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Muslim alienation in Britain today

Andrew Johnson

17th August 2005

For the past several years, a rather bitter joke has been current among British Muslims to the effect that, when Tony Blair starts talking about his deep respect for Islam, you know he’s about to bomb a Muslim country. If the London bombs of 7th July marked Blair’s foreign policy adventures coming home, the combination of mealy-mouthed flattery and dire threats of repression he has been directing towards Muslims over the last month bodes ill for ethnic minorities and for the working class as a whole.

Blair’s recent summit with government-favoured Muslim “community leaders” called to mind nothing so much as a colonial governor summoning tribal chieftains to tell them to keep the natives in line or else. To that we can add Home Office minister Hazel Blears’ tour of northern cities where she has been meeting Muslim councillors and imams who are more part of the problem than the solution; and Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair’s insistence that Muslims will have to become narks in order to prove that they aren’t sympathetic to terrorism. And, despite the oft-stated view that political correctness prevents any criticism of Muslims, all this is taking place against the background of a tidal wave of race hatred.

Even the Metropolitan Police are reporting a 600% rise in hate crimes against Muslims compared to the same period last year, and it can be safely assumed that many more have gone unreported. The regular assaults, vandalism against Asian-owned businesses, and torching of mosques which are reported extensively in the Asian media although rarely elsewhere, put Blair’s homilies on tolerance and the rantings of the tabloid gorblimey merchants into their correct perspective.

In this climate it is absolutely necessary to defend Muslims against scapegoating. The bombings have provided the pretext, and Muslims a convenient target, but we should by no means delude ourselves into thinking that Blair’s attacks will stop with the tiny number of Muslims in the rightwing jihadi groups.

The dismantling of civil liberties

Since the bombings Blair and his ministers have been throwing out draconian proposals for state repression on what seems like a daily basis. Some of these half-baked schemes would be funny if the government wasn’t in deadly earnest. A case in point is Blair’s idea of trying radical mullahs for treason. Obviously Blair is not cognisant of the Callaghan government’s attempt in 1977 to charge Sinn Fein leaders with treason, which led to the farcical spectacle of the Northern Ireland courts granting bail for an offence that in those days carried the death penalty. It is also worth mentioning that the promised repeal of emergency laws in the North looks like being nullified by the extension of the new British laws here. Indeed, by openly admitting to a shoot-to-kill policy, the British government has gone further than it ever did in the North.

The legal crackdown is notable as much for its arbitrariness as its populism. This is underlined by the changes to the deportation system. The Home Secretary already has discretionary powers to deport any foreign national he wants to. However, in the case of Islamist activists like tabloid bogeyman Omar Bakri, these extensive powers were being cramped by the Human Rights Act forbidding deportation to countries – like Bakri’s native Syria – where the individuals concerned could face torture or execution. The government proposes to overcome this hurdle by getting Middle Eastern despots like Mubarak and Gaddafi to sign letters promising not to torture or kill any Islamists Britain hands over to them. After all, these are trustworthy people.

Deportation, of course, is not an option when it comes to British citizens, which all the 7th July bombers appear to have been. These will be subject to “control orders”, which is a fancy new term for house arrest. Measures like house arrest, phone tapping and monitoring of email communication will be imposed on those people the cops are suspicious of but don’t have evidence to prosecute. The latest plan, for secret court hearings, points the way to a legal system derived from Franz Kafka by way of GuantanamoBay, where the accused are not permitted to know what charges they are faced with.

Perhaps most ominous are the implications for free speech of Blair’s promised campaign against a vaguely defined “extremism”. These proposals are elastic enough to include anyone designated by the government as an official enemy. In particular, the proposed offence of “indirect incitement” by way of “glorifying terrorism” – not just in Britain but anywhere in the world – could cover a multitude of sins. Although the British legal system has no equivalent of the US Constitution’s First Amendment, it is generally assumed that restrictions on speech apply only to defamation, obscenity and direct incitement of a crime. “Glorifying terrorism” seems like a device to catch out militant critics of Blair’s foreign policy, particularly as he specifically mentioned Iraq and Palestine, and refused to rule out a prosecution of Respect MP George Galloway for his support of the Iraqi people’s right to resist occupation.

