British Muslims are being demonised for voting

British Muslims are being demonised for voting

As Muslims exercise their democratic rights alongside millions of other Brits, the rise in Islamophobia has reached an intolerable cacophany writes Dr Shabna Begum.

There was much that was predictable about this month’s local and mayoral election results: the usual deliberation about winners and losers, dissection of swings and margins, and hand wringing about apathy and turnout. But there was one significant difference - - Muslim voters became a critical focus for post-election analysis. In the weeks since, Muslim people have been represented as a dangerous internal enemy, manipulating the privileges of British democracy to satisfy their egregious ambitions that sit fundamentally at odds with the traditions of British society and values. For many of us in Muslim communities, the rise of Islamophobia has reached an intolerable cacophony. Yet those across the political spectrum would seem to deny it is happening at all.

Even before final results were declared, one Labour Party source in the Midlands was reported as saying that the party would lose the Mayoral contest as a result of the 'Middle East, not West Midlands' - a disparaging reference to Labour Muslim voters who were branded as having inappropriate loyalties to Palestinians in Gaza, rather than their constituency in the UK. Though quickly condemned by Labour HQ sources, the comment is not dissimilar in sentiment to another episode earlier in the year, when a senior Labour source talked about ‘shaking off the fleas’ when dismissing the resignation of dozens of local councillors in protest at the party’s then failure to call for a ceasefire.

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There is no denying that many Muslim communities have been dismayed at the ongoing violence in Gaza, and that there has been active mobilisation around the issues. Indeed, this is likely a significant factor in Labour’s share of the vote in local council wards where Muslim people make up more than one in five residents, being down by 21%. But support for a ceasefire is not an anomalous interest, and polls have consistently shown that it is both Labour and the Conservative party who have been out of step with the majority of the general public, who have also favoured a ceasefire and a ban on arms sales to Israel. Muslim voters have used their first electoral opportunity to express this dissatisfaction - using the ballot box to send a message to national parties about their political preferences. This type of tactical voting is solidly within British democratic tradition. But rather than acknowledge the widely shared grievance that was articulated through peaceful democratic channels, it has been twisted and trivialised into confirmation of Muslim community disloyalty. This sits firmly within the racialised and reductive terms of Norman Tebbit’s cricket test, which suggested that British South Asians’ loyalty to the UK could be determined by whether they supported England’s cricket team.

In the days after, campaigning group called Muslim Vote presented Labour leader Keir Starmer with a list of demands to regain the support lost over the party’s position on Gaza. This list has been referred to as confirmation of an emerging ‘Islamic sectarian politics in the mainstream’ and ‘an extraordinary list of 18 'dangerous' demands’, while former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith described it as 'a threat to our democracy’, suggesting this ‘amounts to nothing more or less than political blackmail’. We have also seen an increasingly emboldened right wing press drenching themselves in the other classic pillar of British elite racism - seizing upon Powellite rhetoric to exclaim that multiculturalism has ‘created a monster’ and describing the white Yorkshire man as an ‘endangered species’.

If we place this election post-mortem within the wider context of the way that peace marches over the last few months have been characterised, there is a clear and distinct pattern of demonising Muslim communities and framing them as outsiders, simply for operating within the legitimate and prescribed channels of political participation. Muslim people have been amongst hundreds of thousands others who have marched locally and nationally, and overwhelmingly peacefully, calling for a ceasefire. Those marches have been subject to vicious attacks by senior politicians such as former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who described them as ‘hate marches’, and former Home Office minister, Robert Jenrick who referred to people participating as ‘Islamist extremists’. This has become typical of the way that Muslim communities are held to double and inconsistent standards. Indeed, while exhorted to subscribe to 'British values' - when Muslim people avail themselves of those social goods such as the right to express their grievance through a vote placed at a ballot box or by exercising their right to protest, they are vilified as vandals of that very system. It is extraordinary that expressing concern at events that have been internationally recognised as having plausible risk of genocide and a population being on the brink of a man-made famine, has been so effectively caricatured as dangerous, simply by making the association with it being a Muslim extremist interest.

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Those same British values were used with punishing effect just last month when the High Court upheld Michaela School’s ban on prayer, firmly defining the five minute practice of quiet prayer as an act of deviance and outside the values of the school (and national) community. Meanwhile, as the interim CEO of a racial justice charity, I am continually shocked by the amount of vitriolic online harassment we experience when speaking out about Islamophobia. This all shows just how normalised Islamophobia has become in our society, which will likely escalate further as we approach an expected election.

Treating Muslim voters and the legitimate expression of their interests as a danger and threat to British democracy is a deeply harmful exercise that undermines the very fabric of the infrastructures that allow complex societies to function. Democracy is the vehicle through which we can express dissent and disagreement, turning them into political action and eventually finding solutions. Reducing the discussion around these local and mayoral elections results to foes and villains based on Islamophobic tropes makes UK democracy a playground for racist politics. We can and must be better than that.

Dr Shabna Begum is the interim CEO of the Runnymede Trust.

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