This article is part of our EU Referendum debate series, click here to read more.
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This article comes with a big disclaimer: Bad things are going to happen if we leave the EU. But then bad things are also going to happen if we remain in the EU. There is no simple answer to the problems faced by Muslims in the UK but the least we can do is to try to vote in a way that appears most likely to minimise the risk. All I hope to do in this article is clear up a few common misconceptions and raise some points for discussion and contemplation.
Over the last few weeks I have been trying to elicit views from Muslims on the Brexit question. So far I have found most Muslims are in favour of remaining in the EU but the reasons do not seem very well thought through.
By far the biggest reason given is the bad company anyone voting to leave would be in. Of course, UKIP, BNP, Britain First and every Little Englander want England to be little again. Cream scones and mugs of tea, and Antiques Roadshow on a Sunday; in their eyes none of what makes Britain Great comes from abroad so they, of course, want nothing to do with Europe. However, their xenophobic way of looking at this does not mean we cannot want to leave the EU for other reasons.
It is often assumed that a Leave vote would hand power to those xenophobes but I am struggling to find a basis for believing that. They are not elected to positions of power, a Brexit would not suddenly put them in charge and much of the popular support gained with fear-mongering about the open borders policy would be gone. If anything, UKIP’s whole reason for being would vanish if the UK regained its independence. Mission accomplished. They’ll still rumble on trying to stop mosques being built and trying to force us to treat women like men but their biggest winner of support is the immigration issue and with that addressed their support would likely dwindle.
On that issue, because many Muslims are from an immigrant background there is a tendency to defend the concept of immigration. However, it is not a very clear cut issue. There is no way the UK can function without a steady stream of skilled immigrant labour. It used to be the case that immigrants were sought from the commonwealth countries and, in fact, quite broadly from around the world to fill whatever needs arose and the UK graciously granted each of them full citizenship. That changed when the EU free movement policy came into being, filling us up from only one part of the world and leaving no capacity (psychologically perhaps more than physically) to take immigration from the rest of the world. Now it is very difficult for someone from outside the EU to get full citizenship and immigration generally is thought of more negatively than ever before, creating new problems for non-EU immigrants and their descendants.
I do not see it as inherently xenophobic to want a points based system to allow controlled immigration from the whole world rather than uncontrolled immigration from just one part of it. It is standard for the xenophobes to want to stop an immigration free-for-all but that does not mean it is not actually a sensible move.
Another major factor for backing Remain is the misplaced feeling many have that the EU moderates the UK policy makers who are attacking Islam. There is so little reality to this that it is hard to understand where people get the idea from. Many, many people, even some respected Muslim organisations, are still mixing up the European Court (and convention) of Human Rights with EU membership. The fact is, if we leave the EU we will still be just as bound by the ECHR which is run by the Council of Europe, and even if we remain the UK could still abandon the ECHR as they are not linked. That being said, it is worth noting how little use the ECHR has been for Muslims in Europe. When France’s niqab ban was challenged it was thrown out as being “not discriminatory” because the ECHR judges pretended not to see past France’s transparent tactic of also banning balaclavas and other face coverings that no one wears.
What we are also bound to are the judgements and law making of the European Council and Court of Justice. It is not an easy figure to calculate, but estimates are often that between 10% – 65% of new laws affecting the UK are made in Europe by people we did not elect and who we have almost no chance of challenging. Just a few weeks ago, the European Court confirmed that G4S in Belgium banning its Muslim staff from wearing the hijab was “not discriminatory” because, just like the ECHR, they pretended they could not see past the inclusion of “all religious symbols” in the company policy. Of course, a hijab is a piece of clothing not a symbol and no one else is really effected by not being able to wear symbols but the transparency of this was apparently too hard for them to see. It seems neither the ECHR nor the EU court have any interest in defending the needs of Muslims. In the UK, G4S confirmed that employees would not be affected by that decision. The lesson is that the UK’s Equality Act offers Muslims more protection than the EU court.
Still, for some reason, many Muslims think that if our government brought in a law negatively affecting Muslims, EU judges would rise to our defence. In fact, it is the judges in Europe we should be worried about and the fact that our judges and politicians in the UK, even if every single one them was a practicing Muslim, would still have no ability to change laws enacted EU wide.
Laws that are actively being pursued around the EU are bans on the niqab (so far France, Belgium and Holland), hijab (many countries in various settings such as universities, schools, government jobs, plus the new EU ruling allowing all companies to ban them if their national laws allow it), halal slaughter (Denmark) and the circumcision of males (many countries in the EU have actively pursued banning it). It is vitally important to realise that despite legal challenges, within the EU there has been little or no help for Muslims over these blatantly discriminatory restrictions on their life. EU membership has done them no favours. If our sisters were forced to remove their clothes to go outside, if our boys were unable to be circumcised and if we were unable to eat meat life would be dramatically harmed for Muslims, some would say it would be impossible to live here. I feel quite sure the evidence points to it being much more likely to come from the EU rather than it happening in the UK first. And, if it did happen here first, I can see no evidence to point to any likelihood of help coming from the EU.