So it is not only Muslims who are threatened. However, Muslims have a right to feel under siege, as the justification for the new repression is specifically aimed at them. When Blair promises to clamp down on “preachers of hate”, he hardly has Ian Paisley in mind. There are no plans to outlaw the BNP or National Front, or to shut down websites which incite violence against Blacks and Asians. “Glorifying terrorism” will not apply to Zionist groups which advocate the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank. Even the new law against incitement to religious hatred, which had been proposed as a sop to Muslims who complained that the BNP was getting around race relations legislation by using religion as a code, seems much more likely to be used against Muslims than to protect them. The blandishments on offer to “moderate”, or rather conservative, Muslim groups – an expansion of faith schools, for example – will be of little consolation to those at the sharp end.

A case study: the banning of Hizb-ut Tahrir

One of Blair’s proposals which has garnered a good deal of attention is the banning of the Islamist political group Hizb-ut Tahrir (Party of Liberation, or HT). HT is a reactionary fundamentalist group with a whole number of objectionable positions, but since its formation in 1952 has been distinguished for its non-violent political activism. HT vocally condemned the London bombings, and the nearest anybody has come to linking it to support for terrorism has been the fact that ten years ago Omar Bakri was a member of the group. With that logic, one could just as easily ban the Labour Party because Oswald Mosley was once a leading member.

Beginning in the late 1980s, HT’s British section gained notoriety for its loud and provocative activism on university campuses. Eventually the National Union of Students banned HT, citing as justification the group’s antipathy to the Israeli state and intolerance of homosexuality. There was however a strong element of realpolitik involved: the rightwing Labour leadership of the NUS, seeking to fend off challenges from the far left, struck up a close working relationship with the ultra-Zionist Union of Jewish Students (UJS) and attacked left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party for their support of the Palestinian intifada – NUS leaders such as Lorna Fitzsimons and Jim Murphy, later to become Blairite MPs, would frequently allege anti-Semitism against their left critics.

In this situation, HT’s aggressive style made it an obvious target for repression. For the Labour right in the NUS, Hizb-ut Tahrir became for them what the Militant tendency had been for Neil Kinnock, an easy mark to establish their authority as it had alienated many of those who might have been expected to defend it on free speech grounds. Many gay activists, for example, supported the ban on the grounds of HT’s homophobia, oblivious to the fact that its homophobia wasn’t why it was being banned. In a further move with implications for the present, the NUS took the initiative in promoting student Islamic societies which would be under the supervision of local student unions and avoid any radical politics.

Blair announced his plan to ban HT in the midst of his discourse on “extremist ideology”. The apparent justification was HT’s political programme, which calls for the unification of all Muslim countries under a revived caliphate and the implementation of shariah law. According to Blair, who fancies himself an expert on Islamic theology, it is unacceptable to even advocate the caliphate. A more likely explanation is that HT is a group with few friends and many enemies. A ban would please a number of constituencies at little cost – the Zionist lobby, conservative Muslim groups and, most importantly, the Middle Eastern despotisms with which Britain has lucrative commercial relationships and to which HT is militantly opposed.

The fragmentation of Muslim communities

The recent spotlight on Muslims has starkly revealed a crisis of representation. Indeed, it can be questioned whether or not there is a Muslim community in Britain. Muslims are divided along a whole array of faultlines. While most Muslims in Britain are of South Asian ethnicity, there are significant cultural divisions between, say, Bengalis and Mirpuris, never mind Arabs, Turks or Somalis. There are religious differences – up to a quarter of Britain’s Muslims are Shia, although they are almost invisible in public debate. There are of course class divides – while the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are generally deprived, by no means all Muslims are poor. And, perhaps most importantly for the purposes of contemporary politics, there is a wide and growing generation gap.

