This article states that it "aims to kick-start a debate about how Anarchists should respond to the development of Islam and Islamism in the United Kingdom. It is a debate that is long overdue." We do not agree with it but reproduce it as a contribution to discussion. Originally published in January 2011.
In 2005 George Galloway defeated New Labour’s Oona King to win the parliamentary seat of Bethnal Green and Bow. It had been a highly charged campaign, with Galloway’s Respect Party working hard to particularly win over local Muslim voters due to King’s support for the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Galloway, Respect and their backers celebrated at the East London Mosque, where Gorgeous George made it clear in his acceptance speech who he thanked for his victory: “I am indebted more than I can say, more than it would be wise – for them – for me to say, to the Islamic Forum of Europe. I believe they played the decisive role.”
This article aims to kick-start a debate about how Anarchists should respond to the development of Islam and Islamism, (which I define as the political presence of Islam and the desire to develop norms of Muslim behaviour) in the United Kingdom. It is a debate that is long overdue.
There are few things correct about Samuel Huntingdon’s clash of civilisations thesis, but one element he did get right was in recognising that the late twentieth century saw a global Islamic resurgence. That resurgence was – and is – an event as important as the French or Russian revolutions. The French expert on Islamism, Gilles Kepel, traces this resurgence to material factors. Urbanisation and population increases brought about by medical improvements fractured traditional rural brands of Islam in countries such as Egypt and Pakistan. This combined with the coming to power of anti-colonial movements in the Muslim world. These governments – whether nationalist, monarchical or ‘Socialist’ – usually failed to deliver the aspirations of liberated peoples, and instead became characterised by corruption and incompetence. Islamic evangelism provided – and continues to provide – ‘answers’ to such problems. That answer is Islam, a complete design for living. And that answer is applicable globally.
As late as 1989, it was very rare to talk about British Muslims, or Muslim communities. The existence of a conscious, political British Islamism arguably emerges from the most contentious background of any ‘ism’ – the agitation against Salman Rushdie, following his book Satanic Verses, and support for the death sentence issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Writers such as Kenan Malik and Anandi Ramamurthy have covered the fact that historically British Asian politics was both vibrant and often left leaning, via groups such as the Indian Workers’ Association and Pakistani Workers’ Association. A generic black or Asian identity was common – religious designation, and religious division only emerging after top down multi-culturalism was introduced from both national and local government following the 1980s riots.
Here communities were given labels, political representatives found for those labelled, and resources and political influence distributed accordingly. The realisation that sections within Muslim communities, voting as blocs, could come to hold considerable political influence soon became evident to all of the major political parties.
Political Currents and Developments
As left communists Aufheben illustrate [in their article Croissants and Roses, 17/2009 – the ed.], this stripe of multi-culturalism has little to do with progressive politics. One of those instrumental in calling for a national Muslim representative body was Conservative right-winger Michael Howard. In the decades since the Rushdie affair, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain have come to considerable prominence, and Kepel is not alone in arguing that this influence mirrors, in part, colonialism. Representatives of the local power simply cut deals, on a ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours’ basis with the governing power. In time, it is in both sides’ interest to maintain such arrangements, providing they work.
Many English cities have witnessed the curious sight of Asian (usually but not always Muslim) councillors switching overnight from one political party to another. During the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 a group of Muslim councillors in Margaret Beckett’s Derby constituency made the shock discovery that the Labour government supported Israel and would not condemn it for bombing civilians. Whatever next! They promptly switched to the Lib Dems, although cynics suggested their move had more to do with thwarted local ambitions, and offers from their new party, than anything else. Perhaps the classic example of just how scurrilous local politics has become in some cities is the 2008 defection of Tower Hamlets Respect Councillor Ahmed Hussain – all the way to the Conservative Party!
It is important to stress the centrality of the mosque in some of these developments. For some years now a reading of sources as diverse as Private Eye, the East London Advertiser, academics such as Delwar Hussain or journalists like Andrew Gilligan would lead you to the conclusion that the most important political institution in east London is not the Labour Party or a trades union – it is East London Mosque, dominated by the Islamic Forum of Europe and Jamaat-e-Islami. The election of Galloway, and a mosque-backed Independent in the 2010 Tower Hamlets mayoral election, reinforced this. In Waltham Forest, at one point no fewer than 16 councillors were attending Lea Bridge Road mosque – what price political openness and transparency in such circumstances?
