Revolutionary Politics in the Time of Genocide – Beyond the Fantasy of the Muslim Vote – Part II

There is no point trying to do politics and work in the political system, even if it is to try and stop genocide, if we do not understand how it operates, argues Arzu Merali

Listen to the audio or read the article below.

II: Understanding the System

The first part of this series looked at models of trying to leverage the ‘Muslim vote’.  The community buy-in to these projects as and when they appear (as they have been for decades) uncritically reproduces the idea that the political structure and the creation of political narratives are neutral systems waiting to be used by anyone or any group with political aspirations.

With that buy-in comes the complex in our minds that every ‘failure’ to impact policy, that the spiralling Islamophobia that characterises our everyday,  is our fault.  We see it as a failure of Muslims, and not the state, its political culture and the social system it perpetuates.  So, the idea goes, we have failed to integrate into the political system and reap its benefits; we have failed to show Muslims and our beliefs in their true light and as a result brought the ire of government and wider society upon us.

The antidote, we often cry, alongside mobilising the Muslim vote, is: (i) excellent ‘public relations’ (PR); (ii) party political participation and (iii) modelling ourselves on other successful minoritized communities (read Zionist Jews and Hindutva Hindus).  As I argued in the first instalment we need to get beyond the idea of leveraging a strategic ‘Muslim vote’ and with it the blind fashioning of our aspirations on interest groups whose interests are ethically unsound.  This does not necessarily mean I am advocating people don’t vote.  It does mean we need to understand how that ‘vote’ works and specifically how the electoral system of the UK – whilst promising representation – disenfranchises the majority of people in the country, not just Muslims.  Before we can discuss a revolutionary politics, we need to understand what is so inherently wrong with the system that no amount of reform can fix it.


Propaganda: Public relations and the idea of the infallible system and Muslim failure

What does excellent public relations entail?  Usually proponents argue that this means promoting the ‘true’ image of Islam, whatever your particular organisation, project, community’s idea of it is.  There is a merit to it if done properly – it is one of the counternarratives to Islamophobia reiterated across the eight European states studied for the Countering Islamophobic Narratives project undertaken in 2017-18.  However, the reach of such projects (open Mosque days, Islamic contribution events, soup kitchens and community aid, interfaith projects etc.) are limited – this needs to be understood.  They also operate in an environment of hate where Islamophobia is the social lens through which these events are refracted.  Just ‘showing’ your truth is not always enough for someone to see it when social pressures push against what you are describing.  An excellent example is from Al-Quds Day in 2018, where Sheikh Jaffer Ladak is accosted by James Goddard, then a chief far-right social media personality.  As I described in an earlier piece for Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC):

“Singing from the fascist hymn sheet, Goddard recorded his confrontation only to find himself thoroughly confused by the Sheikh’s patient, polite and erudite responses.  Utterly confused (and at one point many viewers feel, almost convinced of his error) Goddard lapses back into thug mode.  ‘What you’re saying is ‘taqiyyah’’ he screeches and moves on.”




So even when truth is told, it is not always believed.  This works at the level of individual to individual, it works this way at the level of the community (its organisations) and wider society.  This is not something unknown to the cynical state: we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that those that hold the reins of power, are unaware of the operation of this frame of reference, that they are somehow also ignorant of the ‘truth of Islam’.  They may well not know enough, but they do know how racism and other forms of institutional discrimination work.  This holds true whether they are ministers, security agencies, special political advisers or (whichever) government aligned journalists.  They are part of the problem – not the solution.  The political climate, culture and the functions of their systems all impact how this keeps happening.

The idea of the crisis we are in being linked to public relations is not wrong.  It is how those ‘public relations’ work – specifically against us as Muslims, but also so many marginalised groups, including the ‘white’ working class, other racialised communities (of both faith and colour), women, the differently abled and so on.


Manufactured consent, the environment of hate and the shrinking of political spaces

The term ‘manufacturing consent’ applies in this case and indeed in the case of all so-called liberal democracies.  It helps us understand how the political system and the narratives that uphold it, keep the parameters of political conversations narrow and conformist.

