Socialist Worker

Media’s myth of the Muslim monolith

Joseph Choonara talks to politically engaged Muslims about the new debates within a once solidly Labour supporting community

Issue No. 1949

Salma Yaqoob (left), Respect candidate in Birmingham Sparkbrook & Small Heath, talking to young Muslims on the campaign trail (Pic: Adam Yosef)

Salma Yaqoob (left), Respect candidate in Birmingham Sparkbrook & Small Heath, talking to young Muslims on the campaign trail (Pic: Adam Yosef)


Muslims form the biggest non-Christian religious group in Britain. There are 1.6 million Muslims in the country, about 2.7 percent of the population. Most are concentrated in inner city areas.

For several decades most Muslims were loyal Labour supporters. When Labour was out of office, its vote among Muslims held steady at around 70 percent. In Labour’s landslide election victory of 1997, 84 percent of Bangladeshis and 86 percent of Pakistanis, most of them Muslims, backed Labour.

Even as recently as the 2001 general election, New Labour won support from 75 percent of Muslim voters. “In the past Muslims, whether they were politically switched on or not, voted Labour. My dad was a card carrying party member,” says Adnan Siddiqui, a south London GP.

“We were from immigrant communities, we were at the bottom of society and vulnerable to persecution. Labour just seemed to be fighting our corner. A few Muslims voted for other parties, but they were a minority.”

Mukhtar Master, a union steward from Preston, agrees. “We supported Labour—it was seen as the party of social justice. For the people I mixed with that was absolutely commonplace,” he says.

Bitter

But recent polls, such as one carried out by ICM in March, suggest that Muslim support for Labour has plummeted to 38 percent. And every Muslim I spoke to identified two key issues — the war on Iraq and New Labour’s anti-terror legislation — as the main reasons for this shift.

“It’s been a bitter experience,” says Adnan. “The first Muslim MPs aren’t felt to have been particularly useful. They take our votes, but don’t deliver for us.

“People such as Robin Cook are still trying their hardes — they say Labour isn’t perfect, but they’re the best on offer. But the war on Iraq and the ‘war on terror’ at home have made us realise that Labour isn’t necessarily the party for us.”

Muslim disillusion with Labour has led much of the media to discuss who will benefit from a supposed “Muslim bloc vote”. But the people I spoke to dismissed such simple stereotypes.

Jamal El-Shayyal is a Muslim student activist. “Muslims in Britain come from many different countries and there are several different generations here,” he says. “We’re one of the most diverse minority populations in Britain. It would be very difficult to get us to vote as a single bloc.”

Many Muslims will vote against Tony Blair and the war, he adds, but their votes will go to different parties.

Adnan echoes this assessment. “I don’t even like talking about a ‘Muslim vote’. It’s not that relevant—if you scratch the surface, Muslims aren’t a single monolithic bloc.”

Shaista Gohir has carried out an online survey of Muslims voters through her Muslim Voice UK website (www.mvuk.co.uk). She says about three quarters of those surveyed have shifted away from Labour. Many say they won’t vote.

“Those who plan to vote are split between the Liberal Democrats and smaller parties, with about a quarter still undecided,” she says. “I asked if people would vote for Respect if there was a local candidate in their area — about half said they would.”

Stable shirft

Shaista puts the shift down to the war, but also to social issues such as health, housing and low pay — which disproportionately affects Muslims. One striking result from her survey is that the shift to smaller parties is more stable than the shift towards the Lib Dems.

“I asked if people would move back to Labour if Gordon Brown was the leader. Most of those who said they would planned to vote Lib Dem in this election. Those who planned to vote for smaller parties said they wouldn’t move back to Labour.”

Jamal says many Muslims looking to punish Labour for the war will carefully examine the record of local candidates. “If you live in Bethnal Green & Bow you might choose George Galloway. In my area it will be John McDonnell, the third best Labour MP in terms of rebellions against the party leadership.”

Mukhtar says, “In Preston many people will look to Respect because of the work it has done. That’s one of the major alternatives here.”

But anger at New Labour does not automatically translate into a progressive vote. “There has also been a move in this area to vote tactically for the Tories,” says Mukhtar.

