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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 May, 2005, 00:09 GMT 01:09 UK
Will Muslim vote be centre stage?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Regent's Park Mosque
Political hothouse: Weeks of debate in mosques
What will happen to the Muslim vote? Is it just about a headline-grabbing battle in one seat in London's East End or is there something more complex happening within the UK's largest non-Christian faith community.

Since the war in Iraq commentators have been predicting that Labour will lose Muslim support come 5 May.

Some community leaders, including the head of the country's largest Muslim body, predict Labour will be hit, even though they officially have not endorsed any single party.

While the television battle has been between Labour's Oona King and anti-war Respect Party candidate George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow, there has been political debate like no other time among British Muslims.

Key constituencies

There are 41 constituencies where Muslims comprise more than 10% of the population. In one, Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath, they may now actually comprise just over half.

Top Muslim populations by seat
Birmingham Sparkbrook Small Heath 49%
Bethnal Green and Bow 39%
Bradford West 38%
East Ham 30%
Birmingham Ladywood 29%
Blackburn 26%
Poplar/Canning Tow 25%
West Ham 24%
Bradford North 21%
Ilford South 20%
Source: ONS. Figures do not account for voting eligibility issues such as age or nationality
On paper, very few of these seats are marginal in traditional three-party terms -but if an entire community decides to make its voice heard, then traditional political maths may break down.

So while Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is defending a 9,000 Labour majority in Blackburn, his campaign team will be well aware that 25,000 of his residents are Muslims.

Sher Khan, chair of public affairs for the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), says the UK's Muslim community is the most politicised it has ever been.

He said: "I think the key thing to understand here is that there is less of a Muslim vote but more of a Muslim identity. The events of the past few years mean the strength of that Muslim identity has greatly increased - but the way it is being expressed is much more personal."

What this strongly suggests is that the traditional (and somewhat stereotypical) view of a community block vote has been breaking down, particularly in the face of a younger and more independently-minded generation of British-born Muslim voters.

Engaged communities?

Younger Muslims have often complained behind the scenes of local political bigwigs regarding a visit to the mosque as a cynical move to vacuum up an entire community's support.

Whether that's still possible in the wake of 9/11, fears of terrorism and the Iraq war is open to question.

Instead, there has been a proliferation of Muslim groups - particularly on the internet - dedicated to talking about politics, society and how Britain treats its Muslim citizens. What's more, all three main parties have Muslim candidates who argue their party loyalties are compatible with being Muslim.

Online polling: Party loyalties changing, says Shaista Gohir
So although some leaders of the key Muslim bodies make no bones about their annoyance with Prime Minister Tony Blair, they have mostly stopped short of telling voters where to place the all-important cross.

Shaista Gohir is one of those who says she has become far more politicised in recent years. She has just set up her own online polling organisation, Muslim Voice UK, and her first survey has been trying to read the runes.

The results - she freely admits they provide no more than a flavour of the debate - found historic backing for Labour breaking down but no definite shift elsewhere.

Some respondents were shifting to the Liberal Democrats - but a quarter were undecided and one in 10 said they wouldn't vote at all. Alienation as well as apathy came through strongly, she says - two factors which can dominate the political choices in any community.

"I think the Muslim vote could be important in some constituencies such as Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath," says Ms Gohir.

"But at the same time a lot of people just don't vote at all - a third of people who took part in my survey said they didn't vote in 2001."

Fringe thinking

The unanswerable, question, of course, is whether they will turn out, whoever they support. Muslims have historically been thought less likely to vote than others. A fringe of Islamic thinkers in Britain argue that Islam forbids Muslims from voting for complicated theological reasons.

FRINGE OPPOSITION
You are the mouthpiece of the British government! You are Kafir - go to hell fire!
Anti-voting Muslim protester

This argument spilled over into violence earlier in the campaign when a dozen or so activists stormed an MCB election launch to denounce those present as unbelievers.

But to underline how important this election has become in the community, the Muslim Council of Britain brought together some of the leading Islamic scholars in the UK 48 hours before polls opened to set out their arguments.

The dozen thinkers insisted that it was a duty to vote; not only was it a mark of active citizenship, but it was also a key way of making the Muslim voice heard in a secular society.

"These are clear and sound arguments," said Mufti Abdul Kadir Barkatullah, one of the UK's leading scholars. "For the past two Fridays the message in the mosques has been one of get out and take part in the process.

"We have to take our destinies into our own hands. Muslims, by not voting, will only harm themselves."

Will this lead to Labour being thumped in seats where there are a lot of Muslims?

One group, the Muslim Association of Britain, has pledged support for Mr Galloway.

But the MCB as the main umbrella body argues the key is to support candidates most sympathetic to all Muslim concerns - the war in Iraq just being one of them.

Its voting guide asks Muslims to consider issues such as poverty, equality and immigration. With Iraq appearing at number six on its list of concerns, does this amount to unofficial soft support for Labour?

The MCB dismisses this, saying its guide presents issues in the round and it has also distributed a list of how MPs voted on the Iraq war.

"There is no doubt the issue of the war and anti-terror legislation plays a very important part," says MCB head Iqbal Sacranie.

"In many constituencies I think we can expect a reduction in support for Labour - but how much is difficult to ascertain."





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