As the landscape of the UK is transformed from barren winter into abundant spring, the political landscape is undergoing its own rapid alteration.
With the clarion call of the General Election, the humble British voter metamorphoses from Oliver Twist, standing in front of the great table, bowl in hand, pleading for more, into Giant Haystacks striding across the countryside ready to mete out an electoral “running elbow drop” on any politician claiming £2,000 of expenses for a duck house.
Whether your idea of democracy is as cynical as American satirist H L Mencken’s view, who labelled it the “pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance”, or whether you are a tub-thumping “government of the people, for the people, by the people” democrat, one fact that is readily agreed upon is that democracy is the only thing available to British Muslims today and so pragmatically we need to consider how we engage with the process so our voices can be heard. For this reason, the upcoming elections must be utilised not only for the ability to vote in and out our representatives but also to remind those who knock on our door looking for confirmation and sometimes absolution, that there is a Muslim electorate, and whilst we are not the homogeneous silent majority, we do have certain common worries, desires and unmet needs that require addressing.
This, however, is easier said than done. The quagmire of questions facing the Muslim voter is daunting. Whom should we vote for? Should we vote on local issues or national issues (or international issues)? How should we “lean”? – “Left” has its pro-multiculturalism, an anti-war slant, but is notoriously liberal in its attitudes to abortion, euthanasia and often seems anti-family; as for the “Right”, although it may have conservative views on social issues, one gets the impression that it would happily have us all deported back to “our own” countries before we can explain that actually we are already in our own country.
Some ulama have released their own guidance, as well as taken part in this interesting video. This advice on the political process has drawn the ire of professional secular Muslims who feel that Islamic scholars do not have the right to offer such help, the maddening irony of it being that this professional secular Muslim in particular is the director of the BMSD, an organisation that felt emboldened enough to pilot its own “guidance” to schools (relating to the far more important issue of educating Muslim children) without any clear explanation of why it has the right, or even the competence, to offer this service.
The fact remains that regardless of the hows and whys of voting, the run up to any election is an ideal opportunity to raise the profile of issues that mean the most to us as an Ummah. This will hopefully cause whoever is eventually voted in to office to think again before obeying The Whip over the constituents. It is for this reason we have put together a list of kick-off points for discussion that can be broached – alongside the more prosaic matters of MPs’ expenses, tax, education, and the NHS – with any politician hustling on the hustings.
The hypocrisy of the government shovelling “Prevent” money into unrepresentative, self-promoting organisations such as the Quilliam Foundation and BMSD, whilst the heavy thud of EDL jackboots are being heard with greater frequency on the streets of towns up and down the UK, has been highlighted in a previous JumahPulse. The concentration on Muslim extremism at the expense of mapping the rise of Far Right groups has contributed significantly to the rise of Islamophobia in the UK.
From the virtual shutting down of Dudley town centre so that EDL grunts could hold their march against the new masjid there (which they threatened to burn down if built), or the rise in attacks on Muslims travelling on trains that National Rail seems helpless to prevent (this week a Muslim couple were assaulted by a group of 20 men and last month, an elderly Muslim scholar sustained facial burns when his beard was set on fire after he dozed off during a journey), there has been an anecdotal and statistical rise in attacks specifically on Muslim men and women because of their religion. This, coupled with the increase in numbers of people specifically having negative feelings about Islam and Muslims as discussed inprevious articles about Islamophobia, suggests a worrying trend.
MPs’ views have ranged from outrage that this has occurred in the UK (and acknowledgment that the singling out of a religious group for persecution is a road that the UK should not go down), to the more blusterous, who feel that Muslims have brought all this on their own heads and need to get their own house in order for the attacks to stop. Finding out where your MP stands on these issues will reveal whether or not he or she will support the community and bring pressure to bear in the right places if your area experiences an increase in Islamophobic outrages.
Outlawing the Niqab and Banning Minarets
The rhetoric produced by political parties about banning the niqab and minarets often has nothing to do with policies but is rather the cynical manipulation of a “wedge issue”. Wedge politicians seek to split (or drive a wedge) into the support base of an opposition by demonstrating that the party strongly supports whatever idea has captured the popular imagination (or spurred the angry mob). The tactic thus grabs voters who would normally have opted for the other party.
Such politicians can be spotted a mile off by their grotesquely jingoistic language, the “I won’t be cowed by political correctness” posturing and a complete lack of coherent ideas or policies.
The arguments themselves stand on the flimsiest of foundations and do not stand up to any sort of scrutiny. Take the almost set-piece dialogue regarding the banning of the Islamic face veil or niqab which often kicks off with:
“What about communication? One needs the face to communicate properly.”
Does that mean no one communicates on the phone, or Radio 4’s Today programme can’t get any sort of coherent information over to the public because we cannot see the faces of the presenters? How about the rise in social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, whose modus operandi is faceless communication?
“Yes… but it is not in our culture… it is offensive to us.”
