For more than 30 years, I took the votes of Birmingham Muslims for granted. The Muslims themselves I treated with more respect. But if, at any time between 1964 and 1997 I heard of a Khan, Saleem or Iqbal who did not support Labour I was both outraged and astonished.
My presumption was justified. It was the Muslim vote—increased by an influx of families from Kashmir, the Punjab and other parts of Birmingham—which expanded my majority from barely 1,200 to more than 12,000.
Roger Godsiff, my successor, cannot rely on such unswerving loyalty. The Muslim view of Labour has changed. Back in Birmingham this week it was clear that the Khans, Saleems and Iqbals have developed a new—and more healthy—attitude towards politics.
Anxious immigrants who throw themselves on the mercy of their members of parliament are now a minority. Their children and grandchildren will only vote for politicians who explicitly meet their demands.
The change has not produced quite the results which the pundits anticipated. When I represented Sparkbrook, Mustaq’s was a corner grocery shop. Now it is a huge glass and stainless steel emporium owned by Mustaq Food Machinery Limited—an international company which exports throughout Europe from its showroom on the other side of the road.
Its managing director is P Ahmed, Mustaq’s English-born son and university graduate. Mustaq voted Labour. Ahmed, although a member of the new Muslim middle class, will vote Respect on May 5. His immediate complaint against the government was the war in Iraq. But he went on to make clear that his criticisms of the coalition are shorthand to describe a deeper resentment. George Galloway chose the name of his new political party with care.
Respect is what the Muslim community—more confident than ever before—demands. They are not sure that it is available within the present political system. And they are certain that the west’s war on terror has made its achievement far less likely.
Dr Naseem—a retired general practitioner, chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque and Respect candidate for Perry Barr—believes the attack on the New York trade centre was orchestrated by the CIA. Dawn, the mosque’s newsletter (distributed to the 4,000 worshippers who attend prayers each weekend) publishes what he regards as evidence to support that fantasy.
But Farah Naz, at the Sparkhill women’s centre, expresses a more typical view. Discrimination has increased since newspapers became obsessed with “Islamic extremism”. Her 18-year-old daughter, Henna Mahmood, is now reluctant to wear the traditional headscarf in public. “She gets called a Paki and told to go back home.”
In the Islamic Resource Centre, Mohammed Shafique—an accountant by training but a community worker by vocation—makes the same point more aggressively. “When,” he asks “did anybody ever talk about Catholic terrorists in Northern Ireland? Only Muslims are lumped together in this way. Nobody ever speaks out against Islamic phobia.”
His concern reveals a Muslim characteristic which has survived the generations. Muslims expect something approaching a personal relationship with their members of parliament. They demand audible and visible support—particularly in face of the fashionable suspicion of all things Islamic.
Nobody to whom I spoke during my visit to Birmingham chose to talk about the postal vote rigging which had been exposed and condemned the previous day. Reaction to my own inquiries confirmed the reason for their reticence. The six corrupt councillors happened to be Muslim. There is a real fear that, in the present climate, the whole community will be libelled as the enemies of democracy.
Shafique (the chair of Labour’s Sparkbrook branch) insists that his party, which has gained so much from Muslim support, has done too little in return. Part of his complaint concerns the perennial dispute about whether or not the Sparkbrook-Small Heath constituency (where in one ward 80% of residents are classified as “ethnic minority”) should be represented by a Muslim MP. But he also insists that “the authorities” have an oppressive “attitude” towards his community.
“Labour still believes what the 70- and 80-year-olds said to it 20 years ago.” By that he means that the leadership—local and national—asks for unthinking support rather than creative partnership.
Khalid Mahmood, the young and able MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, lists the national policies which, despite that, will guarantee his re-election. The minimum wage and income support are profoundly welcome to the poor. And Muslims suffer more than their fair share of poverty. Increased child benefit has provided spending power for Asian women and baby bonds appeal to the Islamic instinct for thrift. But he also points out that, paradoxically, one great Labour reform has broken a bond which bound me to my constituents.
Most of the families who queued to see me at my advice bureaux asked for my help with “immigration cases”. Many of them were oppressed by the “primary purpose rule”. Lawful and loving husbands were denied entry into Britain unless they could prove that their marriage had no ulterior purpose.
Jack Straw at the Home Office changed all that. A legal marriage—accompanied by proof of job and living accommodation—now guarantees a visa. The change was morally essential. But it ended the married couple’s need for the “MP’s letter” which (they assumed) would change the immigration officer’s mind. Gratitude is short-lived in politics. More Islamic activists remember David Blunkett’s confusion of “forced” and “arranged” marriages than recall Jack Straw’s reforms.
The young women who asked for help with their husbands’ visa applications were often very unIslamic in appearance. Because I always assumed that their mothers and aunts (often on instruction) voted the same way as their husbands, I wondered if their daughters’ short skirts, high heels and tight jeans were a symbol of political emancipation. Now, Muslim women are openly expressing their own opinions and voting according to their own judgments. Perhaps they were never as dominated by their men as white liberals supposed. Rubina Parvez told me that, although her husband invariably voted for me, she did not. But, whatever happened 20 years ago, Muslim women now take politics seriously.
A new generation—educated in English schools and influenced by western mores—behave increasingly like their Christian sisters. And there are conscious attempts from the younger radicals to drag middle-aged women into the 20th century.
“Outreach” groups seem to meet on every street corner. The talk, which begins with health and hygiene, naturally leads on to politics. And the women who stay at home all day are becoming politicised in a different way. Many of them, speaking no English, pass their time watching the satellite television programmes which are beamed into Birmingham from the Middle East. The broadcasts constantly attack “western aggression against Iraq” as a conscious assault on Islam itself.
Between now and May 5 British Muslims will face choices which did not disturb them during previous elections. There were always Muslim fringe candidates and no doubt a variety of “no-hopers” will be nominated this year.
The People’s Justice Party—largely formed by dissident Labour councillors to protest against the Indian “occupation” of Kashmir—faded out of existence. It was revived to support the complaint against the postal ballot rigging. Something called the Islamic Democratic Party is widely believed to exist. It is impossi ble to locate its policies, premises or personnel. But next month, as in the past, most Muslims will choose not to waste their votes.
Birmingham Liberals have always concentrated on local issues. In Sparkbrook this week more people complained about the local council’s refusal to fund neighbourhood advice centres than denounced successive governments’ failure to reduce the local unemployment level below 20%.
So the pre-occupation with dustbins and paving stones will pay dividends. But the Liberals will compete with Respect for dissident Muslim support. By cancelling each other out, the anti-war parties will guarantee that Labour holds (by respectable majorities) each of the three seats—Perry Barr, Sparkhill-Small Heath and Hodgehill—in which the Muslim vote could be crucial. But its candidates will have to work harder than ever before.
The end of dependence and deference marks the emergence of the Muslim community from the bad old days of grateful subservience. Much to his credit, Roger Godsiff welcomes the change.
“In your day,” he told me, “Muslims needed Labour MPs for protection. Now most of them can protect themselves.” In future they will pick and choose between the parties and ask: “What have you done for me?”
As well as the usual demand for houses, jobs and education, they will expect the personal involvement which they regard as proof of real respect. Representing Sparkbrook will be a much more demanding occupation than it was in my day.