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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Blair, Straw Lose Support From U.K.'s Growing Muslim Population

April 27 (Bloomberg) -- Six mosques dot the slopes of the Whalley Range above the old mill town of Blackburn in northern England. At the top stands the gold-domed Markaz, where as many as 500 men and boys gather for prayers each Friday.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw climbs the slope regularly as he campaigns to keep his job as Blackburn's representative in parliament and his spot in Prime Minister Tony Blair's government after the May 5 election. For 26 years, Straw, 58, has counted on Blackburn's 30,000 ethnic Pakistanis and Indians to vote for him.

Now, after he and Blair committed British troops to the U.S.- led war in Iraq, longtime supporters such as Salmuk Khan are considering other candidates. Backing for the governing Labour Party among the U.K.'s more than 1.6 million Muslims plummeted to 38 percent in March 2004, from 75 percent in the 2001 election, according to pollster ICM.

``We've got better rights as British Muslims than in other countries, but the war in Iraq was rubbish,'' says Khan, 32, an insurance-claims adviser who lives in a street lined with terraced houses near the mosques. ``Right now it's like Bush says something and Tony does it.''

Before the war, the Labour Party controlled all 40 parliamentary seats in districts where Muslims accounted for 10 percent or more of the population, according to the Muslim Council of Britain. Then, last year it lost Leicester South in a special election to the Liberal Democrats, the only one of the U.K.'s three major political parties to oppose the war.

Decisive

Blair, 51, needs every vote he can get in his run for a third consecutive term in office. He's trying to defend a 161- seat majority in what's shaping up to be his closest race yet. Opinion polls give Labour a lead of between 3 percentage points and 10 percentage points.

An NOP poll published in the Independent newspaper yesterday gave the ruling party 40 percent support, compared with 30 percent for the Conservatives and 21 percent for the Liberal Democrats. The pollster interviewed 959 adults between April 22 and April 24. The results have a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Muslims account for more than 5 percent of the population in 23 of the 150 seats where Labour holds the slimmest majorities, including the districts of Birmingham's Sparkbrook and Small Heath, London's Bethnal Green and Bow, and Bradford West, data from the Muslim Council of Britain show.

``In global terms, we're not talking about a significant number but in certain parts of the country it is,'' says Robert Waller, co-author of the ``The Almanac of British Politics.'' ``In a close election, that would become to some degree decisive.''

Growing Population

Muslims make up 3 percent of the U.K. population and 26 percent of Straw's district. Their portion of the electorate will grow to about 7 percent when all of the 100,000 Muslims aged from 15 to 19 reach the voting age in three years, says Muhammed Anwar, professor of race relations at Birmingham's University of Warwick.

``This time, Muslim young people are going to vote in large numbers because they want to make a point,'' Anwar says. ``Looking to the future, their number is going to increase.''

That's part of a trend throughout Europe. The Muslim population in the European Union may double by 2015 from 15 million people in 2003, according to a report by Omer Taspinar, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The non-Muslim population is likely to shrink by 3.5 percent.

U.S. Muslims

U.S. President George W. Bush, unlike Blair, hasn't had to cater to the Muslim community as much. In the U.S., Muslims account for 0.6 percent of the population and aren't concentrated in any key voting blocks, according to a 2001 study by City University of New York.

Before last year's presidential election, 76 percent of Muslim voters planned to support Democratic candidate John Kerry, according to a poll by Zogby International on Sept. 22, 2004. Zogby says 42 percent of Muslims backed Bush in 2000.

Blair's Labour government, in power since 1997, has cultivated the Muslim vote. It was the first government to support Muslim schools through state funding, as well as changing regulations to make Islamic banking cheaper and outlawing religious discrimination in the workplace.

The Labour Party is fielding eight Muslim candidates this year.

The opposition Conservative Party has 15 Muslim candidates, including in the marginal seats of Watford and Dewsbury. Labour controls both districts.

Family Values

The Conservatives say their emphasis on family values, their stance against drugs and euthanasia and their push for greater discipline in schools should appeal to Muslims. The party is also counting on richer second-generation immigrants to choose its low- tax, low-spend policies, party leader Michael Howard told members of the Conservative Muslim Forum on Jan. 19.

Imtiaz Ameen, the Conservative candidate for Blackburn, says the war in Iraq gives him the inroad he needs to grab votes from Straw this year.

``Labour support doesn't come much tougher than the Whalley Range,'' says Ameen, 33, a lawyer by training, who often campaigns well into the night. ``You need an argument to crack it, and Iraq gives us that.''

Craig Murray, an independent candidate, has based his campaign on the war in Iraq. He decided to run in December after Straw fired him as ambassador to Uzbekistan for publicly criticizing Britain's use of intelligence that he said the government knew Uzbeki security forces had obtained by torture.

`Hit the Road, Jack Straw'

Murray, 46, says the Muslims of Blackburn -- where many men have beards, gowns and cotton prayer caps, and women are veiled to the eyes -- can have their say in Middle East affairs by getting rid of Straw.

``If Straw loses, it will be felt all the way to the White House,'' he says, standing outside the Tawheed ul Islam mosque in a three-piece, navy pinstriped suit.

He's using his 315,000 pounds ($600,000) in early severance pay to fund his campaign, including a green fire engine named the ``Green Goddess,'' which rolls around town blaring out a song called ``Hit the Road, Jack Straw.''

Straw, who is defending a 9,000-vote majority from 2001, points to his record of delivering government investment, including a 100 million-pound state-run hospital and a highway linking Blackburn with the neighboring town of Preston. Even with all the opposition, he remains the favorite to win the election, author Waller says.

Rather than defend the war, Straw says Labour's overall set of policies makes the party a better choice than the Conservatives, who also supported the invasion of Iraq.

`Package Deal'

``I understand how strongly some people feel about Iraq,'' Straw says. ``But political offers are a package deal. With the Conservatives, the country would have still had the Iraq war, but they wouldn't have had all the good things we've done.''

His words resonate in Blackburn, where unemployment was 4.9 percent when it was most recently counted, in 2003. That is below the national average of 5.1 percent at the time. The Labour Party has governed locally there for more than five decades.

``It's a very strong relationship that we've nurtured for years and it's done good things for our community,'' says Ibrahim Master, the chairman of the Blackburn-based Lancashire Council of Mosques and a declared Labour Party activist.

It's too simplistic to boil the district down to the single issue of the war, says Master, 46, adding that no other Muslim community has access to a high-ranking official like Straw.

Mobilizing Voters

To mobilize voters across the country, the Muslim Council of Britain is holding meetings as part of its ``VoteSmart'' program. Members also are handing out leaflets to highlight the most important issues on which to grill candidates, including foreign policy, anti-terrorism laws and faith-based schools. The organization doesn't endorse specific candidates.

The detention without trial of British Muslims at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Britain's Belmarsh prison have contributed to a feeling of persecution, says Iqbal Sacranie, the council's head. A new anti-terrorism law allowing the government to detain suspects without charge or proper defense makes it worse, he says.

``There is a very strong perception that the community is unfairly targeted and criminalized,'' says Sacranie, 53. ``It's created a feeling of marginalization.''

The persecution of Muslims and general ``Islamophobia'' have galvanized the younger generation, says Ahmed Versi, editor of the London-based Muslim News.

``They feel under siege here,'' Versi says. ``It will bring them out to vote in larger numbers because they'll want to punish the Labour Party.''

To contact the reporter on this story:
Alexander Hanrath in London at ahanrath1@bloomberg.net.
Last Updated: April 26, 2005 21:17 EDT

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