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Faith, Politics and Me: Labour MP Afzal Khan

Afzal Khan has spoken out against the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, China (Alamy)

4 min read

In a new occasional series, Seun Matiluko catches up with politicians to discuss faith and how they balance religion with politics. Here, Afzal Khan, Labour MP for Manchester, Gorton, talks about his journey with Islam.

On a Zoom call from his Manchester office – a phone propped up against a pile of books – Afzal Khan is telling me what it’s like to pray from inside the Kaaba, the holy black cube in the centre of the Great Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, considered by Muslims to be the most sacred site in the world.

While millions make pilgrimages to Mecca each year, few have entered the Kaaba. When he went inside, around 20 years ago (“I don’t even know how I snuck in!”), he was in awe: “As a Muslim … all your life, you’ve been facing that building wherever you are … but when you’re inside you’re doing the opposite.”

The Labour MP for Manchester, Gorton, whose names Mohammed, Afzal and Khan roughly translate to ‘the praised one’, ‘the best’ and ‘leader’, grew up in the faith as a child in Pakistan, where he was born, but later “drifted”.

It was only as a teenager, living in Pendle, Lancashire (he migrated to the UK as an 11-year-old) that he “drifted back in” after thinking deeply about the universe and the “idea that actually there is some sort of design here”.

He is now solid in his faith, holding many sayings of the prophet dear to him, such as: “best among humanity are those who bring benefit to others” and “a person whose two days are the same is in a state of loss.”

Has it been hard balancing faith with politics? Khan pauses. “It’s a question of choice,” he says. “Whenever there are difficult issues [or] issues I’m not sure about … I try to listen to all the arguments … and land with some answer very close to the end when I have to make a decision.”

What about those who criticise his voting record? Last year, he was critiqued in 5Pillars, an independent community news platform with a focus on British Muslims, for jumping “on the populist bandwagon” with respect to LGBT issues.

To this, Khan says: “That’s between me and my God … as long as I’m comfortable with what I’m doing, it doesn’t matter what someone else’s opinion is.”

He continues: “sometimes … Muslims will think I’m there to represent them. True … but I’m also there to represent others. In my constituency, I have people of no faith. I have people of Muslim faith. I have people of Christian faith, of Hindu faith, Jain faith, Sikh faith, Jewish faith … I try to represent all.”

“As long as I’m comfortable with what I’m doing, it doesn’t matter what someone else’s opinion is”

In that vein, Khan took part in an inter-faith trip to the Vatican to build greater awareness around climate change, which reminded him that the Earth is “our common home”.

Khan is keen to lessen division in society, with the recent rise in Islamophobia being of major concern: “Year after year… the highest proportion of religious hate is against Muslims.”

Khan has himself been a target of hate. When he took his Parliamentary oath in 2019, he decided to do it in both English and Urdu. “The attacks I got on social media; I thought, what is your problem if I’ve done it in Urdu? It certainly was good enough for Queen Victoria because she spoke and wrote in Urdu as well.”

Today, he still gets abuse, which he divides into three categories: extreme (report to the police), medium (answer back), and ignore. 

Still, Khan has also had many positive interactions with constituents, particularly when he attends mosque. He says he has been to around 90 per cent of the mosques in Manchester and, once he’s been to them all, will start again: “There are about 75 in Manchester, so there’s enough there,” he says. “It’s nice to move around. And it’s good for people to see me and to meet me as well.”

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Read the most recent article written by Seun Matiluko - Faith, Politics and Me - Robert Halfon

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