Participating in the democratic process – What’s all the fuss about?

With less than three weeks to go until the General Election, Ghulam Esposito Haydar explains the benefits for the British Muslim community in participating in the democratic process.

Achievements and progress made by the Muslim community here in the UK be it building mosques or halal butchers were not independent of the laws and policies of this country which politicians decide upon. Preserving our religion and propagating it is not independent and free from the laws and policies of this country- take Prevent policy (now law) as a case in point. Our existence, our rights, and our freedom are all dependent upon the laws and policies which politicians decide.

Unless you are advocating and working towards a revolution here in the UK in which the current democratic corporate system will be uprooted and replaced with another which somehow guarantees the protection and preservation of Islam and Muslims, you have no choice but to engage with the political system to ensure that our rights and freedoms are preserved and gained.

There is valid scholarly support from a number of scholars to vote in a democratic system, so focussing on conversations whether it is halal or haram shouldn’t really be our main focus as there are clearly valid scholarly differences of opinions on this matter has already been done and those who have their opinions are settled in whatever they believe. The focus should be on the practical and pragmatic methods to create change. We shouldn’t conflate this is as endorsing democracy as a system that Muslims would otherwise support in a situation where they have full control.  As Muslims, we are meant to influence society to good in any way possible. Voting is simply *a means* of trying to exert some level of positive influence. It isn’t full proof since it relies on taking a chance that MPs voted in through our support will take on board our proposals and represent our suggestions for the good of society. In some cases, voting is simply a means of securing a lesser of an evil for the benefit of the community, and again, this is something endorsed by many Muslim scholars. Whether you accept their ijtihad is up to you.

Voting for an individual or a political party doesn’t mean we endorse everything they represent. In all likelihood, we’re probably going to disagree with the majority of what they and or their party represent since our morality and guidelines on what is good and what is harmful are from Islam. However, it’s that percentage we agree upon that determines where we cast our votes. Where we don’t agree, we also speak out, lobby and try and influence public opinion and discourse using wisdom.

You may say “If you vote it means you support their policy manifesto…it’s not rocket science!” but surely the overwhelming numbers of people repeatedly disagreeing and clearly stating that that’s not what they see voting as, should be a cause to reflect—maybe it’s not that simple.

Imagine someone (Mr X) telling you that just by living here, paying your taxes and lobbying/writing letters to the kafir movers and shakers *YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY* supporting the kufr system that does X, Y and Z — you would disagree, despite the conviction with which they condemn you, and how absolutely clear and obvious it is for them (after all, “it’s not rocket science!” they might say). To be fair, their argument is far more valid ‘logically’ than merely voting being akin to supporting the system. But even though it MIGHT be logically valid it is not considered so from an Islamic Shar’i perspective. But here’s the point: neither is the argument that “If you vote it means you support their policy manifesto.”—just because it may be so for some non-Muslims or from some people’s perspectives logically, it is not from a Shar’i perspective, which is what we care about.

If you feel the urge to say something like ‘it’s so clear’ or ‘it’s obvious‘or ‘it’s not rocket science’, then resist! Think about the different types of inferences from a Shar’i perspective (e.g. mutābaqa, tadammun, iltizām) and compare it with the example above (Mr X).

Endorsing voting in a democratic system doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to the fact that each political party has been responsible for anti Muslim policies. Individual MPs from the major political parties have made anti Muslim comments in the past. Some Muslim MPs have succumbed to the pressure and have adopted secular liberal framework when casting their influence on a number of issues which from a Muslim perspective, are a detriment to a righteous society. We accept this and work using a number of different ways to have a positive influence. We reserve the right not to support such individuals or political parties even. As mentioned earlier, voting is simply one way in attempting to exert a more positive influence on society.

At this particular moment in time, the Muslim vote may have more influence than it has ever had previously. This is because we are situated in high numbers in areas where seats are marginal. Seats which political parties need to secure to enter the cabinet. This may mean that Muslim insight will be taken more seriously than previously.

This however doesn’t mean that politicians will start taking on board everything we suggest.

There will be many who simply don’t buy into the idea that voting in general elections can achieve that- and that’s fine; but realise that whatever you do (instead of voting) – be it protests or trying to change public opinion by undermining the moral and intellectual authority of unjust laws and policies through debates, alternative media, engagement with academics etc – it will still boil down to lobbying the politicians to safeguard our interests- which is hardly different to voting where individuals utilise their votes in a way to persuade politicians to do the same. The difference is that those who push for voting also push for other means of political engagement such as protesting and debating, as they see *all* such activities boiling down to lobbying the MPs for change.

Voting isn’t the be all and end all. Again, I stress that voting is simply one means of applying positive pressure and engagement for a better society. As Muslims, we should not limit our political engagement to voting but also central and local lobbying by building relationships with policy makers, exposing the corrupt elite which harm the interests of the wider society, engaging with the council, the police, the local health and educational authorities etc to influence how central policy is implemented locally. Voting has an impact, especially when utilised alongside other means of political action. When someone says “what has voting achieved?” they are right, on its own it achieves nothing, but as part of an intelligent political strategy it has its merits, just like demonstrations are pointless unless utilised as part of a wider strategy. A Muslim is active in working for the betterment of society using a myriad of different ways.

Ghulam Esposito Haydar is a Muslim activist, the founder of Manchester New Muslim Network and a director of the Myriad Foundation.

@ghulamesposito

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