Activist Kasim Javed attended a local hustings in Rochdale with prospective parliamentary candidates from the three main political parties on the panel. This is his recap of the “Question Time” event organised by MEND.
On Monday evening, the Muslim advocacy group MEND (Muslim Engagement & Development) organised a “Question Time” for prospective parliamentary candidates for the 2015 General Election. I went to ask questions that I believe are key Muslim issues, but came out witnessing glaring hypocrisy, contradictions and the “language of politics”. All the discussions I have had with friends about the general political apathy in this country were perfectly explained following the hustings.
George Orwell once said “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” It’s as though, the contenders of the evening, Simon Danczuk (Labour), Azi Ahmed (Conservatives) and Andy Kelly (Liberal Democrats), thought the audience were a bunch of politically unaware, passive chumps that could be won with scripted rhetoric. I knew they were in for a shocker from the moment one man from the audience muttered “don’t you worry mate” to Simon Danczuk, making the audience giggle.
In recent years, Rochdale has become somewhat naturalised to being subjected to Islamophobia. Two incidents in particular that exacerbated this were the conviction of nine groomers and the allegation of a family travelling to Syria to join ISIS. The politicisation of these two events deeply stigmatised Rochdale’s Muslim community, to the extent that recently I went to purchase a car from Leicester and the car salesman was mocking Rochdale. In a facetious way he told me that he didn’t think I was going to purchase the car with all of the recent accusations against Muslims from Rochdale.
This anecdote is symbolic of the sensationalism that Rochdale Muslims have been subjected to in large part due to irresponsible speech by politicians, which has been perpetuated in the media. It is no surprise then that the audience had their sleeves rolled up.
For the sake of being succinct, the event was dominated by three key issues which were: Islamophobia, counter-terrorism and foreign policy. These are quite accurately the three interconnected issues that are on the verge of ostracising the Muslim community all over the country.
Whilst the MEND chair appeared to have his own agenda which was to raise policy proposals from their “Muslim Manifesto” such as the recording of Islamophobia as a hate crime, the audience had more pressing issues to raise. After all, Islamophobia is a symptom, and to focus the discussion on this ignores the root causes, which the audience correctly raised.
I asked: “How are we expected to support your position on Islamophobia when all three parties have endorsed and voted for Islamophobic laws such as the CTS Act, the Prevent programme and politicians such as Simon Danczuk have made Islamophobic comments such as the ethinicising of the grooming issue and stating that “the family are not welcome back to the country” regarding the family who were released within days of the arrival without any prosecution. How can we expect you to defend Muslim interests, when you have been against them?”
Of course, I didn’t expect a closed answer on this, but what I was expecting was an immediate apology by Danczuk and comments from the other candidates. Instead, Danczuk arrogantly defended himself by saying that there are people who are spreading rumours on his position of grooming. “I have never made grooming a religious issue, it is a small minority of ethnicity, like all ethnicities, that were involved in grooming.” Of course, this was quickly picked up when a number of people quoted Danczuk comments such as: “There is a subculture of a small group of males that are Asian, that are collaborating to abuse young white girls who are vulnerable. The subculture is under the radar. Some people in communities are in denial about it but we need some home truths if we are going to address this. It would be daft not to believe that race plays a part.”
Danczuk was exposed and instead of admitting it, he played dumb as though he suffered from a short term memory loss. When other candidates were giving their view on the issue, Danczuk was caught giggling at which point someone from the audience furiously took said, “When my wife is spat at in the street due to Islamophobia, it’s not a laughing matter”. Simon effectively subverted the specific question to him as to why he mentioned “subculture” to accusing people of playing party politics.
