UK elections show the need for Muslim institutions

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The general elections in Britain on May 5 brought about more or less the result that most informed observers were expecting: the re-election of the Labour government led by prime minister Tony Blair, but with a much reduced majority in the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament. For Muslim observers, the main points of interest were the revelations about the legal advice on which Britain went to war in Iraq, which was finally published by the government a week before the elections took place, in response to leaks of the advice published in the anti-war press; the performance of George Galloway, a former Labour Member of Parliament who had been expelled from the party because of his outspoken criticism of the war in Iraq (as well as a long record of dissident stands on other issues); and, a distant third, the fact that the number of Muslim in the Commons increased to four, all representing the Labour Party.

The publication of the legal advice provided to the government on the legality of the war proved to be a relative damp squib; the real interest was in the revelations that preceded it, which showed that the Attorney General, Britain’s chief law officer, had had serious doubts about the legality of the US plan before ultimately, under political pressure, and only days before the invasion was due to take place, giving the government the advice it needed, that the invasion would be legal. The media’s coverage also confirmed that almost all of the independent legal advice was that the war would be illegal. Although the Iraq issue undoubtedly raised questions with voters about the honesty and openness of the government, and may have cost Blair votes from some sectors of the electorate, notably Muslims and the committed anti-war lobby, it was never going to be enough to prevent Blair from being re-elected.

The election of Galloway, defeating a senior Labour member in a previously-safe Labour constituency, albeit one with with an exceptionally large Muslim minority, was some consolation for Muslims angry at Blair for his pro-American stance. The disappointment at the poor performance of his new Respect Party elsewhere in the country, with many of its candidates being Muslim, was offset by the immediate controversy about Galloway that arose in America, when a Senate committee accused him of having benefited financially from the Saddam regime’s manipulation of the UN ‘oil for food’ program during the 1990s. Galloway demanded the right to reply to the committee’s allegations, flew to Washington, and appeared before the committee, where he launched a typically forthright attack on the US’s own policies regarding Iraq, both before and after the invasion, as well as defending his own conduct. In the bigger picture, however, his presence in the House of Commons for the next four years, and his continued defiance of the US, will achieve little or nothing of substance, for Muslims or anybody else.

After the elections, some Muslims were at pains to point out, for Muslims to be proportionately represented in Parliament, there would have to be 20 Muslim MPs rather than four. However, the fact that Galloway’s performance was the major point of interest in the elections for Muslims is a reflection of the irrelevance of Muslim involvement in mainstream British politics. The late Dr. Kalim Siddiqui pointed out that Muslims elected to office while members of mainstream political parties would always be expected to serve their parties’ agendas before the interests and concerns of the Muslim community. Muslims who insist on taking positions of principle on issues concerning Muslims will never be permitted to run for office on a mainstream party ticket; only those Muslims would be permitted to do so whom the Party leadership can trust to serve their interests, by making them appear inclusive and Muslim-friendly, without being difficult by taking unpopular positions on major issues. One of Galloway’s major points during his election campaign was that Muslims in the Labour Party had had to toe Blair’s line on Iraq.

This is why Dr Kalim believed that Muslims have to develop strong community institutions outside mainstream politics, in order to be able to represent Islam and Muslims from a position of strength. Nearly a decade after his death, and after the Muslim Parliament that he created dissolved amidst factional infighting, the Muslim experience in the latest elections confirms that his analysis of the needs of British Muslims, and of Muslims living as minorities in other Western countries, remains as relevant as ever.

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