British Muslims divided on Brexit
London - With a referendum on Britain’s EU membership set for June 23rd, the country’s Muslim community remains divided on the issue.
The decision on whether Britain should remain in the European Union is tied to a number of economic and political factors, although the pivotal issue — on both sides of the divide — appears to be immigration, with Europe facing its biggest migrant crisis since the second world war.
A recent survey by the Opinium Research polling company indicated that immigration was the most likely issue to affect how Britons will vote, with 49% of respondents saying it would influence their decision. Among those who said they would vote to leave the European Union, 72% cited immigration as the primary factor.
According to the Office of National Statistics, net migration to the United Kingdom was up 330,000 in 2015, a 20,000 increase from 2014. The figures, released May 26th, showed that 270,000 EU citizens moved to Britain for at least a year in 2015, up from 264,000 in 2014, while 277,000 non-EU citizens moved to the country, down from 287,000 in 2014.
For British Muslims, many of whom are naturalised citizens, migration is a main concern on the EU issue. They find themselves torn between a desire for increased openness and integration, repelled by the get-out-of-the-EU campaign’s divisive discourse but wary of unfettered inter-EU migration, particularly from Eastern Europe.
Equality campaigners have warned that British Asian voters in particular view unfettered migration from within the European Union as having a detrimental effect on other forms of migration, particularly from Commonwealth countries that they originally hail from.
“South Asian immigrants have ancestors who have fought in the world wars. They sacrificed a lot. They speak the language. They have the skills. They are well-educated. But they find it hard to come in compared to other individuals from Europe who may not speak the language, understand the culture or have the skills,” Saqib Bhatti, a board member for the Vote Leave campaign group, told the Financial Times.
A new leave-the-EU lobbying group, Muslims for Britain, is seeking to convince Muslims to vote to leave the bloc. “I am proud to be British and I am proud to be Muslim. It’s not about faith, this is about identity… Ethnic minorities have not participated enough in this debate and now all of a sudden British Muslims up and down the country are standing up and asking what value does the EU deliver for us,” Bhatti said.
However, many British Muslims say that exiting the European Union would be a disaster, strengthening the poisonous right-wing discourse that is based on a fear of immigration.
Until recently, Pakistani-born Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood said he had firmly been in the leave-the- EU campaign but he changed sides over alleged racism and fearmongering. “I have been pushed away by the leave campaign because of the issues around migration and racism,” he said.
“If we choose to leave the EU, generations to come will not forgive us for staying silent on issues that matter both to Muslims and wider society — on the economy, on human rights and on our place in the world,” said Miqdaad Versi an assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, announced support for remaining in the European Union and campaigned for doing so with Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, actions for which he was criticised by his Labour Party colleagues even though Labour supports the pro-remain position.
In addition to the economic reasons for staying in the European Union, Khan highlighted European security and intelligence-sharing. “The horrific terrorist attacks on Paris in November showed that no country can tackle the threat of terrorism alone. It takes coordinated international effort, working across borders, just like the terrorists,” he said.
While the positions of individual British Muslims may vary, British Muslim organisations have been careful not to pick a side. Even if Versi, the MCB assistant secretary-general, is adamantly pro-remaining in the European Union, the MCB itself — which represents more than 500 national, regional and local Muslim organisations, mosques, charities and schools — is non-partisan.
“How British Muslims choose to vote is up to each individual voter. The MCB will not be adopting a position on the referendum… We recognise there are different views on this and all we ask for is an informed debate that does not scapegoat minorities,” said an MCB statement, which also encouraged all British Muslims to vote.