Britain’s Muslim community is sufficient in number to have a significant impact in the coming general election. Muslim voters are an “untapped resource” with the potential to seal the outcome of at least 32 constituencies; that would be more seats than the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and Green Party combined, based on the latest opinion polls.
In all likelihood, however, the potential for influence will remain unrealised because the Muslim vote is not organised in any meaningful way on a national level. It is swayed by no group or institution; and mosques, contrary to what some believe, are not in the business of exploiting the sincerity of Muslims to influence how they vote.
How then does a rarefied idea like “the Muslim vote” shed light on the voting patterns and political concerns of Britain’s three million Muslim citizens? It’s a question that has been asked in different ways up and down the country, particularly by those who want to tackle the problem of Muslims’ political disengagement and apathy.
The 53 per cent of Muslims who did not vote in the 2010 general election cannot be explained by the archaic theological argument still pushed by the tiny “voting is forbidden” brigade. Such an extremely marginal position was discredited over a decade ago, I was assured by MEND, a Muslim engagement organisation.
Mosques, Muslim leaders and institutions up and down the country are careful not to give any credence to this tedious debate and are far more concerned with educating Muslims about their civic responsibilities. It is seen as a pressing issue, so much so that MEND, MPAC, MCB, You Elect and others like them have sprung up to work closely with mosques and community leaders to advance the political engagement of the Muslim community.
“It’s not simply a case of getting Muslims to vote,” said Azad Ali, MEND’s Head of Community Development and Engagement. “It’s about getting Muslims to develop a more holistic and healthy attitude towards politics because they have a stake in this country.”
This organic evolution of the Muslim community is more or less a consequence of being defined increasingly by faith and pushed into a homogenised political group. In the post-9/11 world “Muslimness” has become more of a significant factor for the status and position of Muslims in society than alternative cultural identities like Bangladeshi or Pakistani, two communities which make up the majority of Muslims in Britain.
History suggests that little brings a community together more than a shared experience such as discrimination and persecution. It’s a narrative that has, unfortunately, become reliably applicable to British Muslims, however strongly it may be contested by sections of the Establishment.
The government’s “counter-terrorism”, “counter-radicalisation” and “counter-extremism” programmes have cast doubt and suspicion over Muslims. Consequently, many British citizens feel that their country is pushing them into a parallel world while the state veers further away from them simply because they are Muslims. This view is amplified further by Home Secretary Teresa May’s promise to “give greater powers to authorities to close down mosques” while also passing draconian measures like the CTS Bill, which is a step closer to Britain becoming a police state.
Evidence for why Muslims are feeling threatened in this way isn’t hard to find, especially as the political storm engulfing Britain is blustering in from the right. Over recent years the British political landscape has undergone unfamiliar levels of change. We are witnessing a rare move from the traditional two-party system and the emergence of new parties attracting the support of the electorate, notably the Scottish National Party and UK Independence Party.
For British Muslims these developments are reasons to feel greater concern rather than hope, with the traditional parties being challenged not by popular movements demanding a more equal, fair and tolerant society, but by right-wing movements such as the English Defence League and Britain First, and UKIP.
This restructuring of the British political landscape has fostered a more hostile political climate and forced traditional mainstream parties to lurch further to the right themselves in order to benefit from potential supporters who might turn to such fringe groups. Reversing this trend is high up the agenda for Muslims around Britain and Muslim organisations have identified this as a key battleground.
Speaking to representatives of Muslim engagement groups, it is clear that Islamaphobia and wider discrimination against Muslims is the single most important concern. Although education, health, taxation, the future of the NHS, access to interest-free student loans and an ethical foreign policy can all influence how Muslims will cast their vote, it is the rise of Islamaphobia together with draconian “anti-terror” laws which are seen as the biggest challenge because of the disproportionately negative effects on the Muslim community.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey provide a clear picture of the extent of discrimination against Muslims. New research concludes that religion causes more prejudice than race, thus Muslims face “double discrimination” and “compounded discrimination” because they are mainly non-white and suffer from the rise of Islamaphobia.
Muslims men are 76 per cent less likely to have a job compared to their white British non-Muslim counterparts. They are the most disadvantaged in terms of employment prospects out of 14 ethno-religious groupings.
The Centre for Social Investigation at Oxford University’s Nuffield College, which carried out this research, also concludes that those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi background have around three times the risk of being in poverty than their white neighbours. It is an image of a disempowered community trapped in a vicious cycle; a community that, as a result of entrenched prejudice and Islamaphobia, has disengaged from politics, which has in turn fuelled more prejudice and Islamaphobia. This generational failure has produced an atmosphere of hostility that is now endemic within British politics.
The numbers back this up. Muslims are indeed less likely than other minority groups to be registered to vote according to a poll carried out by Ipso Mori for the electoral commission. The 2010 voter turnout of only 47 per cent is considerably below the national average of 65 per cent.
However, numbers alone don’t tell the whole story because Muslim political engagement is far more complex. Over recent years we’ve seen a conflicting image of Britain’s Muslim community, portrayed on the one hand as politically disengaged (a view that’s based largely on voter turnout), while on the other Muslims’ political engagement is viewed with suspicion and met with accusations of “entryism”.
It’s an accusation that, at the very least, discourages some Muslims from engaging with the political process, especially given the community’s demography. The Muslim community has the youngest age profile of all religious groups with 48 per cent of British Muslims aged 24 and under; this is the age group that is the least likely to vote and the most politically disengaged nationally. The parallel, however, shouldn’t be taken at face value.
The youthfulness of the community is just another layer of the overall complexity of the situation. Young Muslims’ identity has been constructed against the backdrop of negative perceptions about their faith and loyalty despite the fact that a recent BBC poll claims that 95 per cent of Muslims feel loyal to Britain and 93 per cent say that they should obey British laws.
Most of Britain’s Muslims were teenagers when the 9/11 attacks took place and went through their formative years in a hostile atmosphere surrounded by the discourse of “radicalisation”, “extremism” and “integration”. They have grown up in communities subjected to extreme scrutiny and suspicion, which helps to explain why there is a lack of engagement and why a small minority sometimes lash out.
This aspect of Britain’s Muslim community needs to be appreciated while tackling the root causes of Islamaphobia, which is regarded widely as the major cause of Muslim disengagement. Like all prejudice, it’s born out of fear, ignorance and suspicion created in part by the media. A highly relevant example is the perception of the size of the Muslim community as whole. According to an Ipso MORI poll, Britons overestimate the size of the country’s Muslim community; it is believed generally that one in five British citizens is a Muslim (21 per cent) when the actual figure is 5 per cent (one in twenty). Thus, the “Muslim problem” and the public’s fear of Islam can be put down to a noxious combination of false perceptions and disproportionately negative news stories that appear on a daily basis.
The “Muslim vote” will be undergoing its very own natural revolution. More and more MPs will recognise, just as the former MP and deputy leader of the Labour Party Roy Hattersley confessed back in 2005, that they “took the Muslim vote for granted- but that has all changed”. A study of demographic changes in Britain shows that non-engagement isn’t going to be a problem for the Muslim community.
Successive governments have been willing to ignore Muslims in the past, despite their fast-growing numbers. Some government minsters, like Eric Pickles, continue to bask in the anti-Muslim atmosphere by holding all Muslims to account for the terrorism committed by a mindless minority. This cannot continue. Would-be politicians have to accept that their Muslim constituents have every right to be listened to; Muslims, meanwhile, have to understand that this places them in a very strong position to push for positive changes. The Muslim vote is indeed a growing factor in Britain’s political equation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.