For many people reading this headline, it must smack of heresy! What could British Muslims learn from a group that is among their worst enemies? Yet if we take a step back for moment, we will see there is much to be learnt from the success of the British National Party in last week’s local elections. After all, to come from nowhere to unseat Labour councillors in what were often previously safe Labour seats is no small achievement. I am thinking especially of Barking & Dagenham where they won eleven (possibly twelve) seats out of thirteen contested. Nationally, they doubled their seats. Credit where credit is due; the BNP have every reason to be proud of their success.
This is especially true when we consider the hostility they faced from the media and other politicians. Writing in ‘The Observer’, CRE chief Trevor Philips noted that ‘virtually every newspaper, including the red-tops, advised their readers against voting for the BNP.’ All the other parties denounced it. In Barking & Dagenham, the BNP faced a well-oiled campaign initiated by the trade unions and Labour against them; a lorry with a massive anti-BNP placard could even be seen driving through our East End borough on its way to Barking. Yet none of it worked.
The point is: think of the frequent media hostility faced by British Muslims. Think of the misrepresentations, the quotes from hostile ‘experts’, the bias against issues of Muslim concern like Palestine. So often the general Muslim reaction to such antagonism is to moan and whine, and adopt a defeatist attitude that nothing can be done and that media hostility intensifies Islamophobia. The same goes for politicians who join the various ‘Friends of Israel’ groups or make a career out of Muslim-bashing. Well, the BNP could be excused for a similar response, but they didn’t react in that way; they fought on – and in East London, they won. That’s a lesson for British Muslims.
Part of the story of the BNP success, since Nick Griffin became leader, is the change in style. Gone are the bovver boots and skinheads, gone are the provocative marches through minority areas. Instead, BNP members portray themselves as polite, suited gentlemen. They dissociate themselves from other far right bodies still presenting this image. That’s what makes media denunciations of them as ‘violent bigots’ look so hollow to electors; when they encounter outwardly respectable, amiable people they conclude that the media has misled them – and react accordingly by supporting them.
Similarly, the media often portray Muslims as ‘violent bigots’ in a different way. The difference with the BNP is, ordinary Britons sometimes have good reason to fear the worst and believe the media. What else are they to think after 7/7? After a demo with placards stating ‘Behead those who insult Islam’? When was the last time the BNP held a demo urging ‘Behead those who insult Britain’, ‘Annihilate those who blaspheme the White Race’ or even ‘Bomb those who attack the Anglosphere’? It is unlikely that any of the violent backlashes after 7/7 involved BNP members; they knew others would react violently instead.
Moreover, the BNP have strenuously denied that they are racist, and built links with Islamophobic extremist Sikh, Hindu and Jewish elements; one of their new councillors in Barking & Dagenham is apparently half-Turkish! There are reports that even some Afro-Caribbean people voted BNP in the borough! In contrast, British mosques are often funded by the Saudis – notorious for their sectarianism and denial of religious liberty. Frequently, mosques, their extensions or special events are opened by Saudi speakers. What else are non-Muslim Britons to think of British Muslims when they invite such people other than to conclude that Muslims are sectarian bigots? You don’t need a hostile media to work this one.
Under Griffin, the BNP shelved probably their worst policy handicap – compulsory repatriation of minorities. This policy alienated potential supporters. Griffin also managed to portray himself – with some success – as a ‘martyr for free speech’, in view of his prosecution over a speech to his supporters in Yorkshire. This case spectacularly backfired when it was widely reported that Griffin had predicted the London bombings, to be carried out by second-generation Pakistanis or asylum-seekers.
In contrast, no one associates Muslims with defence of free speech. Indeed, Muslims scored a spectacular own goal when they promoted the Religious Incitement Bill. Not only was there no public support for the Bill outside the Muslim community, there was vehement hostility across the spectrum to what most Britons saw as an attack on free speech. Muslim pressure for the Bill completely alienated majority opinion. Moreover, its passage did not prevent the BNP victories last week. In addition, I suspect that among the first people to be prosecuted under the new law, we may find Muslims. The sooner Muslims shelve this policy the better.
The issue of style is also important in terms of TV appearances. Note how polished and able BNP spokesmen like Griffin and Simon Darby are – articulate, intelligent, credible. Although Muslims do possess some effective spokespeople such as Inayat Bunglawala, Anas Altikriti, and Salma Yaqoob, there are still too many men with Goodness Gracious Me accents dressed in south Asian clothes, struggling with English who appear on TV. Griffin even trounced Jeremy Paxman in 2001 – no mean feat. BNP spokesmen never lose their temper, never rise to the bait, and always come over well. British Muslims could do worse than learn from their example.
