By Alicia Buller
The newly elected Muslim Council of Britain Secretary General speaks to Arabian Business about his plans for making Muslims heard in a world of rising divisions
Born in London’s Whitechapel and educated at a Christian school, East End boy Harun Khan embodies the modern and changing face of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).
The fresh-faced 49-year-old is the first second-generation Muslim-Brit to lead the country’s most influential Islamic representation network, which acts as a ‘voice’ for 500 mosques and associations.
His calm, articulate manner and dapper looks mean MCB Secretary General Khan is often wheeled out to some of the world’s top news channels to speak on behalf of the UK’s growing and diverse Muslim community – around five per cent of the country’s population.
With the alarming rise in domestic terror attacks and the Islamophobia that spikes around such incidents, Khan says his job is not always an easy one.
“Muslims have had a lot of media attention over the past few years,” he says. “The growth of ISIS, the Syrian conflicts and the domestic terrorism attacks in Manchester, London Bridge and Westminster all fed into each other.”
Khan adds: “We do call on politicians a lot to speak out against Islamophobia and encourage better fostering of good relations. My role at MCB is also to come out and disassociate Muslims from terrorist attacks that cause a spike in Islamophobia.
“I don’t apologise for their actions, I have nothing to do them. But I can condemn them as if they perceive to represent a Muslim then I need to dispel that myth. The media’s not going to say that unless there’s someone telling them.”
Politically, Khan says there is a wider context for Islamophobia: the growth in right-wing popularism.
He says: “When right-wing politicians want to win audiences, there has to be a scapegoat. Nigel Farage and UKIP have been using immigrants and Islam [as scapegoats]. Elements from the right-wing government have fed into this narrative too, such as Boris Johnson and some Conservative MPs.
“The sad reality is that Muslims are only a small percent population of the UK - nobody’s ‘taking over’ anything.
“Half of that Muslim population is born in this country. There’ll always be crazy people but they’re not just from the Muslim community. People from all sections of society commit criminal acts.”
Religiously-motivated hate crime has risen 40 percent in England and Wales, with more than half (52 percent) directed at Muslims, according to the Home Office.
These October 2018 figures came in the same week as the Equality and Human Rights Commission released results of the first national survey of prejudice for over a decade, which showed 70 percent of Muslims surveyed experienced religion-based prejudice.
Khan acknowledges that part of his role is to ‘build bridges’ between Muslims and non-Muslims.
While the MCB is now over two decades old and is now the best-known platform of its kind, Khan is pushing forward for modernisation and better representation for the country’s many ‘second-generation’ Muslims who only know Britain as their home.
He says: “I think [we can make society better understand Muslims] by just playing our role in society, being active and being good at what we do so that it can shake people’s perceptions.
“I think a lot of people have misconceptions about Muslims. I think having dialogue and interaction is critical.”
Khan highlights inspiring British Muslim role models such as London MP Sadiq Khan, athlete Mo Farah, footballer Mo Saleh and British Bake Off TV star Nadia Hussain.
“From a community perspective, we need to reach out more. We can’t keep ourselves to ourselves; otherwise it just feeds it [prejudice].”
For his part, Khan is a regular fixture on London’s glitzy professional scene. Recognised in the ‘faith’ category of the Evening Standard’s ‘1000 Most Influential People in London’ in 2016 and 2017, the secretary general is certainly embodying MCB’s mission to be seen and heard.
“I get invitations to a whole range of events,” he says, citing most recently a high-profile multi-faith vigil outside London’s City Hall with Sadiq Khan, the Chief Rabbi and the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
Khan’s job is a voluntary position; it’s a demanding after-hours role that he piles on top of his civil engineer day-job and being father to three girls. What’s driving Khan to make himself so extraordinarily busy?
The Secretary General says: “Some of that emanates from my late father. He died in 2000. As a child in east London I saw him spend a lot of time helping people. He spent half his life in the UK and helped a lot of families and individuals coming from abroad who didn’t know their way around the system, with application forms and general advice.
“Our house was an unofficial Citizen’s Advice Bureau and it was just in his nature to want to help people. I enjoy my job; it gives me satisfaction that I’ve been able to alleviate a difficulty someone’s been facing.”
Khan’s remit, as second-term Secretary General for the MCB in a testing cultural time, could likely be his most challenging – and rewarding – job yet.
He says: “I just want to send the message that Muslims are just like everyone else. When I got elected that was one of my key messages… that our best years lie ahead of us.”