Once, Muslims And Labour Were Natural Allies. Not Now. All My Years Of Activism Have Achieved Little, And The Young Know It

By Pola Manzila Uddin For much of my adult life I have dressed modestly, in shalwar kameez and sometimes saris. Only when visiting places of worship or in the presence of elders did I ever feel obliged to cover my head. However, earlier this year, I wore a scarf on Umrah, a mini pilgrimage, and it somehow felt natural to keep on wearing it when I got home. For me, this was simply an expression of a deepening knowledge of my faith and of my self. The first time I walked into the House of Lords with it on, I could feel the surprise. Some of my Labour friends were wonderful about it. But for others, shock soon gave way to suspicion, and the questioning began. Why was I doing it? When would I stop? Was my scarf a sign of my support of the French schoolgirls who’d been banned from wearing the hijab? And even, had I become a “fundamentalist”? And this from people who had known me, and my politics, for years. It was as if they thought that one piece of silk cloth over the hair changed one’s personality. Since that first day, this little piece of cloth has even coloured how some people receive my work. When I launched a report into faith schools earlier this month, it was suggested that I had an “obsession”, and was demanding more Muslim schools. Even some people who knew that I had sent my own four children to a Church of England school interpreted a simple call for parity as an expression of my new “extremism”. I am disappointed that, after so many years of political activism, so little seems to have changed. But this is not simply a personal disappointment. No one can have failed to notice what the recent election results confirmed – that Labour has lost the confidence of the minority communities, especially Muslims. Take my part of east London: the Respect candidate, coming from nothing to securing nearly 20,000 votes in boroughs where Labour should have walked home. As a party activist for three decades, I am frustrated that the government has come to be seen as complacent. And as a Muslim I am dismayed that there is no strategy to address this loss of support. Everyone has a story about why they feel let down, especially in areas where Muslim communities have settled over decades. Too often one still finds an all-white hierarchy in the town hall presiding over ghettos. Muslims feel powerless to change their communities – communities in which male unemployment is unacceptably high, schools are failing their children, and where inequalities in housing and health persist. And we have to acknowledge the impact of the “war on terror” – the huge increase in the number of Muslims now being subjected to stop and search adds to the feeling that the whole community is being criminalised. For over 50 years the Muslims of this country went about their business, obedient to the core. Our parents’ generation worked, ate, slept, they tolerated being spat at and being told to “go back”. When my generation, their children, grew up, we spoke English, ate fish and chips and became defiant when told to “go back”. That is why so many of us became politically active in the late 70s and early 80s. The Labour party was our natural home. We fought shoulder to shoulder, challenging the fascists on our streets. Our generation believed that we had a stake in Britain; we believed respect and understanding was just around the corner. Labour raised huge expectations when it professed to understand and value the Muslim community. But after September 11 everything changed. Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has all but destroyed that partnership. The government does nothing to protect us from the onslaught of verbal and physical attacks we face every time there is another bomb explosion, or a further threat of terror attacks. There is a sense of vulnerability, that every savage act carried out elsewhere leads to repression of every one of us on the streets of Britain. It is in this atmosphere that new questions are asked about us, as though we had not been born or grown up here. Muslims are being challenged to prove that they are more British than anyone else. How women wear their clothes, the way men cut their beards and even the company we keep are all now up for debate. Just imagine these questions being asked not in a place of courtesy and kindness, and by your friends, but with real hostility. When one is not understood or respected, how can one begin to explain such complex and often personal choices? I am dismayed by the daily justifications demanded of us just so that some of us can be called “moderates”. Is this what we mean by integration? My 18-year-old son voted for the first time this year, and I know the talk among his friends was anything but Labour. By his age we were demonstrating against the far right; his peers are protesting against Labour – stop and search, anti-terror legislation, and the war in Iraq. We have to prove to them that they are valued by society and that their survival in the mainstream matters to us all. If we don’t, we may lose them to those vile preachers outside mosques and marketplaces. It is in this atmosphere that Shabina Begum’s fight to wear the jilbab to school came to court this week. The judge ruled that the school’s refusal to let Begum wear the full-length gown did not breach her right to education and religion. I wish this case had never come to court – not least because, once it had done so, no other ruling was possible. I admire the school’s commitment to meeting the needs of local pupils, 80% of whom are Muslim. The uniform policy was only implemented after consultation, and I would defend the school’s right to apply it. However, the school was wrong to cite health and safety concerns. This gives credence to the spurious, yet increasingly commonplace argument that Muslim girls are hampered by their clothes (and thus, by implication, by their communities and by their religion). This is absurd. In court it became clear that the school’s real concern was that Begum’s jilbab would create a hierarchy of piety among the pupils. I have seen for myself that where the majority of Muslim schoolgirls wear scarves there is peer pressure to comply. But the question we should be asking is, why is it that some of our young people are vulnerable to pressure to identify themselves as more Muslim than others? On my pilgrimage, I was struck by what is said as you enter Mecca (I paraphrase): “You are forbidden from covering your face.” And yet there were thousands who did. The fact that more young British Muslim women are choosing to wear scarves is not a phenomenon imported from aboard – what we have is what we have created. And in some respects we should welcome these developments, because they show that the Muslim community is returning to political activism, and trying to reclaim the agenda. For the major political parties this should be a time for reflection, because the clear message is that no vote is to be taken for granted. Labour must work out who it should be talking to within the community. Fine, talk to the imams, but also recognise that the vast majority will never see one except on religious occasions. Meanwhile there are professional men and women in every sphere who are denied a voice. Let’s give them a one. I have banged my head against this brick wall with colleague after colleague, with every institution and every figurehead. There have been too many reports – Swann, Macpherson, Parekh – and too much talk. I believe a new generation of Muslims is ready to represent the community at every level of government. We are in public view, just waiting to be called.