The logic of communalism reached an end-point in India and Pakistan at partition, when up to six million people were upended from one new country to the other, and as many of 500,000 may have died. Its cousin is the clan politics sometimes seen on the subcontinent, in which politics is determined by not so much by interests as by patronage. (The baraderi system in Pakistan is an example.) There and here, at least where there are groups of people who originate from south Asia, it is sometimes the sea in which elections take place, and politicians must swim or drown in it. It is also associated with electoral fraud, which has come to Britain: Sayeeda Warsi has claimed that it delivered three seats to Labour at the last election.
This is the context in which to see events in Newham, in which local Conservatives have issued a leaflet aimed at what it describes as “the Muslim community” which has been translated into Urdu, Gujurati and Bengali. The fourth of the leaflet’s ten pledges is “respect for religious beliefs and needs when making planning decisions, while point eight is “opposition to any further betting shops in Newham”. At least one of the Tory candidates running in the council elections will endorse this view wholeheartedly. He is Mufti Shah Sadruddin, who has called for a Muslim political identity.
“We have to create a revolution for our rights,” he is recorded as saying. “The gays can get their rights…but when Islam is being abused we can’t even save it. We have 50 million Muslims in Europe, we are good for nothing. The Jewish community, they have their anti-Semitism, they have this Holocaust. The gays got these gay rights but any Tom, Dick, Harry can make a movie, Satanic Verses…but we are 1.5 billion Muslims but we are not politically powerful. Block the roads of Newham just like Tahrir Square.”
Other statements by Sadruddin reportedly include the following: “Even Britain has a blasphemy law. We are sleeping, brothers…The greatest threat to Islam is through the removal of Islamic politics. The Islamic state is the greatest contribution to humanity. Only politics can unite the Muslim Ummah [brotherhood]. Politics is the tool which can unite the Muslims and the Ummah.” Shah reportedly organised and was certainly present at a rally for George Galloway last year. Two other Conservative council candidates in Newham are former candidates for Respect.
This tale raises three main issues. First, Sadruddin’s views, and whether he should be a Tory candidate. Second, how the party should handle former members of Respect. And, third, the campaigning relationship between the Party and religion. Sadruddin is the easiest of the three to determine. If believing that the Islamic state is the greatest contribution to humanity is conservatism, then Sahruddin is a Conservative: if it isn’t, then he isn’t, either. And if he isn’t, he shouldn’t be standing as a Tory council candidate in Newham.
Next, Respect. Respect has a complex relationship with baraderi. During the Bradford West by-election, Labour relied on it and Galloway didn’t. Indeed, he appealed over the head of the system to some degree, winning support from younger, British-born voters of Pakistani origin who are disillusioned with clan politics, and vote in the same way as everyone else. In principle, converts to the Conservative Party from other parties should be welcome. In practice, Respect is in part a far left party and in part an Islamist one.
Local Conservatives ought therefore to be very careful when selecting candidates who have formerly stood for Respect, and are thus less likely simply to have been caught up in it. Finally, Conservatives and faith. Tory candidates in areas in which there are Muslim voters should engage with mosques, just as they habitually engage with churches, and take an interest in issues which are of religious interest to Muslims. For example, it’s a feature of Islamic practice that bodies should be buried quickly. This is why I’ve argued that coroners’ proceedings should be speeded up whenever possible.
Is there is difference between going to a mosque, and making an electoral pitch to voters, and issuing leaflets aimed specifically at Muslim voters? I think there is, because there is a distinction between the two that makes a difference. People who worship in a mosque are identifying themselves as believers. Those who have a leaflet pushed through their letterbox or who take one in a street are not: they are citizens and voters. Political parties take the path to communalism once they start to campaign on the basis of religion.
If you doubt it, imagine the outcry had local Conservatives in Newham distributed a leaflet promising to “help and cater for the needs of the Christian community”. The Guardian would be up in arms. So would the BBC. The Party would never hear the end of it. The presence of such confessional politics in Britain may seem far-fetched, but it has touched London, and Newham itself. The Christian People’s Alliance first came to prominence campaigning against the proposed “mega-mosque” in the area which is championed by Tablighi Jamaat.
The Party nationally spoke out against the plan when in opposition. Pauline Neville Jones, then David Cameron’s security adviser, said that Tablighi Jamaat “may have given cover to extremist activity”. Point four of the Tory Newham leaflet can reasonably be read as support for the project. It certainly looks like a implied crackdown on off-licence applications (just as point eight specifically refers to betting shops). What about the non-Muslim majority in the borough? Are local Tories opposed to members of it having a flutter on the Grand National or buying a pack of Budweiser?
These issues raise important questions for CCHQ – and thus for the Party leadership, which ultimately stands behind everything that it does. Central intervention in local interventions is a bad thing as a rule: this site is often the first to complain when it happens. But what powers should CCHQ have if complaints are made about local council candidates and Association officers? Perhaps the best answer is for Grant Shapps and Andrew Feldman to have a thoughtful look at what Michael Gove is doing in relation to the Birmingham extremism allegations.
The Education Secretary’s reforms combine local devolution with strong central control when necessary, which is why, taking his cue from John Bald and Policy Exchange, he has put a structure and team in place within his department that has expertise in identifying extremism, and wants the inspectorate to be properly geared up. CCHQ should make some decisions of principle. There should be a presumption against literature that isn’t in English: what’s good for the public sector (as Eric Pickles is always reminding us) should be good for the Conservative Party in this case.
There should be a bar on campaigning on a religious or sectarian basis: after all, that’s the way the Party does business in Northern Ireland. CCHQ is already very sensitive to former BNP members joining up, and a number have been suspended: the Chairman has the power to do this pending an investigation. It should cast a searching eye on candidates who’ve stood previously for Respect. Talking of investigations, it is currently carrying one out into the Newham claims. Sadruddin remains on the ballot paper for Thursday. It is leitmotif of this site than one should Vote Conservative – for example, for Stephan Mrozinski, the excellent Tory Mayoral candidate in Newham. But in the borough at the local elections, voters should scrutinise the candidates closely before making decisions.