Colin C. Cortbus

Did Caliphate radicals cost Britain’s anti-Israel movement parliamentary seats?

Source: Personal CC0-copyright free
Source: Personal CC0-copyright free

In Britain’s general election late last week, four “pro-Palestinian” independent candidates got elected for the first time to the British parliament. They had been prominently backed by a network of Islamic political activists, but their celebrations soon turned sour. Anti-Israel candidates in two further constituencies with sizable Muslim populations, Birmingham Yardley and Ilford North, missed out on victory by just a few hundred votes. The story behind these two electoral defeats may well be that of the most spectacular own goal in the history of Islamist political activism in Britain. Some hardcore Islamist fundamentalists believe that voting in western democracies is “haram,” completely forbidden in Islam, and may even be “shirk,” idol-worship. Such fundamentalists account for only a tiny fraction of British Muslim communities. But in these close-run parliamentary races, their numbers may plausibly exceeded the margin of defeat: Anti-Israel candidates in those seats might have won if those fundamentalists hadn’t stubbornly turned their nose up at the idea of voting.

In the post-industrial urban constituency of Birmingham Yardley, Jody McIntyre was vying to be elected to Parliament in the British general election that took place on July 4th. He was standing on a “pro-Palestinian” platform for the hard-left Workers Party of Britain, led by the anti-firebrand anti-Israel activist George Galloway. McIntyre long ago converted to Islam in England, and later went to communist Venezuela in 2012 as a journalist, praising Hugo Chavez-run Venezuela for having “one of the most advanced voting systems in the world.” It is not fully known how McIntyre rates the British electoral system, but on Thursday, he suffered an embarrassing and close defeat at the hands of Jess Phillips from the center-left Labour party. Phillips had received 11,275 votes, opposed to Mcintyre’s 10,582. Just 694 more votes would have given McIntyre a victory.

McIntyre could plausibly have found these votes, if a small but significant part of the local electorate hadn’t declined to turn up to vote. Some Islamic fundamentalists in Britain believe that taking part in democratic elections in the West is strictly prohibited in Islam, and can be seen as idolatrous. This opinion has long been rejected by the vast majority of mainstream British Islamic scholars, but still enjoys perennial support at the fringes of the community.

Adherents of this belief range from highly-educated, ultra-devout Salafis, to angry, marginalized and disillusioned young men who believe that British Muslims should decouple fully from secular public life in Britain. Instead, they argue, the focus should be on establishing a theocratic “Khalifah” state somewhere in Muslim-majority countries, as an alternative to human-rights-based secular democracy. The radical Islamist sect Hizb-ut-Tahrir promoted this idea via informal student networks at schools and universities across the UK, before it was banned in January 2024 by the outgoing Conservative government. Birmingham is known as a Europe-wide hub for ultra-conservative Salafis, so much so it has been dubbed the “Salafi capital” of Britain. A government inquiry found that as early as 1994, school leaders in Birmingham had written to the British Prime Minister, warning about “Hizb-ut-Tahrir gaining an influence over schools in the city.”

Unsurprisingly, when the election results emerged last week, an angry discussion about religious opposition to voting ensued in the local community across Birmingham. In a local chat forum, highly-liked post by Muslim resident of the city complained, “The amount of people that told me it is haram to vote, it’s unbelievable. Where does this nonsense come from.”

But Islamist opposition to voting was not only a fringe local opinion heard on the doorstep in parts of Birmingham. Such views were also platformed by a prominent Islamic media outlet that otherwise reported supportively on the campaigns of anti-Israel independent candidates. The well-known British-based Islamic media organization 5Pillars prominently covered Jody McIntyre’s candidacy in Birmingham Yardley: As late as election day, they published an interview with him under the headline “Could Labour and British zionism lose big in Birmingham?” But in the run-up to the election, 5Pillars also published a long essay by a pseudonymous “blogger” calling himself Najm al-Din. Al-Din warned about a “conflicting duality where Muslims are torn between two sovereigns competing for their allegiance: Allah and The Parliament.” Al-Din went on to argue that “regardless of how passionately one campaigns against Zionism, embracing the foundational values of a secular liberal polity by affirming the right of lawmaking for other than Allah transgresses against his lordship in the temporal realm…” Al-Din claimed that “by voting, we immediately become part of a problem we ought to resolve, professing the ‘religion’ of Islam under the ‘deen’ of secular democracy”.  Instead, Al-Din called for Muslims to “plant the seeds of Caliphate consciousness…”

