The war against terrorism has barely registered as an issue in the British general election campaign. Yet underlying this campaign has been a worrying trend that will have consequences for years to come. In their quest to unseat Tony Blair, one British opposition party, the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, have sought to open up divisions between Muslim and non-Muslims in British society.
The Liberal Democrats, previously the center party of Britain, have been relentless in their opposition to the Iraq war for the last two years. They have called for British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq before the end of 2005 whether the democratically elected Iraqi government wants them to remain or not.
So far, so fringe, but the Liberal Democrats have also attempted to manipulate the British Muslim vote. Britain has a small, longstanding Muslim community that is around three percent of the total population. Until now, there has been no coherent Muslim political identity. Most British Muslims have traditionally voted Labour for economic reasons. British Muslims tend to be concentrated in poor inner-city areas or declining, provincial towns. Their religious identity has not been a political issue.
Muslim-related issues have rarely intruded into politics. Before the Iraq war the main controversy had been the reaction of some Muslims to Ayatollah Khomeini’s death warrant against the British novelist Salman Rushdie. British politicians encouraged the intolerant fringe in the Muslim community by failing to stand up for Rushdie’s rights and instead apologizing for any offence that Rushdie might have caused to the many indignant persons who had not read his novel The Satanic Verses. However, the bid by the Islamic Party of Britain (IPB) to exploit the head of steam that had built up over the Rushdie issue failed dismally. The IPB, which advocated legalizing polygamy, won just 0.6 percent of the vote in the six constituencies it stood in in the 1992 British elections.
That has changed thanks to the Liberal Democrats’ reversal of position over Iraq. In September 2002, the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, Menzies Campbell, said that Iraq possessed WMD. The Liberal Democrats soon realized that there was no gain to be had from backing the political consensus in favor of tackling Saddam Hussein. Tony Blair, with a large parliamentary majority and the support, before the war, of the Conservatives, was obviously going to have enough votes to authorize action against Saddam’s regime. Meanwhile, antiwar opinion, which was being stoked by the BBC and the left-wing press, lacked mainstream political representation.
Along with transforming themselves into the antiwar party, the Liberal Democrats have attempted to seduce British Muslims away from the Labour party by allying themselves with fringe Sunni Muslim fundamentalist groups. The Liberal Democrat calculation is that British Muslims have been radicalized, and that the views of sectarian, anti-Semitic fringe groups have a resonance in the Muslim community. The opinions of Shia Arabs and Kurds from Iraq living in Britain have little weight. The Iraqi expatriate vote is not geographically concentrated, many are not citizens and so cannot vote, and the media has deliberately ignored them.
This tactic paid dividends for the Liberal Democrats when their candidate, Sarah Teather, won the previously safe Labour seat of Brent East in London during a September 2003 by-election. One of the groups that endorsed Teather in Brent East was the Muslim Association of Britain, believed to have close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Better-known Muslim Brotherhood affiliates include the terrorist movement Hamas.
Just to show that there is no honor when political opportunism is involved, the MAB has now shifted its backing from Sarah Teather, despite her backing protests against the French government’s ban on religious symbols such as the veil in public schools. The MAB now backs Yasmin Qureshi, an antiwar Labour candidate whom it describes as “a conscientious Muslim who understands and is fully capable of articulating the needs and concerns of the Muslim community.” In these elections, the MAB has also endorsed George Galloway, the former Labour MP who became famous after allegations surfaced that he supported Saddam Hussein.
Still the Liberal Democrats have not been entirely bereft of Islamic fundamentalist support. Another extremist group, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK), which also equivocates on terrorism and indulges in anti-Semitism, has come forward to help the Liberal Democrats. The MPACUK has published a list of Jews in the media originally put together by “journalist” Jeffrey Blankfort and posted on the al-Jazeera.info website. Muslims who attempt to build bridges with other faiths are vilified by the MPACUK, which gives Muslims who attend Holocaust Day memorials the label “uncle tom.”
In April, the MPACUK was revealed to have distributed leaflets in the provincial English town of Rochdale attacking the sitting Labour member of parliament, Lorna Fitzsimmons, as “an ardent Zionist and a member of the most powerful anti-Muslim lobby in the world, the Israeli lobby.” According to the MPACUK, “She has done nothing to help the Palestinians. Why? Because she is a Jewish member of the Labour Friends of Israel.” The MPACUK therefore called on Muslims to back the Liberal Democrat candidate in Rochdale, Paul Rowen, who has admitted to meeting with MPACUK activists. Once the anti-Semitism was reported, both the Liberal Democrats and the MPACUK partially distanced themselves from the leaflet. The MPACUK website nonetheless described the journalist who broke the story, Jonathan Oliver of The Mail on Sunday, as a “pro-Israeli journalist.”
Although the Liberal Democrats have taken the manipulation of minority identity for political gain to new lengths and depths, the dangers of sectarian politics were evident before Iraq. Labour and Conservative members of parliament shamelessly courted the Greek Cypriot community, which has an important presence in key North London seats before the 1997 general election and which provides free “fact finding” trips to the sunny Mediterranean island. That strategy backfired spectacularly during the Kosovo war in 1999 when many Greek Cypriots openly supported Slobodan Milosevic.
The Liberal Democrats’ willingness to ally themselves with illiberal groups has damaged the integrity of British democracy and licensed the extreme views of a noisy minority of British Muslims. Britain has generally had an excellent record of integrating immigrants, an achievement made all the more remarkable because of the absence of any official policy of integration. Integration is one of Britain’s most powerful weapons against the terrorists. The damage done by the Liberal Democrats will be felt for years to come.
–Andrew Apostolou works at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.