve got to be courageous. Maybe I just need to find my inner lion and get that lion ready to roar
H’mm, I would be biased in that regard, but I shall endeavour to answer.
Leadership is leadership, it demands decision-making, accountability, vision and implementation; but I think what I’ve found is that there’s a bit of a different energy [with women], a different dynamic. In the other roles that we perform – as daughters, as wives – there are different qualities that we can bring.
I can be very decisive and strong [but] I find that I don’t want to be so aggressive in charge. Sometimes I’m more diplomatic and more considered, maybe a little bit softer, more compassionate. I’m not saying that men don’t exhibit these qualities, [but] when you get someone more challenging, maybe a bit more ‘alpha’, they don’t know how to be more of a calming force. But I’m not so soft that I’m going to allow compassion to overcome what is right, you know? So, there’s always that balancing exercise that all leaders have to do.
And it’s the same with being young. Someone asked me: Have you got the wisdom to do the job? You know, wisdom comes through the willingness to learn. I don’t say that I’ve got all the answers – I’m actually quite keen to engage with people, and even [face] difficult and challenging questions, because there’s something to learn about myself in that process, and something to learn from others.
You had a tough introduction to your new role when you were grilled by the presenter Emma Barnett on Woman’s Hour.6On 4 February, she was invited onto the BBC Radio 4 programme to discuss her election as secretary general. During the interview, Barnett repeatedly questioned her about the number of female imams in the United Kingdom (bbc.co.uk/play from 12’36). An open letter criticising Barnett’s line of questioning and her tone was signed by, among a great many others, the politicians Sayeeda Warsi and Diane Abbott. Did that daunt you at all?
It’s not deterred me at all. I welcome tough questions. I knew before I got elected [that] male or female you’re going to get a tough time as the [secretary general] of MCB, but [as a] female you’re going to get a doubly tough time. I absolutely appreciate that.
Woman’s Hour was a good lesson for me, because I think I wasn’t prepared enough. I’ve got to be mentally ready – and even when I’m not ready, I’ve got to be courageous. I asked myself [afterwards]: Does this mean I’m not going to do any more media interviews? I don’t think so! Does it mean I’m going to stop the work that I’m doing? Don’t think so! I found, actually, it gave me a bit of fire in the belly, to say: Maybe I just need to find my inner lion and get that lion ready to roar.
When it comes down to it, if I have to represent [Muslim] communities on tough issues, I’ll do that, and if I have to challenge [prejudice], I’ll do that – in my mind it’s always: I’ve got to do them justice. I’ll do what I need to do.
Being now a national leader, my religion disciplines my conduct and my character. It is that moral compass of being a good citizen, being respectful of others’ views even if they disagree with yours…
Tell me a bit about your family background.
So, I’m the eldest [of four]. My siblings say that I’m bossy, and I definitely am ‘the third parent’. My mum was, like, 22 when she had me, but she wanted to work, to show me a working woman, and so I took on more responsibility for my younger brother and it was something that quite appealed to me.
My religion is a lived thing: I don’t ever switch it off and it’s not only for private, you know. Islam is so visible, it’s part and parcel of who you are. But I’ve always been really proud of my Scottishness as well
My mum encouraged us to read a lot and she kept us really open-minded as well. So, things like praying were really important, but the headscarf was up to me. She said: ‘If you’re going to put it on, that is you saying you identify as a Muslim and you’ve got to make sure you truly understand what that means and behave accordingly.’
She definitely fostered a sense of responsibility in me. She always said to me: ‘You need to be the best you can be.’ She’s always been really supportive. And my father as well.
You very much identify as a Scot, I believe.
I do. Now that I’m secretary general, I have to say ‘British’ a lot, but for a very long time I’ve been very proud to be a Scottish Muslim.
I’m third-generation Pakistani – both my parents were born in this country.
