Tulip Siddiq on how to engage ethnic minorities with democracy
What should we make of the recent disruption in relations between the Government and the Muslim Council of Britain? Once feted as the voice of Muslims in Britain, the MCB has been severely rebuked by ministers over allegations that one of its leaders was supporting violence against Israel. Communities Secretary Hazel Blears has now called for further clarification on the MCB's position. Does this mean that the Government has put dialogue with the Muslim community on hold?
The MCB is Britain's largest Muslim body. More than 500 national, regional and local groups are affiliated to it, along with mosques, charities and schools. However, it should not be seen to have the authority to speak for all the 1.6 million Muslims in this country.
The MCB may have promoted itself along those lines and it should be a source of concern that the Government opted for the easy option of taking the MCB at face value rather than listening to other voices. Of course, we should be pleased that British politicians want to engage with the Muslim population, since this constitutes an integral part of our society. However, attaching the amount of significance and importance to a single organisation, as Labour has done with the MCB, is lazy at best, and misguided and damaging at worst.
I would certainly not claim to speak for all Muslims, but I do suggest that, instead of regarding the MCB as the collective voice of Britain's Muslim community, the Government should accept that Muslims would be best heard through proper representation in the political system. By concluding, wrongly, that one particular group reflects the whole Muslim community is to exclude others. The MCB and similar organisations have a valid role to play, but genuine engagement requires Muslims to become much more involved in British politics and to participate as local councillors, MPs and policymakers. To bring this about will require co-operation on all sides.
As Sadiq Khan, the minister for community cohesion, has put it: "The days of lazy politicians just speaking to one or two powerful community groups or leaders are gone. You need to speak to individuals and local community groups, even though there will still be a role for umbrella groups to play."
One of the few Muslim MPs in the country, he is making a valid point, but it will require more than just talking to people and local community groups. We need to get those people and those groups actively involved in all aspects of politics.
However, there is a major obstacle to this in the form of the unpaid internships at Westminster that it seems it is necessary to undertake before you have any chance of going into politics at that level. This culture puts members of the black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) community at a distinct disadvantage. Statistics show that 75 per cent of the BAME community live in 88 of the poorest boroughs in Britain. I was lucky. I had the means that enabled me to be an intern for a year. However, not everyone can afford to work for free. After my internship, I was able to get a paid job in Parliament. Why can't more MPs have paid internship schemes in their offices? Why can't more local councillors have shadowing schemes and skills training for young people interested in politics?
Ethnic minority involvement on a far greater scale is crucial, because BAME votes can help to keep out the British National Party. I campaigned against the BNP in last year's local elections in London. Every day I came across at least 10 BAME households where people were not registered to vote. The main reasons for this appeared to be apathy towards politics in general or because they did not feel any connection with the main parties. If that had been different, the far right might not have gained a foothold on the London Assembly.
The only way to rectify this whole situation is to involve far more people from different communities in the process of government. In that way, our political system will better reflect the nation it is meant to serve. Politicians should not all come from a white, middle-class background. BAME communities often feel that a BAME MP would be more likely to understand and empathise with their concerns. They may be wrong about that, but they would certainly be reassured if the House of Commons were more truly representative of the country as a whole.
With the European elections less than a month away, the threat of a BNP MEP is real and imminent. Mobilising the BAME vote can help to avoid this. In January this year, I campaigned in Bangladesh's general election. There was a turnout of nearly 87 per cent - a figure that contrasts sharply with the increasingly low turnout in Britain.
People in Bangladesh voted positively for democracy and tolerance and against extremism and the "old" politics. Women, students and young people - often first-time voters - went to the polls in droves to keep extremist religious parties, such as Jaamat-e-Islami, out of office.
We have come to take democracy for granted in Britain and we frequently complain about politicians letting us down. But those who think they are making a statement by not voting should consider the example of Bangladesh. Its people didn't give up on democracy, in spite of their troubled past with its history of military coups. In 2009, first-time voters led the way because the political parties had managed to engage with them during the campaign by raising issues they saw as relevant.
If we in Britain want to defeat the BNP and establish a more democratic society, we must realise that encouraging the BAME community to take an active interest in politics will lead to an increased turnout at the ballot box. The more people who vote, the more progressive parties are likely to prevail and extremism is to be rejected.
So, while organisations such as the MCB are valuable because they can serve to explain Islam to non-Muslims and dispel misconceptions about the religion, ultimately the best way to connect with anyone is through active participation. Creating an inclusive political system in which all groups consider they are fairly represented will not be an easy task, but it won't be made any easier by trying to aggregate communities into a single voice.
Tulip Siddiq is women's officer for London Young Labour.
This article appears in this week's Tribune, (http://www.tribunemagazine.co.uk) every week Compass publishes two to three articles from Tribune for people to make comment and debate. Subscribe to Tribune on 01635 879385.
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