Of course, there is no suggestion that 5Pillars as an organization endorses the opinions of it’s contributor Al-Din: any media organization publishes a diverse and often conflicting range of opinions relevant to their readers. But the fact Al-Din’s opinion essay was published at all certainly does show that hardcore Islamist opposition to voting remains a viable opinion that enjoys enough traction to be platformed and considered relevant in Islamic media. This isn’t so fringe it’s considered unspeakable or excluded from the specific “Overton window” of what is permissible to say there.

Pollsters and opinon researchers typically focus on the views of whose likely to vote. As such there is little detailed data about the extent of ideological Islamist opposition to voting within Britain’s diverse Muslim communities. Specific polling that asks British Muslims whether they consider it religiously permissible to vote is lacking. But in Birmingham Yardley, where Jody Mcintyre stood for election, Muslims account for over 45% of the total population according to 2021 census data. The total electorate for the seat is well over 70,000 voters. So, even if only a small, seemingly insignificant fraction, say 3%, of the total Muslim population chooses not to vote due to such fringe Islamist beliefs, this would be more than enough to account for the extra 694 votes Jody McIntyre would have needed to turn defeat into victory.   In the London constituency of Ilford North, another “pro-Palestinian” independent candidate, Leanne Mohamad fell short of victory by just 529 votes. The influential Labour politician Wes Streeting was thus re-elected there with a wafer-thin majority. According to the 2021 census data, Muslims account for only 32.5% of the total population there, but still, even then, 3% of that smaller Muslim electorate would plausibly amount to more than the 528 extra votes Leanne Mohamad would have needed to win.

After the narrow defeats in Birmingham Yardley and Ilford North, allegations of “vote-splitting” have been cited to explain away the defeat. Candidates of the Green Party, which also takes some positions strongly critical of Israel, did get over 1,000 votes each in both Ilford North and  Birmingham Yardley. But there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that in the hypothetical absence of a Green candidate, Green voters would have switched to independent candidates linked to a predominantely single-issue anti-Israel campaign, rather than not voting at all or switching to Labour. After all, the Green Party has considerable overlaps with Labour on broader issues ranging from LGBTQ-rights to climate change. On the other hand, Islamist fundamentalists who presently refuse to vote can be safely assumed not to be Labour or Green swing voters, but rather to pick the most firmly anti-Israel independent candidate, if they ever do decide to vote.

“Vote-splitting” complaints are more of an emotional battle-cry for unity than a serious analysis. In Blackburn in North-Western England, independent “pro-Palestine” candidate Adnan Hussain managed to win, pushing the incumbent Labour MP Kate Hollern into second place, while another anti-Israel candidate, Craig Murray of the Workers’ Party of Britain hoovered up thousands of votes and came third. Paradoxically, Craig Murray’s candidacy was probably the crucial factor propelling Adnan Hussain’s campaign to victory over Labour. The infighting between the two “pro-Palestinian” rival candidates there will have persuaded Labour that they weren’t facing a serious, coherent threat in the constituency. This surely led the party to re-allocate valuable campaign resources to other seats deemed to be more at-risk: essentially giving away a seat that Labour could easily have kept with a larger activist push on the ground.

After a mixed set of results in the general election, Britain’s nascent Islamist electoral movement desperately wants to project strength. If Israel-hating Islamist activists can’t even unite their core supporters behind the basic idea of voting at all, this reveals much about their myopia and inability to build an effective movement that can endure in the next election. But the fact some people in Britain see voting as ideologically impermissible in the first place also speaks to a deeper problem: the increasing balkanization of the UK. This long-term, slow-motion failure of the hyper-liberal multicultural model may yet pose a much greater threat to the integrity of British democracy than any particular electoral outcome.

About the Author
Freelance journalist researching extremism, racism and radicalisation.
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