Your grandparents all grew up in Multan – a city so ancient it was once besieged by Alexander the Great.7wikipedia.org/Multan
I’ve never found a [conflict] between my religious identity and my Scottishness. Like, my religion is a lived thing: I don’t ever switch it off and it’s not only for private, you know. Islam is so visible, it’s part and parcel of who you are. But I’ve always been really proud of my Scottishness as well. I have a lot of different identities and I feel like in some ways they make you who you are, you know?
You’re also Glaswegian, which is a separate identity in itself, isn’t it? What does that add to the mix?
It’s just the best. It’s just the best. You know, I’ve travelled all over the world, as far as Turkey and Malaysia, and every time I land at Glasgow Airport I’m just so glad to be home! Glasgow is a really nice place to grow up in. It’s a hearty place and it’s full of community spirit. There’s a lot of culture, a lot of art – there’s always things going on. You can walk from one side to the other in a day and you’ll capture all the seasons of a year.
There are a lot of different dynamics, socio-economic issues and all these things; but I always feel very much a part of Glasgow.
Which of your identities is nearest to your heart?
I don’t think they work like that, because it’s all intrinsic, they’re all part of you. They’re actually very complementary.
You went on the Hajj in 2017 and you talked afterwards about how the Brits stood out among the millions of people there because they were polite and liked queuing.8independent.co.uk/voices Is there a distinctive British Islam?
I don’t think there is, because we’re so diverse in how we express our faith as Muslims because we come from lots of different cultural backgrounds. But our British identity is also part of who we are and it’s interesting how it plays out abroad. You know, we really do like process and order and organisation.
According to a recent report,9ipsos.com/review-survey-research-muslims-britain British Muslims are more likely than the British in general to say that their national identity is important to their sense of who they are. Why do you think that is? Especially when Muslims have a sense of belonging to the ummah, the worldwide ‘nation’ of Islam?
The ummah is, like, our global family – the idea is that we’re all connected [in] sisterhood and brotherhood. But your home is where you belong, it’s where your neighbours, your friends, your work are – and that connection to that world is so important to who we are as human beings. Our home is our home, and we are a part of building that home not just for ourselves but for all of society. Islam is a social religion, and a very charitable religion – so much of it is about taking care of those around us and serving the whole of humanity.
You were born into Islam. At what point did you consciously embrace it for yourself?
I think in my teenage years, maybe 15, 16. I think that was the age of figuring out who I wanted to be in this world – which is an ongoing question, of course.
I did philosophy at school and I was very stimulated by it intellectually. I asked myself, ‘Why am I Muslim?’ and I studied a copy of the English Qur’an and it really, like, spoke to me. I was asking questions and questions; but I felt very content at what I found and in my heart I was very settled. And I made a decision: This is me now – and if I’m going for it, I’m going all in. And that was a really transformational moment.
But even at that point I was still on my journey. I didn’t put my headscarf on until university, which was another big breakthrough for me. There were some people who weren’t sure what to make of it, but my personality overshadows a lot of things, so I continued to be as extrovert as I could, to help people understand that, you know, these are the things I believe in but they’re not barriers between us, it’s not me saying I’m not part of your society.
You’ve said that you’re passionate about human rights, and you did a master’s in human-rights law. How do human rights fit with Islam?
I think the core principles in human rights directly connect to core principles in all faiths, you know? If you’re a person of faith, human rights is just a concept already ingrained, because all of our faiths are about, you know, ending poverty, right, and helping the homeless.
Justice is such an important concept in Islam. That’s why I was passionate – it was actually my religion that [made me think]: ‘There’s not a lot written on Islam and human rights. I want to contribute to that.’ My dissertation was on social and economic rights, and should they be enforced. But no government wants to do that, because they’d have to pay for it.
For me, faith plays such an important role in the betterment of society. Think of things like foodbanks and FareShare10fareshare.org.uk – these are faith-based initiatives, you know? The Christian community has done so much on homelessness – they’ve got the buildings and they’re opening their doors. A flood happens in the North [and] it’s Muslims going in: OK, how can we help?
