Jahangir Mohammed of the Centre for Muslim Affairs argues that while many Muslims will understandably welcome Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, the real challenge is developing a Muslim infrastructure outside of Parliamentary politics.
Not for the first time there’s a great deal excitement amongst many Muslim activists over the election of the new Labour party leader or Government.
I recall similar excitement at the now-despised Tony Blair’s victory in 1997.
Corbyn I doubt will turn into another Blair. He is, I believe, a man of principles based on his beliefs, and the lure of political office and career have never stopped him from expressing them.
That in itself is an achievement in a political system full of self-motivated career seekers, for whom values and principles are a form of commodity to be traded. It is no wonder the majority of the British public have no respect or time for their politicians.
One of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn won the elections was because he was seen as an honest man who has stuck to his principles and beliefs.
However, we also need to understand that Parliament and the political system in this country is the great destroyer of principles. Once in Parliament change takes place. In pursuit of career or power, you can no longer be a person of principles, and become a prisoner to the Parliamentary political system, its rules and conventions and the political establishment that surrounds it.
If you want power you will change. In many cases you will become unrecognisable from the person who entered Parliament.
Parliament requires you to change your language, limit your beliefs, and to adapt your principles. It requires you to conform, to custom, tradition, to sing “God save the Queen” (even if you believe in neither God nor the Queen) and bow on bended knee to her.
To gain approval and power you have to show you are loyal to the Establishment, not the people or any higher value. It is for that reason that Tony Benn once famously said “I’m leaving parliament to enter politics”.
Power outside the political system
When it comes to power the Muslim community led by activists have adopted a misguided political approach.
It is the false idea that simply voting for MPs and parties who appear to support you or lobbying is a path to power and influence. And such a great deal of our political energies have been diverted into endless political campaigns to encourage voting for parties and personalities in the last three decades.
There isn’t time to go into a detailed explanation here, but let us look at Jeremy Corbyn’s victory.
He challenged the orthodoxy and power base in the Parliamentary Labour Party (who did not support him). He was able to do so because he has spent decades outside of Parliament as part of an alternative power source and structure amongst the Left, unions, civil society and anti-war movement.
His beliefs, values and principles have a support base in society and an organised infrastructure outside of Parliament. That support base has for the last century been engaged in a politics outside Parliament and the Establishment system.
At times the political establishment has fought this movement by discrediting them in the media and through legislation, as well as using the Labour Party and its leadership against them once in Parliament.
The Real Challenge for Muslims in Britain
The real challenge for Muslims in Britain is not electoral and parliamentary politics. It is to build a source of power and support infrastructure outside of it.
It is also to develop our own ideas, principles and values, project them and win support for them in wider society.
In fact we don’t often appreciate this, but our community has already invested great energy in creating the infrastructure for that power base. Our Masaajids, Schools, charities, businesses, campaign organisations, media etc.
The challenge for us is to harness that power. Make sure it is better managed, non-divisive and pursues united and common goals as well as challenging and protecting itself and the community from threats.
If we are not aware of that potential, then the political establishment and its allies certainly are. It is the very reason they are using the charge of “extremism” and “entryism” to introduce new laws to target that very infrastructure – mosques, organisations, charities, media and individuals.
It is the very same reason they wish to exclude speakers from universities and prevent us expressing our social, political and international ideas and goals in wider society.
What they do to MPs in Parliament they want to do to us outside of it.
Time to focus our energies
Political energy in any community is limited, time consuming, and draining. It needs to be spent wisely where there is most payback and not wasted.
Regardless of what happens in the Labour Party and Parliament over the next five years, as a community we need to focus our energies on those efforts that will help us create and harness political power outside that system.
That means we also need to ensure we develop and protect our existing infrastructure from political/legal attacks. Thus far we have spent too much energy on parliamentary politics with little to show for it, apart from building careers for politicians including some from our own communities who have caused us great damage.
We need to move our focus from Parliamentary politics, to people and civic society and wider political activity and engagement. Our politics and dawah must be extended to include building relationships in wider society and the institutions of civil society, and professional bodies and movements.
Finally, as a community and political activists, some of us spend a great deal of energy engaging in Parliamentary politics and bemoaning our Mosques and organisations for failure to change.
Sure they have their limitations. However, we have a lot to be thankful to them for. If we can spend a great deal of time trying to change parties and Parliament, so surely it is more incumbent on us to engage with and spend time on our own infrastructure to help it become organised and goal- orientated.
There are already some positive changes taking place.
As for Jeremy Corbyn, he will change. He and his support base are going to be attacked and declared extremists in the same way Muslims are.
There will be common threats and cause. There is going to have to be political engagement with other movements, communities that face common threats and goals.
But we must do so not losing sight of our principles and goals. We must develop ideas and arguments such as on Prevent, terrorism, foreign policy and the economy that can be articulated by them and wider society.
The next five years will be one of the most challenging for the Muslim community, it is what we do and how we do it that will determine how we come through it.