BRITISH-MUSLIMS AND THE ELECTION
The US Presidential elections saw Muslim and Arab-Americans making a serious impact for the first time. A report in Florida’s Metrowest Daily, November 11, concerning Florida’s 100,000 Muslim-Americans observed that ‘A record number of Muslim first-time voters may have tipped the presidential election in George Bush’s favor, according to a poll released yesterday by the …American Muslim Alliance. About 91 percent of Muslims in Florida cast ballots for Bush as part of an alliance endorsed voting bloc…’ This pattern was repeated across America. Both Arab-Americans (at least half of whom are Christian) and Muslim-Americans voted en bloc for Bush in large numbers, many for the first time, because Bush was perceived as less negative on Palestine. They may have been crucial in securing his election. American politicians now ignore the Arab/Muslim vote at their peril. Significantly, Bush’s Cabinet includes two Arab-Americans.
The American model centred on mobilisation and identification of unsympathetic candidates. The Muslim Public Affairs Committee published a sophisticated guide to evaluating congressional hopefuls, including questionnaires explaining the Muslim agenda and requesting a response. The American Muslim Political Coordinating Council Political Action Committee publicly endorsed Bush, and most Muslim voters acted on this recommendation. This advice was aided by ‘American Muslim Voter Registration Day’, September 15, when voter-registration tables were set up in mosques nation-wide. The American Muslim Alliance also examined congressional candidates and recommended certain aspirants. ‘Muslim Political Action Committees’ were formed at local levels to mobilise voters for chosen candidates. This co-ordinated action at both national and local levels with clear guidelines as to which candidates should receive Muslim/Arab votes appears to have been critical in making the electoral impact for Muslim/Arab voters.
Could this ‘success story’ be reproduced here? There are crucial differences. In America, the Arab community is well-established and politically-experienced, and Muslims were able to build on that foundation. In contrast, British-Arab community organisation is in its infancy, although recently a meeting was held by the ‘Arab Action Committee for the General Elections 2001’, to co-ordinate a community response to the prospect of Parliamentary elections. The major British-Muslim reaction has been the MCB document Electing to Listen, suggesting an agenda the community wishes addressed. There are no surprises in the publication, which in many ways is a development of UKACIA’s document, Elections 1997 and British Muslims.
Previously, the MCB endorsed neither party nor any particular candidate, nor made any attempt to mobilise British-Muslim voters. In the absence of such a course of action, most Muslims voted for their individual preferences. Usually, this meant that they voted Labour. I once listened to an official from East London Mosque talking to a film unit during the campaign for land extension, stating that the local Labour council takes their votes for granted. The likelihood is that in this election the Labour leadership will merely makes some compliments about the community, promise to ‘consider’ their concerns, and then ignore them, secure in the knowledge that when push comes to shove, Muslims will vote Labour. Since they will receive few Muslim votes, the Tories will also pay them scant attention. There is no incentive for any party to do otherwise.
There are some indications that British Muslims are finally mobilising on the lines of their US equivalents, and this may alter matters. Dr Razia Ismail has organised the ‘votesmart’ campaign (www.votesmart.org.uk), informally linked to the MCB, informing Muslims how MPs have voted or spoken on issues such as Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Section 28, etc., with advice on whether the MP should receive Muslim votes. Two MPs definitely targeted are Ilford’s Mike Gapes and Southgate’s Steve Twigg, both committed supporters of the Zionist regime. The voting/speeches record of individual MPs will be sent to mosques to inform Muslim electors. The campaign includes an ‘Activist’s Toolkit’, and information on marginal seats where Muslim votes could be crucial.
A major problem for British-Muslims is that they are often led by older immigrants or imported ulema who do not fully understand British politics. They lack the political sophistication of their American brethren, and are easily bought off by patronage or even photo-opportunities with Cabinet Ministers! This might make it difficult to establish local ‘Muslim Political Action Committees’ here, or even mosque-based ‘voter-registration drives’, to which media and candidates are invited to observe the mobilisation of the community. Yet the American experience suggests that this is an essential step, apart from which the British-Muslim campaign is doomed.
That British-Muslims can influence events through elections is demonstrated by the success of the Justice for Kashmir party in Birmingham. Traditionally, Labour favoured ‘secular’ (and often socialist-led) India over Pakistan, and has been conscious of the increasing sophistication and emerging wealth of British-Hindus, resulting in de facto sympathy for the Indian position on Kashmir. However, the JFK Party’s capture of council seats unnerved the Labour-led council, which promptly issued a statement of support for Kashmiri self-determination. Whilst this could not realistically be reproduced in the Parliamentary sphere, it shows what is possible when local communities – traditional Labour voters – send a message that failure to support their concerns will cost votes and seats. If British-Muslim and Arab voters vote en bloc against individual candidates with negative views on issues such as Palestine in the forthcoming election, the parties might finally have to take serious notice of Muslim/Arab concerns.