There are a few geneses to this term.  In 1922 journalist Walter Lipmann used it to refer to the management of public opinion, which he felt was necessary for democracy to flourish.  Many of us know the term used more critically by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman as the acceptance of government policies by people in the USA on the basis of the partial picture of issues offered by the mass media, denying them access to alternative views which would lead them to oppose such policies. To them this is a propaganda model in which the mass media select material in relation to the values of those in power.  Edward Bernays, the pioneer of public relations, also spoke of engineering consent in 1947 ‘as the art of manipulating people without them being aware of it’.  Bernays’ seminal book on the art of public relations particularly in advertising is itself entitled ‘Propaganda’, as this was the term used for this field before PR became the term.

We are in effect sold a (propagandised) system as neutral, a level playing field awaiting properly qualified players.  We see our ‘failures’ as a result of our own shortfalls and not, as Herman and Chomsky would argue, a natural outcome of the limitations of political narratives managed by the mass media, and the government and its institutions.

In the current context, Faisal Bodi describes how this works regarding the TV election debates:


This symbiotic relationship between the media and government, can also include law enforcement agencies and the education system and underpin what Professor Saied Ameli and myself have termed, the ‘environment of hate’.  This is where hate narratives such as Islamophobia / anti-Muslim racism are reproduced by these facets of the state, each underpinning and mutually reinforcing the other.  Not only does this make those facets and institutions of state stronger, they also strengthen the barriers that keep those who suffer the hatred of the narrative, out.  Out of power, out of national conversations, literally out(side) of the law. Elsewhere Shireen Razack has written about how the law in various countries in the current moment, by dint of anti-terrorism laws in particular and minorities facing law in general, have expelled the Muslim subject from all political and legal spaces.  What does this mean?  That Muslim citizens of liberal democracies not only face (extreme) discrimination and marginalisation, they do not have protection from the laws of the land they live in, because their citizenship is never full and equal, but always conditional.  The raft of anti-terrorism laws, Guantanamo Bay, and more recently the debacle over defining extremism have proven just that.

As events in the UK in March showed, even Muslim organisations explicitly set up to work within the British political system, to lobby and be uncritical cogs in a political system that at best needs drastic reform, have been named as extremists in parliament, with a whole list of others most likely to be considered alongside them for official exclusion from access to the UK government’s funding and ministers.

The project of defining extremism and using it to blackball Muslim organisations has been a long time in gestation.  It is no coincidence that it has been brought in at a time when pro-Palestinian activism has caused a public clamour for action from the government that is, for many of us, unprecedented.  Many people of different backgrounds have become frustrated with mainstream media failures to report the totality of the genocide, and the failure to even call it that.  They are even more frustrated at the UK government’s arms sales, and political support to the Israeli regime.  The normal management of expectations has been rent asunder – and I would argue that this is a time to totally re-evaluate both our understanding of the state and its systems, and our expectations of it.

Even stalwart figures of the establishment like former Justice Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer (Lord) Ken(neth) Clarke (KC) has described the UK as an elective dictatorship – a country with the semblance of democracy but which in effect is run by a group who are literally a law unto themselves: Clarke made his comments in relation to the use of law by the government to declare Rwanda a safe country, when the Supreme Court had found the government in breach of humanitarian laws and safeguards in its Rwanda flights for asylum seekers plan.

His view from the right differs little from Mark Curtis on the left, whose forensic discussion of the UK as an oligarchy highlights just how little power the people of the UK have, and how much power is accrued in the hands of a political and supranational corporate elite.  In his words:

“An oligarchy is where a small number of people exert control over the state. Other terms used by scholars for systems that fall well short of the “liberal democracy” we are supposed to live under include “electoral autocracies” and “exclusionary democracies”.”

Bear with me as I quote, a long passage from his piece:

“We’re brought up believing Britain is a democracy and are constantly told this by media and political commentators of all political persuasions. It just isn’t true.

“Certainly the UK can boast many democratic elements in the way we’re governed. We have elections every five years, a largely independent judiciary, laws on freedom of speech and association, and strong legislation protecting the equality of all citizens and civil liberties.”


(Skipping forward) Curtis further states:

“…when it comes to the UK’s military, foreign and intelligence policies – and its wars – power rests in the hands of an elite few who control the policy-making institutions.

“They claim to promote the national interest but there are few breaks on their power, few ways to influence them and few requirements on them to even divulge what they’re doing.

British foreign policy-making is so centralised that it is akin to an authoritarian regime. A prime minister can send troops to war or bomb another country without even consulting parliament, as the UK has recently been doing in Yemen.

