Why Vote?

To participate or not to participate: a Muslim dilemma of our own creation

An article by Dr Abdelwahab El-Affendi, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, published in The Muslim News, February 2005

The very fact that a debate still rages on within the Muslim community over whether or not to participate fully in the democratic political process in Britain is in itself a reflection of the depth of the crisis facing the community. For one would have expected the questions preoccupying community leaders to be about how to make participation most effective, and not about whether to participate or not. This is especially so since one of the persistent complaints British Muslims continue to make is that of marginalisation and exclusion. In this regard, the continuing influence of voices calling for self-imposed exclusion and marginalisation is nothing short of ridiculous.

The Muslim community in Britain remains one of the most marginalised in the country. At a workshop organised at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster last November, the question was asked whether Muslims were turning into the new “underclass” in Britain. Experts revealed that Muslims represent a disproportionate component of the prison population and figure only patchily among the top achievers in the economy, academia or politics. While they are very well represented at the bottom league in every walk of life, Muslims are totally absent from Parliament and do not appear at all at the higher echelons of political party leadership. Thus while other communities can fight their corner and lobby for their interests from within the corridors of power, Muslims can only complain from the street or, like that famous lone protester, from Parliament Square.

This should have been a cause for panic among Muslim leaders and a spur for urgent and desperate action to remedy this worrying marginalisation, which could only get worse unless something drastic is done about it. Instead, however, Muslims are engaged in an irrelevant and sterile debate about whether participation in a secular political system conforms to Islamic values or not. Those who initiated this debate base themselves on a very narrow and restrictive understanding of Islamic values, ignoring the broader perspective. In Islam, as in any religion or value system, there are some core values, which the system seeks to promote, and a number of subsidiary and instrumental values, which represent the means to promote those values. Concentrating on the latter, may often lead to a situation where the demands of the core values are ignored or even contradicted.

A graphic example of such a pedantic and counterproductive adherence to subsidiary requirements at the expense of very basic ones was the conduct of the Saudi religious police in the holy city of Makkah in the spring of 2001, who prevented fire fighters from entering the dormitory of a girls’ school and saving the schoolgirls from a raging fire on the pretext that men should not be allowed access to the private quarters of women who are not related to them! As a result, about fifteen girls perished in that fire, and many more were seriously injured. In the eyes of God, as in the eyes of man, those ignoramuses were as responsible for the death and injuries of those girls as if they had murdered them themselves.

Similarly, the paramount Islamic value with regard to human interaction is that people should cooperate in promoting the good and refrain from cooperation in perpetrating evil. Democratic politics presents the best arrangement for peaceful cooperation in promoting the good and averting harm which human ingenuity has come up with up to date. Staying aloof from the process and the opportunities it offers, far from being a virtue, may be as much a crime as the misguided action of the Saudi religious police who obstructed the efforts to save lives on account of rules that may have been valid, but were irrelevant in the given circumstances. For standing on the sidelines means in effect subscribing to whatever the political process would produce in your absence. In this regard, the argument of the isolationists that Muslims should refrain from political participation because British foreign policy is hostile to Muslim interests is tantamount to endorsing that policy. For if this is true, then only effective participation can contribute to a positive change in these policies, while non-participation would ensure that they would continue or maybe become even more detrimental to Muslim interests due to pressures from other more effective actors.

In any case, this obsessive preoccupation with foreign policy to the exclusion of many other important areas of policy which are much more relevant to British Muslim interests is in itself a symptom of a serious problem. While British Muslims, like all other decent Britons, should feel aggrieved by the suffering of Palestinians or Iraqis, the fixation with these issues could give the erroneous impression that British Muslims only view British politics from the outside, as if the community is just one huge embassy for the Muslim world. That is not the case, nor should it be.

Muslims have thus turned their back on the Labour Party on account of its policies in Iraq and on the war on terror, and are desperately engaged in seeking alternatives, including some daft ones like the formation or backing of a new party (Respect). Here again, we must look at the big picture. The Labour Party’s foreign policy is unfortunately being driven by a lethal combination of Blairite paranoia and compulsive adherence to whatever happens to be the mood in Washington. This has in turn reflected itself in an internal stance on individual liberties, which has affronted most liberals but mainly victimised Muslims. However, one has to take other considerations into account before the Muslims decide on a mass desertion of the Labour Party. The Tories, who are the most likely to replace Labour if it loses, are going to be worse on all these counts, and their record on other issues of relevance to Muslims (social and educational policies, immigration, etc) already leaves a lot to be desired.

One can argue for a mass defection toward the Liberal Democratic Party, which continues to recommend sensible policies on most major issues, but has so far fallen short of projecting the credible image of a future ruling party. Transforming the Lib-Dems into government material is going to take a heroic effort. Does this mean that Muslims may have to stick with the Labour Party but work harder to reform it from within?

Not necessarily. It could certainly be argued that Muslims do not have the time, energy or the clout to invest heavily into a losing party. However, this may be precisely the challenge the British Muslim community may have to face up to. For Muslims to have a genuine transformative impact on British politics, they may need to transcend their hitherto parochial “minority” perspective and seek to forge a broader coalition of political and social interests to create a major mass movement. In this case, Muslims can help transform the Liberal Democratic party into a credible national force, becoming more effective nationally by being less parochial. Muslims could stick to their fringe interests of Halal meat and Muslim schools (not to mention Iraq and Palestine) and stay on the fringe, or they could look further and take on board the wider concerns of other citizens and achieve more as a result. Some indications about how this could be done can already be seen from the way the anti-war coalition evolved into a national non-sectarian endeavour, which expressed the broader concerns of a wide spectrum of viewpoints and interests. Muslims could similarly join other causes and issues to link up with the broader masses. What, for example, is the Muslim view on Europe? Or on hunting or global warming?

What is not an option is for Muslims to sit on the sidelines and sulk their mosques or tandoori restaurants, and leave the political fights to be done by others on their behalf. For that is not going to happen.

[Source: The Muslim News, No. 190, February 2005, www.muslimnews.co.uk]