Andy Kelly from the Lib Dems was asked: “Do you defend the right of people to mock the Prophet Muhammad?” He tried to play dog-whistle politics by focusing the answer on the right for people to “feel” offended until the questioner prompted him and he finally gave in, implicitly at least, that he defends right of both sides to say what they want. I suspect this liberal position would have been the same for the rest of the candidates if they got asked the same question. This question fundamentally draws the red line between secular liberal and Islamic values. Muslims would never accept the liberal position to defend the right to insult our beloved Prophet (saw), yet for these secular liberal politicians the feelings of almost 2 billion Muslims is irrelevant as a matter of creed, no matter how they frame it as “responsible speech, moral free speech” etc.
Azi Ahmed from the Conservatives, recognised that “Islamophobia” is a serious issue, even though her party clearly doesn’t. As will be seen later, she effectively went against most of her own party positions meaning she is either ignorant of her party’s actions, or had a strategy of trying to win through personality rather policy.
The momentum was built for this issue, since Muslims have major complaints against the CTS Act and programs such as Prevent. There is a wide consensus amongst Muslims, teachers, social care workers and police officers that prevent is toxic. A program that legitimises the spying on Muslim communities and has caused great friction between local authorities and Muslims. All three parties said they would like to see the program “reviewed”, but all agreed that there needs to be some sort of program in place to deal with counter-extremism.
As expected, no parties said what Muslims want, which is to put “Prevent” in the dustbin of history and end the marginalisation and surveillance of the Muslim community.
Simon Danczuk foolishly said to the words of this effect that he wishes to see the program reviewed and doesn’t believe in top down, but bottom up approach.
He must be unaware of the nuances of Prevent, which is that it’s a program designed to monitor the Muslim community from a grassroots level anyway. That’s why mosques were offered millions of pounds to implement it and when failed, was made into statuary law for the public sector to implement it as part of the recently passed CTS Act.
The chair had to even explain what Prevent was; meaning that he felt that there was perhaps a lack of awareness about what exactly Prevent is. If the candidates were serious about CTS/Prevent, where were they in the January’s Public Consultation period of the CTS Bill? If they truly had the qualities of justice and integrity, why did they not leave their parties when all of them voted for it? Why did they not call unequivocally for the end of this draconian legislation when over 240 Muslim community leaders, activists, scholars and professionals signed a joint statement condemning it?
The seriousness and implications of the CTS Act was hardly acknowledged by any of them. A “review” was simply not good enough considering that the CTS Act is simply the culmination of almost a decade of draconian legislation against Muslims. It was far too late to placate the Muslim community and was a politically expedient answer in preparation for May 7th.
Perhaps the most comical moment of the evening was when Azi Ahmed quoted the Balfour Declaration, and why Palestine should be recognised as an independent state. The irony of this statement showed how politicians manipulate history for their own political outcome. The world knows that the Zionist entity was conceived by the British government in the Balfour Declaration, and has been nurtured and strengthened by the West for decades, to protect their own interests in the region.
Israel was illegally born and Palestine was stolen. Yet, half a century later the mainstream media and political parties have not only legitimised Israel, but have made it indirectly criminal to critique it.
Moreover, British politicians should be ashamed of using Palestine as a hot Muslim scoring point. Unfortunately, some Muslims have accepted the status quo and settled for a two-state solution, which would institutionalise Zionist massacre.
The two state-solution was therefore an easy answer for the candidates since it safeguards the legalisation of Israel and conforms to Britain’s imperial foreign policy.
Unfortunately, I was not given a chance to make my comment on this issue. Azi Ahmed went against her party on foreign policy and explicitly said we “went to Iraq for oil”. A position that clearly doesn’t reflect the interests of the conservative tycoons.
In summary, the dominant atmosphere in the hall was one that reflected the general political apathy in the country. A Muslim community keen to see the PPC’s speak out against the CTS Act, Prevent, acknowledge the root causes of Islamophobia and call for the end to the imperial foreign policy, instead got a confirmation that although the faces may change, the system remains the same.
The absence of discussion on other issues such as the NHS, transport, employment etc shows that there is nothing more important to Muslims than the criminalisation of their identity and their beliefs. Until this changes, I doubt the declining voting trends will reverse anytime soon.