It should come as no surprise that there is no representative body or authoritative spokesman for Muslims as a whole. The Jewish community, much less ethnically diverse and longer established in Britain, makes a useful comparison. It is usually assumed by non-Jews that the Chief Rabbi, Dr Sacks, is the representative of all Jews, where in fact he only speaks for adherents of the (orthodox) United Synagogue and not Reform Jews, or the ultra-orthodox sects, or the very large number of Jews who don’t belong to any denomination. Likewise, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, despite its pretensions to speak for all Jews in Britain, is in essence a collection of community worthies.

The situation in Muslim communities is much more confused. There are a plethora of competing organisations, many of them one-man bands and many concerned mainly with chiselling grants out of local and national government. There are, however, some important exceptions. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), for example, openly seeks to emulate the Jewish Board of Deputies and establish itself as an official leadership. This explains its energetic courting of the Blair government, which has been reciprocated by easy access to ministers and the granting of a knighthood to MCB chief Iqbal Sacranie. However, the MCB has to face a number of tensions – although its ostentatious “moderation” has won it official plaudits, if it is too slavish in toeing the government line it risks haemorrhaging support, while even Sacranie has complained that the government doesn’t consult him on anything important.

While Muslim advocacy groups have many differences, one common theme is the promotion of the idea of a homogeneous British Muslim community – something which does not yet exist and may never come into being. There is an empirical basis for this strategy in that many young people from Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds are identifying themselves as Muslims rather than by their ethnic background. While their parents may be one generation removed from a village in Kashmir or Sylhet, their identification with their family’s home country is attenuated while they feel alienated from the mainstream of British society by racism. As a result Islam becomes increasingly important as a badge of identity.

This Islamisation of Asian youth expresses itself in a number of different ways. Largely due to the lack of any political project at home, foreign policy – in particular Palestine and Iraq – is central to their political consciousness. And in identifying themselves primarily as Muslims while their roots in their parents’ culture diminishes – indeed, many are rebelling against their parents’ perceived over-adaptation to Western society – their Islam becomes a puritanical set of restrictions. An illustration of this process is the case of Luton schoolgirl Shabina Begum, who, backed by Hizb-ut Tahrir, recently won a court case allowing her to wear a head-to-toe jilbab dress, even though her school had already made provision for Muslim girls to wear hijab. While Shabina Begum’s family are Bangladeshi in origin, few women in Bangladesh wear the jilbab – Indian-style saris or shalwar kameez are much more common.

A political project

The element of generational revolt among Muslim youth is one reason why imams and mosque committees are in no position to provide an alternative, even forgetting the comical pontifications of Tony Blair and Prince Charles on the need for imams to teach the youth “true Islam”. Imams, for one thing, do not run the mosques – the mosque committee, normally composed of local business elements, controls the mosque and employs the imam, who is generally imported from Pakistan or Bangladesh and is likely to have a limited command of English. The imams literally don’t speak the same language as the youth.

What the angry youth need is not a religious revival but a constructive political project. Local mosque leaderships are particularly ill-equipped to provide this, as an essentially conservative element. Above all, the question of relations with the Labour Party looms large. Historically, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities have overwhelmingly voted Labour, due to their experience of poverty and racism. This has been cemented by the corrupt relationship between the mosques and Labour Party in some areas, where community leaders would deliver votes in return for favours. Blair’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have put this relationship under strain, with the result that some community leaders have been looking for an alternative home and have discovered the Liberal Democrats. This is hardly an inspiring alternative.