Well, tough. Freedom to offend is hammered home daily to Muslims as a prerequisite for “civilised life” especially when coupled with offensive cartoons about our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). The only difference is that a woman in niqab pushing her kids on a swing in the park or buying a pint of milk at the shops isn’t insulting the person who is held as most dear to over a billion people worldwide.
“These women are oppressed and subjugated… we must free them.”
Leaving aside the obvious rejoinder about freedom of expression, it is harder to ignore the large cohort of women who speak eloquently and positively about the niqab and the benefits it brings to them. This rebuttal often changes the argument to:
“These women are oppressed and subjugated… and brainwashed… we must hound them, persecute them, criminalise them and bring the wrath of the mob down on their heads…it’s all for their own good…all for their freedom.”
At that point, simply raise eyebrows eloquently, thank them for their time and quietly but firmly shut the door in their faces as it is probably not a politician you are speaking to but rather a lunatic escaped from a local asylum – or a UKIP candidate.
There is a growing and widespread consensus that the civil liberties of all UK citizens are slowly being eroded by an ever more prying and suspicious government.
Whether it is the government’s right to track, store and trace private emails, texts and phone calls, or the widely abused stop and search powers of the police, or the control orders imposed without due process, or heavy-handed policing of peaceful demonstrations (with wildly disproportionate sentences for minor public order offences), or the issue of a public inquiry into allegations of British involvement in torture, the list is wide and varied.
Whilst these subjects affect all UK citizens, the difference for Muslims is that whereas the average citizen is presumed innocent until proven guilty, this cornerstone of English law seems to be too generous to apply to our community and is being replaced by the chilling “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”.
Iraq, Afghanistan and the “War on Terror”
This affair has been thrust into the fore again with damning examples of the sickening behaviour of US forces in both Iraqand Afghanistan on display in the media – after the requisite military cover-ups failed to hold together. What I found as disturbing as the ghoulish chuckles of US servicemen as they gunned down innocent civilians is the revelation this week by a former top aide to Colin Powell that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld knew that hundreds of men sent to Guantánamo Bay were entirely innocent. They chose to continue the prisoners’ unjustifiable incarceration, fearing that their release would harm the push for war in Iraq and the broader War on Terror.
This subject matter is vast but the best summary on both the lies that sent us to war and the falsehoods that are keeping us there is offered by Salma Yaqoob, Leader of the Respect Party and contender for the Birmingham Hall Green constituency, in a December 2009 edition of Question Time. Her performance is a must watch, not only for its content but to witness the “rabbit in the headlights” expressions on the faces of the five other politicians sitting around the table as she verbally eviscerates them. One gets the impression that at the end of this particular Question Time those five men sincerely wished that the myth of the veiled, oppressed, silent, subjugated Muslim woman were true.
…And a Special Section Just for the Tories…
Ah… the Tories… who can forget their “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” campaign that mined ever greater depths into the troughs of pigswill that is dog-whistle politics. Since then, they have a shiny new Teflon-coated front man but one gets the feeling that despite the lick of paint, the damp rot of the “nasty party” is still there.
Husain Al-Qadi highlighted in a series of excellent articles (1, 2, 3, 4) the worrying depths of Islamophobia that lurk within the Conservative Party owing to its dependence on the skewed, biased, ill-informed and anti-Muslim rhetoric served up regularly by advisors such as Michael Gove and Douglas Murray. It was this rhetoric and advice which led to David Cameron’s outburst in Parliament against Muslim schools, for which he later had to apologise. A raft of other Tory MPs have also publicly made Islamophobic statements: Mark Pritchard recently called for sharia courts to be banned, while Philip Hollobone wants to ban the niqab.
It is for this reason that any Tory MP wishing to court the Muslim vote will need to try much harder to counteract the weight of his or her party’s inbuilt antipathy towards Muslims. Most don’t bother with Muslims, and react as my Tory candidate did in 2005 when I opened my front door to his insistent tapping. The plastic smile melted off his face and without the briefest of greetings he said, “Oh, I guess you won’t be needing this then”, indicating the “How to vote Tory” leaflet hanging limply in his hand. As I enquired, “Are you thinking what I am thinking?”, he squeezed out a pained grimace and scuttled off down the street.
…And in Conclusion
Whether or not your MP is interested to engage with you about these topics or merely wishes to kiss your baby, squeeze your hand and thrust a leaflet at you, it is imperative that some, if not all these topics are put to our elected officials. By doing this, Muslims will show that we are not a subservient immigrant community to be largely ignored until we are trotted out to put our “X” next to whichever Labour politician is on offer. It will also demonstrate that we are an electoral group that cannot be scorned and legislated against without consequences. It will educate our elected officials about what generally worries and affects Muslims as a community, rather than letting over-funded, obsequious narcissists do our talking for us. And one never knows, it may even produce a significant change in government policy that will help Britain’s beleaguered Muslim community and start to heal Broken Britain’s social wounds.