May 20, 2009 at 10:46 pm / by

What can 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 organisation has been severely rebuked by the government over allegations that one of its leaders was supporting violence against Israel. 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 Guardian newspaper correctly refers to the MCB as ‘Britain’s largest Muslim group’ and I do not doubt its credibility as an organisation. After all, it is a body with over 500 national, regional and local organisations along with mosques, charities and schools. However, it cannot be seen to have the authority to speak for the 1.6 million Muslims in Britain.

Whether the MCB has promoted itself as a voice for people like me is a separate question. My concern is that the government itself has taken the easy route by promoting the MCB and not listening to individuals. I am pleased that the government wants to engage with the Muslim population as they are an integral part of society. However, attaching this amount of responsibility and importance to a single organisation is, frankly speaking, at best lazy and at worst, misguided and damaging

In my personal opinion, and note that I do not speak for all Muslims, instead of using the MCB as a collective voice, the government should realise that Muslims need to be heard through representation in the political system. The danger is that through bodies like this, an individual view is believed to be reflective of the wider Muslim community. MCB and similar organisations have a purpose and should exist but real engagement starts when young Muslims become more involved in politics and become councillors, MPs, Ministers and policy makers. This requires cooperation from both sides of course.
Sadiq Khan, the Minister for Community Cohesion, told The Times: “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.”

What a relief! Sadiq, as one of the few Muslim MPs, sums up my frustration about indolent politicians. Sadiq is making a valid point but it needs to be taken further than just ‘speaking’ to individuals and local community groups. We need to get individuals and local community groups actively involved in politics.

A major obstacle exists within the culture of unpaid internships that is almost necessary before one can really enter into politics. This immediately puts BAME members at a disadvantage as statistics show that 75% of the BAME community live in 88 of the poorest boroughs across Britain. I was lucky that I had the means to intern for free for a whole year but not everyone can afford that luxury. After my internship, I immediately walked into 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?

Additionally, BAME involvement in politics is crucial for the nation because we need BAME votes to keep the BNP out. I campaigned heavily against the BNP during the Mayoral elections last year but I found at least 10 BAME households a day who were not registered to vote. The main reasons for not registering appeared to be apathy to politics or because they do not feel that government represented them. The only way to rectify this is to involve more people from different communities into government so that government starts to mirror the makeup of the nation that it is meant to serve. Politicians cannot all be from one type of background. Often BAME communities feel (and maybe wrongly so) that a BAME MP is more likely to understand and appreciate their concerns.

As the European elections approach, the threat of a BNP MEP is imminent. Again, society needs the help of the BAME vote to avoid this. The last major election I campaigned for was in Bangladesh in January. The voter turnout was nearly 87%, a figure which contrasts sharply with the poor turnout here.

People in Bangladesh voted positively, for democracy and tolerance and against extremism and ‘old politics.’ Women, students and young people, often first time voters, voted in masses to keep extremist politico-religious parties, like Jaamat-e-Islami, out of office.

We take democracy for granted in Britain and we always complain about being let down by politicians. We think by not voting we’re making a statement. But what about the people of Bangladesh? They didn’t give up on democracy in spite of their troubled past and military coups. It was first time voters who led the way because the political parties had managed to engage them during the campaign by raising concerns relevant to their needs.

If we want to keep the BNP out and establish a more democratic society, we need to engage our BAME community to take an active interest in politics which will ultimately lead to increased turnout. As we know in the Labour party: the more people who vote, the more extremism is likely to be rejected and the more likely it is for progressive parties to win. Perhaps if more citizens had been registered, we could have avoided the BNP representative sitting in the Greater London Authority right now. The loss of the BAME vote means society suffers as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong – organisations like the MCB are useful because they can serve to explain the religion better to non-Muslims and dispel misconceptions but ultimately the best way to connect with the BAME community is through active participation. Creating a political system which is engaged with, and represented by, all groups isn’t a simple task and it won’t get any easier by trying to aggregate communities into single voices. Many voices have to be heard and there’s no better way to do that than participation at all levels.