Dilemma of democracy facing Muslims in Britain

Developing Just Leadership

Fahad Ansari

Rabi' al-Thani 16, 1431 2010-04-01

Main Stories

by Fahad Ansari (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 2, Rabi' al-Thani, 1431)

For years British Muslims have been pressured by the government, media, think tanks, and even some Muslim community leaders to renounce violence as a means of bringing about change for their communities, both in the UK and abroad.

For years British Muslims have been pressured by the government, media, think tanks, and even some Muslim community leaders to renounce violence as a means of bringing about change for their communities, both in the UK and abroad. They have been pressured to embrace the values of democracy and to engage with the British political and electoral system. Muslim groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, who believe that any form of participation in the democratic system is prohibited and inimical to Islam, have been condemned for being isolationist and extremist. Yet recent events suggest that even renouncing violence and exercising our democratic rights may not be enough to appease the powers that be.

Take the example of Muslims who opposed the opinion that demonstrations are haram, and took to the streets to protest against the Israeli slaughter in Gaza last year. Some would argue that protesting and demonstrating constitute core concepts of democracy whereby citizens are able to exercise their right to assemble and the right to free speech. Depending on the discipline, behavior, and crowd-management tactics of the police, demonstrations can occasionally get slightly out of hand. Marchers regularly get fined for committing public order offences as a result. At the Gaza demonstrations at which thousands of women and children were also present, scores of protesters were brutally assaulted and manhandled by the police. Tactics of bullying, intimidation and provocation were utilized by the police that increased the chances of confrontation and hostility. As a result many people were arrested during these protests.

More shockingly, 119 others, mainly Muslims aged 16-19, were kept under surveillance for months following the protests, and arrested in anti-terror dawn raids almost a year later. Some like Yahia Tebani (18) and Ashir (24) narrated how their family members were handcuffed for almost three hours and put in separate rooms during the arrests and how computers, clothes, iPhones and other electronic equipment were confiscated. They were not allowed to change clothes and were forced to remain in their pajamas. Others were questioned at police stations without a lawyer present, after being told by officers that they would face long delays if they waited for a solicitor to arrive. Joanna Gilmore, researcher in the School of Law at the University of Manchester, told a public meeting in the House of Commons that these are the highest number of mass arrests in relation to a political demonstration since the Poll Tax riots of 1990.

More than 70 of those arrested were charged. Astonishingly, the 22 protesters convicted thus far have been handed harsh prison sentences of between 15 months to 3 years each. Some of those sentenced were only 16-year-old students, attending their first demonstration. For example, Mosab al-Ani, a 20-year-old dental student, was sentenced to one year in prison for throwing an empty plastic bottle at the gates of the Israeli embassy. Another convicted protester was a Palestinian two of whose cousins were murdered byIsraeli security forces days before the demonstration. None of the protesters had prior criminal convictions and all were of good character. In al-Ani’s case, the sentencing judge, John Denniss, even gave him a flawless character reference saying that he knew he came to the protest peacefully, unarmed and that he apologized to the police. Neverthe-less Denniss felt obliged to pass the harsh sentence to deter others. Denniss completely absolved the police of all responsibility, describing their response as “measured”, and failed to focus on their failure to manage the crowd and their role in provoking conflict. The Islamic Human Rights Commission published a report in January 2010, Police, Protest and Conflict: A Report into thePolicing of the London Gaza Demonstrations in 2008-2009, which examined such issues but unfortunately the report was not considered by the courts when sentencing.

What is clear is that despite tens of thousands of people from all religions and backgrounds attending the demonstrations and being involved in aggressive behavior that followed, all but two of those arrested were Muslims. What is also clear is that the trouble at the Gaza riots was nowhere near the scale of violence witnessed at the G20 protests, where a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland was looted, yet only 20 people were charged for offences committed at that demonstration. The police response to Muslim protesters has been wholly disproportionate and seems intentionally designed to deter Muslims from protesting or demonstrating in future.

In addition to deterring Muslims from exercising their right to protest, it seems that a campaign is underway to demonize Muslims involved in the electoral process. An undercover documentary screened last month on Channel 4 titled, Britain’s Islamic Republic, “exposed” how Muslims were infiltrating the British political system with their own political agenda for change.

It is the nature of electoral politics that people will elect those they believe represent their interests and who will act on their behalf if elected. The Zionist lobby funds, campaigns for and votes for those candidates who they view are pro-Israel and who will represent their interests. Similarly anti-war activists are likely to campaign for and vote for candidates who oppose wars of imperialism and greed. Environmen-talists are likely to vote green. So why then is it deemed sinister that Muslims have mobilized themselves to canvass and vote for candidates who will strive to represent their interests in bringing about social change as they believe it should be done? Is this not the essence of democracy?

But this was precisely what Andrew Gilligan’s Dispatches program intended to portray; that for Muslims to be actively involved in electoral politics as opposed to naively voting where their individual votes are of no consequence was something sinister and threatening. The program focused on the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) and the London Muslim Centre in East London, entities created to serve the local, primarily Bengali Muslim population. Gilligan found a number of things to be out of order. First, he was disturbed by the 110% growth in membership of the Labour party between 2006 and 2008. I too am disturbed by this rise given the harsh treatment meted out to Muslims locally and internationally by the Labour government in recent years but these were not Gilligan’s concerns. He was worried because the increase in Muslim membership of the Labour Party possible meant that they would have a more decisive role to play in the system than mere cheerleaders from the sidelines. Gilligan proudly promoted the view of local Labour MP and Islamophobe, Jim Fitzpatrick, that the IFE were infiltrating the Labour party and the local Tower Hamlets Council to steadily introduce Shariah law in the UK. “They are acting almost as an entryist organisation, placing people within the political parties, recruiting members to those political parties, trying to get individuals selected and elected so they can exercise political influence and power, whether it’s at local government level or national level.”

Fitzpatrick, who is also the Minister for food, farming and the environment, caused great controversy in August 2009 when he stormed out of a wedding at the London Muslim Centre because the event had separate seating for men and women. Despite the fact that seating at this private function was arranged at the request of the marrying couple, Fitzpatrick went public with the issue ironically claiming that the arrangement demonstrated a “degree of intolerance” and blamed the policy on the “stranglehold influence of the IFE”. Fitzpatrick will also be competing against sitting MP George Galloway in the upcoming general election, little surprise then that he is trying to discredit those that are likely to canvass for Galloway.

At a time when voter turn out in the UK has dropped to unprecedented levels, should the IFE not be lauded for engaging citizens in the democratic process? When Muslims in Tower Hamlets successfully elected George Galloway in the 2005 election and removed pro-war MP Oonagh King, it boosted their enthusiasm for the system and led to an increase in membership of the Respect Party. Now that it appears Muslims are beginning to appreciate the power of their block vote, efforts are being made to cast a sinister light over this as well.

It appears that for Muslims in Britain, if they disengage from the system, they are branded as extremists; they must engage but not strategically. They are allowed to vote but they must not use their votes in a way that might actually bring about even minimal change. They are allowed to demonstrate but only for acceptable causes like global warming. They are allowed to campaign for human rights but only against abuses in “enemy” states like Sudan, Iran and Afghanistan. They are allowed to speak out for others but if they are kicked in the face, they must not cry, scream, or ask why, and they must never fight back. The only right they have in these democracies is the right to conform or remain silent.

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