OPINION: Blackburn Hustings event

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Shuiab Khan takes a personal look at the ENGAGE Blackburn Hustings event.

This was the chance for the Blackburn candidates to impress a selected audience of Muslim representatives.

Organised by the Engage Team who are encouraging Muslim voters to become more politically active the event at first seemed not to live-up to expectation.

After all Blackburn has been constantly in the headlines over the past few years for a whole host of issues and this was supposed to be one of the most lively of the debates.

It featured Jack Straw (Labour), Michael –Law Riding (Conservative), Paul English (Liberal Democrats) and Bushra Irfan (Independent).

But the discussion soon picked up and brought to the fore a wide range of opinions on matters such as Islamaphobia and Gaza.

The event proved to be popular with those who atended and the questions posed to the candidates in the short time given gave an insight into their opinions.

Michael Law Riding for seemed a little out of his depth when it came to international issues. And he even admitted it several times. But he was also keen to point out how only Mr Straw had any experience of foreign affairs and the two people sat to his left had little experience of international issues as they also had also not been in office.

But those who had briefed Mr Law-Riding for this event should have done more to ensure he was aware of the issues discussed.

There was also an uncomfortable moment when Michael Law Riding was asked whether he would open talks with Hamas – an elected party. After several pointers he said he would open dialogue with any elected party - without saying it would indeed be Hamas.

But he made a valuable point that the non-Muslim community also needed to be educated for Islamaphobia to be defeated.

He did agree there was a level of double standards when it came to the issue of Israel. He pointed out that faith schools were important for integration and there needed to be an overhaul of anti-terrorism laws. He said it was not up to him to tell people how to dress when asked about the veil.

Paul English came across as the most Muslim -friendly candidate of the four.

He was quick to say the media was in a large way responsible for encouraging Islamaphobia and there needed to be curbs on sensationalist headlines and reporting.

He also said the Lib Dems had always been against the war and told how in his home of Skipton how he had helped the local mosque. He even encouraged people to ring up the imam of Skipton mosque if they wanted a reference about his work with Muslims.

But what made Paul English stand out was how few negative points were raised that could be linked back to his party. There was several moments when the Conservative and Labour candidates points of view were challenged by the host and the audience with regards to the record of their actual parties.

And in this case Mr English seemed to escape the most critical questions.

But what made him stand out was his apparent empathy with some members of the audience. At one stage he went as far to say that 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter' and how there were reasons for terrorism.

He seemed to have a knowledge of the issues affecting Muslims and in particular was aware of the deep affects of the double standards imposed on Palestinians.

Despite being the only Muslim candidate on the panel Independent Bushra Irfan seemed very subdued and at times looked out of her depth.

She was quick to attack Mr Straw on his record but did not have many answers or solutions for many of the issues faced by Muslims.

For much of the debate she seemed to simply agree with the other candidates.

She showed her inexperience when she suggested that the Ewood and Mill Hill areas of Blackburn were 'BNP areas'. Mr Law-Riding was quick to correct her error.

For someone who has campaigned hard in many Muslim areas and has claimed to represent the voice of the Muslim community Mrs Irfan strangely lacked any coherence and repeated information many in the audience would already have heard.

This would have been her chance to shine but apart from a few points where she said Mr Straw should have listened to his constituents at the time of the invasion of Iraq and how Islamaphobia was like anti-Semitism, Mrs Irfan came across as less intriguing than many were expecting.

She did repeat the notion that Muslims themselves needed to be united and she was the woman who could do it.

For Mr Straw this was always going to be a rough ride. And it became extremely so at several parts of the events. The first few questions were all aimed at Jack Straw who was asked about his role as Foreign Secretary and the Iraq War and his decisions as Home Secretary. And for a while it seemed the audience had come specifically to target Mr Straw.

He was keen to point out again and again how the Labour Party had been the only one encourage ‘equality and fairness for all’.

As someone who has had to deal with several Muslim -related questions Mr Straw was unsurprisingly comfortable fielding answers to most of the questions. In the end it took a woman with a veil on to really put Mr Straw on the back foot.

At the event were seven veiled women, an unusually large number in proportion to the percentage of Muslim women who actually wear the veil.

Two of those women got the chance to tell sitting MP Jack Straw how their lives had been affected by his comments and they had become to be seen as outsiders in their own country.

One asked after the comments he had made for him to ‘give me a good reason why I should vote for you?’ It was blunt and to the point and caught Mr Straw by surprise.

Mr Straw was apologetic and looked to have some regrets about the comments but said he had made the comments elsewhere at an MCB (Muslim Council of Britain) event but not got so much attention.

He stated that with hindsight had he known that the matter would be taken the way it was he would not have made the comments.

On the issue of Iraq it was again a matter of 'If we had known what we know now…'

He would not outrightly condemn the actions of Israel but pointed out his record of calling for a Palestinian state.

Mr Straw pointed out what he had done rather than what he would do.

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