One of the most trenchant critics of the idea of going through the mosques has been Asghar Bukhari of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC). In numerous media, Bukhari has pointed out that the alienated youth need to be mobilised in pursuit of political goals and that the entrenched mosque leaderships are, with few exceptions, not capable of providing the lead that the youth need. Although Bukhari’s strong anti-Zionism has led the right wing to brand him an “extremist” – Jewish groups have even protested him being interviewed on the BBC – the strategy he puts forward has been remarkably modest and reformist. Essentially, MPAC seeks to create a Muslim equivalent of Operation Black Vote, mobilising Muslim voters to elect representatives to parliament and local councils who are sympathetic to what are seen as Muslim interests. In the recent general election, MPAC called for tactical voting against selected MPs who were strongly in favour of the Iraq war or pro-Israel (there being considerable overlap between the two).

Respect as alternative?

But this perspective of electing sympathetic MPs from New Labour or the Liberal Democrats has obvious limitations. A more radical alternative is needed, one that deals not only with the present concerns of alienated Muslim youth – primarily the continuing war in Iraq – but with the root causes of their alienation such as poverty, racism and the lack of a political voice that truly represents them. Perhaps the new Respect coalition, which developed from the mass anti-war movement in which Muslims played such a huge role, can offer that alternative?

Respect is a contradictory phenomenon, is highly politically unstable and could develop in any number of directions. Maverick Bethnal Green MP George Galloway acts as its figurehead and to a large extent sets the agenda; the Socialist Workers Party provides the organisational muscle; but Respect’s electoral support rests on a few areas of London, Birmingham and a few provincial cities with extremely high concentrations of Muslims. There is nothing wrong with having the support of Muslims – in the 1930s the Communist Party had huge support from Jews in East London, due largely to its militant opposition to Mosley’s fascists. But the CP won the support of East End Jews by appealing to them as workers and socialists, and in the teeth of strong opposition from the Jewish clergy and community leaders.

Respect, on the other hand, has tended to pitch itself as a party for Muslims, and has specifically sought to co-opt the existing mosque leaderships. This carries with it the serious danger of a strengthening of communalist sentiment amongst Muslims, and the corresponding danger of non-Muslims finding little in Respect to appeal to them. We have already seen a marked lack of participation by Hindus and Sikhs in the anti-war movement, largely due to what they saw as the privileged role afforded to Muslims, with imams prominent on Stop the War platforms and chanting of the takbeer on demonstrations.

What the alienated youth really need is a socialist alternative rooted in class struggle – the sort of struggle we can see in the Heathrow Airport strike, where the mainly Asian workforce have been informed not by religious fundamentalism but by the secular and socialist tradition of the Indian Workers Association. After all, these youth are overwhelmingly part of the working class. This is where the tensions in Respect come out – while the coalition includes Islamists who oppose class struggle as disruptive of the Ummah (the community of Muslims, in which all are supposedly equal), many if not most Respect activists are socialists who should base themselves on class struggle.

Unfortunately, much of what should be ABC politics has been diluted or forgotten in the search for transient opportunities. The SWP in particular has tended to slide from a necessary and correct defence of Muslims against scapegoating to a romanticising of Islam. They have echoed the view of the Islamists that Bush’s war drive represents a war on Islam, forgetting that during the Balkan wars Muslims were loudly in favour of bombing Serbia. They have argued that Muslims in Britain face religious persecution, rather than what is better described as racial oppression with religious overtones. Partly in reaction to the pro-war liberals’ view that Islam is particularly reactionary – in fact it is no more so than any religion – large sections of the left have drifted towards a view of Islam as a special anti-imperialist religion.

The question of how to work with Muslims will be a serious test for the British left in the months and years ahead. Because of the war in Iraq, and the way it has catalysed underlying discontent, the Muslim working class is more likely than the class as a whole to be willing to consider alternatives to New Labour. It would be sectarian to put artificial obstacles in the way of collaboration or to give unnecessary offence to religious sensibilities. At the same time, socialists must avoid diluting their programme to smooth over arguments with religious conservatives. Anyone, whether religious or not, can be a socialist. The task must be to win Muslims to the understanding that socialist politics can provide the alternative they need, not to convert the left into an appreciation society for Islam.


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