It’s already ingrained in what we do every day – and I think that has helped me in this role in MCB, because I do see it as my duty to address problems like unemployment, like racial injustice, you know, climate change…
What does ‘moderate’ mean? ‘Moderate Christian’, ‘moderate Muslim’, ‘moderate Jew’ – I don’t think it is a very helpful term for anybody
The problem, I think, comes when human rights are politicised. I guess the Muslim world – or, basically, the non-Western world – says: It’s not fair [if] you’re telling us which rights are more important than others. For me, human rights are absolutely universal in their expression.
Given that Islam – like Christianity – is a profound critique of human society, one could argue that what society regards as a ‘moderate’ Muslim, like a ‘moderate’ Christian, is really someone who has watered down their commitment to God and God’s laws in order to fit in. Is that a fair comment?
What does ‘moderate’ mean? I just find these… You know, let me define me! That’s my response, that I’ll define my faith and I’ll define the extent of my belief. You know, we don’t need any more terminology to describe where we are on the spectrum. ‘Moderate Christian’, ‘moderate Muslim’, ‘moderate Jew’ – I don’t think it is a very helpful term for anybody.
It also kind of pits you against the opposite, doesn’t it? Because you’re ‘moderate’ according to someone else’s conceptualisation, you’re therefore not bad. I think faith communities should be allowed to define who we are in our faith.
I’ve read that you’re a strong advocate for interfaith dialogue. Isn’t that just a euphemism for faith leaders pretending to agree when fundamentally they reject each other’s beliefs?
Did you write these questions?
I disagree with that completely. The potential of interfaith work is not in our capacity to change each other’s minds about our beliefs but in our capacity to work together, using our faith, using our commonality, and even using our difference, to benefit society. I mean, I would say that faith communities during this pandemic have been like a fourth essential service, you know? We have provided support, generosity, hope, community spirit…
You know, faith is an important part of our society; and in my opinion interfaith dialogue is an important vehicle for change. It’s not fluffy!
Do you think Islamophobia is a valid concept?
Well, ‘yes’ to that one!
How would you define it?
The MCB is endorsing the [All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims] definition of Islamophobia.11camden.gov.uk/documents Absolutely it exists and absolutely it’s real, it’s systemic in its nature, it’s overt, it’s pervasive and it’s crippling.
Islamophobia cannot be just a Muslim issue for Muslims to solve. Unless all of us challenge it, just like every other divisive prejudice, we’re not going to get rid of it
When it comes to employment, for example, Muslim women are of all the minority communities the most marginalised. We really struggle when it comes to jobs and attainment. In schools, when anything negative happens on the news, Muslim kids are questioned about it – or blamed for it, you know. And this constant demand for justification: Are you really British, though? Do you really accept our values?
[In] my first week as the first woman in charge of this national organisation, I was asked the FAQs of everything Muslim: What do you think about this? What do you think about that? And all the tropes around Muslim women. People just couldn’t believe [I had been elected] and I’m not talking about positive surprise – there was a lot of critical commentary: that I was just a tokenistic gesture, I wasn’t anything real. You know, defining us without us, and denying us our ability to express who we are.
And that’s why I said [on Woman’s Hour]: Look, your perception is your perception but I am the reality. I’m actually elected, I’m actually the leader, and I’m representing what young people today want – and they don’t want to keep answering these questions, they want to move forward now. They want to be in a place where they can actually get the senior management posts, start their businesses up, not feel like they’re going to be called out on the street or associated with negativity in television advertising, you know?
I think the problem with Islamophobia is how divisive it is and how it can actually destroy societies. Even in Scotland, mosques have been subject to vandalism and arson, people walking in and shouting Nazi slogans, Muslim women being attacked. I mean, I don’t think this really reflects British people on the whole, but it’s very real and we’ve got to resolve it.
The solution lies in partnership and collaboration. We need people to be ambassadors to challenge Islamophobia and to help overcome it. It cannot be just a Muslim issue for Muslims to solve. It’s a societal evil and unless all of us challenge it, just like every other divisive and discriminatory prejudice, we’re not going to get rid of it.
