by Mehdi Hassan
The Guardian, Monday 2nd April, 2012
It was the Muslims wot won it. To pretend otherwise is naive if not disingenuous. George Galloway could not have triumphed in the Bradford West byelection, with the biggest swing in modern British political history, had it not been for the loud, passionate and overwhelming support of the constituency’s big Muslim population. “All praise to Allah!” the new Respect party MP gratefully proclaimed, via loudspeaker, to his supporters on Saturday.
The British Muslim community has had a tortured relationship with politicians in recent years. That it has become a cliche to say that young British Muslims are alienated, estranged and marginalised from the political process doesn’t make it any less true. Muslims are woefully under-represented in public life: the number of Muslim MPs, for instance, stands at eight out of 650.
Ironically, Labour’s candidate in the Bradford West byelection, Imran Hussain, was on the verge of becoming the ninth such MP. But Hussain seems to have been out-Muslimed by the Catholic Galloway. “God KNOWS who is a Muslim,” said a leaflet sent out to voters. “And he KNOWS who is not. Instinctively, so do you … I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if you believe the other candidate in this election can say that truthfully.”
The Respect party leader, Salma Yacoub, tells me this leaflet was a response to a smear campaign by the local Labour party, allegedly telling Bradford’s Muslims not to vote for Galloway because he was a sharabi (“drunk”).
But there is a much bigger question at stake here: why is it that most British Muslims get so excited and aroused by foreign affairs, yet seem so bored by and uninterested in domestic politics and the economy?
From the march against the Iraq war in 2003 to the demonstrations against the Danish cartoons in 2006 and the protests against Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2009, British Muslims have shown themselves perfectly willing to take to the streets to make their voices heard. But how many times have they, individually or collectively, joined rallies over issues that affect our daily lives: from the reforms of the NHS to the future of local schools; from the lack of social housing to rising energy bills and train fares?
It is far too easy to lay the blame for such indifference at the door of community organisations. Yet the much-maligned Muslim Council of Britain, for example, has tried repeatedly to rally support for issues like child poverty and climate change – with little success. The MCB also backed last year’s March for the Alternative against the government’s spending cuts. But from my own vantage point on the platform at Hyde Park that afternoon, I was disappointed to see few beards or hijabs among the sea of faces in the crowd – despite the fact that deprived Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities will be hit hardest by the coalition’s cuts to public services.
Of course, Galloway has said it was his anti-austerity agenda, not just his anti-war message, that helped him to victory in Bradford West. I have my doubts. Furqan Naeem, chair of the University of Bradford Student Union, says the hundreds of young British Muslim activists who campaigned for the Respect candidate “were oblivious of Galloway’s track record beyond the war”.
It has been nine years since the attack on Iraq and 11 years since the invasion of Afghanistan. Don’t get me wrong: these wars still matter. They are, in the words of Labour’s Diane Abbott, “unforgotten and unforgiven”. But for how long will they continue to be the only or even the deciding factor whenever an election is held in a seat with a big Muslim population?
It isn’t just a combination of anti-terror laws and media demonisation that has hindered efforts at Muslim integration into mainstream British society. So, too, has the reluctance of many British Muslims to step outside the political comfort zone of the anti-war movement. When we only talk of foreign affairs, is it any wonder that we seem to come across as foreigners?
Muslims do not lack for opponents or antagonists; those who want to portray us as foreign, alien, un-British, are growing in number. We should not be handing them a club with which to beat us. In fact, the best way of overcoming Islamophobia and suspicion is for British Muslims to broaden, not narrow, our political horizons, to get involved in our local communities, to show our fellow citizens that we care not just about events in Palestine and Pakistan, but Portsmouth and Paisley too.
How can Muslims complain about our rights, our freedoms, our collective future, if we aren’t engaged in the political process across the board as active British citizens? We have an obligation, as Britons and as Muslims, to fully participate in local and national debates and not to stand idly by.
We have allowed ourselves to be defined only by foreign policy and, in particular, by events in the Middle East for far too long. British Muslims can make a positive contribution to British society, but first we have to stop our navel-gazing and victim mentality. We must let the people, press and politicians of this country know that we are as British as we are Muslim, and we care about our shared future.