The needs of British Muslims for being active in British politics

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Barrister Nazir Ahmed

I aim to divide the article into four small parts.  Firstly, I will briefly discuss about the nature of British politics and democratic norms.  Secondly, I will shortly elaborate the historical [gradual] participation of the Muslim community in the British politics.  Thirdly, I aim briefly to talk about Islam, Muslim community and the British politics.  Fourthly, I will explore the needs of British Muslims for being active in British politics.  From my discussion and analysis, I will draw some conclusions. 

Nature of British politics and democratic norms
Britain is considered as hallmark of democracy in many countries, especially in the so called third world/developing countries.  Britain has a parliamentary system of government where Parliament consists of three elements, namely the House of Commons, House of Lords and the Monarchy.  The Monarch is considered as hereditary Head of the State and a national safeguard.  Therefore, British Parliament is a bicameral legislature: it consists of two Houses, which is common in most of the legislatures around the world.

In the British parliamentary system, the government is selected from, and is accountable to, Parliament.  Whichever party has a majority of seats in the Commons, its leader becomes Prime Minister.  S/he then forms his/her cabinet choosing his/her most able and loyal supporters from both Houses of Parliament.   
In developed countries like Britain, significant autonomy and power are given/delegated to local authorities.  Local authorities are run by the representatives (councillors and so on) directly elected by the local people.  In local authorities, Leaders, Deputy Leaders, Mayors, Deputy Mayors are elected from among the elected councillors.  In some authorities (i.e. London Borough of Tower hamlets, New Ham), however, Mayors are directly elected by voters of the concerned authorities.  
In the British democracy, tolerance, civil liberties, mutual respect, freedom of expression, justice and rule of law are fundamental norms and traditions.  Eminent political philosopher Voltaire characterised British democracy/tradition as “I do not agree on what you say, but I will defend to my death your right to say it.”
Muslim community
We had a generation (our predecessors) who came to the UK with the intention of leaving the UK once they earned sufficient amount of money.  Most of them did not even take British citizenship.  They considered the UK as alien/foreign country. They hardly thought of British politics, let alone being actively involved.  They were considered as peaceful and law abiding citizens.  In fact, until 9/11 in the USA and more specifically until 7/7 in London, Muslims in the UK were by and large considered peaceful citizens, busy with their own distinct culture and religion.   

Those days have gone.  We have now home grown Muslim community in the UK.  Many of us consider this country of our own.  In fact, hundreds of thousands of Muslims are born, brought up and educated in the UK.  Britain is not only their homeland, but it is their birthplace too.  The number of Muslims is steadily increasing day by day.  Although our older generation still tends to concentrate and becomes involved on politics of their back home (this is generally true for the communities of the Indian sub-continent, more particularly Bangladeshi community), younger generation is concerned on what is happening here.               
According to the ‘2001 Census’ there are about 60 millions people in the UK, out of which 3% were Muslims.  This is equivalent to approximately 1.8m Muslims in the UK.  This figure would be quite high now particularly after the last census.  It is estimated that there are now around 3m Muslims in the UK.  The presence of Muslims is visible in each and every town and city of the UK.  In spite of having significant numbers of Muslims in the UK, all Muslims are not politically active.  British Muslims began joining the mainstream political parties in the 1960s and the first councillor, Bashir Maan, was elected in 1970.  Until quite recently the political affiliation was almost exclusively with the labour party.  However, there are a lot of Muslims who have recently been politically active. Their activity and contribution played a greater role in building multicultural Britain.  In other words, their role and contricbution resulted us having quite a few members of the both Houses of Parliament and European Parliament.  In accordance with the 2002 census, there were 219 councillors.  Currently this number has crossed 300.  Muslim community can have their voice locally as well as in the both Houses of Parliament.
However, according to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) there is still a strong case of under representation of ethnic minority candidates (including Muslims) in political positions.  The report, which calls for urgent positive action, has found that there are only twelve black and Asian MPs, a figure which should be around fifty in order to be more reflective of the demographic situation of the UK.  2.5% of the councillors are from ethnic minority while there should be around 6% and there should be around six black and Asian members of the Greater London Authority (GLA) whereas in reality there are only two.  
With the slow but steady growing involvement of Muslims in the British political process, the Muslim community seems to be coming of age in its dealing with the establishment.  This has, however, not been an easy process and still the degree of involvement with the state and politics remains one that is easily influenced by a number of different factors.  Among these factors are the climate of cooperation (which may depend, in turn, on local, national and international politics), the degree of acculturation or integration of the Muslim community and how responsive the government appears to be to the sensitivities and needs of the British Muslim community.
There are numerous ways by which Muslims have entered the political arena: as candidates for political parties, as a lobby group entering into dialogue with the parties.  In addition to these engaging approaches there are also cases of those who have sought to find a political role outside the mainstream political system.  Whatever the engagement and political approaches Muslims take, the more Muslims become active in British politics the better the result for themselves as well as for their fellow community.   
Islam, Muslim community and British politics
Apart from one or two exception(s), traditions of Islam can easily be reconciled with the British politics and democratic norms.  Consultation (shurah), majority decision, accountability, mutual respect, tolerance, rule of law, human rights are the traditions and norms of British politics.  These traditions and norms are widely mentioned and practised in Islam.  Consultation, accountability and democratic decision making processes are not only mentioned in Islam, they were actively encouraged.  We know in spite of having all skills, knowledge and God guidance of taking unilateral decision, how our beloved Prophet (pbuh) did consultation with his companions, shahabas.  Accountability is the heart of democratic process.  We know how Omor ®, the second Caliph, had shown the example of accountability.  Ruler of half of the world could have been stopped in the middle of speech by an ordinary woman!        