It is worth noting that in office, Islamists have proved as useless at representing the interests of the working class as anyone else. Whilst Tower Hamlets residents are paying for the dubious honour of being a ‘host’ borough of the 2012 Olympics, all the events scheduled to occur in London’s poorest local authority have now been moved somewhere else. Whilst Independent Mayor Lutfur Rahman mouths impotently about legal action to bring the marathon back to the East End, the Chairman of East London Mosque, Dr Muhammad Bari, sits alongside Princess Anne and Lord Coe on the board of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The presence of Dr Bari’s beard ticks the multi-cultural box, but delivers nothing for the people of Tower Hamlets.
Things That Go Bang
One area where national power expects local power to deliver is in the reduction of radicalisation and terrorist plots from Islamist youth. Although rarely acknowledged, a small, but not insignificant number of British Muslims have been fighting, killing and dying in their version of Jihad for the best part of three decades, in places as diverse as Bosnia, Kashmir, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Israel. The first British suicide bomber died in Srinagar as far back as 2000 – so much for the idea that such attacks solely occur because the government was stupid enough to follow the Americans into Iraq.
From 2009 Home Office figures, 92% of those in British prisons for terrorist offences affirm themselves to be Muslim. It is worth noting that these are not usually international actors – 62%, a clear majority, are British citizens. Since the 7/7 attacks the government has spent millions on de-radicalisation programmes, and a new term ‘Al Qaeda inspired terrorism’ has been coined. The fact that British Jihadis existed well before Osama Bin Laden’s name was widely known is conveniently forgotten, and a concerted government and police drive has occurred to remove any religious terms from discourse about terrorism. This has been the backdrop to an on-going conflict between government and Muslim representative organisations. Programmes such as Preventing Violent Extremism have been attacked for ‘stigmatising Muslims’ until Prevent was extended to include the far-right and even, ludicrously, animal rights extremism.
One consequence of such arguments has been that each new conviction following a terrorist plot, or each involvement of a Briton in a plot abroad, is presented as a surprise, or attention is instead switched to exposing ‘Islamophobic reporting’ by the media, rather than the act itself. This reached surreal levels when the 2009 Christmas Day ‘underpant bomber’ became the fourth former executive member of a University Islamic Society to be involved in an attempt to commit the mass murder of civilians. The Federation of Student Islamic Societies responded by insisting there was no evidence Muslim students are more prone to radicalisation than anyone else. What more evidence do we need?
An Anarchist Response?
Anarchists need to avoid the type of auto-leftism that dominates certain groups. We should be better than simply repeating the discourse of ‘Islamophobia’, and Muslims solely as victims, that the left has produced readily since 9/11.
Secondly, as Anarchists we should fear religious belief per se – because of its irrationality, its treatment of women, its ability to divide human beings and its long association with injustice.
We need to be realistic. Outside of the fantasies of the EDL and Muslims Against Crusades, shariah law is not about to be introduced in the UK. But there are politicians daft enough to cede power to shariah courts and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals at a local level (certainly for civil matters), and there are certainly Muslim organisations in our cities happy to soak up whatever power they can. If history has taught us anything, it should be that when power is ceded to religious currents, they rarely if ever give it back. Anarchist rejection of the law may not sit easily with campaigners such as Maryam Namazie and the One Law For All campaign, but we need to reflect on whether it is better to support such campaigns than see the consolidation of structures based on superstition, hierarchy and patriarchy.
Islamic organisations, backed by significant funding both from within the UK and abroad, are becoming a permanent presence in parts of the education and welfare systems. Having learned nothing from religiously divided education in Northern Ireland (where most children go to separate Protestant or Catholic schools from the age of five) the development of Muslim only schools is likely to not only do little for integration in our communities, but will even reverse it.
As London Mayor, Ken Livingstone awarded £1.6 million to East London Mosque for its welfare programmes – oh for the days when religious institutions that needed money for ‘good work’ did jumble sales! Such processes consolidate reactionary groups such as the Islamic Forum of Europe - they gain status, funding and power. There is no need for secular institutions to ask what services members of the public want or need when they can instead ask the mosque or any representative organisation that steps forward. We need to be aware Cameron’s big society may provide further opportunities for such nonsense, not less.
We must also fear the increased racialisation of politics. If there is such a thing as the ‘Muslim community’ with elected representatives, there is by definition such a thing as the white community. And we should know where that brand of politics takes us. There is a need to stress the type of alternative, bottom up multi-culturalism that we live with and support daily – getting on with neighbours, colleagues and school friends as people, not as identities based on their colour or creed. Joining together with people as fellow workers and fellow members of working class communities targeted by cuts will be a lot easier on that basis, than the multi-culturalism of the state and the left.
Such an approach to me is Anarchism, and we need to stress that practice, whilst never abandoning Anarchist principles such as ‘No Gods, No Masters’, in the years to come.
Originally published in Shift magazine