Operation “Muslim vote” – Lessons from the American experience

American Muslims now fear an islamophobic backlash

Jahangir Mohammed looks at the lessons learnt from the ‘Muslim vote’ campaigns in the United States, and compares it to the UK in the run up to the General Election.

The election looms ever closer and we have had the operation “Muslim vote” campaign, endorsed by scholars and mosques. I find it odd that committees that usually say “no politics in the mosque” are holding hustings and meetings with candidates to discuss politics.

We have also had the anti-voting campaign in full swing with their theological arguments to support their position. I don’t wish to get into the theological issues of either side here, but will at some point briefly comment on these arguments.

Being a minority without power is a relatively new reality for Muslims. In the past, Muslims were ruling powers even as a minority in some parts of the world. A good guide, in this whole debate would be to actually understand the experience of other communities as well as British Muslims.

I have written in the past on the black experience, we have had operation “Black vote” in the US, as well as here.  With over 40 black mayors in the US at one point and now with a black president, we can see how little the conditions of Afro Americans has changed in terms of power and economics. The Jewish community’s experience is another social group that should be studied. That requires a much elaboration, but it is not as simple as lobbying MP’s in parliament as some seem to argue.

Operation ‘Muslim vote’ in the United States

George W Bush

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When it comes to UK elections, I believe Muslims are going through similar phases as our brethren in the US. American Muslim groups keen to promote political participation and declaring voting as an Islamic obligation voted for George W. Bush. It was one of the most organised Muslim vote campaigns in US history. Al Gore was supporting secret evidence which was affecting Muslims. The Muslims backed Bush because they considered him to be the lesser of two evils, and the better option to both Al Gore and Bill Clinton.

Sami al Arian
Sami al Arian

Sami Al Arian was a key organiser of the Muslim vote campaign at that time and a proponent of voting for Bush. He along with many Islamic organisations supported Bush. After Bush won, Al Arian was rewarded with imprisonment for terrorism. He’s recently been released and now has a different view of the system based on personal experience. He’s learnt the hard way I guess!

This recent interview with Al Arian explains how the ‘strategic vote’ strategy went. How Muslims were responsible for Bush coming to power! I would urge any Muslim activist to listen to this fascinating interview of his experience, and how in effect Muslims were responsible for Bush coming to power!  Sami al Arian sums up the campaign nicely: “At the time we were pushing against arrest based on secret evidence and what we got (with Bush) was arrest with no evidence.” I guess Muslims got rewarded for recognising an evil but still voted for it!


Barack Obama

After two terms of Bush’s “war on terror”, Muslims were urged to vote again; this time for Barack Obama who was now the new “lesser of two evils” and also black man. Surely Obama would understand oppression? He was a long time good friend of Palestinian activist and writer, Edward Said, so there was hope for the Palestinian issue too!

But the Obama administration rewarded Muslims with more wars, extra judicial killings via predator drones instead of detention without trial in ghost prisons. At least Bush arrested people, Obama just sends drones to liquidate any suspect or anyone considered an extremist. And Obama showed even greater support for Israel. Result!

Muslims in the US are totally disillusioned, and have lost faith in the system like their Afro American brethren. Muslims and Afro Americans are reaching the same conclusion about the Black and Muslim vote in relation to American political system.

Operation ‘Muslim vote’ in the UK

In the UK, the ‘Muslim vote’ lobby initially supported Labour’s Tony Blair and Muslim MP’s in general. Similarly, we got wars in the Muslim world and Prevent at home. Most the Muslims who supported the original campaign and Prevent were later declared extremists.

The so called ‘Muslim MP’s’ turned out arguably worse than their non-Muslim counterparts in terms of serving the community’s interests. Muslims disillusioned with Blair, got Cameron and Nick Clegg, with many Muslims voting Liberal Democrats as an alternative. Result! Again, we got more wars and bloodshed, greater support for Israel, and even more Prevent and policies such as the CTS Act which indiscriminately targeted the entire Muslim community and criminalised the Islamic faith.

Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair

The current phase in the UK, which is more organised than it’s ever been, equates to our “Bush stage”. Our arguments go something like this: vote Labour because it’s the slighter lesser of two evils and it’s your civic duty! From my assessment, politically we are probably at the Obama phase (although organisationally at the Bush stage).

In the end, I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say we will follow the path our co-religionists in the US. Remember, whatever happens in the US, usually arrives in Britain a few years later.

To all those who are going to vote because you believe in it, that’s your decision and your welcome to it. But don’t use pragmatic theological arguments to justify it. If you believe you are voting for the lesser evil then remember it’s still an evil,  and voting for a lesser evil often leads to a greater evil in the long run, as history has testified.

The debate about the permissibility of voting and not voting misses another key point. There is no “power” in a vote. The real debate that we don’t have before and after each election is: “How do you become a strong and powerful community in line with Islamic requirements; so you can influence the political system and defend the interests of your community, all communities, here and overseas?”

The Muslim vote did not help Sami Al Arian or the Muslim community in the US. Let’s hope those behind the Muslim vote campaign here do not suffer like Sami Al Arian, despite their efforts to organise the Muslim vote and show they are “mainstream” Muslims who are willing to integrate into the political system.

Jahangir Mohammed is the Director of the Centre for Muslim Affairs

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