“Not that it would have mattered – since the main “opposition” party in England supports UK lawlessness as much as the ruling one.

“In 1976, Lord Hailsham famously termed the UK an “elective dictatorship” because parliament is easily dominated by the government of the day and faces few constraints on its power.”


Those of us trying to change the politics of the UK need to realise that it really cannot be done through the ballot box either as a voter or as a candidate – whether for a political party or as an independent.   Even if there had been a time when this was possible (and many of us contend that there really wasn’t in the way we are popularly led to believe), it is highly unlikely.  Curtis describes the state of affairs after the rise of Margaret Thatcher, who:

“…centralised decision-making still further in the 1980s, regularly bypassing the cabinet and relying on a small set of advisers. Because she could.

“This was continued by Tony Blair, leading to the disastrous invasion of Iraq, among other things. Basically, the prime minister – and one elected only by his own Tory MPs, in Sunak’s case – and a few of his mates can get away with murder, and it’s all deemed perfectly acceptable.”



Cronyism works so well in the UK because the system, despite many attempts to reform it, ultimately relies on those in power having the ethics not to abuse the system.  As many have written elsewhere, the time of those ethics (if they were ever there) have long departed.  The crisis of cronyism – jobs for mates, contracts and tenders given and accepted to those with connections rather than qualifications, outright bribery, and more –deepened under the Prime Ministership of Boris Johnson, leaving many to question whether the British political system could ever recover.

Associate Professor of History at Stirling University Ian Cawood described the Johnson situation thus:

“…the British premier has been traditionally restrained from exercising absolute power by the ethos of public service. Recent events, however, have exposed the fact that the purely advisory role of most constitutional watchdogs provides a prime minister with too much room for manoeuvre.

“The premier can overlook proven breaches of the ministerial code by their cabinet colleagues, oversee the issuing of government contracts to political associates, illegally prorogue parliament, and receive moneys and gifts (including some astonishingly expensive soft furnishings) from anonymous donors. Johnson is safe in his position so long as he retains the support of the cabinet (whom he appointed) and the Commons (where he holds a significant and highly personal majority).

“Can Britain prevent a permanent retreat from the standards of impartial administration and incorrupt government?… With a largely quiescent press, dominated by a small group of international billionaires, and a public distracted by polarising debates on Brexit and COVID, the principles of public institutions are again being challenged by the dominant political caste, but with far less public outcry.”


The ‘safeguards’ supposedly provided by the civil service have also all but gone, as Cawood outlines:

“The public-service ethos among civil servants has been undermined by the “new public management” approach, which uses performance-appraisal techniques to stifle dissent. That the Greensill lobbying scandal involved the recruitment of senior civil servants to private firms while still in public office is a breathtaking indication of how far the founding principles of impartiality among bureaucrats has been eroded.”


Representation by faces?

Working in the system as is, there are so many problems with it.  The election of people from racialised communities to parliament and high-ranking positions of state has shown itself in the thirty odd years of my activist life to be proof that nominal representation (descriptive representation) by numbers and rank does not provide substantive representation.  Those figures become at best compromised and unable to deliver change, at worst they become the spokespeople for the racism reproduced by the state and its institutions at home and abroad. Sunak, Khan, Braverman, Javid, Badenoch, Patel, Kwarteng, the list is too long now…

Of these Sadiq Khan is a case study that Muslims need to pay heed to.  At one point his trajectory and those of many of us in Muslim civil society ran along similar lines.  His former partner in the human rights law firm Christian Khan eloquently explains in her open letter of 2015 to him, why she feels his move to the world of politics was a betrayal of his belief and the values that human rights activists hold:

“Sadiq, you and I have a shared history at the well-known legal aid firm Christian Khan, renamed when you became an equity partner, from the earlier Christian Fisher, where you did your training and got your first cases. When you left in 2004 to enter parliament, you said you felt you could have more of a role in effecting change as a politician than as a lawyer and this was a position I respected. I expected to see you do great things, pursuing the values and objectives we shared at Christian Khan, particularly when you became shadow justice secretary. Unlike many ministers, you have had a real job outside politics, and it was one which uniquely qualifies you to understand the importance of the rule of law.

“But I and many other legal aid lawyers have been deeply disappointed by Labour’s failure to take a principled position on access to justice. There is nothing about it in the Labour Party manifesto and the commitment to supporting victims of crime rings hollow if, for example, some domestic violence victims are effectively denied access to the civil courts. The pledge to repeal the bedroom tax will not help those unable to get access to advice, when facing eviction for housing benefit mistakes.

