Polls suggest it could be the closest election for a generation. An almost certain Conservative win 18 months ago now does not seem inevitable and a hung parliament appears a real possibility. Given that over half of British Muslims live in just 50 parliamentary seats, the Muslim population is very concentrated, and so is the “Muslim vote”. Of the 20 constituencies with the highest Muslim populations, in 10 of them the “Muslim vote” is higher than the incumbent MP’s margin of victory. Within the 20 most marginal constituencies, even where the Muslim population may not be that large, the “Muslim vote” is greater than the incumbent MPs margin of victory at the 2005 general election in 16 of those seats. So Muslims could potentially be the kingmakers in an election which could literally hinge on 10 seats.
Yet historically there are two main problems preventing Muslim political engagement. According to empirical studies, Muslims are less likely to register to vote than other segments of the population. And secondly, there is still some discussion whether it is permissible (halal) to vote in the first place. However, with grassroots campaigns to persuade Muslims to register, and scholars from across the community spectrum issuing fatwas legitimising voting, it may be that these two potential problems may not actually amount to much in the forthcoming elections, and Muslims can get on with the business of electoral articipation.
But what is the “Muslim vote” and what are “Muslim issues”?
Foreign policy springs immediately to mind. It has stirred serious passion within the Muslim community. But since both main parties hold similar positions in this regard, there may be little to choose between them, and so disillusionment may lead to non-engagement. This would be a mistake.
Other issues of interest to Muslims are state-funded faith schools, support for religious dress and the availability of halal meat. But we cannot be some parochial self-serving lobby group that can be fobbed off with a school, a scarf and a few lamb chops. Islam is about bringing benefit to all people: “You are a community beneficial to all mankind,” the Qur’an demands. Prophet Muhammad was sent as a “mercy to mankind.” He did not come with a list of demands for a select few. We should be calling for change that supports the common good of all.
Muslims are indeed three times more likely to be unemployed, far less likely to hold a university degree, have higher health related issues and are far more likely to hold unskilled or low paid jobs. These could be described as “Muslim issues”. Yet the jobs/health/housing/ education issues of all our fellow Britons are an issue for Muslims. The white sink estates are also our concern. From a purely pragmatic view, the resentful underclass are a breeding ground for the BNP which is clearly not good for Muslims; but from a point of principle those underclass are an issue because our fellow human beings are not reaching their potential and are suffering from the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunities that plagues our country.
The near catastrophic failure of the global banking system is also a “Muslim issue”. Perhaps the Islamic economic discourse may actually have some helpful insight into establishing a just solution, especially with regards to leverage and the sharing of risk. In the interim we should be supporting initiatives such as the Robin Hood tax which seeks to put a tiny tax of around 0.05% on banking transactions that would raise billions to tackle poverty and climate change, at home and abroad. It would raise enough to stop cuts in crucial public services in the UK, and to help fight global poverty and climate change. Our MPs should be signing up to it and the fact that the “Muslim vote” matters mean there is leverage to garner support for this.
Our insistence on maintaining big defence projects such as the Trident nuclear missile system and two large aircraft carriers will be as much as £130bn. Excessive militarism in an increasingly globalised world crying out for new ways of peaceful engagement is also a “Muslim issue.” Climate change impacts us all. Given the Qur’anic characterisation of mankind as “stewards” of this earth, a trust is placed upon us all over the environmental security of our planet – which we all share.
There is a line in the film The Incredibles where the children are having a major fight and the Mum, Mrs Incredible, is trying to sort it out. Mr Incredible is in a different mental space even though he’s sitting right opposite the fight. “Bob! It’s time to engage!” shouts Mrs Incredible at her husband. We have to engage with this election and with our society as a whole, and in so doing we can really be incredible!