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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April, 2003, 09:29 GMT 10:29 UK
Should Labour fear the Muslim vote?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Muslim Association of Britain posters at February's anti-war demonstration
Muslim protests: Thousands demonstrated in February
Should the Labour Party fear the voice of British Muslims in the aftermath of the war in Iraq? The coming elections in Scotland, Wales and English local councils will be the first test.

On the streets of Scotland's cities, a handful of Muslim campaigners are out to unseat members of the Scottish Parliament.

MSPs are being targeted by Muslim campaigners where they believe they did not do enough to oppose war in Iraq.

The Muslim Association of Britain (Mab), one of the leading organisations against the war, is running the campaign.

They believe there is a chance that they can make a difference in constituencies where there are large Muslim populations who would traditionally support Labour.

Osama Saeed of the organisation said they wanted Muslims who may never have voted before to understand how they can become kingmakers.

"The Muslim communities in Britain have become politically active like no time before," said Mr Saeed.

"The next logical step was to help people to use their vote. Looking at the key constituencies, if the turn-out is low and Muslims use their vote, we have substantial power."

Birmingham Sparkbrook
Bradford West
Bethnall Green and Bow
Birmingham Ladywood
East Ham
Poplar and Canning Town
Bradford North
Ilford South
West Ham
Source: Muslim Association of Britain

Campaigners say voters across Scotland should support the candidates who opposed war in Iraq and show general support for the Palestinians.

"I think what we find in Western democracies is that minorities can have a great part to play," said Mr Saeed.

"If great proportions of the population are apathetic, minority ethnic communities can become kingmakers.

"There's a lot of disenchantment among Muslims who have traditionally supported Labour. But there is also a lot of hope we can see change."

Loss of traditional supporters?

So should Labour worry it is alienating communities which have traditionally supported it at the ballot box?

Maybe not, says Shahid Malik, member of the party's National Executive Committee and a member of the Burnley Muslim community.

"If you had asked three weeks ago how [Labour-voting Muslims] regard Labour then we may have had a different picture," said Mr Malik.

"It was looking very bleak but it now seems that people are breathing a sigh of relief.

"Groups such as the Muslim Association of Britain are led by well-meaning individuals - but I think their influence is negligible."

Marginal constituencies

The Muslim Council of Britain estimates there are 23 Westminster constituencies where Muslims could have an impact.

One of them. Bethnal Green and Bow, has seen anti-war protests against Labour MP Oona King.

Ibrahim Master
Jack Straw has been in politics longer than you or I and he knows the consequences of his actions
Ibrahim Master, Lancashire Council of Mosques

Another is the Blackburn constituency of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. The question is whether this anti-war opposition will translate into votes on polling days.

The Lancashire Council of Mosques (LCM) met Mr Straw in March to underline their opposition to war.

In 2002, they protested to Mr Straw over his unwillingness to condemn India over sectarian violence in Gujurat, the area where the majority of the town's Muslims have family ties.

Later that year, local activists succeeded in unseating a Labour councillor by encouraging Muslims to back the Liberal Democrat candidate.

The result was tight and there are no local elections in Blackburn this year to test out the strength of opposition.

Ibrahim Master, chairman of the LCM, said that close result suggested international affairs ultimately recede at the ballot box.

"You would have expected a landslide against Labour last year but it didn't happen," said Mr Master.

"In Blackburn as with anywhere else, we have to be governed by people who take charge of local affairs."

Similarly, at the 2001 General Election in neighbouring Preston, an independent candidate appealed to Muslim voters on foreign policy issues. Bilal Patel gained only 1,200 votes - but has not ruled out running again next time.

Mr Master said: "There might be a protest vote across the country because Iraq is so fresh in the memory.

"But a lot of people perhaps think it's not the right thing to start bringing international issues into local politics."

So does Jack Straw face a threat at the next general election?

"He has been in politics longer than you or I and he knows the consequences of his actions," said Mr Master.

"He must have known the political damage to Labour of supporting the war. Given what happened here over Gujurat in the local elections, we have to ask whether people will have forgotten about Iraq by the time of the general election."

Community leaders

One of the major political issues for the major parties trying to gauge Muslims opinion is whether "community leaders" really do speak for ordinary people.,

Humera Khan
I am really interested to see how Muslims will continue to politically organise - but I think many communities are also politically naive
Humera Khan

Humera Khan, founder of the An Nisa society in London, said the true picture was a lot more complicated than the stereotype of communities acting through the voice of one man.

For instance, while some men may be vocal because of speaking out at mosques on Friday afternoons, a lot of local political influence was being exercised subtly at grassroots levels.

"There is a trend of local groups being set up to bring people together on issues that matter to them," she said. "We're seeing women increasingly involved in these grassroots campaigns.

"But when you talk about big politics, you have to ask yourself who represents Muslims, what does that really mean?"

Ms Khan said there were lots of different people with political influence at different levels.

None of them should be taken as more important as another because of the fractured nature of British Muslim organisations, some of them more closely linked to foreign issues than others.

"I am really interested to see how Muslims will continue to politically organise themselves. But I think many communities are also politically naive in terms of appreciating the groundwork they need to do for big politics."

Lazy thinking?

Shahid Malik of the Labour NEC said ultimately, he believed British Muslims would always vote on what is locally important to them. Predictions of block Muslim-led votes in key marginals was lazy thinking.

"Muslims in north-west towns such as Burnley or Blackburn will be judging the parties on a whole range issues - just as everyone else does," he said.

"The people with the most influence are those in positions of local leadership, be they councillors or community leaders of one form or another.

"But it is totally wrong to assume that any community listens to a local diktat from on high.

"The Muslim communities are not a homogenous slab.

"We have visibly seen Muslims actively taking part in a mainstream issue of concern to all.

"If we see more and more of this on issues such as housing, education and regeneration, then that's the kind of healthy political integration many people are working for."

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