In the 1950s and 1960s, many Muslim civil society groups at the time were named ‘welfare association’ or ‘overseas workers league’, with a national or ethnic identity. A broader-based platform emerged in July 1970 when 38 regional and local Muslim associations formed the Union of Muslim Organisations (UMO), “to unite and represent the Muslim community living in the United Kingdom and Ireland”. Its founding Secretary General was Dr Syed Aziz Pasha, who remained in post till his demise in 2012.
The role of UMO in Muslim Political Engagement
An extract from Muslim electoral participation in British general elections, an historical perspective and case study, by Jamil Sherif, Anas Altikriti and Ismail Patel. Chapter 2 in Muslims and Political Participation in Britain, Ed. Timothy Peace, Routledge Studies in Religion and Politics, 2015
UMO gave Muslims a voice in politics at the national level and began lobbying Government departments and agencies, ministers and parliamentariansFor example in 1975 it made representations to the National Health Service on provisions for male circumcision (UMO 2001). UMO also put forward a memorandum to parliamentarians in January 1976, making a case for recognition of Muslim family law. The new Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, who took over from Roy Jenkins, was invited to address its annual conference in 1977. Civil servants however, advised against taking this up,
“…Since, if he attended the conference, the Home Secretary will be expected to give some indication of the Government’s reaction to the Union’s overtures, our view is that it would be more preferable if neither the Home Secretary nor (junior minister) Mr John were able to find room in their timetables to be present…”. (National Archives 1977)
UMO also started building links with the Anglo-Asian Conservative Society, an association established by the Conservative Central Office “to assure its members and other Asians about the good intentions of the Conservative Party….to recruit Asians directly into the Party” (Anwar 1986). In January 1977, UMO jointly sponsored a meeting with the Society at the House of Commons, with support from Conservative MPs Bernard Weatherill and Ian Percival (National Archives 1977). The Society’sefforts to build bridges with the ethnic minorities were to some extent undone by Margaret Thatcher – Conservative Party leader and also honorary president of the Anglo-Asian Conservative Society – who referred to fears “that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture” in a TV interview in January 1978 (Anwar 1986).
In April 1979 UMO’s general secretary, Dr Syed Aziz Pasha, wrote an unprecedented one-page letter to the leaders of the three main parties a month prior to the general election. This document serves as the first formal record of a Muslim lobby in a British general election:
Right Honourable Mr. James Callaghan, Prime Minister and Leader of the Labour Party.
Right Honourable Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, Leader of the Conservative Party.
Right Honourable Mr. David Steel, Leader of the Liberal Party.
As the General Election is drawing closer, we, the citizens of the United Kingdom, are naturally anxious to see that the next Government will give adequate consideration to the rights of the minorities, particularly the religious minorities.
Being the representative body of British Muslims, it has been the endeavour of our Union to bring to the attention of the Authorities concerned the problems facing the Muslim community in this country and seeking their solution. As our Union is a religious organisation with no political affiliations, we have been seeking the support of all political parties for obtaining our religious rights in this land of democracy and religious freedom to which we are happy to belong and for whose prosperity we are making our humble contribution. Our anxious to know the position of your Party with regard to the following important issues affecting the Muslim community here:
- Application of Muslim Family Law to the Muslim community through parliamentary legislation.
- Declaring the two Muslim religious Festivals, namely, Eid-ul-Fitr (Ramadan festival) and Eid-ul-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) as official holidays to Muslim workers and employees in Government and non-Government establishments.
- Extending the Law on Blasphemy to protect non-Christian religions as well.
- Provision of single-sex schools at secondary school level, particularly for girls.
- Provision of halal food to Muslim children during lunch at schools.
- Imparting of lessons on Islamic education to be taught by Muslim teachers to Muslim children in State schools.
- Giving a slightly-extended lunch break to Muslim employees on Fridays enabling them to perform congregational prayers in Mosques.
- Allowing circumcision of male Muslim children under the National Health Act.
We would be grateful to receive an early reply to this letter. (UMO 1995)
In its response the office of the Labour Party leader indicated that in order to provide “the most comprehensive reply possible” it would need to consult Ministers, but this would not be possible before polling day; the Liberal Party responded by providing a copy of its manifesto, ‘the Rights of Minorities’; Mrs. Thatcher’s office however, took up each point:
- As for applying Muslim Family Law to the Muslim Community in this country through Parliamentary legislation is concerned, we have no proposals to do so at present.
- We certainly believe that religious feelings of employees should be registered by employers but is something that would have to be worked out between the employer and employee concerned.
- If the Law on Blasphemy were to be amended, we would certainly take into consideration extending it to include non-Christian religions as well.
- We believe in the maximum choice in education as a Party but unfortunately there has been a trend towards new systems of education by this Government. We would certainly allow independent schools of the single sex type to continue to exist.
- This is something that children of other religious communities have had to cope with and it seems unlikely that any other system can be arranged in individual schools.
- It would obviously be difficult to arrange for Muslim teachers to teach Islamic education in every state school.
This question should be addressed to the incoming Secretary of State.