The BNP campaign also succeeded because they appealed to national self-interest. Muslims too often only use the moral argument on issues such Palestine and Iraq. The Zionist lobby was successful in 1917 (the Balfour Declaration) precisely because they could point to their interests coinciding with the British national interest. Significantly, the BNP opposed the Iraq war not because they are concerned about dark-skinned foreigners getting killed, but because they didn’t want British soldiers dying, or for Muslims to retaliate on UK targets. In Barking & Dagenham, they appealed to the self-interest of locals regarding housing against African and Eastern European refugees. British Muslims should learn from this and express opposition to current Government policy on Palestine, Iraq and Iran not just on ethical grounds, or out of solidarity with the Ummah (which does not motivate non-Muslims), but because these policies inevitably bring backlashes like 9/11 and 7/7 – which endanger all Britons and Americans. Just as the BNP wraps itself in the British flag, it would help for British Muslims to do so – to campaign against the war with it, so as to reach out the wider community. I remember my frustration at the 2003 Newham rally against the war when Muslims chanted slogans such as ‘Who is supreme? Allah!’ The bemused, indifferent faces of local non-Muslims said it all. British Muslims must learn to campaign not just as Muslims, but as patriotic Britons – making opposition to the war a test of patriotism, especially since the government and media do the opposite.
Above all, in the face of media blackout and hostility, the BNP have found a way to reach out to the people at grass-roots level. This is how the BNP website explained their Barking & Dagenham success: ‘An immense effort went into this campaign, but the hard work started several years ago as local people who were attracted to the BNP started campaigning locally, undertaking community effort and sinking deep roots. This is how the Party wins, not by flukes of numbers on election day but sustained hard work and showing a very public face at all times while the elected politicians of the Old Gang parties hide away in their ivory towers.’
The contrast with British Muslims is glaring. Think of Iraq: the Muslim leadership left it too late to do anything about it. The Stop the War Coalition took up the issue with mass rallies, but what was needed was sustained grass-roots work to make it an electoral issue. Instead, the Blackburn Maharajahs and to a lesser extent the MCB leadership still urged a Labour vote despite the War. This sent the message that irrespective of what America and Britain do in the Muslim world, British Muslims will still support Labour. Remember, it wasn’t the BNP who bombed Iraq, connived at Guantanamo, or passed grievous anti-terrorism laws. The result of this is the enforced starvation of the Palestinians and the prospect of war with Iran. Those Muslims urging a Labour vote have only themselves to blame for this.
British Muslims should learn from the BNP and reach out at grass-roots level. On Saturdays in the East End one often sees Da’wah tables in high streets. Local Muslims – especially leaders – should go out every Saturday with petitions demanding the lifting of the siege of Palestine and campaigning against attacking Iran. That is, they must engage with the mass of ordinary non-Muslims now – and I mean NOW, because it will be soon too late to prevent a Palestinian famine or the bombing of Iran. They can adapt the BNP’s success by engaging in ‘sustained hard work and showing a very public face at all times’ – not just a month before the bombings or the first news of mass child deaths in Gaza. To be effective, they should hold local councillors and MPs – even if they are Muslims – to account, warning that their votes will go elsewhere next election.
This is what the BNP did in East London – and not just them. For decades Labour has acted a feudal landlord in the East End, ignoring people because they could, not bothering even to leaflet much, secure in the knowledge that their seats were safe. This time, in Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking & Dagenham, they got a wake-up warning. In Tower Hamlets, RESPECT matched the BNP in Barking & Dagenham – they got twelve councillors elected. In Newham, three RESPECT and three candidates from the anti-war Christian Peoples Alliance were elected – with RESPECT Mayoral candidate Abdurahman Akhtar Jafar (an MCB official) gaining a good 15,881 votes. The class politics in decline since the Thatcher era are giving way to identity politics. Labour must be wetting themselves with fear for the next elections, and they are now vulnerable to lobbying as never before. British Muslims would be fools not to press local councils now on issues such as solidarity with the suffering Palestinians and opposition to war with Iran.
The BNP success, although distressing to Muslims (and others!), provides both opportunities and lessons. The time to seize those opportunities and learn those lessons is NOW.