British people will go to the polls on May 1 to elect a new government. Muslims, like everyone else, will have the chance to exercise their ‘democratic right to vote’. One strange fact is that Muslims have a higher voting turn-out rate than non-Muslims. This, however, is not because Muslims have greater faith in the electoral process, it is simply because local Muslim party members, activists, councillors, race-relation’s workers and even mosques have invested a great deal of time and energy in persuading Muslims to vote. More energy has been spent in persuading us to vote, than in explaining what exactly we are voting for.
Since most Muslims have historically been factory workers and the Labour party is the party for workers, they have voted Labour. Yet despite voting loyally for the last 30 years, the education, social and economic conditions of our community have not improved, in fact they have deteriorated. We also continue to be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to state-funding for Muslim schools, or laws against religious discrimination. If none of the political parties have anything in their manifesto for Muslims, what are we voting for? Indeed we have not even sat down together and discussed what our demands are from the political parties, nor decided on our collective agenda as a community. We need to understand how the political system works, what the political objectives of the British system are, define our own objectives, compare how compatible or incompatible the two objectives are and how other groups before us have managed to influence the political system.
The political system and the race relations industry would prefer us not to do this, instead they fill our heads with such nonsensical arguments like the need to have greater representation at Westminster before we can have any influence and represent our community.
We also have the media telling us that we are about to have our first ‘Muslim MP’, as if this is in itself a major achievement. It is interesting to note that Michael Howard and Malcolm Rifkind are not described as Jewish MPs, but as Conservatives.
The Muslim Parliament launched a campaign at its last Session in October to make Muslims more politically aware. We need to destroy some of the myths that are abound in the community. First of all any future ‘Muslim MP’ will be representing their party and its policies, not Muslims. For example, during the Rushdie affair all the political parties defended Rushdie’s right to insult and abuse the sanctities of Islam. None of them supported the Muslim community’s right to defend itself. The fifty-odd Muslim councillors at the time, belonging to various parties, either played no part or, when threatened by party whips, readily gave their assurance of good behaviour. Because, after all, they were elected to pursue the party manifesto, not a Muslim agenda. If, when push comes to shove, Muslim councillors or prospective Muslim MPs back down and forget their principles, what then is the point of having them? Their first and only loyalty has to be to the party and its leader. Views contrary to party policy, even from such outspoken MPs as Clare Short, are not tolerated.
As a backbench MP, the chances of raising issues of concern to Muslims are slim. The average backbencher gets approximately five minutes speaking time per year in Westminster. Having a handful of Muslim MPs will not make any difference to our condition. If nearly 300 Opposition MPs have little influence in determining or influencing government policy, then what chance do we have? The Westminster Parliament is essentially a theatre in which powerful influences in society are merely re-played. Unless we generate power outside the political system, we will have little impact on it inside. This is in the nature of the British political system. The Labour party itself was a labour movement first and, to a large extent, is still dependent on it for its power. The Jewish community organised themselves outside the political system through the British Board of Jewish Deputies for over 200 years before they entered into parliament, they now also have the State of Israel to exert influence. Likewise with the Women’s movement and even the Gay and Lesbian movement, which is why they have been able to hijack the race relations and equal opportunities units in councils.
The full political spectrum in Britain considers us ex-colonials as a pool of cheap labour and a vote bank. All agree that we must lose our identity and culture, and integrate into the secular society before we can be accepted as equal and full members. All insist we must not mix social and political issues with religion; in other words Islam should become like Christianity, a matter of the private conscience of the individual. They seek to promote Muslims as racial, cultural and sectarian groups. They consciously follow a twin policy of integration and protection of separate identity.
The method we pursue must be in accordance with the Sunnah [prophetic examples]. In Makkah, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, and his early companions lived as a distinct community with their own identity and pursued their own agenda. They would interact with the Makkan society, but never integrated into it. Our policy must be the same: yes to interaction, no to integration. To do this requires Muslims to establish an independent political and economic infrastructure, external to the context of party politics and capable of exerting power and influence with regard to Muslim affairs. In the process we will help protect our culture and values. Such a policy is in harmony with both the Sunnah and the realities of British politics, which is based on the interplay of power around established vested interests - democracy and representation being merely fig-leaves to mask naked power.
The fallacy of integration into the political system has already been played out in the United States. The Afro-American community, by integrating into system, not only failed to improve their economic or social condition, but have in fact legitimised the unjust system. There is now little pressure to bring justice to these people, as they have, after all, their own Mayors and representatives. In Britain, also, six black MPs have had no impact on the conditions of their community.
We also have to recognise that to achieve our rights and to change unjust laws, we should be prepared to do what others in British society have done before us: break the law. Women did not get the right to vote nor workers their rights until the law was broken. Even the Poll Tax was not repealed until laws were broken. To be taken seriously, we may also have to ask the Muslim community to refrain from blind voting. There is ample evidence to suggest that in certain constituencies, if Muslims did not vote, the sitting MP cannot win. For example, if only a fraction of Muslims in Blackburn do not vote, Jack Straw, the Shadow Home Secretary, cannot win his seat.
All this requires that we have a thorough debate in the community in the run-up to the General Elections and to get ourselves organised. Ultimately, it will be the power of organisation which will determine our success. The political parties want to deal with us on a one-to-one basis. This way they will have no obligation or commitment to the community and in turn the community remains divided. But political parties and politicians are primarily interested in votes and winning elections. If the Muslim community is organised, it is possible to negotiate from a position of strength and strike a bargain with a political party in return for genuine demands of the community. To reach such a stage the community needs to reach a high degree of organisation, discipline and leadership. Once we have generated our own power, and have the ability to manipulate the system, it does not matter what the colour or religion of the MP is. It is what they can do for us that will be important.
The writer is Deputy Leader, The Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, London.