Britain goes to the polls on May 6, to elect the government that is expected to run the country for the next five years. Unlike most elections in recent years, the contest is genuinely too close for the results to be predicted; either of the two major parties, Labour and Conservative, could conceivably win a clear victory, but a hung parliament with the third party, the Liberal Democrats, as the largest party is also a distinct possibility. At a time when disillusion with politics is at an all-time high in the country, thanks to the recession and various political scandals, all politicians know that the election will be won by the least unpopular of the candidates rather than the most popular.
As in all general elections, British Muslims have been bombarded with advice as to whether and how they should vote. All parties have appealed to the Muslim vote in constituencies where it has the potential to affect the result, while making sure they do not make promises to Muslims that can be used against them by the enemies, particularly as much of the right-wing media is rabidly Islamophobic. Labour has reminded Muslims that it is the traditional champions of the working classes to which many Muslims belong. Conservatives have tried to appeal to Muslims’ traditional family values and snidely reminded Muslims of the Labour government’s closeness to the US and its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Liberal Democrats have highlighted their opposition to the Iraq war and sought to present themselves as a fresh and different alternative to the political establishment.
At the same time, there has been a variety of voices from within the Muslim community giving equally conflicting advice. In some cases, this has been restricted to simply encouraging Muslims to vote, regardless of who they vote for. Such campaigns have been encouraged by the Labour government in the expectation that most Muslims would vote for them. Some Muslims have joined minor political parties regarded as sharing Muslim perspectives, such as George Galloway’s Respect Party. Others have campaigned for Muslims to vote one way or another for particular reasons; several people have called for Muslims to punish Labour for their crimes against Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, or to vote against particular candidates regarded as being particularly anti-Muslim or pro-Zionist. Similarly, some local Muslim groups have asked Muslims to reward local candidates perceived as having supported local Muslim projects, such as Islamic schools. As usual there have been half-hearted calls for a Muslim bloc vote from organisations without the standing or credibility to organise one, and the inevitable reminders from some that “voting is haram, brother… only Allah (swt) can legislate.”
The reality is that all the positions and approaches listed above have their merits, advantages and disadvantages. Faced with this confusion, several British Muslim organisations have organised meetings to discuss how Muslims should engage with mainstream politics, and how they should use their votes to maximum effect. Many of these meetings no doubt have had the effect of clarifying the thoughts and intentions of those who attended, while having little impact on the position of the Muslim community as a whole.
The problem is that the months and weeks before an election is the wrong time to be thinking about such issues, simply because there is no time to do anything about it. The immediacy of the situation forces Mus-lims into reactive and short-term responses, instead of more considered ones. Those involved in such efforts would no doubt reply that this is the only time most people are willing to discuss such issues; the rest of the time they are too apathetic about politics to take an interest. But generating such interest is the task of those who aspire to provide political leadership to the community. All the current confused and pointless debate achieves is to highlight the fact that the British Muslim community is divided and leaderless, and therefore in no position to take any collective position in mainstream politics, or indeed on any particular issue affecting us.
If that is to change, Muslims must think about these issues not only in the limited timeframe offered by the run-up to elections, and not only in terms of mainstream politics. Before we can seek to engage in mainstream politics in any coordinated and meaningful manner, we must strengthen our internal community cohesion; we cannot engage with others unless we have the infrastructure in place to engage with each other. The impressive number of Muslim organisations seeking to serve their community is a tribute to British Muslims’ determination to provide for their own needs and those of their future generations. The problem is that those who seek to provide leadership lack credibility because they emerge not from this tradition of service within the community, but primarily from an ambition to represent the community in its dealings with non-Muslim institutions, be they in national or local government bodies, NGOs, other faith groups, or the media. The result is that these leaders see themselves primarily as lobbyists, and their credibility as depending on the recognition they receive from those outside bodies, rather than seeing themselves as servants of the Muslim community, whose credibility depends on their standing within the community.
Until those who seek to lead and represent our community understand this distinction, and its importance, Muslims in Britain are bound to remain divided and unable to assert our due weight in British public affairs, political and otherwise.
Iqbal Siddiqui publishes a personal blog, A Sceptical Islamist: htp://scepticalislamist.typepad.com.