Politicians cannot afford Muslim voters being disenchanted with them

Islamophobia and the war in Gaza are likely to bear on this year's elections in the US and the UK

A girl from the Olive School waves a UK flag during a national Muslim memorial for the late Queen Elizabeth II at the central mosque in London, on September 15, 2022. AP
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In countries such as the US and the UK, there is nothing that focuses the mind like an election, and in 2024 they will be held in both countries, as they will in several other countries around the world. The British and American elections especially come in the backdrop of increasingly polarised societies, the cost of living crises, culture wars, rising prejudice and hate crimes including racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and the continuing war in Gaza.

Many Muslims in western countries feel under increasing scrutiny and on the receiving end of anti-Muslim sentiment, including some hate crimes that have been widely reported since October.

In the US, Muslim voters being disenchanted with US President Joe Biden’s ongoing support for Israel has in some cases led to complete political disengagement. Last month, some members of the American-Muslim community in Dearborn, Michigan, even refused to meet Mr Biden on his visit.

In the UK, the Labour party has also found its Muslim voter population proactively disengaging, which could lead to the loss of important votes. On the other hand, the incumbent Conservative party is perceived as no less hostile – also a supporter of events in Gaza, but coupled with anti-immigrant policies, Islamophobic language, and with a the refusal to conduct inquiries into cases of Islamophobia. Last month British Muslim MP Naz Shah said there had been a 600 per cent rise in incidents against Muslims in the past year.

It should not need to be said but Muslim voters don’t merely vote on the basis of their religion

It should not need to be said but Muslim voters don’t merely vote on the basis of their religion – although there are some uniting issues such as Gaza and Islamophobia – which is why I’ve been careful to avoid the term the "Muslim vote". But there are also plenty of voters who just happen to be Muslim. And in the coming years and in the next election in the UK, Muslims are likely to hold far more economic and cultural power. Not to mention due to a youthful population, there will be far more Muslim voters than this year.

The question for Muslims is now strategic: what will be the best way to build this power?

The bottom line is that politicians need to get people out to vote – and in this sense, Muslims matter because they are voters and they can be future allies. In countries where low voter turnout and wider voter disillusionment are increasingly problematic, this should not be underestimated. Failing which, there could be a difficult dance between politicians and Muslim civic society.

Some politicians could be making a cynical political calculation that Muslim voters don’t matter enough. Or worse, in some cases, even attacking Muslims and using Islamophobic language thinking of it as a supposed election-winning strategy.

In the US, Muslim voters are already being mobilised to decide the outcome in the key "swing states" in the US that could determine the outcome of the election. In the UK, the number of Muslim MPs in Parliament is growing and one political strategy being used is putting up Muslim candidates to challenge key seats. This week, Leanne Mohamed, an activist and first British-Palestinian Muslim to stand, will be in the constituency of Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary of the Labour Party, who was for five years chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on British Muslims.

According to the Conservative Muslim Forum, based on 2011 census data, Muslim voters commanded 10 per cent or more in 80 of the 573 constituencies in England and Wales. The Forum correctly suggests that these proportions will most likely have gone up because Muslim populations are young and therefore will be increasingly joining the electorate.

Politicians and Muslim voters themselves should not underestimate the trajectory of growth of Muslims and their ability to build social, political and economic power. Young Muslims already are bellwethers of wider social and ethical movements. Chris Kempczinski, the chief executive of McDonald's, said that the consumer boycotts, of which Muslims are a huge part, was affecting its business.

Such international connections that Muslim populations can bring to the table are also a form of power. As populations grow, so will their influence and politicians should engage with this rather than take it for granted or dismiss it.

In all of this politicking, there are people who seek political power and people who seek to engage political power in order to do social good. Muslims clearly aspire to ensure that their countries act both domestically and internationally in ways that uphold shared human values and benefit all – and they will do so even when it becomes politically and socially difficult.

And politicians should also be reminded of the social good that people expect from them. There is a duty of care to communities that face rising Islamophobia and are caught in immigration debates and in the polarisation of societies that often merely distract from wider societal challenges.

There is a universal truth we must remind ourselves of: that politicians are there to serve the people. And that means serving everyone, regardless of their religious background.

Published: January 19, 2024, 7:00 AM