To vote, or not to vote - this is the question many Muslims are asking with a week to go until the General Election.
The British Muslim community's engagement in the political process has been a contentious topic ever since the dawn of the War on Terror, and the subsequent events that have occurred since. As a result, both the Tony Blair government and the current Tory-led coalition have passed anti-terror laws, which appear to indiscriminately target the Muslim community. Labour parliamentarians, PPCs and diehard supporters continue to try convince Muslims why they are still worthy of their votes, after Blair led the nation to a war that resulted in the death of more than a million Iraqis, as well as playing a pivotal role in the creation of ISIS.
The Tories also have a lot to answer for; from the passing of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which includes a host of draconian policies, such as making the implementation of the Prevent strategy mandatory on public sector workers, confiscating travel documents, the issuing of temporary exclusion orders and buffing up TPIMs. The Liberal Democrats, tarnished with the endless number of broken promises and compromises, are still perceived by many Muslims as the party which defended Maajid Nawaz when he posted cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on Twitter.
With parties that have waged wars on sovereign Muslim countries, introduced laws that are common in Orwellian police states, and defended the right of a PPC to post offensive images of the most revered figure in Islam; Muslims are hardly spoilt for choice this General Election. It's highly unlikely that UKIP will capitalise on the Muslim community's growing distrust of the main three parties, with its aggressive anti-immigration policies and Nigel Farage's description of Muslims as "fifth columns that want to kill us". Nor do I see the Green Party snatching the votes of disgruntled and apathetic Muslims with their limited scoped manifesto and political vision for the UK.
Nevertheless, if British Muslims do turn up to the polls on May 7 in full force, what will it really achieve? More importantly, how open is the political establishment to Muslim groups and individuals with aspirations to enter the system and influence policies? It has been argued by politicians, think-tanks, and many Muslim leaders that one of the key mechanisms to tackle the rise of Islamophobia, address foreign policy grievances and anti-terror laws, is by voting.
Whilst the rhetoric and pledges to "Muslim manifestos" may seem appealing at first glance, the reality is that there are ample cases where Muslim organisations and individuals have been isolated and demonised for trying to enter the system, with genuine and well-intended hopes to improve the situation of the Muslim community. In the examples I am about to cite, some Muslim groups were initially endorsed by the establishment until funding ceased after failing to implement the government's agenda, or their unreserved commitment to secular liberal values was tainted by some Islamic sentiments.
Muslim Engagement in the Political System
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) is the largest Muslim umbrella organisation in the country. It represents around 500 mosques and has previously received hundreds of thousands of pounds in government funding, whilst enjoying a very warm relationship with the Labour Party under Tony Blair. When the Tory-led coalition came into power, the MCB was eventually sidelined and recently criticised by Prime Minister David Cameron as "having a problem with extremism".
Then you had the shock resignation of Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim cabinet minister who left her post after the Tory's "morally indefensible" stance during the Israeli siege of Gaza last year. Not too long after, she was smeared as an "Islamist sympathiser" by The Telegraph for speaking at an event organised by the Muslim think-tank and lobbying group MEND. Similarly, Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi was also hounded by The Telegraph for being in cahoots with MEND, an organisation dedicated to convincing Muslims to vote and engage in political lobbying, which was comically described by Andrew Gilligan as "Islamist entryism". Even orthodox clerics such as Haitham al-Haddad who consistently condemns ISIS, publicly discourages Muslims from leaving the UK to fight in Syria, as well as advocating that it's an Islamic obligation to participate in the democratic process, is constantly witch-hunted by the press.
Last week, the dismissal of London's first elected Muslim mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, who was found guilty by the Election Court of electoral fraud, using the "spiritual influence" of a hundred imams, and bribing voters with samosas and biryani, should be a warning sign for aspiring Muslim politicians that the slightest inkling of disloyalty to the secular liberal establishment, can lead to the end of one's political career. As Respect Party MP George Galloway warned, Rahman's removal from office will have "consequences for Muslims around the country", who are constantly told to enter the system to advance their interests.
From the aforementioned examples, it is clear that for Muslims it's a case of "damned if you do and damned if you don't". If you happen to follow the Islamic opinion that voting in a secular democracy equates to legislating in place of God, and therefore committing a sin - no doubt you will be classified as an extreme literalist; though this position is becoming increasingly popular amongst British Muslims, outside of the groups that are usually affiliated with this stance.
Alternatively, if you advocate Muslims to participate in the democratic process and support your co-religionists in pursuing a political career to protect and project the community's interests by lobbying politicians and influencing policies, then expect to be kept at arm's length by the establishment, demonised by the media and labelled as "Islamist entryists".
My advice to British Muslims; don't conveniently suffer short-term memory loss by forgetting the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Don't fall for the honey trap of empty promises made by those who supported the CTS Act without the bat of an eyelid. Don't be fooled by those who want to issue mosque closure orders, have deemed it perfectly okay to spy on Muslim toddlers for "signs of radicalisation", and are hell-bent on criminalising normative Islamic beliefs.
If you're wondering who I'm voting for on Election Day... I'll be exercising my "democratic right" to not vote!