Anarchism and British Islamism: putting things in perspective - Steven Johns

Paul Stott opens his article stating 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."

Jumping straight to his conclusion, I would first like to emphasise that I agree with his final points wholeheartedly:

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.

This being the case I hope that my disagreements with the rest of the article are taken in the constructive spirit they are intended.

My disagreements with the rest of the piece go right back to the opening paragraph, to the statement that this is "a debate that is long overdue". Anarchists love nothing more than to argue incessantly over irrelevant issues (look at me now!), often the more irrelevant the better.

Islam and Islamism and our approach to them is one such issue. On the website I help run,, for example we have dozens of articles about Islam, and we have had dozens of debates about it in our forums over the past eight years - far more than we have about any other world religion. Anarchists are certainly not immune to a media frenzy, unsurprisingly, as things we read about in the paper and end up discussing with friends and co-workers we want to discuss with one another as well.

However, we should always remember that the media is not neutral, it has an agenda, and so to counter this we should always try to put things in perspective. The main issue with Stott's article is the complete lack of perspective.

The clear scale of the exaggeration of the issue is quite well illustrated by this statement:

[the global Islamic] resurgence was – and is – an event as important as the French or Russian revolutions.

Now I ask on what basis is this even close to being true? The French revolution was the triumph of capitalism over feudalism, setting the scene for the dominant new economic system for the entire planet. The Russian revolution was the world's first major proletarian revolution and experiment in socialism, which was crushed and instead turned into the second imperialist superpower and led to the Cold War, which dominated much of the world's political life, including class struggle, over the past 100 years.

The supposed growth of political Islam has had nowhere near as big an impact as either of these two events, no matter what the Daily Star says. I say "supposed" growth because despite a recent resurgence I would question whether political Islam now even has the same influence it did 30 years ago.

Political developments
The article continues to discuss "Asian" and "Muslim" Councillors switching from one political party to another. I fail to see what is surprising about local politicians being opportunistic with their party affiliations. What is new here, or different from politicians of any other ethnicity doing the same?

As for the statement "the most important political institution in east London is not the Labour Party or a trades union – it is East London Mosque", this seems more like hysteria that fact. Having lived in East London myself for nearly 10 years I think I can pretty much safely say that the mosque has had zero impact on my life, apart from possibly being responsible for the two most ridiculously close together bus stops in London.

Paul does identify various people with some form of authority who are associated with the mosque. However, I am sure you could identify many more influential people associated with a particular synagogue or church. But would this have any political utility? Perhaps, but then why single out Muslims here, especially given how they are being victimised by the media, the far right and elements of the government?

I also find it quite concerning that Paul refers to "Islamists" in office being as useless at representing the working class as anyone else. Of course I agree that you can't represent the working class in elected office. However, Mayor Lutfur Rahman seems to be referred to as one of these "Islamists", but he is not. His religion is Muslim but he himself is a left social democrat.1

Are there actually any Islamists who have been elected to positions of power in the UK? After a brief search I have been unable to find any. But it is conceivable that there could be a couple, but whether there are or not there are still far far more Christians in positions of power whose religious ideas affect their political ones. So why the focus on Muslims?

Now, onto the terrorism, which seems to be the main problem which Paul identifies with Islamism:

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.

I assume the author knows the number of these fighters, as he states it is "significant" so I would ask out of curiosity what is the number?

Whatever the absolute number, absolute numbers are not relevant without any sort of context. In terms of Bosnia, white socialists (not to mention NATO) went to fight there on the Muslim side, so why does this paint Muslims in a particularly bad light? As for Israel, far more British people go there to fight for the IDF. And Afghanistan and Iraq? The vast majority of people there shooting people and blowing things up are not Muslims, they are white people (probably mostly Christian) in the British Army. So again why focus on Islam here, when in terms of the amount of violence actually being carried out it is so much less than that by people of other religions?

As for the statement that:

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.

I would ask who ever said that suicide bombings happened solely because the UK invaded Iraq?

Plenty of people - correctly - stated that the UK being involved in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would make the UK more of a target for Islamic terrorists, and surprise surprise it did.

I am particularly surprised that a former Class War member now seems to be condemning anti-imperialist terrorism. Class War were virulent supporters of the IRA: religion-linked terrorists who attacked civilians in the UK because the UK had invaded "their" country. What is the justification for supporting them, but not Islamic terrorists, despite the invasion of Muslim countries being so much more recent?