Some ask that were we to leave the EU could the UK not ban these things anyway. Of course it is possible, but the most important difference is that we would have a chance of challenging it here, if it comes from the EU we would have no chance.
In the UK we tend to believe the level of xenophobia among the British people is quite high because we see it in isolation from comparisons to other countries. In fact, the UK is probably one of the least xenophobic countries in the world. It is certainly not as good as it was before the influx of EU immigration but, when deciding on the issue of who we want to be making our laws, we need to compare the voters here with the voters in the rest of the EU. Really, it is the voters we need to be concerned about, what the people are like. Looking at the past and present, there is a pattern of higher amounts of xenophobia, nationalism and fascism in Europe than the UK. Within living memory, Nazism was popularly taken up in Germany and Austria, Vichy France was almost as bad, fascism took hold in Spain and Italy. Britain had some Black Shirt fascists prior to WW2, but it just does not seem to take off here like it does in the rest of Europe. A little earlier in history, and I could well be accused of splitting hairs as they were all bad, but, the generally agreed ranking of colonialists put the British as the least bad, with the Spanish and Dutch being worst in terms of disrespect and oppression, Germans, Italians and French not much better. For some reason the British tended to be less brutal and tended to destroy the pre-existing cultures less. Most recently, a genocide of Muslims was carried out in the Balkans and the current rhetoric against Muslims from eastern European leaders would make Donald Trump blush. Last week an Italian national newspaper decided to offer its readers free copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
If you have kept up with the rise of anti-Muslim group PEGIDA in Europe, you can compare their huge rallies in Germany to the far right efforts in the UK. Being called off in Liverpool because no one turned up; getting kicked out of Leicester, twice; Stevenage; Dublin, and London on a weekly basis. Fringe groups of hooligans persist but they are more than matched by the “Antifa” anti-fascist movement. By contrast, in Austria a few weeks ago, a far right candidate of a party with historical ties to Nazism was a percentage point away from being elected president. In the UK the idea that someone akin to the Britain First leader would get 50% of a general election vote is laughable but, across the EU, support for far right political candidates is increasing, not least for Members of the European Parliament. Very often, for how strongly they speak out against Islam and as mentioned above, these are the people who will decide our laws in the near future.
I do not want to completely downplay the xenophobia we have here in the UK or overplay the situation in Europe but it is good to look at the comparison and reflect on the direction of travel. In the past and present, the popular support for these xenophobic types of movements around Europe points to an acceptance of their ideology by the common man and this is very important when it comes to guessing what politicians could do next in a democracy.
At the very least, any politician in the UK who wants to legislate against Islam has to move more slowly here. When Theresa May announces a review of Sharia councils of course we feel victimised but we should also be aware that elsewhere in Europe they would more likely just go ahead and close them down without any consultation. While being at the forefront of many policy decisions detrimental to Muslims, on the question of the niqab David Cameron said it would be un-British to tell people what they could and could not wear. I do not know what it is exactly, perhaps the feeling that we must live up to the pride giving concept of the British sense of fair play, but our lot just does not seem as bad as their lot. Perhaps the current leaders are not much better, but I think the British public is significantly better and, in a democracy, that does count for something.
It is clear that in most economic issues there is little clarity; no one knows the future so it is all speculation. Respected financial advisor Martin Lewis says that maybe it is slightly safer to stay in the EU, but admits that is only so because there is slightly more uncertainty with leaving, not because he knows it is safer. In the end he advises that with no clear good or bad choice the thing to do is consider any other factor which is important to you and then vote according to that.
Economic and other factors aside, I think, as Muslims we must be most concerned with the direction the EU is taking with regard to Islam and law making that affects Muslims. If the restrictions on Muslim life became so much we would not be able to live here; what does the economy matter in comparison? We should look to who is in the EU, the people and the politicians they elect, to decide if we want to be tied to whatever the popular vote there is. Effectively, a vote to remain with the EU is a vote to have the British public carry only an 8% say in European Council votes on legislation affecting the UK. A vote to leave the EU is a vote to regain law making within our shores and regain our potential to influence it.
We all signed a petition asking that Donald Trump be banned from just visiting the UK while most Muslims do not know that the next President of the EU from July 1st, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, more than saying he wants to restrict entry of Muslims, has said Muslims have no place in his country at all. Its most likely stemming from the language barrier but it is typical for how out of touch we are with the EU. We get up in arms about a potential American President but know nothing about the person confirmed to be the next President of our own United States of the EU.
Is it not our life experience that positive changes can only come with action, with expanding the possibilities? Clinging to the status quo because of a fear of change, putting up with a system that was put on us before we were born just because it is what we are used to, is limiting the potential for positive change. For the reasons stated above, I will be voting to Leave the EU but, whichever way the vote goes, I ask Allah that it is the best for the Muslims.
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