Archive for the ‘UK government’ Category

All parties must stand up to Islamophobia

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

Published in the Guardian (Comment is Free) here.

A worrying anti-Muslim trend has been developing in other European countries, so what will politicians do to stop it here?

The intolerance towards Muslims must not be tolerated, but the main political parties have not pledged to take sufficient action to combat anti-Muslim prejudice. Legitimate criticism of Muslims who spew extremist rhetoric and commit criminal acts is acceptable. However, the ugly trend of bigotry against law-abiding Muslims sweeping Europe should not be ignored by whoever comes into power as it is influencing debate here in the UK.

In Europe extreme rightwing parties have won significant gains in regional and parliamentary elections because they have been exploiting fears and capitalising on anti-Muslim sentiments. Debates on Muslims have become irrational and there are calls to ban anything connected to Muslims – minarets, headscarves, veils and even the Qur’an.

Thankfully British values of tolerance, fair play and mutual respect prevail and the main three political parties are not pandering to prejudice. In Britain it is only the fringe parties such as the BNP and Ukip that are using issues such as the face veil to win votes. However, the rising popularity of the far right in Europe should be a warning – lessons should be heeded before they too get a foothold into British politics and divide communities.

Manifestations of Islamophobia have already taken the form of persistent prejudice, negative attitudes and discrimination. Free speech is important for maintaining a free and open society however the bigots, who are not always poorly educated, are irresponsibly using free speech to insult, marginalise and encourage hate-mongering. The level of discrimination against Muslims is disturbing and when it occurs, bigotry should be called bigotry.

On the face of it, some arguments on Muslim issues appear valid, such as threats to integration and security but once these are put into context, they appear to be based on fear, ignorance and racism rather than common sense.

Last week Belgium’s lower house of parliament unanimously voted to ban the veil despite only a few hundred women adopting it from a Muslim population of 400,000. In France, the headscarf has already been banned, in common with what are termed “conspicuous” religious symbols from all faiths, at schools and among people working in the public services. A face veil ban likely to follow, yet only a couple of thousand women wear it out of 5 million Muslims. Let’s not forget Switzerland – it voted to ban the construction of minarets on mosques despite only four out of 150 mosques having them.

Recently traffic police in France fined a Muslim woman for wearing a face veil while driving based on her not having sufficient field of vision. She was able to see as well as motorcyclists wearing helmets – but they are not being fined. Currently Muhammad is the second most popular boy’s name in Britain – if it tops the list of baby names, how long before there are calls to ban Muslims from naming their sons after their beloved prophet?

The rising tide of Islamophobia needs to be tackled now – Muslims should take strategic advantage of the predicted prospect of a hung parliament and demand justice and equality. And it will be equality that is central to achieving a safe and cohesive society, not burka bans.

So which political party is most likely to challenge the social vilification Muslims, as well as tackling other pressing issues facing them that include poor health, low educational attainment, poor housing, and high unemployment rates?

Despite Cameron giving the impression his party is inclusive, his commitment to equality is questionable. Omitting pictures of their non-white election candidates from campaign leaflets in areas where they are fighting the BNP, the burka comments by Tory MP Philip Hollobone, the initial opposition to the equality bill, and nothing in the manifesto on race equality and discrimination, are enough reasons to be concerned.

Labour may have pushed through the Equality Act 2010 and have the best record of any UK political party in terms Muslim representation but its “prevent” agenda has had a negative impact on Muslim communities. Its engagement and empowerment programmes have almost entirely been linked to violent extremism, terrorism and security, which have reinforced negative stereotypes of Muslims. Although Labour’s black, Asian and minority ethnic manifesto is encouraging, I can’t help feeling a little cynical when I see the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group listed as a successful initiative – a group from which I resigned because it was a tick-box exercise.

As for the Liberal Democrats – they have supported the equality bill, have a mini-equality manifesto, even opposed the Iraq war, but are also the party least likely to have a Muslim MP. They may be fielding the largest number of ethnic minority candidates, but none appear to be in a safe seat. This is surprising as they are the most likely beneficiaries of the Muslim vote which is now up for grabs.

Muslim Women are not political pawns

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Published in Guardian (Comment is Free) here

The National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group was little more than a tick-box exercise, which is why I had to resign

This week, I resigned from the government’s National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group (NMWAG), which was launched by the prime minister more than two years ago. We were supposed to influence policies by advising on empowering Muslim women; on issues affecting them; and on their role in preventing violent extremism. We did very little of this and instead were side-tracked into overseeing the delivery of projects, which was not our job. Whenever I raised concerns, my views were ignored by both the group and government.

My frustration turned to anger in recent weeks when NMWAG suddenly took steps to be more visible and active after a long period of inactivity. I felt that this move was linked to concerns over a new government disbanding the group due to its lack of impact. I felt extremely uncomfortable about the timing of this renewed interest to empower Muslim women.

I felt that I could no longer remain on NMWAG as a matter of principle. It was not an easy decision because I knew my resignation could mean my links to government being severed and damage my relationship with individuals on the group. However, I was compelled to stand up for what I believed in and sent a letter to the current minister for communities and local government, John Denham stating the reasons for my departure. My criticism was directed at NMWAG as an institution and at government policy rather than the individual women on the group. There will be relief that my dissenting voice will no longer pose a problem. However, the messages of support that have poured in since my resignation should tell the group it lacks credibility.

By creating a structure that served no purpose, except contributing towards a political agenda, the government have missed an opportunity to empower Muslim women which could have contributed to Gordon Brown’s election pledge on strengthening fairness in communities. Muslim women are one of the most disadvantaged groups in society, suffering the highest levels of economic inactivity, worst health and discrimination on multiple fronts. We were never consulted on these issues. I urge the future government to explore ways of genuinely consulting the wide array of women’s organisations and community activists through credible mechanisms and not restricting engagement through a particular group.

After initial interest in the group, the subsequent lack of enthusiasm should not have been a surprise. The government has always employed a strategy of elevating a Muslim organisation before replacing it with another and NMWAG suffered the same fate too. The government diverted its attention towards the Young Muslims Advisory Group (YMAG), which they launched a year after NMWAG. They were provided resources for a website, a national conference and will be launching a magazine. NMWAG was never promoted in this way.

The failure of this initiative highlights that the government is not serious about the role of women in influencing public policy. For example, initiatives are often launched to encourage women into public life, but are not matched with resources to support them. Women’s empowerment ends up becoming a tick-box exercise.

If NMWAG survives, mechanisms are needed to ensure that members are replaced, allowing an influx of other knowledgeable and talented women to constantly increase the diversity of women being engaged with. However, empowerment means giving away power, which may be difficult to let go when one has access to the corridors of power. It may not matter anyway because if David Cameron wins the election he has promised to reduce the number of quangos, so the writing could be on the wall for NMWAG.