British Muslims: Now is the time to build allies, not punish Labour

Ever since I’ve been voting, my guiding principle has been to support the party that demonstrates the most ability to offer effective leadership and a policy agenda conducive to a fair, pragmatic, and productive society that I want to live in, and one that strikes a good balance between individual and collective responsibility. This has led me to vote for various major parties over the years (Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems). In the last election in 2019, for example, I voted for Boris Johnson because, despite not voting for Brexit in the referendum, I realised that the country had chosen a different path that required Brexit legislation to be completed. I also voted for Boris Johnson because the economic policy of Jeremy Corbyn was verging on Marxism, which contradicted my own economic philosophy as well as, I believe, the vast majority of the British people’s.

Over the last few General Elections (GE), there has been much made of a “Muslim vote.” In the last election, I rejected such idea on the basis that the claims made were based on false analysis. You can read it here: Election 2019 Special: Reality Checking Muslim Manifesto (2019).

The idea has not gone away. In fact this time round for GE 2024, the idea of a “Muslim vote” has taken on a particular insidious boldness. The new branding of “The Muslim Vote” has been hijacked by populist Muslim organisations and activists with significant online reach, but with little track record of making allies across wider society, setting standards, and building reputable institutions. They want to campaign for election outcomes in targeted seats with the aim of ousting MPs that didn’t vote for a ceasefire out of anger at politicians not listening to British Muslims about what has unfolded in Gaza. They boldly claim that in 2024, they “will lay the foundation for our community’s political future.” They also claim, “For the first time, the Muslim community has united and is acting as one at the ballot box. And we’ve come well-prepared.” Apparently, there are 4 million of us Muslims with the same views and approach to voting, they claim.

The marketing claim has caught the attention of many Muslims, as I found out at Friday prayers at a mosque in Tooting in recent weeks, where there was a 10 minute sermon about “Muslim vote” which I couldn’t distinguish if it was something separate to the campaign.

Why “The Muslim Vote” campaign is not what it seems

  1. The campaign is called “Muslim,” but at the time of writing, I couldn’t find anything on its website about God, Islamic political theology, or anything to do with religion-based institutions and capacity building, so there is a big question as to how genuinely it is about being Muslim to God.
  2. The campaign makes an incorrect assumption that Muslims are somehow (now) united and would therefore vote tactically as a single block. This has never been the case. The closest to this is Muslims over-indexing voting for Labour. But, that’s hardly a “united vote,” and is surely reflective of the Labour Party historically being pro-working class and ethnic-friendly. There is of course unity in Islam but Islam also gives Muslims the freedom of diverse perspectives and priorities, political affiliations and individual aspirations. So this begs the question what is meant by “unity?” We must have the humility to refrain from grandiosity and posturing. This is not the way of believers. Hubris gets us nowhere.
  3. There is an incredible lack of foundational political theology in the campaign, which is more like what I call “gorilla voting tactics.” Threatening to vote in a rag-tag of Independents offers no new idea other than immaturely screaming, “You have to listen to us.” In response, for mainstream political parties, it would be reasonable to ask: “Listen to you on what if you don’t have worthy ideas to table or worse still if you intend to punish?” As we know from Islamic knowledge, without foundational usul or principles you can end up in all sorts of unintended entanglements. Yet, there is a vast source of Islamic political intellectual theology that we can draw upon that has many overlaps with Western traditions like individual liberty, social capitalism, market entrepreneurialism, communitarianism, cosmopolitan conservativism, One Nation conservativism, and so on. But proposing to cut off Muslimness from their intellectual traditions will end up pursuing a form of identity politics that actively undermines what Muslim voters need to discover – that is their driving purpose for shaping policy and the future, better, direction of the British Isles.
  4. It is inherently unbalanced to elevate a single geopolitical issue, in which Britain or its people hold minimal sway, to the status of the sole reason for casting a vote. On the issue of Israel, as everyone knows, it is the US that has all the say, independent of the UN or the UK; propping up Israel is sacrosanct to the US. The West, more widely is subject to incredible bias in favour of Israel because of its historic massacres of Jews (I wrote more about this here: The reductive nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict – a balanced Muslim perspective). Unfortunately, that is the reality. Given this reality, it would be far more productive to live with the hope for Labour’s historical instinct of championing the Palestinian cause than assuming that the likes of David Lammy MP and others in the Labour Party have become completely useless. Moreover, what about the myriad other pressing issues such as the economy, healthcare, education, industrial strategy, and investment, which arguably hold more direct relevance to British Muslims? If we consider the Prophet’s teachings, which, in some cases, prioritised responsibilities such as caring for elderly parents over joining military expeditions, it begs the question: can we see the wood for the trees?

It hurts us very badly that over 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed and 2.3 million lives have been upended by a heinous, extreme right-wing Israeli regime that is hell bent on genocide. We can’t help but shed tears seeing footage on our screen. And there is a palpable, unforgiveable, sense of deep hypocrisy of Western nations, particularly the US, as well as neighbouring Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that our human mooring is completely unable to fathom. But, this being the case, at the same time, we need to learn to channel our anger in productive ways. This isn’t easy, I get it. Our emotions and hurt is strong, and right now it feels like Western leaders don’t have any morality and humanity left. But we must, as I believe the Prophet wouldn’t have wanted us to act with haste, and God demands intelligence.