“People have done the sums and found that this might be the best way to get rid of our Labour MP. People hate him — mainly because of the war, but also because he never rebelled on issues like privatisation or tuition fees.”

Class vote

“People will pick and choose depending on where they are,” says Adnan. “If you live in east London you’ll probably vote Respect. The Tories don’t speak our language at all, although in Watford there is a Muslim candidate. who might get support because a lot of wealthy Muslims live there.

“Class is a big issue still — most Muslims will base their decision on their class.”

Adnan says he probably won’t vote — he lives in Croydon and none of the candidates appeal to him. But he adds that there is a “minority of Muslims” who will not vote for religious reasons.

“I was speaking today at a meeting in favour of voting. Personally I don’t have that much faith in the political system, but there are places where it can make a big difference.”

Asim Siddiqui, a young accountant, agrees that only a small minority of Muslims are refusing to vote on religious grounds. “I get tired of the debate every four years,” he says. “Of course we should vote — it’s part of a wider process of engagement.”

Asim feels strongly that the new generation of Muslims have different concerns to their parents. “The concerns of the new generation have changed. There are

underlying issues like health or education that affect us all. Muslims are far from a homogenous group. If you compare white working class people with professionals you will find differences.”

Adnan believes that the war has widened this generation gap. “My father’s generation still have a ‘guest’ mentality. They think you shouldn’t kick up a stink. But those of us in the second or third generation believe we’re here in Britain, the same as everyone else, and we need to fight for our rights. We’re not going to stick our heads in the sand.”

Elders

A recurring theme in the mainstream media is the notion that “elders” or “community leaders” control the Muslim vote in a given area. Most people I spoke to felt that while some figures had influence, their sway over the Muslim population had to be qualified.

Inayat Bunglawala is a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain. “Maybe 20 years ago it might have been true that in a few areas certain individuals could tell people how to vote. But it’s certainly not true now.

“British Muslims are very far removed from the clan-based politics of countries such as Pakistan. They are not willing to be told how to vote. The recent vote-rigging scandals show that people have to make up votes in order to get the result they require.”

Shaista says, “In some areas of Birmingham you get influential businessmen or community leaders who tell people which party to vote for. They have some influence, particularly on older people who have always voted Labour.

“But they are not going to influence Muslims on a massive scale. And there will be situations where one community leader says vote Labour and another says vote Lib Dem or Respect.”

Adnan notes there are differences between London, where most of Britain’s Muslims live, and other areas of the country.

“If you go outside of London you often find that the community is all from a specific area of Pakistan or Bangladesh. Certain leaders might have a sway, especially over the older generation.

“Blackburn is interesting because you have lots of young Muslims actively trying to unseat foreign secretary Jack Straw.

“Then you have a tough old guard of people like Lord Patel who will sell out. The younger Muslims are angry and are trying to break their hold.”

Everyone I spoke to agreed that the media oversimplifies matters. “There’s a lot of talk about Islamic groups telling people not to vote, and on the idea of bloc voting,” says Shaista. “But they haven’t really looked at what’s happening — the splits among Muslims, or the issues that concern them.

“And although the election is in full swing, I’ve heard little from the main parties that is going to attract Muslim voters.”

Diverse voices

  • Shaista Gohir, 30, lives in Birmingham and until recently worked as an environmental protection officer. She now runs the Muslim Voice UK website (www.mvuk.co.uk). Her most recent poll asks about voting intentions on 5 May.
  • Mukhtar Master, 38, is an IT worker with Lancashire county council and shop steward for the Unison union.
  • Asim Siddiqui, 28, chairs City Circle, which organises community projects and meetings for Muslim and non-Muslim professionals in the London area.
  • Jamal El-Shayyal, 20, is an executive member of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and has recently been elected to the National Union of Students executive.
  • Inayat Bunglawala, 36, is a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group of British Muslim organisations.
  • Adnan Siddiqui, 37, was born and raised in south London. He is a GP and for the last two years has helped to organise the Stop Political Terror civil rights group.


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Features
Sat 30 Apr 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1949
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