Back in the late 90’s my wife and I tried to go on our first real vacation. (Meaning, a trip where we were going somewhere far, but not visiting thirty relatives in twenty days.) Using frequent flyer miles, we visited my best friend from high school and his wife in London where he works for an obsequiously wealthy investment bank in The City. Over a summer weekend, we did the usual tourist whirlwind – Picadilly Circus, Big Ben, the Tower – but with us being Muslim we had to try and throw in the ridiculous religio-ethnic tie. My wife wanted authentic fish and chips, but the only place my bud John knew where they were made without beer in the batter was Brick Lane.
A centuries-old street in the East End, Brick Lane had after World War II become one of those outposts of South Asia overseas – think Jackson Heights or Devon Avenue, except entirely Bangladeshi. Finding the one fish and chips stall, we hung out for an hour by the window, watching another community where people dressed, spoke, and acted not as if they were in the West but in a tiny patch of South Asia ripped from the mainland and tossed across the globe to England.
These memories came back to me Thursday evening as I followed the results of the recent British elections on the internet. Most Americans were unaware that they were happening at all (Hey, if your closest allies were losing power because they backed your foreign policy, you wouldn’t advertise it either, right?); those that were heard only about the dressing down Tony Blair’s Labour party received in the form of a slashed majority in parliament. Yet Bethnal Green and Bow – the constituency of Brick Lane, with an electorate that is forty percent Muslim – was the setting of the greatest upset of the elections, one with unclear implications for Muslims in Britain and throughout the West.
Bethnal Green had been a solid Labour party constituency, having elected a Labour MP to the House of Commons for forty five years straight. At the time of our experience with alcohol-free fish and chips, it had just elected Oona King to represent it. Ambitious and young (she was only 29 when she first won election), King was swept into office with the Labour party wave Tony Blair created. As one of only two black women in parliament, she enjoyed a level of trust and eventually a good working relationship with her largely Asian British constituents. In 2001, King was easily re-elected over her Muslim Conservative party opponent.
Fast-forward to 2003 and the contentious vote in parliament to decide whether or not to send British troops into war with Iraq. Despite holding over 400 members of the 659 in parliament, Blair’s Labour party was in danger of splitting over the issue. Many Labour MP’s dismissed Blair’s assertion that Iraqi missiles could reach the UK in 45 minutes and voted outright to oppose their own party. Although King’s constituency was heavily against the war – Bethnal Green Bangladeshis were polled against it seven to one – she made the fateful decision to follow her leader, come what may.
Her vote for the war provoked a furious response from Brick Lane, and marked her as the public face at which British Muslim anger could vent; it also marked her as a political opportunity. George Galloway, a former Labour MP from Scotland who was expelled by the party for viciously criticizing its support for the Iraq war, swooped in on wounded prey. In short order, the Scotsman set up shop in the East End, formed his own RESPECT party, and declared himself a candidate for King’s seat based solely on one issue – punishing Tony Blair for leading Britain into Iraq.
The campaign that ensued was bitter and personal. King’s car was egged and her tires slashed, and low assertions were made in whispers that attacked her on the basis of being a Jew. In response, King publicly assailed Galloway for having met and praised Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War. Behind the scenes, Galloway’s RESPECT party forged coalitions with local Muslim organizations that attempted to mobilize the Muslim electorate to his side. Over the month of campaigning that built to crescendo on May 5, the question for many Western Muslims became this: could this one Muslim community – which had lain politically dormant for decades – finally make a dent in the electoral systems of the West?
In the end, they at least made a change of their MP. After winning her reelection by over 10,000 votes in 2001, Oona King lost to George Galloway by 823 votes. Upon being named the winner Galloway declared, “This result is the final nail in the coffin of Tony Blair’s premiership.” The Muslim community of Bethnal Green could say that they were the deciding factor in electing the most fervid anti-war candidate now in the House of Commons.
Yet great questions remain about what exactly the Muslims in Bethnal Green have won. Brick Lane now has a representative who is strongly hated by the ruling party and whose politics are an anathema to the opposition. What’s more, George Galloway has already declared that he will not run again for election in Bethnal Green, essentially making himself a lame duck. One can only hope that the recent revitalization of Brick Lane does not stall given its lessened influence in government, and one can only pray that the Muslims there do not believe their job is done with respect to their involvement in the greater British community.
Jihad Shoshara is a physician and member of American Muslims for Activism and Learning, based in Chicago, IL. This article previously appeared on the group’s weblog.