WHILE the political future of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her 11-year government was being argued about by national politicians and the news media, 7,000 voters in the parliamentary seat of Bradford North in the heart of England had to confront a different kind of issue. Would they, as British Muslims, vote for their own separate religious party in a key by-election, or throw their support behind the Labour Party candidate?
The outcome - only 800 Muslims voted on Thursday for the candidate of the Islamic Party - has eased the minds of many in Britain who worried that political movements based on race or religion were about to enjoy a surge of support in Britain's increasingly multicultural society.
The result has also prompted some soul-searching among British Muslims convinced that the traditional political parties neither promote their interests nor fully understand them.
Conceding that in the Bradford by-election local economic and social issues had prevailed over ethnic and religious ones, the Islamic Party's candidate was philosophical. ``Muslims have a much better chance in city politics,'' said Daud Musa Pidcock, a white who converted to Islam 15 years ago. ``We shall have to work very hard in future to make an impact at national level.'' He described gaining less than 1,000 of the 28,000 votes cast as ``a disappointment.''
Mr. Pidcock campaigned on a platform calling for a world economic system based on interest-free credit. He also called for a locally issued currency and ``Islamic morality.''
Bradford was best hope
Of all the cities in Britain, Bradford seemed to offer the London-based Islamic Party, formed a year ago, the best hope of making a political impact. In Bradford North, Muslims account for more than 1 in 10 of registered voters.
Most of the city's Muslims come from Pakistan and Bangladesh. It has a high unemployment rate, and housing conditions for Asian immigrant families are poor. Unemployment levels among Asians also are high.
A stroll through the northern suburbs of the city quickly reveals its Asian complexion. Men with beards and topi caps stroll around, gossiping in Urdu. Women in white veils move from shop to shop, their eyes lowered. Many know little or no English.
It was in Bradford that some of the loudest complaints about Salman Rushdie's novel, ``The Satanic Verses,'' were heard. The book was publicly burned by Islamic clergy from the local Council of Mosques, who said they supported the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's calls for the author to be killed. The Islamic faith is highly organized in the area.
Five years ago, Mohammed Ajeeb made history by becoming Bradford's - and Britain's - first Muslim mayor. But his victory, and that of five other Muslim city councillors in local elections, underlined the problem faced by a candidate such as Pidcock campaigning on a strictly Islamic ticket.
Mr. Ajeeb and his fellow Muslims on the city council are all Labour Party supporters. They won election by putting themselves forward as champions of working people. Their religious affiliations were part of their appeal, but a secondary part.
``My whole family has been voting Labour for 25 years,'' says Ahmed Iqbal, who works as a translator for the council. ``Labour is against the poll tax, which is causing hardship among Muslims. It is natural for us to go on voting Labour.''
Such attitudes helped to produce a massive 9,500-vote for Labour's white by-election candidate, Terry Rooney, who is the first Mormon ever to be elected to the British Parliament.
The Islamic Party's choice of Pidcock as its candidate in Bradford North exposed the dilemma faced by a political movement hoping to project itself nationally, but dependent on local sentiment to help it do so.
During the campaign, Pidcock attacked Iraq's President Saddam Hussein as ``an atheist'' whose calls for a jihad (or holy war) should be dismissed. He accused leading figures in Bradford's Council of Mosques of ``overreacting'' to the Rushdie book.
This helped to undermine support for him among some local mullahs who, it was reported, passed the word to the faithful that it would be better to vote Labour than support Pidcock, whom they described privately as an opportunist.
Labour, too, had a dilemma to face before it chose Mr. Rooney as its candidate. Mayor Ajeeb at one point proposed himself, citing his proven voter-appeal among Bradford citizens.
But the local party was advised from London that Labour headquarters believed a white candidate would pull more votes. Rooney, deputy leader of the city council, was selected.
He built his campaign around poverty, unemployment, and opposition to the poll tax. He stuck to the Labour Party's official line, which calls for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. On the Rushdie affair, he courted hostility from Islamic clergy by resisting calls that ``The Satanic Verses'' be banned.
Religion not sole factor
Interviews with Bradford voters after Thursday's poll suggested that religion was a factor, but by no means the most important one, in determining which candidate received Muslim votes.
``I would have preferred my party to have offered a Muslim candidate, but I didn't really mind so long as the person was good,'' says a Labour-voting Pakistani shopkeeper.
A Bangladeshi school teacher, who also voted Labour, says: ``Mr. Ajeeb would have been my preferred candidate. Mr. Rooney appealed to me more than Mr. Pidcock, who was not close to Bradford issues.''
The impact of local mullahs on the by-election outcome is difficult to gauge. Three of them openly endorsed Pidcock during the campaign. Mohammed Naeem, a priest at the Abu Bakr Mosque, said: ``Labour has never favored the Muslim people. It does nothing for them.''
Pidcock said that many older Muslim voters were semiliterate and habitual Labour voters. But his hopes that better-educated, younger Muslims would ``see beyond local conditions'' and support the Islamic Party do not appear to have been fulfilled. He had sought several thousand votes.