By Imam Qari Asim MBE
Imam, Makkah Mosque Leeds
On Thursday 23 June, Britain will make a once in a life-time decision: should we remain within the European Union or come out of it? As British Muslims, we must play our role in this historic vote to decide the future direction of our country and Europe as a whole.
This vote is of huge significance for everyone, particularly for younger people, as they have the most at stake in this EU referendum. It is their futures that are on the ballot paper. The decision will have repercussions for many years to come, and will have a huge role in shaping young people’s lives.
Ethnic minorities are following the debate as much as rest of the country, and are navigating their way through the Remain and Leave Camps. Survation’s ethnic minority poll for the identity think-tank British Future, conducted in 2015, found a 54 per cent to 28 per cent split in favour of Remain, with 18 per cent undecided. Some members of black and minority ethnic communities are ambivalent about the benefits of the EU as they are less likely to participate in free movement activities; others consider Europe in predominately ethnic or racial terms, and therefore do not feel inspired to use their vote. In addition, as some far right groups have been ranting and raging against Islam and the “Muslim invasion” of Europe, this may deter Muslims to vote to remain in Europe. However, Europe has never been and will never be a land for one faith only. As with the UK, Europe will continue to be a multi-belief and multi-ethnic community, united by shared values.
A UK departure is not only likely to reinforce ultra-nationalist far right sentiments but also risks destabilising our country and continent. We have already seen that alongside anti-European Union sentiments, in certain circles, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-ethnic minority and anti-refugee sentiments and movements are rising.
As the largest single market in the world, the European Union has brought investment and jobs. As a commercial lawyer, I see week in, week out how British businesses benefit from a vast network of talented people, companies and institutions across Europe. Report after report has made it clear that the economy will remain stronger if we remain in the European Union, and that’s important because it affects our jobs, wages and public services as they depend on how the economy is performing.
The EU has also played its role in making Europe more secure, facilitating trade between Europe as well as freedom of movement but more importantly it has protected workers’ rights – paid holiday, improved maternity and paternity leave, anti-discrimination legislation, limits on working time and a fairer deal for agency and temporary workers. These rights protect us and our families.
Even those passionately in favor of staying in accept that reform of the EU, in certain aspects, is necessary but we can work to better it from within. Dismantling Europe in favour of continental nationalism is dangerous. Both, the UK and Europe are stronger, safer and better off together. I was therefore one of the signatories to a public letter from the UK’s main faith communities saying that we felt the EU was vital to preserving peace and stability, fighting poverty, climate change and tackling the migration crisis.
As an Imam, my faith inspires me to build bridges and not break-away, to integrate and not alienate. The EU was formed to bring peace and stability to our continent, and act as a collective force against bigotry, racism, dehumanisation and potential wars. This concept of nations coming together to avoid internal conflicts and stand together on security and territorial issues is something that most Muslims can relate to. When the Prophet Muhammad migrated to Medina, he formed alliances with other nations in his state, including the Jewish tribes, and coined the term “single community” (“Ummah Wahida”). The message was that there may be a mosaic of communities in Medina- with different beliefs, ethnicities, and cultures- but it is their shared values that bind them together. We have seen that it is the shared values between European nations that have enabled Europe, until recently, to prosper and flourish more than at any time in European history. The EU, with its commitment to solidarity and co-operation between nations, can be much stronger and more robust when it comes to dealing with racism, bigotry and humanitarian crisis than any one country.
After the economy, immigration is the key issue in the referendum debate. A lack of appropriate immigration control has been a challenge for our country for quite some time but we must accept that the UK cannot remain immune from the global increase in mobility, and that certain sectors would collapse without the appropriate level of migrant labour. A potentially attractive pitch seems to be that if free movement from Europe were curtailed, the UK would have more room for skilled Commonwealth migrants. However, given that non-EU net migration over which we do have direct control, already exceeds the level of immigration from EU countries, it is unlikely that either staying or going would result in dramatic changes in patterns of non-EU migration. There is a need for an honest debate around migration, how it should be managed, its impact on our families, on public services, housing and so on. The anti-immigration campaign needs to be placed in a comparative context, and should not resort to divisive tactics, as that will create further divisions between communities in the UK. Whatever the referendum result, according to British Future, immigration will remain a key issue of public concern.
I strongly believe in the right to vote because I believe abstention from voting is essentially indirect voting. Failing to vote will not realistically lead to the change that some of us want to see in our country. Abstaining from selecting an option would potentially leave room for the least preferred option to win. There is no doubt that the repercussions of this historic vote will be felt for many years, so let the result of this referendum be down to choice, not the by-product of apathy.
This European referendum is a once-in-a-generation chance to shape our future. Our vote could tip the balance of this referendum. Many young people took the trouble to get themselves on the register; now let’s follow this to the logical conclusion and vote. Let’s shape the future of our country together!