Reality check?

The reality is that the Labour Party is set to win a huge majority at the General Election in 2024, despite Muslims having sway in key towns. And let’s not forget that many Labour MPs did vote for calling for a ceasefire, such as the two Luton MPs, Sarah Owen and Rachel Hopkins, both of whom duly resigned from their shadow cabinet roles to do so. In light of these circumstances, the pertinent question arises: is it wise for Muslims to jeopardise their relationship with the Labour Party, particularly at a pivotal moment when the nation stands on the cusp of a new government following fourteen years of turbulence characterised by austerity measures and the Brexit saga dominating policy discussions?

Calls to punish Labour for taking the “Muslim votes” for granted couldn’t have come at a worse time. It seems, the self-aggrandising, foresight-lacking, attitude has gone from “only vote for Labour” in 2019 presumably because Jeremy Corbyn was its leader to “let’s punish Labour” mode for not doing enough for Gaza. There is also little recognition that Independents rarely achieve much. So, they’re calling for something that will not only marginalise Muslim voters, this time with Labour but also, unwittingly, by consequence, usher in less influence in Parliament by aligning with Independents. Politics is about building consensus and working hard to get laws and policies through the legislative and budget processes. That is unlikely to happen through Independents. The worse outcome here is that despite the vocal “punish Labour” rhetoric, Labour still manages to win a landslide victory, what then for “Muslims?” What incentive would there be for Labour to form allyship with Muslim communities?

The last thing Muslims, and the wider country, need is a hung parliament or a Labour government with only a slender majority. If that happens, politically, things will remain tricky for Muslims. Culture wars will see a new light of day. The Conservative Party will have little incentive to embrace a more inclusive One-Nation approach. And the much-needed policy reforms and new initiatives that the UK so badly needs will be more challenging to deliver on.

Moreover, Muslims must avoid being associated with dubious Independent candidates, particularly those aligned with fringe political elements. Such alliances could perpetuate the misconception that Muslims are not natural allies of mainstream parties, further marginalising them from political influence. Not least, the PR-damaging risks a rag-tag of Independent MPs will likely bring for Muslims. Is this how we seek honour and dignity (‘izza) to return to Muslims and Islam? Or is this another step in locking out British Muslims, in the name of Muslims, from yet another mainstream political party for another generation?

Muslims need to be in the business of building allies

Instead, what we need to be doing is building allies. Allyship is so important. It sparks innovation by challenging established norms and practices, and it helps reduce biases. Allies can be built across all political parties and Labour should be a top priority right now.

  • Allies emerge from building relationships founded on trust (amanah) and sincerity (Ikhlas). Trust and sincerity should be core pillars of any Muslim value system. A prerequisite here is for Muslims to understand the art of building trust. Too often Muslims in the public are preoccupied with “explaining what’s going on” rather than asking “how could I build trust with people that I need help from?” Trust requires being honest and avoiding grandiosity. It requires using appropriate and productive language and attitude, which sadly too many Muslims in public engagement lack, because either they are motivated by ideology (so they resort to confrontation or nit-picking) or they haven’t been trained well-enough in the adab (good manners) of interactions (i.e. they don’t know how to speak in the public realm as believers). The big elephant in the room for many Muslims involved in political engagement is that they can’t see that to build trust with outside groups, they need to have a plan to address the challenges within Muslim communities. Otherwise, as has been the case for over 20 years, they signal that Muslim communities don’t need to reform and it’s all about power structures external to them where responsibility lies (victim mentality). Clearly, this very principle itself is un Islamic. But, sadly, there is very little sign that this bias is being recognised and addressed.
  • Allies emerge from acknowledging and appreciating other’s efforts. This is about showing gratitude to others for good that they do or benefit or value added. It means refraining from coupling disagreements on issues like defining Islamophobia with an overarching judgment on others’ policies that may benefit Muslims. It also entails fairness in assessing others and discerning the appropriate time and place for contentious discussions. Regrettably, many Muslims in the public sphere limit their interactions with politicians and policies to isolated points of disagreement, overlooking the broader scope of shared challenges awaiting collective action.
  • Allies emerge through educating others in a balanced way. Too often Muslims in the public sphere don’t do enough to explain and educate others about challenges Muslim communities face. They make the mistake of not looking at the totality of a problem – intentionally leaving out their own vulnerability or things that might work against them. Or, they make the mistake of allowing themselves to get co-opted into the ideological battle between left and right by promoting or collaborating with one political leaning over another. This embroils Muslims in identity politics.
  • Allies emerge by focusing inwardly within the Muslim community on the value of being Muslim to others. As the great Abu ‘l-Hasan ‘Ali al-Nadwi said in a speech in the inauguration of the Dewsbury Markaz in 1982 (42 years ago), “My dear brothers, you must earn your recognition in this country. You should earn your place and leave an imprint on the host community of your value and significance. You must show your exemplary conduct is far nobler than that of other people. You must impart on them the lessons of humanity. You should demonstrate such commitment and noble virtues that impress on people that there cannot be found more upright humans elsewhere besides you. You need to establish your worth, showing what blessing and mercy you are for the country.” Many Muslims today, influenced by left-wing ideology and short term activism, will criticise this speech. However, it encapsulates the core essence of Islamic insights into how to go about in effectively winning hearts and minds.

We pray for God’s protection, guidance and good leadership.

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