I hope this helps answer your questions. (UMO 1995)
The Conservative Party won the May 1979 general election under Mrs Thatcher. The Labour and Conservative parties combined fielded only three parliamentary candidates (PCs) from the ethnic minorities. Among those of Muslim heritage was Farooq Saleem, standing unsuccessfully in a Labour safe seat, Glasgow Central. In the social context of the period, ethnic minority PCs were perhaps considered unelectable or unacceptable to party machinery. The turn-out of Muslims on polling day in the 1970s remained low, if this assessment on Pakistani participation is representative: “…in the 1970s at least one fourth of Pakistanis were not on the electoral register” (Anwar 1996). By end of the 1970s and early 1980s there was a sea change in the nature of Muslim settlement in Britain. In their early years in Britain, “most Pakistanis felt they were here to save enough to return to Pakistan after a few years. Therefore, they did not get involved in the British political system in any significant way. However, because of the future of their children as well as for economic reasons the ‘myth of return’ diminished, and their participation in British political life (has) gradually increased” (Anwar 1996e). The end of the ‘myth of return’ was accompanied by a growing network of mosques, madrasas and halal meat shops as well as the movement for Muslim faith schools. The ethnic minority population in 1981 was estimated to be 2.1 million, with about 400,000 of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin and hence predominantly Muslim heritage (Owen 1996). The Muslim presence became marked in local politics, with rapid increase in the number of councillors in the 1980s and early 1990s.
A number of veteran Muslim councillors also became mayors, including Councillor Karamat Hussain, mayor of Brent in 1982, and Councillor Muhammad Ajeeb, first elected to Bradford Council in 1979, becoming Lord Mayor of Bradford in 1985.
Prior to the June 1983 general election, UMO submitted a one-page letter to the leaders of the four main political parties (now including Roy Jenkins MP, leader of the Social Democratic Party) with a list of eight concerns. It was similar to its submission in 1979, though with two differences: the request for consideration of Muslim Family Law previously at the top of the list was now at the bottom, and the reference to NHS services for male circumcision removed and replaced with a new concern of more general import – the need for “extending the scope of the Race Relations Act to cover discrimination on grounds of religion as well” (UMO1995). The latter was a reference to legislation introduced in 1976 which outlawed discrimination at the workplace and in the provision of goods and services, in both the public and private sectors, on racial but not religious grounds. It was a measure of UMO’s success in cultivating links with the political establishment that this time Prime Minister Thatcher’s reply began with the hand-written salutation in her own hand, “Dear Dr Syed Aziz Pasha”, continuing:
I well recall meeting with you when we were discussing these questions with Sir Ian Percival and Bernard Weatherill, and I know that they and many of my parliamentary colleagues have worked closely with you, and have a deep interest and affection for the Muslim community. (UMO1995)
Notwithstanding these friendly sentiments Mrs. Thatcher did not concede to UMO’s requests, and referring to the issues of blasphemy and religious discrimination observed, “the Government would be reluctant to alter the existing legislation until a precise case has demonstrated the inadequacy of the law as it stands”. At the end of her response, the Prime Minister noted, “I hope your members will take advantage of the Election campaign to ask all the candidates their views on these matters. My very best wishes to you and to UMO in the future”.
The UMO continued these high-level political contacts in Margaret Thatcher’s second term and followed precedent in writing to the party leaders again prior to the May 1987 general election. The Prime Minister’s reply to UMO now extended to two pages and included a reference to shared values and multiculturalism:
…There is, I believe, an increasing awareness on the part of both the Conservative Party and the Moslem (sic) community in Britain about the extent to which our values and priorities coincide. We share a firm belief in the importance of a strong family unit as the foundation of a stable and responsible society….I would like to underline too the importance the Conservative Party attaches to recognising and respecting the cultural diversity and traditions of each of the main communities in our countries. Conservatives well understand the importance of tradition and of enabling each religious grouping to practice its faith where this is consistent with the law of this country….I am grateful to you for providing me with an opportunity to stress the concern of my party for the interests of the Moslem community and our determination to build a united and peaceful Britain for all our citizens. (UMO1995)
The Prime Minister’s reference to practices being acceptable “where this is consistent with the law of this country” put an end to Dr Pasha’s oft-repeated goal of carving out a jurisdiction for Muslim Family Law within English law, as was the case in the days of the Raj in British India with ‘Anglo-Mohammedan Law’.
Anwar, Muhammad. 1986. Race and Politics. London: Tavistock. British Pakistanis, Demographic, Social and Economic Position. 1996aCoventry: University of Warwick.
National Archives. 1977a . PRO, File HO 342/259. Letter from J.M. Gose to Miss Crabb, 14 July. 1977b. Ibid. Introductory Paper presented by Dr Syed Aziz Pasha, General Secretary of UMO at a meeting held at the House of Commons, 20 January.
Owen, D. 1996. Size, structure and growth of ethnic minority populations, in D. Coleman and J. Salt (eds), Ethnicity in the 1991 Census. London: HMSO, 1996. p.85.
Union of Muslim Organisations (UMO). 1995. A record of achievement 1970-1995, 25 Years Silver Jubilee Magazine. Muslims in Britain, General Election 2001. Pamphlet.
For further information on Dr Aziz Pasha, see this appreciation ‘Dr. Syed Aziz Pasha: Truly an Ambassador of Islam in letter and spirit’ by Dr. Mozammel Haque,