Jihadimania and an end to arms trade with Israel: What are the challenges in the upcoming election?

UK Political Parties

With the UK elections less than one week away three experts give their views on the challenges facing British Muslims, political parties and UK foreign policy in the Middle East.

ISIS, Islamophobia and Prevent

In 2012 a group of Muslim men of Pakistani and Afghani origin were tried and convicted of grooming under-age white girls for sex in what became known as the Rochdale grooming case.

"After the ring leader of the gang was tried for abuse of the white girls, he was tried for the abuse of a girl of his own ethnicity," explains Nazir Afzal, the former Chief Crown Prosecutor who led the case against the gang. Afzal says that when Muslim girls and women are sexually abused they are less likely to come forward, which largely comes down to issues of honour.

The revelation that an Asian girl was sexually abused may come as a surprise for some. It drew far less media attention. So did the fact that most men on the sex offenders register are in fact white; but that didn't stop demonstrators uniting under the banner: "Our Children Are Not Halal Meat". Members of the Muslim community in Rochdale reported unprecedented racism in the wake of the case.

In general, observers have reported a rise in Islamophobic rhetoric in politics. But this is not just restricted to parties like the BNP, says Shamiul Joarder spokesperson for You Elect, a grassroots initiative aimed at promoting political engagement among British Muslims.

"The problem is it's creeped into mainstream, whether it's Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem. You can see it in all parties to a lesser or more degree, but this is the overall theme. It's not just the political system, it's the media, it's everywhere and it goes unchallenged now because it's almost a norm."

Another issue many voters will take seriously on 7 May is creeping anti-terror legislation, part of which threatens to make young people stateless if they leave the country to fight alongside ISIS. The issue of the Islamic State, and the young British men and women running away to join their ranks, has captured newspaper headlines across the country yet deserves a more nuanced debate than a focus on religious ideology.

Former Chief Crown Prosecutor Afzal has likened the radicalisation of young people with the three-stage process of sexual grooming: manipulation, distancing of the victim from family and friends and finally the abuse. Compare this with what happens to young people who are radicalised:

"First they are fed propaganda, told that their lives are poor by comparison to what they could have, that they shouldn't be under the thumbs of their parents, they should be free in the wild west of the Middle East. That there is something better for them than the existence they have here in Europe or anywhere else for that matter."

Next they are told not to talk to anyone and not to trust their family and friends. Finally they are persuaded to leave the country: "The third stage, rather than being sexually abused - and obviously some of them will be sexually abused - is that they're taken and given the confidence, if that's the right word, to take off to wherever they're meant to go. That's exactly the same in terms of process that you would experience around sexual grooming."

Victims of sexual grooming and radicalisation can both share feelings of being unwanted, unloved and misunderstood. Young people are easily led, seeking an identity and for a place in life. "It's easy for the propaganda to work," he adds.

Afzal has termed the pull to join ISIS "jihadimania", inspired by the phrase "Beatlemania" which described ardent fans of the rock group back in the sixties. "That was the boys wanting to be like them and the girls wanting to be with them. And that is my experience of what young people are experiencing. This kind of mania takes hold and more and more people are susceptible to it, particularly if their lives here are perceived as being drab or poor by comparison. What am I doing here? What's my contribution to life? My education will finish at 16, I don't have any aspirations; I don't know whether my ambitions will be fulfilled."

The government has said that Britain faces the gravest terror threat in the country's history. Terrorism is a priority, reflects Afzal, and it is challenging. But that doesn't make it the most serious threat of our time. "I can tell you that when there have been thousands of children who have been sexually abused in this country every year you can't possibly say that anything is more challenging than that."

Though the government's counter-terrorism strategy Prevent is working "to a certain extent" it requires "reshaping and reinvigorating", Afzal says. Adding that anti-extremism programmes are too often top-down policing tools, rather than community-based grassroots initiatives.

"We become lazy about the people we engage with and you tend to go to the usual suspects, the tried and tested approaches and people who can prepare a very long business case in order to obtain funding. But the projects that are really effective on the ground are really the one or two man operations, very small operations. They don't have the time to bid for funds and too often they're not being identified as key players."

"Whichever government is formed will have to look again at the approach they're taking to see whether or not it really is fit for the twenty-first century, if it really is fit for the way young people are developing today and whether they are engaging with the right organisations, whether they are resourcing the grassroots and the real champions will make a difference. That sort of review would have to make sense pretty imminently after the next election given the fears that we have about the numbers of people who are being manipulated in this way."

UK foreign policy

When it comes to the general elections, domestic policy commonly takes precedence over foreign policy in terms of air time. Iraq, however, was an anomaly points out Dr Neil Quilliam, the acting head of the North Africa and the Middle East programme at Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London. Leader of the Labour party, Ed Miliband, wants to send a clear message that Labour has learnt the lessons from the 2003 invasion, "it's strange when you think this is 12 years later and he is still trying to make a decisive break with that policy," says Quilliam.

Miliband is not entirely anti-intervention despite the fact he condemned the 2003 Iraq war and blocked airstrikes against Syria in 2013. He supported the 2011 intervention in Libya and a motion in 2014 authorising airstrikes against ISIS. "It's more a case-by-case situation," says Quilliam. "He wants to be in a position where decisions to support intervention are made because that was the last option to be explored."

