The degree to which an ethnic group is politically active and represented in their government is a hallmark indication of how integrated they have become. Thus, the more represented or influential Muslims in Britain and the United Kingdom are in politics, the more they can be seen as integrated into British society. Along with this increased integration is an overall increase in satisfaction and happiness among Muslim migrants and post-migrants as they feel more represented and welcome in their societies. Political representation and influence marks the difference between Muslims in Britain feeling simply British by political allegiance as opposed to English which implies a deeper sense of cultural belonging.
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Furthermore, studies have been conducted that show that the more an ethnic or religious group feels like they are being well represented and that their voice is being heard, the less likely they are to act out violently and the more willing they will be to compromise. Thus, political representation should be a major area of focus and concern for both British Muslims and British society in general. As a result, this paper will seek to explore the following question: To what extent have Muslims become politically active in the United Kingdom, what challenges do they face to political activity and what effect, if any, has it had on their integration into British society? In answering this question the history, context, theories, causes, and results of Muslim immigration to Britain will be discussed.
All of this will be done with the goal of confirming that while Muslim political participation still remains exceedingly limited, it is gaining appeal among ethnic communities in Britain yet still faces many challenges; among which are societal perceptions of Muslims and Muslims’ attitudes on political participation itself. Furthermore, this discussion will seek to demonstrate that the limited and slowly increasing political participation of Muslims in Britain is having a positive effect on their representation and integration in British society.
Muslim immigration to the United Kingdom, similar to most other western European powers, finds its origins in the colonial empire of Great Britain. Until the outbreak and conclusion of WWII, Muslim immigration to the United Kingdom remained relatively small with the majority of Muslim immigrants of Yemini or Indian origin. These immigrants were brought over for education, administration, and commercial ties with English companies, specifically the East India Trading Company. Later, as England expanded its colonial empire, immigrants from, Egypt, Iraq, and Cyprus came as well; the total of all Muslim immigrants before WWII numbering only approximately 50,000.
However, this situation quickly changed with the close of WWII as massive reconstruction efforts began in Europe. This massive increase in demand for labor, which could not be fulfilled by native populations, was coupled with the fact that members of British Commonwealth nations could live and have citizenship in England. This created a massive influx of Muslim immigrants who were seeking work and is illustrated by the fact that between 1971 and 1991, there was approximately a 100% increase in the British Muslim population.3
As pointed at by Kettani, this massive influx in immigration required four different parties: 1) the receiving government 2) the sending government 3) the worker 4) the employer. None of these four parties anticipated the immigrants would settle in their host countries. The receiving and sending governments were under the impression that the immigrants would come, work for 2 years, then return to their home country. The majority of workers held the view that they would immigrate, earn money to send home and build a solid economic foundation, then return home with the resources to start a more successful life. However, this plan as anticipated was far from what ultimately ended up occurring.
As Muslims began working, they quickly established communities and lives in their host countries. And this trend of establishment was perhaps exacerbated when immigration policy was altered following the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo which closed immigration of new workers but allowed current workers to bring their families to Britain under family reunification laws. This movement of Muslims toward establishing themselves is evident in the number of mosques in the United Kingdom which steadily increased from 10 (1961) to 125 (1971), 230 (1981) 600 (1991) and 1500 as of 2007.
Since the immigration and establishment of a significant Muslim population was largely unexpected, integration and policies regarding Muslims have in general been haphazard and limited throughout Europe. England however, seems to have fared better than other European countries in terms of its integration of Muslims. This could be explained by one of three possible theories of integration presented by Joel Fetzer and J. Soper.
The three theories posited are Political Opportunity Structure Theory, Political Ideology Theory, and Church-State Theory. Opportunity Structure Theory argues that some governmental structures lend themselves to easier integration. In the case of England, the system of local councilors, which has no equivalent in France or Germany, allows Muslims to participate more in local and community politics. The result is a more integrated population. Political Ideology Theory on the other hand, focuses on the national identity of the host country and identifies it as either favoring or hindering integration. England has a very multicultural national identity build upon the diverse population of the Commonwealth. Finally, the theory of Church-State, which is supported by Fetzer and Soper, argues that the relationship the State has with the Church dictates how well a population will be integrated.
Whereas in France where there is complete separation between church and state, in Britain there is in fact a state sponsored church, the Church of England. This creates a totally new dynamic in the role that religion plays. Tariq Modood identifies these two types of secular societies as radically secularized and moderately secularized. A radically secular society maintains total separation of church and state whereas a moderate secular society maintains distinction between church and state. While the difference may seem very technical, the implications are massive. For example, the United States could be seen as a moderately secular state. The result is that while the U.S. government does not endorse a specific religion, it often promotes religion or non-religion in general. The difference between a radically secular and moderately secular society could perhaps be explained as such: A radically secular society promotes religious equality by supporting no religion and showing total impartiality whereas a moderately secular society promotes religious equality by supporting all religions, including the choice of no religion at all. As such, a moderately secular society can be seen to encourage increased religious political participation while a radically secular society disfavors religious political participation.
However, regardless of how much a certain society fosters or encourages Muslim political participation, Muslims must view political participation as a desirable action; for indeed many conservative and fundamentalist scholars argue that participation in a non-Islamic political system is haram (forbidden). The argument against political involvement stems mostly from the division of the world into two, ”territories” under Islamic Constitutional Law; territories of Islam (dar al-Islam) and territories of war (dar al-harb). Dar al-harb is used to describe any area which is not under the control of an Islamic government. Fundamentalist Islam argues that participation in this type of system is strictly haram. However, from a historical perspective, this has not been the case. For example, in the Indian subcontinent, even after the fall of the Islamic Mughal Dynasty in the 18th century, Muslims very much remained politically active. Furthermore, most Imams in Britain support political activism and argue that it is far from haram. In fact, one Pakistani Local Councilor argued that because Muslims have a duty to defend their faith, they must be politically active in order to ensure its protection. This is supported by the fact that many members of the ‘ulama’ (learned Islamic scholars) are themselves politically active.
A final obstacle standing in the way of Muslim political participation is the fact that there is hardly a collectivized Muslim voice in the United Kingdom. The ethnic and national make-up of Muslims is incredibly diverse with the majority being Pakistani Sunnis. Instead of a unified political voice, Muslim political opinions have often been described as a “cacophony.” And as outside pressure from governments on the Muslim community to present an interlocutor has increased, division among the Muslim community has seemed to increase as well. However, taken in a historical context, Muslim political unity seems to be at an all-time high. The principle shift from competing national and ethnic interests to an increasing “Muslim” political voice took place during the Salman Rushdie Affair in 1988.
During the events surrounding the publication of Satanic Verses, Muslims learned several key facts. First, they learned that Islam had an unequal standing compared to Christianity and Judaism in that it was not protected under Laws of Blasphemy; Islam in a sense was a foreign, incompletely recognized religion. In response Muslims largely united against their unequal standing and, as a result, also learned that they perhaps had far more in common than was previously thought. Furthermore, the Rushdie Affair served as a catalyst for the formation of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Directly as a result of the Rushdie affair the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs (UKACIA), which was largely out of touch with its constituents, was established eventually leading to the MCB. Thus, the Salman Rushdie Affair can perhaps be seen as a major turning point and even the birth of effective Muslim political activism in the United Kingdom.
Political representation of Muslims can be seen as occurring in two contexts, the local and the national. An analysis of participation will now be the subject of discussion beginning with a brief discussion of the history, continuing on to the main representatives or interlocutors, examining the implications of representation and then an attempt to draw several conclusions as to what the results and future of political action is.
As previously discussed, the political system in England is predisposed towards local representation in the form of Local Councillors. Councillors are elected officials charged with overseeing local administration and policy. As of 2011, 160 Muslim councillors were elected across 66 out of 279 councils. This represents a trend of increasing political representation at the local level as pointed out by Eren Tatari:
There were 83 Muslim councillors in London during the 1998-2002 term, compromising 4.4% of London’s councillors. This figure increased to 115 in the 2002-2006 term (6.1%) and to 146 after the 2006 elections (7.8%). Given that Muslim constituents make up approximately 8.5% of London’s population, their political representation at the local level is getting very close to parity. The trend shows that the percentage increase is leveling off in each successive election.
