George Grant is the Conservative Party’s parliamentary candidate in Bradford West. He also happens to be a Christian, and is thereby excluded from Bradford’s Muslim Women’s Council General Election hustings, which appears to be restricted to Muslim candidates (or is it female and Muslim candidates?)
Labour has held Bradford West for the past four decades, save for a momentary intervention in 2012 by George Galloway’s Respect Party with grateful assistance from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAK UK). “God KNOWS who is a Muslim and he KNOWS who is not. I, George Galloway, do not drink and never have,” wrote Mr Galloway on his election literature. “I’m a better Pakistani than (Labour’s Imran Hussain) will ever be,” he declared at his campaign launch. “God knows who’s a Muslim and who is not. And a man that’s never out of the pub shouldn’t be going around telling people you should vote for him because he’s a Muslim.”
This was a wise exhortation: Muslims should not just vote for Muslim candidates simply because they are Muslim, any more than women should just vote for women, white people for white candidates or disabled people for the disabled. People are more than an identity tag, and political philosophy is deeper than a protected characteristic. But by restricting the Muslim women of Bradford West to an election hustings which features only the two female Muslim candidates (who happen to be Labour’s [anti-Semitic?] Naz Shah and George Galloway’s erstwhile Respect sidekick [and Islamist defender] Salma Yaqoob), the assumption appears to be that the compliant Muslim women of Bradford West will (must?) vote for one of the female Muslim candidates, both of whom hang on the political left.
Understandably, George Grant isn’t overly pleased about this “unprogressive, undemocratic and deeply unhelpful” meeting. This is, after all, the liberal democracy of the United Kingdom in the 21st century. Inviting candidates to participate in election hustings on the basis of their sex or religion is… um… well… sexist and bigoted, isn’t it? It is certainly illiberal and discriminatory: imagine the outcry if a Catholic men’s club convened an election hustings restricted to the two male Roman Catholics (Labour and LibDem) and excluded the female Anglican (Tory) candidate and the male Muslim (Ukip) candidate. Would such Christian(/white) segregation be tolerated? And let’s not even begin to ponder an election hustings convened by a church which excluded the Green Party atheist who happened also to be gay. Selective hustings do have a place (one may wish, for example, to exclude half a dozen cranks and gadfly candidates from debates simply because of time constraints), but a person’s sex and religion can never be justifiable grounds for exclusion: this is not Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
George Grant expounded his grievance on Facebook:
If it were just a meeting outside election time for people to learn from shared experiences I would agree but this is an electoral Hustings at which two candidates have been invited in their capacity as candidates for Parliament. The implicit assumption, therefore, is not only that Muslim women will prefer to vote for a Muslim woman, but that a Muslim woman can better represent them and speak to their concerns than anyone else. I would strongly dispute both positions.
..I am a devout Christian and I’m proud to have Muslim men and women, as well as Christians and people of no faith on my team. I believe it is absolutely imperative we speak to our shared values and aspirations, whatever community we come from and whatever gender we are.
Bradford West is a melting pot of intra-tribal rivalries, which is what George Galloway was able to exploit in 2012. George Grant wasn’t remotely likely to win the seat in 2015, but the Shah/Yaqoob rivalry in 2017 is likely to split the Labour vote and offer the Tories their first real chance in a generation. And by focusing on the irrefutable fact that Muslims are not a monolithic community obsessed with Palestine, and Muslim women are not some homogeneous voting bloc for the service and furtherance of Pakistani/Kashmiri concerns, the Conservative Party does Bradford’s Muslims an immense service of subtlety and nuance.
By convening a Muslim only hustings, the Muslim Women’s Council perpetuates the Islamophobic caricature of Taliban segregation and siege. Presented here with a distinct opportunity for Muslim women to hear from a Tory Christian (and others) talk about social cohesion and the common good, they opt instead for the myopic politics of Islamic identity and division, thereby inviting further negative media coverage of Muslims and Islam to bolster their perpetual ‘anti-Muslim’ grievances and charges of Islamophobia.
George Grant is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful candidate. He understands the intrinsic conservatism which underpins many Asian cultural values, and appreciates that an election meeting which champions Muslim causes expounded solely by Muslim women in an exclusively Muslim women’s gathering is not only regressive and undemocratic, but patronising and disdainful. Muslim women are complex individuals with intelligence and subtle discernment: they have their own domestic cares and political priorities. Let them hear from parliamentary candidates of all creeds and colours, even sexes and sexualities. Who knows, it might even aid integration and help change perceptions.
UPDATE 19th May 2017
It is reported by the Bradford Telegraph & Argus that Labour’s Naz Shah got up and walked out of this meeting before it started, “to a mixture of applause and boos”. Since George Grant was in the audience, she asked the Muslim Women’s Council to give him the opportunity to speak, which was refused. Naz Shah got up and left, protesting the anti-democratic nature of the event. She explained:
“I have not and will not ever compromise my values. Today I felt no option but to walk out of a packed event being held in Bradford West. I was originally invited to a Muslim Women’s Council event, having being offered a platform to speak to Muslim women to encourage participation in the democratic process amongst a group of traditionally under represented and disengaged voters, with the independent candidate Salma Yaqoob.
“What I attended tonight was not the above rather a hustings in all but name. The event was opened up to men and women and the wider community. It was not a Muslim women’s event, the audience being predominantly male. I felt very uneasy at the exclusion of my fellow candidates and urged the organisers to open the platform prior to the event. At the risk of being ’empty chaired’ I attended.
“The Conservative candidate George Grant was present at the ‘hustings’ so in the interest of fairness and democracy, having respectfully requested that George Grant be given the equal platform and my request being flatly denied by the organisation I could not continue partaking in an event which was discriminatory on the grounds of both religion and gender.
“As I stand on a platform of fairness and equality as a proud Labour party candidate, these are our values which I refuse to comprise. I have already committed to four other hustings and I look forward to engage the voters of Bradford West and my fellow candidates in a free, fair and open debate.”
Ms Shah’s departure left the organisers with an unexpected 10 minutes to fill, so they invited George Grant to address the assembled throng, which he did.
This was a shame.
Out of respect for Naz Shah’s brave and principled stance, he ought to have politely refused, leaving the “predominantly male” (..note..) audience to hear (their preferred?) Salma Yaqoob drone on about Pakistan, Palestine and apprehensions of Islamophobia. His departure would then have been a principled (not to say gentlemanly) act of democratic solidarity with Ms Shah. The whole evening was clearly a bit of a farce, which one attendee has helpfully summed up:
I went to the hustings and was impressed how organised it all was, Naz was made to feel as welcome as a Jew at a Ramadan knee’s up so she legged it. There were rumours of a stoning, which seemed to put George off his stride a bit. So it all went well and we’re all voting for sister Yaqoob apparently. Crackin Karachi night out.
Welcome to the world of Bradford West politics.