Regarding the comments around Preventing Violent Extremism, while the government attempted to state that it was meant to address all kinds of extremism, it wasn't just scapegoating Muslims, this was just window dressing to try to make them not look racist. Everybody who had something to do with PVE knows that it was just aimed at Muslims - the funding was even mostly allocated according to how many Muslims lived in an area. 2

When in my Council PVE was due to come in, many staff were concerned that it would be used to stigmatise Muslims, and asked me to raise this as a union issue, stating that Islamic extremism has never been an issue in our area, so why couldn't we use the funding to do more integration type work and oppose all types of extremism including racism? Management told us not to worry, saying that it would be used to target the far right as well. But it was not, it was only aimed at Muslims. I'm aware that one worker in the IT department even refused instructions to generate lists of Muslim children to be targeted by the project as she felt it was discriminatory.

Stott moves on to criticise the Federation of Student Islamic Societies for "insisting there was no evidence Muslim students are more prone to radicalisation than anyone else" pointing at four Muslim students convicted of terrorist offences as supposedly definitive evidence to the contrary.

As an anarchist, does Paul see any qualitative difference between the authoritarian violence of a state (by the British Army) and the authoritarian violence of a proto-state (Islamist terrorist groups)? I certainly do not - and far more Christians in role in the Army to go around murdering Muslims than do Muslims murdering Christians.

Or is violence only bad or evidence of "radicalisation" when it is not carried out by the state, its only legitimate user?

Moving away from an anarchist response?
Paul slams politicians "daft enough to cede power to sharia courts and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals at a local level". But this statement again seems to play up to tabloid hysteria about "sharia law". People must voluntarily agree to attend these courts and tribunals, which it is true do discriminate against women, which is terrible. However, if they do discriminate in a way which contradicts UK law then British courts can be used to overturn discriminatory decisions. And while it is true that some "volunteers" are effectively forced into attending, banning these courts would just force them underground, and women would still be forced in the same way to attend. These courts are also directly comparable to Jewish Beth Din courts which have been around in the UK for hundreds of years - so again why the focus on Muslims?

Supporting state bans on voluntary alternative systems is not an anarchist position.3 Helping women being pressured into attending these discriminatory courts resisting, or supporting them getting discriminatory decisions overturned however could be. Ways we could practically do this include opposing cuts to bodies which inform people of their rights, opposing cuts to women's services, interpreting services, legal aid etc.

The article then complains about public money being given to Muslim bodies like East London Mosque. I also oppose public funding of faith organisations. However singling out a Muslim organisation without making any comparison to the huge amounts of public money given to Christian or other religious organisations obscures the real issue, and makes Muslims seem like the problem.

In the conclusion states that "anarchists need to avoid the type of auto-leftism that dominates certain groups".

But more importantly at a time of unprecedented public sector cuts we need to avoid the racist tabloid hysteria which is deliberately scapegoating a tiny, disproportionately poor and working class section of society for all our problems.

This article makes no attempt to put the "problem" of Islam into any kind of context by comparing with other political forces or religions which are predominantly white. In fact it expressly tries to avoid putting the problem in context by avoiding actual numbers and using percentages. E.g. "92% of those in British prisons for terrorist offences affirm themselves to be Muslim" - pointedly not mentioning that this is not 92% of thousands, but 92% of only about 100 people who are in prison for terrorist offences in total, and not mentioning that "terrorist offences" is a very broad term.

It doesn't even put the problem of Islamic terrorism in the UK into any sort of perspective. Muslim terrorists have killed under 60 people in the past 40 years, whereas nationalist terrorists, some of whom Class War supported, have killed many times that number.4 In Europe, 99.6% of terrorist attacks are carried out by non-Muslim groups. And of course if like me you see no qualitative difference between the violence of terrorists and the violence of states, then this needs to be compared with those deaths as well in terms of determining what the biggest issue is - and these numbers do pale in comparison to the 650,000+ deaths in Iraq only up to 20065. Of course, Paul is doing a Ph.D. in British jihadism and so I'm sure spends a huge amount of time researching and thinking about Islamic terrorism so this could mean there is the appearance of attributing it with disproportionate importance.

Of course we should continue to criticise religion and religious intolerance, as well as the state's divisive top-down multiculturalism. On this note I would echo Paul's recommendation of Aufheben's article on the development of the Muslim community in Britain. But that doesn't mean that we should join in with a racist tabloid witchhunt. We should avoid language or behaviour6 which encourages non-Muslim working class people to view Muslims as a problem, and alienates Muslim or Asian working class people, possibly pushing some towards extremists.

And given that the working class is under the biggest concerted attack from employers and states in decades, we should be extremely wary of focusing our attentions on other working class people whom the media are demonising. Especially given the sidelining of political Islam and the escalation of class struggle in the North African/Middle Eastern revolts, we should be organising alongside Muslims and people of all religions in our communities and our workplaces against the savage public sector cuts. We can demonstrate the bankruptcy of the Islamists in opposing austerity here and in the Middle East and show that it is by uniting in our common class interest that we improve our lives and our conditions.