While the principle function of local councillors is to administer local government, this is not the only function they serve. Salma Yaqoob, the local councillor from the Sparkbrook ward in Birmingham, was the co-founder of the Respect Party and is its current vice-chair. The Respect party was born out of anti-war sentiments between both Muslims and non-Muslims alike and sought to occupy the political space made vacant as the center-left Labour Party shifted more toward the right.25 Its stated goal is the promotion of Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community, and Trade Unions. Furthermore, the vice-chair of the Conservative Party for two years was Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim Pakistani, and the deputy president of the Liberal Democratic Party is Fiyaz Mughal. This confirms that Muslims are not only locally active in terms of local government, but representation in larger political parties as well.
However, another form of local political activity can be found in the position of a community leader. While this role can be filled by anyone in the Muslim community, in Islamic countries it is typically filled by the role of the imam or Muslim religious leader who often also serves as officiator of religious ceremonies. A quite different situation is seen in the United Kingdom however. Historically, throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, nearly all imams were foreign immigrants trained in Islamic countries. Furthermore, these imams were often on a temporary rotation and had temporary visas. As a result, many of them did not bother to learn English or British culture. This ultimately led to a Muslim leadership completely out of touch with the needs and situations of its constituents and essentially constrained to the mosque.28 Criticisms of this system began in the 80’s and 90’s which has today caused an increasing expectation of imams to take on more roles; chief among which is the role as a community advocate. This has led to a corresponding increase in demand of British Muslim Imams and who, which should be noted, generally do not have strong national or sectarian identities and instead favor a more universal Muslim identity. In fact, one British imam commented, “I don’t see myself as Deobandi anymore. I see myself a serving British Muslims.”30 This means that as the number of British imams increases, there will be a trend towards a more united Muslim identity which could have massive implications in both national and local politics.
On the other hand, Muslim political participation in the national sphere has developed at a much slower and shallower pace. As of 2009, only 6 of the 646 British in the House of Commons and 4 of the 745 British in the House of Lords were Muslim. Overall only 25 out of 15 million European Muslims have been elected to European parliaments. Thus, Muslim representation in national government can be seen to be relatively weak. This could be caused for several reasons, chief among them perhaps is the fact that many Muslims in Europe are ineligible to run for office. Furthermore, as Klausen argues, Islam for many political Muslims may not be the primary driving force behind their political involvement but for non-Muslims, the opposite is often perceived. In general, non-Muslims feel very uncomfortable being represented by Muslims as they see Islam as the primary driving force behind Muslim political involvement.
In response to difficulty achieving representation at national level, British Muslims have tended to seek influence via other avenues, chief among them in interest groups and by working within existing political parties. This follows Dilwar Hussain’s view that there are six forms of political participation: working outside the system, working for an alternative system, joining existing parties, setting up a Muslim party, lobbying, and local action. Historically, the formation of a Muslim party has been very unsuccessful. For example, the Islamic Party of Great Britain (IPGB) was unable even to gain support in areas with large Muslim population such as Bradford. Also, working for an alternative system has been unsuccessful as seen by the Muslim Parliament which today has become much more of a lobbying body. Thus, the overriding tendency has been for Muslims to work either within existing parties, lobbying groups or pursue local action.
In terms of working within existing parties, Muslims have almost singularly supported the Labour party throughout the 20th century. However, in recent years this has changed due to the Labour Party’s stance on the Iraq war and the “War on Terror.” What has resulted is a slight diversification of Muslim party allegiance to other left or even right wing parties. This could have the implication of increasing Muslim influence and the creation of a “Muslim Vote.”
Muslim interest groups however, in general have been much more successful and popular than individual political representation and working within existing parties. For example, two major accomplishments of the MCB were the inclusion of a religious identity question in the 2001 census and achieving state funding for Muslim schools. The MCB has also been very successful in helping to implement and encourage socio-economic policies aimed at deprived Muslims. In contrast to France, Germany and other European countries, the United Kingdom has abstained from attempting to create a representative interlocutor for the Muslim population and has instead favored dealing with organizations created by the Muslim community itself. Because the communities create the organizations themselves, they are viewed as much more representative of Muslims’ needs and can negotiate better with the government than if the government were to create a body itself.
While it was previously posited that Muslim political activity and representation have been historically limited and still remain so, it has been the goal of this discussion to show that Muslims are becoming increasingly active in the British public sphere. This action has taken form chiefly at the local level in the form of local councillors and community leaders but is slowly spreading to the national level through interest groups and representatives within existing political parties. The overarching result of this increasing political participation is a rising social status of British Muslims and improved relations between British Muslims, the British government and British society in general.
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