How do you think the Muslim community would change if the burden of Islamophobia was lifted from it?
Oh well, it would be much happier! Things would be much different. You’re never going to eradicate hatred for good, but this ‘othering’ would end and we [would be able to] feel that we are part of this society and we’re all on the same page here, working together. And then we can focus on the actual issues, such as the economic crisis, such as climate change.
Islamophobia is just another barrier on the road that stops Muslims in Britain from fully participating and fully engaging. We’ve got the potential, the capacity, but we don’t yet have the pathway.
There’s no doubt that Islamophobia sells newspapers, is there?
Yeah! It’s good clickbait.
Is ‘Islamophobia’ perhaps the wrong term for prejudice against Muslims? In a sense, Islam is meant to be a threat to a faithless and unjust society, isn’t it, if it’s God’s response to wrongdoing.
I think it’s a semantic point. And I don’t think Islam is here as a threat or a challenge to people – you know, [the] Qur’an states there’s no compulsion in religion,12quran.com/2/256 we’re not here to force it down people’s throats and to say they must behave in the way we want them to behave. We live in a pluralistic society, we appreciate that people have a way of life that’s different from ours. What we’re saying, though, is: Let us also express our faith and have our religion!
You represent Islam in Britain as a live-and-let-live religion, but some people will say: It’s not like that in Pakistan, is it?13See eg wikipedia.org/religious_discrimination_in_Pakistan. In a Muslim-majority country, is Islam in practice the tolerant, accommodating worldview you suggest?
That’s an oversimplification. The key thing for people to understand is that Islam is what it is but how people choose to express it, and how it impacts others as a result of that expression, will always be different, because of all the other factors that come into play: the societal, the cultural, the historical and the political.
The example I worry about is [how] Muslims in this country embody that faith. That is the example that we’ve got to test – you know, are we inclusive, are we diverse, are we charitable and are we showing our faith in action?
[As for] other parts of the world, maybe one day they’ll bring me to a big conference and I can give them some top tips on how to do it better!
You’ll still be young when you give up the secretary generalship in at most four years’ time. What greater heights do you think you might go on to conquer then?
Maybe I’ll look young but inside I’ll have aged!
I think I’ll need to see how the adventure unfolds and the person I become at the end of it. Maybe I’ll get some of that wisdom you talked about. I know I’ll be different but my commitment to change and to being of service I think is always going to be a part of me.
I guess I could go global! Who knows? But I’m sure the challenge will definitely need to be upped, and I’ll definitely welcome that. Bring it on!
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|⇑1||She defeated the Bangladeshi-born imam and broadcaster Ajmal Masroor by 107 affiliate votes to 60.|
|⇑6||On 4 February, she was invited onto the BBC Radio 4 programme to discuss her election as secretary general. During the interview, Barnett repeatedly questioned her about the number of female imams in the United Kingdom (bbc.co.uk/play from 12’36). An open letter criticising Barnett’s line of questioning and her tone was signed by, among a great many others, the politicians Sayeeda Warsi and Diane Abbott.|
|⇑13||See eg wikipedia.org/religious_discrimination_in_Pakistan.|
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Zara Mohammed was born in Glasgow in 1991 and was educated at an unidentified state school. She read law and politics for four years at Strathclyde University before completing a master’s in human rights law there in 2014. She was president of the university’s mooting society in 2011/12.
In 2014/15, she chaired the Scottish section of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis); she was a vice-president of Fosis in 2015/16, and was elected its president for 2016/17, the first woman to hold that post.
Since 2018 she has worked in the third sector, briefly as a training and development consultant for Consult3s before setting up Zara Mohammed Consulting at the beginning of 2019.
She served as assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain in 2018–20 (and acted as head of media and communications for the Muslim Council of Scotland in 2019–2021).
She was elected the MCB’s first female secretary general on 31 January 2021, defeating her rival by 107 votes to 60.
She has blogged at questionsofleadership.com.
She married in 2017.
Up-to-date as at 1 May 2021