Miliband has focused on the lack of policy planning in post-conflict situations: "If there is an intervention and the UK were to be part of a coalition then a key part of the policy would be: What comes next? How do we prepare for the post-conflict situation, or scenario, because we can't just cut and run and leave the country to its own devices? Again that's very much driven by Iraq 2003 but also allows him to draw some parallels in what's happened in Libya where to a large extent the intervention was successful in that it removed Gaddafi. His argument would be that there was insufficient planning in the post-conflict phase to keep Libya together and on the right track," says Quilliam.

Libya is often cited on the news these days as the departure point for migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Estimates put the death toll at around 2,000 already this year – among them are Syrian refugees escaping a conflict that has entered its fifth year.

Whilst UNHCR called on European countries to take 130,000 Syrian refugees between them, the UK has only settled around 100 through the vulnerable persons relocation programme. Quilliam says such a small number has been admitted partly because of the elections, but mainly because UKIP is encroaching on parliament's territory. Even the recent outrage when 900 migrants drowned in one day is not enough to change policy on such a sensitive domestic issue, he says. Instead the emphasis is on the provision of aid.

"With the case of Syria specifically, the UK government loves to focus on the fact that it's the second largest donor and supporter of Syrians as a whole and has contributed £800 million so far to supporting Syrians; but that is keeping them in the region, that's the million plus in the surrounding countries."

Meanwhile, the UK's relationship with Israel remains strong. "It can withstand whoever is elected and becomes Prime Minister in either country," says Quilliam.

As for Saudi Arabia, another key ally in the region, it is likely that the main parties and their policies post-election will be nuanced only. "The Saudi-British relationship is strategic, and defence sales are one of the key elements of that relationship and I wouldn't expect to see any major deviation from that. We may see more open criticism of Saudi domestic policy but I don't think that will lead to a major change."

Last year, the British government ordered an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation now banned by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The findings of that investigation "have been put on ice," says Quilliam. "It would be interesting to think about what a new government would do with the findings of that report and to what extent the findings will shape a new government's policies towards the Brotherhood but also towards the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt."

"The driving force behind the investigation was to satisfy Saudi Arabia and the UAE's concerns about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, but also within Europe. But I'm not sure whether the findings of the report - because I'm not party to them - will satisfy what the Saudis and the Emirates' want. The UK is in a very uncomfortable position where it's got the results of that investigation which most likely would frustrate those governments."

From a party perspective Egypt does not feature as high on the agenda, says Quilliam. But as parties come into government they will realise the UK-Egypt relationship is essential and it will gain in priority as parties come into government. As for the future and the biggest foreign policy challenges a new government faces, Quilliam says it is about approaching the region more strategically.

"Over the past decade, but particularly over the past ten years, policy has been driven by crisis. So the challenge is to step back and look at the series of crises in their entirety and try to build a policy that helps the government tackle some of those issues more systematically rather than just responding to emergency and crisis. It's about developing a long-term policy rather than a series of short-term fixes."

How important is the Muslim vote?

Whilst foreign policy may not be given much weight in public discussion, it is an issue that is very important to many voters. Last year Baroness Sayeeda Warsi warned the Conservative party that its position on the Israeli war on Gaza could lose seats in the next election, yet just this week Conservative leader David Cameron told the Jewish Chronicle Israel was right to defend itself over Gaza.

According to Joarder of You Elect, the UK's arms trade with Israel is the number one priority for British Muslims when it comes to voting as per the results of a recent survey conducted by the organisation. Privatisation of the NHS came second, and counter-terrorism legislation third.

"It's not a homogenous community. There's no doubt about that. But at another level obviously something called 'the Muslim vote' exists. Take, for example, anti-terror legislation. The Muslim community are going to be disproportionately affected by this. The issue of foreign policy, when you see the issue of Palestine on the streets, it's an issue of right and wrong and there were a lot of young Muslims on the streets. If you look at deprived areas where the Muslim community reside, housing and the NHS are going to be issues just like they are for everybody else. There is such thing as a Muslim vote but no party has a monopoly over the community."

When it comes to voting, there is a lot of apathy towards the political system among young people in general. On top of this, some Muslims specifically feel they are not being listened to. "When you have a young community like the Muslim community is - and there are 100,000 new voters - if you translate that apathy of the youth to the Muslim community it's obviously going to be quite great. Especially with all the other political factors that are occurring around the UK and abroad people think that voting and politicians don't care."

It is You Elect's job to encourage people to care. In the beginning of the campaign they stood outside shopping centres and mosques to engage young Muslims and remind them to register to vote. They promoted the hashtag #sortitout to engage with MPs online. Later, they held hustings across the country where communities could grill their MPs on issues like lifting the blockade on Gaza.

"Holding the MPs that are going to come into power to account, that's the best bit, that's the thing we really need to ensure," says Joarder. "That no one takes the Muslim vote for granted. No party, no individual, no matter how much you have a majority, do not take our vote for granted."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor