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Challenges of being a Muslim politician in UK!

GVS Exclusive discussion with Afzal Khan, Shadow Immigration Minister, UK

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Radical Islamists, Muslims from the west joining ISIS, Immigration policy for Muslims and UK’s relationship with Pakistan were all topics, Najma Minhas, Managing Editor, GVS discussed with Mr. Afzal Khan, Shadow Minister for Immigration for the Labour party in the UK. Afzal Khan was born in Jhelum, Pakistan and moved to the UK as a child.

Najma: You came to the UK as an immigrant in the 1970’s and have worked through the system. You worked to support yourself as a bus conductor, a policeman and then went back to university to graduate in law. Having established your own law firm, you left to become Lord Mayor of Manchester, member of the European Parliament, and now you are the Shadow Minister for Immigration. It has been a long journey. Do you think this is a rare story of success in the UK?

Afzal Khan: You would have to say that it is rare, there aren’t many people who have broken so many glass ceilings, who have started with no education, no money, and not coming from the right family background. None of these things were there for me. I broke so many ceilings including being the first Muslim Lord Mayor of Manchester.

However, the mere fact that I have done it shows that it is possible. What does it require? If I think and reflect on it then I would say that there are a number of things, but for me, the most important one was consistency for the struggle to achieve. When I go to schools, I always tell the children “work hard and aim high. Both these things are with you and not with anybody else.

Najma: Do you think as an Asian person you faced more restrictions on your ability to achieve success. Have circumstances changed for Asians?

Afzal: I think that things are definitely becoming easier, in my opinion, but I look at it from the political side of things. In politics, if you want to be a member of the parliament nobody is going to give that to you on a plate, whether you are Asian or white. It’s ruthless. In that sense, you have to work for it and working hard is important.

Najma: The Asian community in the UK has been here in large numbers since the 60’s, have they become part of the mainstream community, is it important that they become mainstream?

Afzal: I think that it is very important that all members participate fully in society. It’s the difference between playing a full 100 percent role in the society and being on the periphery and only playing a two to five percent role. So as a community we have to look towards being part of the mainstream.

Whether we have become mainstream, is same as asking whether the glass is half full or half empty. I think it is a journey and if you look around in different sectors then you can see the progress that is being made.

My concern falls into politics and as you can see, many more Pakistanis and Asians have become involved. There are more in the House of Lords, parliament and more councilors too. They are playing major roles in many other sectors such as the economic and business sector and you can see that they are making progress and they are making a difference.

Najma: Do you see yourself as a Muslim MP, a Pakistani origin MP? Do you feel obliged to take up Muslim issues because you are a Muslim?

Afzal: First of all I am a Labour MP who happens to be a Muslim and who has Pakistani heritage, that’s the way I look at it. Of course, I have issues and interests that are close to my heart, but all MP’s have interests they follow closely. I do my bit wherever I can see that I can make a difference. I do have a heritage and I am linked to that heritage and if there are issues related to that heritage, I take a special interest in those.

Najma: As a Muslim MP, have you ever thought about why there is a prevalence of radical Islamism in the UK. Why are these Muslims becoming radical and killing people in the UK, going off to Syria? Why do they hate their own country of birth?

Afzal: I think that the situation is a complex one. There are different factors acting on different people with no one factor influencing them all. So, if you look at the people that have been radicalized you will see that they come from different backgrounds. So, it is understanding which is the key driver.

There is also the fact that there is not enough political engagement with these individuals and we need to make sure we have more so that they can see that there are alternative routes. 

It could also be the whole way that globally we are developing the social media, the ways we get connected, we have become much more aware of the issue and what is happening. There have also been arguments about hypocrisy in foreign policy and it could also be that some of the discrimination, for example, the bullying in schools and so forth play a role in these young people. So overall a mixed pot of reasons.

Najma: What is the approach that the British government has taken to resolve this growing radicalization issue?

Afzal: I think that they themselves are on a journey. If you go back to 7/7 and you will see the long journey it has been. David Cameron in the early stages talked about the Muslim community and about them running abroad, not realizing that there were 3 million plus here and as a Prime Minister you have to talk to them in your own country.

I think that there have been issues of estrangement between the host community and Muslims, that have been there historically. Looking at the heart of it, where extremism has been on the rise, but this specific area that we are discussing the Muslim community itself is important if you are not engaging them properly then you won’t get the answers.

Najma: Do you think Labor party will do anything different?

Afzal: Well I am hoping that labor party will do a better job.

Najma: Is that because of their traditional association with the minority community?

Afzal: They are in a much better position. If you look at the support it gets – 70 to 75 % of the British ethnic minorities support the Labor party.

Najma: You were elected from Manchester Gorton, a couple of months after the ISIS attack on the Manchester Arena that killed 22 people. Did you find that surprising? How did a Pakistani Muslim still get elected?

Afzal: Not only that I got elected, but I got elected with the biggest lead in the history of Manchester. It shows that the radicals were not able to peddle their hate. They evinced a response which was the opposite – it led people to reach out and show solidarity with each other and this was reflected in the election as well. In almost every area of my constituency, I had a huge majority almost 80%.

Najma: What about your constituency does it consist mainly of ethnic minorities, is it 50-50? Do you have a breakdown?

Afzal: There is one available – it’s generally very diverse – I think what you’ll find is that more than half are still white.

Najma: Do you think after Brexit there will be more job opportunities for immigrants from the commonwealth?

Afzal: We need to make sure that any immigration policy that we have is consistent across the board. Currently, it says that there is the EU on one side and the rest of the world on the other. If we leave the EU then we have to make sure we make a policy which is consistent across the board.

The second point is the interest of the country. I do feel that students have so much to give to the economy; the UK attracts the best from many countries and they bring in research that benefits us. However, even when they leave the UK and go back to their countries they become ambassadors for the UK.

Najma: How can ties between UK and Pakistan further deepen?

Afzal: Historically we have a long relationship with Pakistan. The UK has over a million Pakistanis who are British Pakistanis; they are a powerful tool in deepening this relationship. The third point I would say is that the economy is pretty important and improving our bilateral trade is always on the agenda. Pakistan has a great deal of expertise on many issues that we work with them on including Afghanistan, tackling extremism and terrorism.

Najma: You were a member of the European Parliament as the Vice president of security and defense. Do you think it’s important for Muslims to be in these positions considering one of the largest security issues is radical Islamism?

Afzal: Well the whole tragedy is that we have been looking at this relationship with a narrow focus only in light of terrorism. This relationship is far more important. The whole Muslim world is a neighbor to Europe, and to strengthen that relationship has been pretty important.