Reported by Asian Image – 2:46pm Monday 26th April 2010
Organised by the Engage Team who are encouraging Muslim voters to become more politically active the event at first seemed at first not to live-up to expectation.
After all Blackburn has been constantly in the headlines over the past few years for a whole host of issues and this was supposed to be one of the most livelier of the debates.
It featured Jack Straw (Labour), Michael –Law Riding (Conservatives), Paul English (Liberal Democrats) and Bushra Irfan (Independent).
But the discussion soon picked-up and brought to the fore the wide range of opinions on matters such as Islamaphobia and Gaza.
The event proved to be popular with those and the questions posed to the candidates in the short time given gave an insight into their opinions.
Michael Law Riding for all his endeavours seemed a little out of his depth when it came to international issues. And he even admitted it several times. But was also keen to point out how only Mr Straw had any experience of foreign affairs and the two people sat to his left could boast little about international issues.
But those who had briefed Mr Law-Riding for this event should have done more to ensure he was aware of the issues discussed.
There was also the uncomfortable moment when Michael Law Riding was asked whether he would open talks with Hamas – an elected party. After several pointers he did feel obliged to say he would open dialogue with any elected party – without saying it would indeed be Hamas.
But he did make one valuable point that the non-Muslim community also needed to be educated for Islamaphobia to be defeated.
He did agree there was a level of double standards when it came to the issue of Israel. He pointed out that faith schools were important for Integration and there needed to be an over-haul of anti-terrorism laws. And said it was not up to him to tell people how to dress when asked about the veil.
Paul English came across as the most Muslim friendly candidate amongst the four.
He was quick to point out how the media was in a large way responsible for encouraging Islamaphobia and there needed to be curbs on sensationalist headlines and reporting.
He also said how the Lib Dems had always been against the war and how in his home of Skipton how he had helped the local mosque. He even encouraged people to ring up the imam of Skipton mosque if they wanted a reference about his work with Muslims.
But what made Paul English stand out was how there were few negative points raised that could be linked back to his party. There was several moments when the Conservative and Labour candidates points of view were challenged by the host and the audience with regards to the record of their actual parties.
And in this case Mr English seemed to escape the most critical questions.
But what made him stand out was his apparent affiliation with some members of the audience. At one stage he went as far to say that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ and how there were reasons for terrorism.
He had a knowledge of the issues affecting Muslims and in particular was aware of the deep affects of the double standards imposed on Palestinians.
Despite being the only Muslim candidate on the panel Independent Bushra Irfan seemed very subdued and at times looked out of her depth.
She was quick to attack Mr Straw on his record but did not have many answers or solutions for many of the issues faced by Muslims.
For much of the debate she seemed to simply agree with the other candidates.
She showed her inexperience when she suggested out the Ewood and Mill Hill areas of Blackburn were ‘BNP areas’. Mr Law-Riding was quick to correct her error.
For someone who has campaigned hard in many Muslim areas and has claimed to represent the voice of the Muslim community Mrs Irfan strangely lacked any coherence and repeated information many in the audience would already have heard.
This would have been her chance to shine but apart from a few points where she said Mr Straw should have listened to his constituents at the time of the invasion of Iraq and how Islamaphobia was like anti-Semitism, Mrs Irfan came across as less intriguing that many were expecting.
She did repeat the notion that Muslims themselves needed to be united and she was the woman who could do it.
For Mr Straw this was always going to be a rough ride. And it became extremely so at several parts of the events. The first few questions were all aimed at Jack Straw who was asked about his role as Foreign Secretary and the Iraq War and his decisions as Home Secretary. And for a while it seemed the audience had come specifically to target Mr Straw.
He was keen to point out again and again how the Labour Party had been the only one encourage ‘equality and fairness for all’.
As someone who has had to deal with several Muslim related questions Mr Straw was unsurprisingly comfortable fielding answers to most of the questions. In the end it took a woman with a veil on to really put Mr Straw on the back foot.
At the event were seven veiled women, an unusually large number in proportion to the number compared to the percentage who actually wear the veil.
Two of those women got the chance to tell sitting MP Jack Straw how their lives had been affected by his comments and they had become to be seen as outsiders in their own country.
One asked after the comments he had made ‘give a one good reason why should vote for him?’ It was blunt and to the point and caught Mr Straw by surprise.
Mr Straw was apologetic and looked to have some regrets about the comments but said he had made the comments elsewhere at an MCB (Muslim Council of Britain) event but not got so much attention.
He stated that with hindsight he had known that the matter taken the way it was he would not have made the comments.
On the issue of Iraq it was again a matter of ‘If we had known what we know now…’
He would not out rightly condemn the actions of Israel but pointed out his record his record calling for Palestinian state.
Mr Straw pointed out what he had done rather than he would do.