In ideological terms, one of the most important Prophetic duties was spreading the true message of Islam.  Prophet (pbuh) did not speard the message of Islam through gun, sword or terrorism.  He won the hearts and minds of the people by character, exemplary financial transaction and excellent behaviour.  Similarly, as a follower of our Prophet (pbuh) it is our primary duty to spread the true spirit of Islam.  By being involved in politics we can have access to the wider community and can mix with fellow citizens of the country.  As Muslims we can take this advantage to spread the true message of Islam and win the hearts and minds of the people by our character, and example of good deeds.       
The needs of British Muslims for being active in British politics
We can have access to the wider community and mix with fellow citizens.  As a result, we, as Muslims, can discharge our primary duties of spreading the true message of Islam.  If we do not get involved in politics, our Muslim community would be segregated from the mainstream society.  It would consequently lead to isolation.  By being politically active, we can also participate at policy levels of the decision making processes.  It should be noted that it is easier to influence at policy levels if Muslims are politically active but it would be very difficult to influence at operation level if Muslims are passive in politics.  For example, demonstration against war in Iraq.  Millions of people marched through the streets of London without success.  Being minority we may not always change the decision itself, but we can have our voice and concerns heard before decisions are actually taken.  It will ensure that minimum inconveniences are caused to us.  If we do not get involved in mainstream politics, we may be deprived of our rights and entitlements. When decisions are taken at policy level our voices and concerns may not properly be heard.  Muslims, by political campaign, can seek changes in service provision, public opinion and law.  If Muslims become politically passive, it would be easier for the radical political parties and a section of the media to target the Muslim community and portray our image according to their wishes and desires.  If large numbers of Muslims become involved in politics, radicalism and fanaticism may be diminished or can at least be minimised.  Furthermore, Muslims can fight with rest of the community against racism, Islamophobia etc.  Also Muslims can work with rest of the society for the common good.  Above all, being active in British politics will help us all to celebrate the values and benefits of diversity whilst developing a greater sense of community responsibility, common citizenship and shared values.  

Finally, some Muslims played greater role and made significant contribution in British politics.  9/11 and 7/7 made the Muslim community in the West very vulnerable and easy target.  The incidents in London and Glasgow have made the matter worse.  Terrorism is terrorism.  No religion can come with it.  Whoever commits crime and terrorises innocent people should be given exemplary punishment.  There may be some extremists and fanatics who may think otherwise, two million Muslims in the UK are law abiding and peaceful citizens.  They are part of the society.  In order to have our greater say in the both Houses of Parliament and our concerns heard properly at all policy levels, wherever it may be, we need to be pro-active in politics.  Islam teaches us that ‘Islam is a complete code of life.’  Therefore, politics is not out of the boundary of Islam.  Without compromising our basic tenets of Islam, we should involve in British politics in a wider scale and share the values and norms of modern democrative British society that do not contradict to our beliefs.

There may be challenges that Muslims may face while living in a non-Muslims society like Britain.  However, these should not deter the Muslims.  We can take lessons from our beloved Prophet Muhammed (pbuh).  Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) lived for thirteen years in Makkah in a society that on the whole rejected his teachings, his views on morality, behaviour and conduct.  Yet this did not deter him from trying to influence all the possible avenues of power in his society.  Therefore, taking this lesson Muslims should endeavour to be positive role models in British politics. 
Barrister Nazir Ahmed is an UK based legal expert, analyst, writer and author.

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