Having been ‘courted’ by the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) a few years ago, I remain privvy to their web forums and discussions (please though don’t tell them). An interesting thread of late has been the debate about whether or not Muslims and Muslim organisations should publicly endorse political parties and their representatives. In this particular instance, the thread referred to the public backing recently given to Ken Livingstone via an open letter to the Guardian. The debate has at times been quite heated and is split approximately 60/40 between those who do think that Muslims should offer public endorsements and those who do not (respectively? Is this grammatically required here – let me know).
Within the ‘do not’ camp is where I would firmly position myself. Without dismissing anyone on the list or indeed the organisations they represent, it would seem to me that in the current climate, having such groups as those listed endorsing you could be the final nail in the coffin (a la the Guardian, possibly) or at the very least, a long slow kiss of death infecting the recipient with a terminal illness that brings about a lengthy and protracted demise (a la the backlash Red Ken received following the visit of Yusuf al-Qaradawi). Beyond mere ‘should we’, ‘shouldn’t we’ discussions however, such ringing endorsements embed more serious problems, in my opinion at least.
First, championing ‘Muslim-only’ issues will continue to reinforce the stereotypical view that Muslims are inward looking isolationists, concerned only about themselves. Whilst the Guardian letter notes that Livingstone would be good ‘for all Londoners’, it does feel like this is something of an afterthought and that benefiting all Londoners – rather than just those of a Muslim persuasion – is incidental to the endorsees overall objective.
This is also problematic in other ways. A few weeks ago in Birmingham, a prominent Muslim organisation spoke at a conference about the educational under-achievement of young Muslims. What was problematic for me was that the speaker never once mentioned that other communities were experiencing the same levels of under-achievement, preferring instead to argue that this was – in some way, albeit never explained – evidence of Islamophobia in today’s Britain. Aside from dismissing the argument about Islamophobia (it’s clearly not), this was a lost opportunity as recent reports and statistics have shown that educational under-achievement is anything but a ‘Muslim-only’ (for ‘Muslim’ read Pakistani and Bangladesi only) issue. Instead, it is a serious issue that affects black and more recently white, lower socio-economic communities also. Little, if indeed any, evidence therefore exists to suggest that educational under-achievement is in any way related to any particular religion or religious identity. In doing so, not only did the Muslims at the conference – and beyond – miss the opportunity to find common ground with other communities finding themselves in a similar position but they also reinforced the widespread stereotypical view that they are both isolationist and exclusivist.
Secondly, the open letter somewhat inappropriately for a local election states that:
‘[Livingstone’s] stands and policies have constantly championed justice in the Middle East and around the world, freedom for the Palestinians and withdrawal of occupying troops from Iraq’
Having lived in London for more than twenty years and having family still living there in one form or another, I’m not sure how this would convince floating ‘non-Muslim’ Londoners to think about voting for him. Most Londoners – I presume and include Muslim Londoners in this also – would not have at the top of their list of concerns neither justice in the Middle East nor freedom for Palestinians. Both of course are extremely worthy and noble things to strive for but being brutally realistic, not something that is in the forefront of the average ‘man/ woman on the street’.
However, I am certain that if asked, those same Londoners would probably be more concerned with the levels of crime, the cleanliness of their streets and the affordability of housing rather more so than justice somewhere else in the world. This is not to state that championing such causes are unprincipled or that similarly influential public figures should not take such approaches, but instead merely to suggest that knowing your audience and getting the tone, pitch and content right is much more important than offering a rallying cry for (some) Muslims alone. Because of this, it wouldn’t take long for the average ‘man/ woman on the street’ to have the stereotype easily reinforced that Muslims are more concerned about what goes on ‘over there’ in ‘their countries’ than what goes on ‘over here’ in ‘our country’. Hopefully, the BNP won’t quote me on this.
Finally, since the visit of al-Qaradawi to London and the welcome afforded by Livingstone, many of the current mayor’s detractors have used his pro-Muslim bias as a weapon to beat him with. Whether this is fair or not I am genuinely unsure, but given the debacle around the ‘Search for Common Ground’ report that I contributed to last year and the fall-out from that (which formed a significant part of Martin Bright’s attack on Livingstone in Channel 4’s Dispatches programme last night), you would have thought that heightening awareness of Ken’s pro-Muslim tendencies or the links he has with certain Muslim organisations – many of which have elsewhere fallen out of favour with all and sundry – might have warranted more thought from those concerned. As a friend of mine put it to me earlier today, such a faux pas could easily be interpreted as little more than “a ‘reward’ to Ken for inviting Yusuf over” by all those concerned.
Since the open letter to the Guardian, Boris Johnson has responded by saying that he was “not remotely worried” by the statement of support:
“My grandfather was a Muslim and so was my great-grandfather. I am proud of my Muslim ancestry…But I want to talk about the interests of Londoners. I don’t care what religion they are. I want to look after people from all communities”.
Without endorsing Boris whatsoever – personally, I’ve been a fan of Red Ken for years and if I were living in London and there was an election tomorrow, I would vote for him without question – I do find myself agreeing with him as it would seem that what he is voicing here is the crux of the matter: namely that “I want to look after people from all communities”. Whether he does or not is another matter and we may well get the opportunity to find out sooner rather than later, but what the endorsees and their open letter have done is to put the ball firmly into Boris’ court and to provide Livingstone’s growing army of detractors with even more ammunition to use against him.
Let’s hope that recent reports are wrong when they state that Boris is now only 1% behind Ken in the opinion polls and that any further open letters (read ‘glowing endorsements’) are written so that they are seen to benefit all and not just Muslims. If they don’t, then will someone please get them put on hold or are at least thought about before any such decisions are made.