“It is simply unsustainable that Labour could let LASPO remain on the statute book, with people forced to rely on food banks unable to get legal advice.”


The once champion of the forgotten and marginalised, Khan compromised on the issue of legal aid cuts and changes to eligibility criteria introduced by the Tories in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).  As Minister for Transport under Gordon Brown, Khan oversaw the introduction of ‘nude’ body scanners at airports, much to the trauma of many, especially women, especially Muslim women.  The scanners were eventually removed after several years, after a successful IHRC campaign and a legal action supported by IHRC.

This capitulation is shared by many on many issues.  This disillusion extends, inevitably to Palestine.  Most recently the reminder courtesy of Middle East Eye, that the now London mayor no longer supports Boycott Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.


His stance on Palestine has weakened as his political clout has grown.  In his mind at least it may well be that these trajectories align.  Perhaps he decided, back in the 2000s, much as many in the political WhatsApp chats of today argue, that compromises needed to be made.  An utterly destroyed system of legal aid is testimony all of its own of how utterly bankrupt such a position is.  The violence levelled at the Quds Day march of 2017 in London, UK, which resulted in the murderous attack on Muslims leaving Tarawih prayers in Finsbury Park, is yet another.  The relentless demonisation of the event running for weeks before the event, from Zionists and the far-right, received no push back from the London mayor.  Indeed he went so far as to support Zionist calls for the event to be banned, writing to the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd to see if she would.

What use is a Muslim face in a position of power when they divest themselves willingly of the values and beliefs that the community holds dear?

Ironically, a report I co-authored with Professor Saied Ameli and Karin Lindahl in 2006, ‘Law and British Muslims: Domination of the Majority or Process of Balance?’ found both in its own original survey work and looking at many other authors, this understanding of the serious limits of nominal representation in political circles, was high amongst Muslims from all generations.  How is it that nearly twenty years later, despite the quality of political representation not improving, we are still witnessing political conversations based on the myth of equal representation? The Muslim community / ies now in their third, fourth, fifth, sixth generations have a sense of the critique still: past colonial experiences ensure that.  Many of those we surveyed, expressed the idea that those Muslim faces elected to parliament in the early 2000s were cronies of the Labour Party, representing neither Muslim interests or the interests of all their constituents, but rather being the face of the Labour Party in their multiple communities.  Yet somehow there is a clique in Muslim civil society today, that has or pretends to have amnesia.

There are other factors involved in not understanding the system.  As many of you who have fed back to me since the first part of this series, intra-community prejudices (ethnic, sectarian, class, gendered) mean that we either refuse to believe the experience and understanding of others, or simply ignore their existence. Meanwhile at least one, if not two generations, have been brought up in a highly censored society, where speech critical of the political system has been either demonised as ‘extreme’, criminalised even under anti-terrorism laws or shut down through no platforming.  They are shorn of the safeguards of understanding colonial systems that many of the minoritized have.  They are subject to the intense public relations / propaganda of a state that despite its implosion at almost every other level (economic, political, social) still generates (according to among others Brand Finance’s Index) the second highest level of soft power in the world.


Representation in numbers?

A quick note here that will be developed later: what about the First Past the Post System of voting in the UK?  Not only does it stop independent and smaller parties having a representational share of power reflected in seats, it even delivers majority governments where the winning party did not gain the most votes as happened in 1951.  In fact that vote share for Clement Attlee’s Labour Party held the record for most votes cast for any party in the UK until 1992, when John Major’s (much depleted in seat terms) Conservatives just about won the election.  This record still holds today:  Tony Blair didn’t come near in 1997 despite winning a historic landslide of seats.  Something is very, very wrong with this model.


The end is not justifying the means

To summarise, if we are to work in the system, we need to understand the system is (a) limited in the extreme (b) structurally unrepresentative of both majority and minority (c) unethical, corrupt, cronyistic.

Working within the system, if it must be done, can only be as a small part of political mobilisation for justice.  How this might work alongside other strategies is the subject of the last piece in this series.

Arzu Merali is a writer and researcher based in London, UK.  Find out more about her on this site or follow her on X and Instagram @arzumerali.


Keir Starmer CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

Rishi Sunak Number 10 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED