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Socialism Today 95 - October 2005

Under siege: Muslims in Britain

After the horrific bombings in London on 7 July, suspicion and blame was levelled at the whole Muslim community. Racist attacks and police harassment have increased. The government is pushing through increasingly repressive legislation. HANNAH SELL reports.

"IN THE END", declared Tony Blair, terrorism "can only be taken on and defeated by the [Muslim] community itself". This declaration, made two days after the 7/7 London bombings, marked the beginning of a wave of propaganda from the media and capitalist politicians effectively laying the blame for the bombings at the feet of the Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims.

The government responded in this way for several reasons. Firstly, and most immediately, was its desperation to divert attention from the link between the brutal occupation of Iraq and the London bombings. Secondly, not for the first time, New Labour reacted to the racist campaign of the right-wing media by capitulating to it. Finally, New Labour is, of course, proposing a raft of highly draconian repressive legislation, all in the name of ‘fighting terror’. This is easier to implement in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion against Muslims which government propaganda is tacitly encouraging, despite its attempts to promote Muslim spokespeople and superficial talk about anti-racism.

These new laws will not prevent terrorism any more than draconian legislation in the past defeated the Irish Republican Army (IRA). However, they are resulting in the erosion of democratic rights, like the right to organise and demonstrate. The Terrorism Act of 2000 has already been used against anti-war campaigners, including protests at military bases at Fairford and Welford. Blair also threatened to use it to put protesters at the Gleneagles G8 summit under house arrest although, on this occasion, the threat was not acted on.

In the short term, there is no doubt that ethnic minorities, and particularly Muslims, are suffering the worst consequences of increased police repression and the new anti-terror laws. In London, for example, from 2001 to 2002 there was a 41% increase in ‘stop and search’ against Asians by the Metropolitan Police and the figures have rocketed again since 7/7. The police killing of Jean Charles de Menezes means that now for every Muslim in Britain, and every person who the police could conceivably see as Muslim, the fear of being shot on sight has now been added to the fear of future bombings we all suffer, plus the fear of increased racism.

This will inevitably lead to further anger and alienation amongst Muslims who will have little trust that only those actually involved in planning terrorist attacks will be targeted. No wonder that, according to Home Office statistics, only 1% of those arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (the draconian anti-terrorist legislation that was supposed to thwart the IRA), were convicted of any crime. The legislation introduced in the wake of 9/11 has been no different – of the 700 arrested only 17 have been convicted of any offence, and only three have been convicted of offences relating to terrorism. This is despite the post-9/11 legislation lessening the prosecution’s ‘burden of proof’.

In addition to increased state repression, the other obvious consequence of the bombings for Muslims in Britain has been an increase in racism. According to the police, race hate crimes are up 600% from this time last year. At least two people have been murdered in racist attacks. While the increased racism affects all ethnic minorities, it is Muslims who feel particularly targeted.

The pressure being exerted on Muslim communities by these events has brought to the fore tensions that have long existed. Questions about which way forward for Britain’s Muslims are being debated in Muslim communities up and down the land. Two thirds of Muslims have considered leaving Britain, according to a recent Guardian/ICM survey. However, for most this is not a practical option. Two thirds of all Muslims in Britain are under 25, the vast majority of whom have been brought up in Britain. While there is undoubtedly widespread alienation from British society, a place where they are discriminated against both because of their colour and religion, nonetheless, for many Britain is also the only home they know.

Poverty and prejudice

THE QUESTION FACING the majority of Britain’s Muslims is not how to leave the country, but how to live here. The events of the last three months have intensified the discrimination faced by the majority of Muslims, but they did not create it. As a whole Muslims are amongst the poorest in British society. One in seven economically active Muslims are unemployed, compared with one in 20 for the wider population. Higher education does not overcome the obstacles Muslims face. One quarter of Muslim graduates are unemployed at a time when overall official unemployment stands at 4.5%. The two biggest Muslim communities in Britain, those originating in Pakistan and Bangladesh, are particularly impoverished. In 1999, for example, 28% of white families lived below the poverty line compared with 41% of Afro-Caribbean families and 84% of Bangladeshi families.

The history of Muslims in Britain has been one of poverty and discrimination. Historically, however, the discrimination against Muslims in Britain has been only one of the many facets of the racism of capitalist society. In different forms, racism has been an intrinsic part of capitalism since its inception. Over the last decade, and particularly since the horror of 11 September 2001, there is no doubt that anti-Muslim prejudice – Islamaphobia - has risen dramatically. While other forms of racism remain, Muslims face the sharpest manifestation of discrimination in Britain today. The government’s participation in brutal wars of subjugation against Afghanistan and Iraq – both majority Muslim countries – with all the accompanying propaganda denigrating the peoples of those countries, has inevitably further increased Islamaphobia.

The segregation of Muslim communities is also increasing. While many Muslims live in ‘integrated’ areas, this sometimes disguises strong elements of segregation, especially for young people, with some streets being for whites and others for Asians, with abuse and the threat of violence if the borders are crossed. In other areas, particularly in some of the towns of the North West where industry has been destroyed, de facto segregation has gone a long way.

How can increased anti-Muslim prejudice and racism be challenged? How can New Labour’s foreign policy be effectively opposed? It is absolutely clear to the vast majority of Muslims in Britain that the profoundly mistaken terrorism of 7/7 offers no way forward. In 2004, 73% of Muslims in Britain said they opposed further attacks on the US by Al-Qa’ida. In the most recent opinion polls, 86% have said that it is unacceptable to use violence for political ends in all circumstances.

Socialists condemn the London bombings, as we condemned 9/11 and all similar attacks which result in the horrific killing of ordinary people. However, we completely oppose the simplistic argument of Blair and others that the bombers can be explained just by describing them as in the grip of an ‘evil ideology’ which Muslims can simply ‘drive out’ of their communities. Of course, anyone who could carry out such acts will be considered ‘evil’. However, this is the first time suicide bombings have taken place in Europe and, as the police and government accept, it is possible it could happen again. It is inadequate to use ‘evil’ as an explanation for this change.

The factors that have pushed some of the most alienated Muslim youth in Britain to carry out the horrendous London bombings include their own experience of economic deprivation and racism and the suffering of Muslims worldwide. It is estimated that more than 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq, and the estimates of the death toll in Chechnya range from 80,000 to 250,000. One of the men arrested for the 21 July attempted bombing, Hussain Osman, described how he and his cohorts had watched hours of footage of Iraq, including the killing of innocent civilians and grieving widows and children. Videos of this kind, showing the nightmare of Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan, are bound to enrage the many young Muslims who see them. The vast majority do not conclude that the solution is to carry out terrorist acts in Britain, but they do feel anger that the government grieves the dead in London while continuing to take part in the killing in Iraq.

Imperialist hypocrisy

IN REALITY, BUSH’S regime went into Iraq partly to recover its prestige in the wake of 9/11 by flexing its military might, but also to follow the dream of cheap oil for US imperialism. For millions of Muslims worldwide, however, Iraq, along with the plight of Palestinians and the devastation being wreaked in Chechnya, is understandably perceived as a war on their religion.

This perception can only be added to by the discussion on Islam in the media since 7/7. Blair and others have talked about mobilising the ‘true and moderate face of Islam’, and commentators, including Salman Rushdie, have suggested that these strands are currently weak because Islam never went through a ‘reformation’. The processes that Rushdie and others are referring to actually took place in Europe long after the struggles of the ‘reformation’: it was with the enlightenment that science, law and philosophy were able to develop independently of the church.

However, Martin Luther’s ‘reformation’ was part of a process that eventually led to the bourgeois democratic revolution – the overthrow of reactionary feudalism and the development of capitalism – and the enlightenment was an intrinsic part of that revolutionary process. While this was an enormously progressive development historically, capitalism today has long since ceased to play a progressive role. On huge swathes of the planet the national bourgeoisies, cowering before the imperialism of the major capitalist powers and terrified of the working class and poor masses of their own countries, have proved incapable of carrying out the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution. This is a task, as Leon Trotsky first explained in his theory of permanent revolution a century ago, which now falls on the shoulders of the working class, with the support of the poor peasantry, as part of the struggle for socialism.

While there is a sliver of truth in that Islam never had an equivalent of the ‘reformation’, this fact alone gives an entirely erroneous impression. Islam was never a centralised religion in the way that pre-reformation Christianity was. The Catholic Church, stemming from its adoption as the religion of the Roman empire, became a key pillar of feudalism. Islam, by contrast, played a much more varied role and was frequently far more liberal than the Christianity that existed in the same era, particularly when it came to giving rights to the followers of other religions.

More importantly, far from being, as Rushdie suggests, a force that can assist with an ‘Islamic reformation’, imperialism has always been prepared to lean on the most reactionary feudal forces, particularly in the neo-colonial world. For example, British imperialism, when it was consolidating its colonial rule of India, murdered or deported the key representatives of Sufism (a much more socially ‘liberal’ strand of Islam which had led movements of the poor masses against feudal lords) and ensured they were replaced with more ‘conservative’ elements who were prepared to play an active role in supporting colonial rule.

Today, rhetoric against ‘Islamic extremism’ plays an important role in the propaganda of US and British imperialism. However, it belies reality. Just as in the past, it is simply not true that imperialism opposes conservative and reactionary strands of Islam. On the contrary, US imperialism has a long history of working with the deeply conservative Wahhabi Saudi regime.

Al Qa’ida’s roots lie in US imperialism’s funding of right-wing Islamic organisations as a bulwark against Stalinism, particularly during the Afghan war. It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two of the main countries in which Al Qa’ida has a base, were used by US imperialism for the building of a 50,000-strong mercenary army to force the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. Madrasas (the Islamic schools now being implicated by the press in the London bombings) were set up across Pakistan as part of imperialism’s drive to provide Islamic ‘cannon fodder’ for its proxy war in Afghanistan. Having defeated the collapsing Soviet Union, however, the jihadis turned their attention to driving out Western imperialism. It is as a result of these processes that Al Qa’ida developed. Equally in Iraq, the US and British-backed constitution enshrines many aspects of Islamic law.

Community ‘leaders’

JUST AS THE criteria of the imperialist powers internationally for their cooperation with Islamic forces has nothing to do with the latter’s ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ outlook, but only their usefulness in furthering the interests of imperialism, the same is true of Blair’s attitude to Islamic figures in Britain.

When it was elected in 1997, the New Labour government moved to complete the setting up of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), a process which the previous Tory government had begun. The ruling class was, and is, worried about the potential instability that could be created by the alienation of many Muslims from British society, and this was a conscious attempt to develop ‘spokespeople’ for the Muslim community who, it was hoped, would act to cut across alienation and build support for the government amongst Muslims. Other measures were also taken, including four Muslims being given seats in the House of Lords.

After 2001, with the riots that took place in the North West of England and 9/11, increasing the social stability of the Muslim community via the MCB and other figures became even more important for the government, and for the ruling class as a whole. The MCB has loyally played its part by, for example, virtually calling for a Labour vote in the most recent general election. At a time when Muslims were breaking with Labour en-masse, Inayat Bunglawala, MCB spokesman, explained that Muslims were angry over the Iraq war but went on to say: "If we take a policy-by-policy look, it appears the Labour party are offering more". Others, such as Lord Ahmed, have been anxious to praise the British establishment’s attitude to Muslims, declaring that it is "more welcoming to Islam than any other country in Europe".

It is this willingness to praise New Labour and the British ruling class that has led to the elevation of these individuals, rather than them representing either ‘moderate’ strands of Islam, or having a real base in Muslim communities. The MCB certainly does not represent the ‘moderate’ strands of Islam that Blair claims he wishes to promote. On the contrary, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, head of the MCB, and recently knighted by New Labour, has links to Jamaat-i-Islami, a Pakistani party based on a highly reactionary type of political Islam. In April 2001 he stated that Osama bin Laden was a ‘holy warrior’. However, because he is prepared to act as a spokesperson for New Labour within Britain’s Muslim communities, it is quite prepared to turn a blind eye to his ideas. Whilst the government’s proposed laws on ‘glorifying terrorism’ would certainly leave Sacranie open to prosecution, it is most unlikely he will be charged!

Nor are the government’s chosen spokespeople particularly representative of Britain’s Muslims. As Muslim Labour peeress Lady Uddin admitted, loyalty to her party and credibility among ordinary Muslims are becoming ever harder to combine. In contrast to Lady Uddin, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) has felt the need to keep its distance from the government and to protest at its attempts to blame Muslims for 7/7. Osama Saeed, a spokesperson for MAB, explained in The Guardian: "I’ve found it strange that many Muslim leaders have offered to look deep within our community now. It’s a tacit acceptance of negligence that I simply do not accept. The prime minister has of course welcomed this attitude. Indeed he has led from the front, ratcheting up the rhetoric against Muslims, laying the responsibility solely on us".

MAB played a significant role in the anti-war movement and has taken a different electoral approach to the MCB’s implied support for Labour in recent elections. MAB called, for example, for a vote for George Galloway of Respect in Bethnal Green and Bow, East London, as well as for some other Respect candidates in the general election. However, it did not support Respect in every seat where they stood – and it also supported a number of Liberal Democrat, Scottish National Party, and New Labour candidates. Its criteria were based on the attitude that those candidates took on Iraq, Palestine, religious hatred legislation, and attacks on civil liberties. What was not taken into account was the attitude of the candidates on any other issues. To give one example, Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate MAB supported in Tooting, South London, had been responsible for the privatisation of council housing on Wandsworth council. And particularly where the candidate was a Muslim, their record was not always flawless even on the basis of MAB’s limited criteria. Mohammed Sarwar, Labour candidate for Glasgow Govan, for example, while he voted against the invasion of Iraq before the war started, has since voted with the government on almost all votes relating to Iraq.

A Muslim bloc?

MAB BELIEVES IT is possible for Muslims to further their interests in Britain by voting as a bloc for different parties on a tactical basis. It explains this quite explicitly, hailing, for example, the June 2004 European elections as being "probably the first time ever that a Muslim voting bloc has been successfully mobilised on the national level". Of course, Britain’s Muslims are not a homogenous bloc. It is estimated that they come from 56 different ethnic backgrounds and speak almost 100 different languages. In addition, they come from different class backgrounds. For example, while the majority of Muslims are amongst the poorest in British society, there are 5,400 Muslim millionaires in Britain - most of whom made their fortunes exploiting other Muslims.

It is inevitable that different sections of Muslims will look at ways to band together in the face of increased Islamaphobia. However, even if a ‘Muslim bloc’ could be achieved, it would not be able to win economic and social equality for Britain’s Muslims. Muslims make up 2.8% of the population in Britain. Even acting as one cohesive group there is clearly a limit to the power they could wield. More importantly, no amount of pressure will result in British capitalism lifting the mass of Britain’s Muslim population permanently and fully out of poverty. Capitalism is a system based on the drive for profit of the big corporations; profit which, in the final analysis, arises from the exploitation of the working class and poor masses. Worldwide in the course of the last 15 years capitalism has attempted to restore its profits by driving down the living conditions of working people. Britain has been at the forefront of this process. According to the Institute of Public Policy Research, the richest 10% in Britain now own 54% of national wealth, up from 47% under the last Tory government. Those at the very top, the richest 1%, have seen their share of wealth rise even faster, from 17% to 23% over roughly the same period. For comparison, the bottom 50% now own only 7% of Britain’s resources. The poorest sections of the working class, which include the majority of Britain’s Muslims, have borne the brunt of this process.

Britain’s ruling class is undeniably anxious about the potential for social instability that an alienated and overwhelming poor Muslim population creates. It is attempting therefore to develop a layer of Muslim community ‘leaders’, including the MCB and the handful of Muslim MPs who, they hope, will act as a stabilising force. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that these measures will take the mass of Muslims one single step forward. The policy is very similar to the attempts to develop a black middle class via the race-relations industry, after the inner-city riots in the early 1980s. This did nothing to lift working-class blacks out of poverty. It was a copy, ‘on the cheap’, of the attempts of the US, the richest capitalist class on the planet, to develop a black middle class. The US succeeded in this to a far greater degree than in Britain. Black politicians, media commentators and celebrities are now commonplace in the US. However, as New Orleans has so graphically displayed to the world, dire poverty remains the reality for the mass of blacks in the US.

According to the UN, if current trends were completely reversed in Britain from now until 2010, so that the incomes of the poor rose by 3.7% while those of the rich rose by 0.4%, child poverty would only be cut from 23% to 17%. Such a mild measure would not come close to lifting Muslims out of poverty. But no amount of pressure from a ‘Muslim bloc’, unless it is linked to the wider struggles of the working class, will force British capitalism, or the politicians who act in its interests, to carry it out.

The false idea of a ‘Muslim bloc’ is also adopted by the leadership of Respect, particularly the Socialist Workers’ Party and George Galloway MP. In the general election, Respect received some very good votes, but these were exclusively in areas with large Muslim populations. The Socialist Party called for a vote for Respect – a party that demands bringing the privatised utilities back into public ownership, an £8 an hour minimum wage, and ending the occupation of Iraq. However, if Respect continues to develop so that it is seen largely as ‘a Muslim party’ which does not address the needs of other sections of the working class – as, unfortunately, has been the case up until now – it could push other sections of the working class away and reinforce racist ideas, whilst simultaneously strengthening the incorrect idea of ‘Muslim bloc’ politics.

Class unity in action

THE ONLY EFFECTIVE way for Muslims to fight to improve their conditions is to find common cause with other sections of the working class. This was instinctively understood by Muslims in the past, when they supported the Labour Party. At that time, while Labour had a capitalist leadership, nonetheless, it had a working-class base and was rightly seen as "less racist in both attitude and practise than other parties". Of course, finding common cause with the working class does not mean accepting any racist or Islamaphobic ideas which exist. In the 1970s and again in the early 1990s, socialists and trade unionists were involved in assisting Muslim communities in East London, for example, to organise community self-defence against racist attacks. Such measures may well be necessary in the coming period. As socialists we are fighting for organisations of the working class, particularly the trade unions, to actively take up the issues of racism, the right to practise religion free of discrimination, and to oppose state repression that particularly affect Muslims. For example, in the aftermath of the bombings, members of the Socialist Party and others on the left argued for the TUC to call a national demonstration under the slogans ‘no to terror, no to war, no to racism’.

Opposing state repression includes campaigning against the attempts of the government to ban organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, just as we have opposed the attempts of the National Union of Students to ban them from campuses. We do not agree with Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ideas but it is through debates, not government bans, that they will be answered. Where individuals are involved in planning or carrying out terrorist attacks, the government already has more than enough legislation to prosecute them. The attempt to ban these organisations, however, will only increase the alienation of young Muslims. While the reactionary political Islamic ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir have very limited support amongst young Muslims now, the government’s policy could lead to them gaining ground. In addition, no one should be under any illusions that government legislation will not be used against socialists in the future. Blair has already disgustingly slandered the predecessor of the Socialist Party, the Militant Tendency, by comparing us to the 7/7 bombers, regardless of the fact that we have always condemned terrorism.

The anti-war movement showed the potential for a united movement between working-class Muslims and other sections of the population. While it did not succeed in preventing New Labour going to war, which would have taken mass industrial action, it nonetheless profoundly weakened the government. Mobilisations against the occupation of Iraq, particularly by the working class in the US and Britain, remain vital to forcing the withdrawal of the troops. However, the anti-war movement alone is not enough. Muslims and other sections of the working class also have an interest in fighting side-by-side against privatisation and cuts in public services here in Britain. We also need a united movement for free education and against low pay.

Ethnic minorities, generally amongst the most oppressed sections of the working class, have always played a role greater than their numbers in the British labour movement. And it is united working-class action that has played the key role in cutting across racism in Britain in the past. In the 1950s, for example, it was the railway workers’ union which played the leading role in getting rid of the colour bar in many London pubs. In the 1970s, trade unions were instrumental in the battle to defeat the far-right, racist National Front.

In the coming period, despite the attempts of the pro-Labour trade union leaders to hold back struggle, we will see an increase in the scale of struggle against the attacks of New Labour and big business. This will tend to increase the unity of the working class. However, the undoubted increase in racism and tension between different communities since 7/7 is a worrying trend in the other direction. Future 7/7 style attacks could dramatically worsen the situation. It is entirely understandable that some sections of Muslims, facing increased oppression, may tend to turn inwards. That, however, does not offer a way forward. Socialists must fight for the maximum workers’ unity and to win a new generation of Muslims to socialist ideas.

Liberation for Muslims worldwide will only be achieved on the basis of a struggle for socialism. Capitalism has created enormous advances in science, technique and wealth. The world economy today is 17 times the size it was a century ago. Despite this, all the technology developed by capitalism has not provided clean water for 1.2 billion people or food for the 841 million who are seriously malnourished. Last year, $1 trillion was spent on armaments worldwide, dwarfing the paltry sums spent on aid. In the 22 Arab countries, growth in income per head has been lower than anywhere else in the world except Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN. Despite the enormous natural resources of the Middle East, one in five Arabs live on less than $2 a day.

Capitalism is capable of spending billions on developing weaponry that is used to bomb the poor of Afghanistan and Iraq into the rubble, but it cannot solve poverty, hunger or disease. It is a system incapable of fully harnessing the science and technology it has brought into being. It is incapable of providing for the needs of humanity or of protecting our fragile planet.

By contrast, a socialist society would be able to harness the enormous potential of human talent and technique in order to build a society and economy which could meet the needs of all. By bringing the vast companies that dominate our planet into democratic public ownership it would be possible to begin to build a society, based on a democratic world plan of production and development, that would genuinely meet the needs of the billions not the billionaires.

Worldwide, understanding of the ideas of socialism, and the role of the working class, was pushed back in the course of the 1990s under an avalanche of anti-socialist propaganda from world capitalism, which falsely equated the Soviet Union with genuine socialism. However, the experience of capitalism is leading a new generation to enter struggle and to begin to move in a socialist direction. In the last two years in a series of countries, including Nigeria, Bolivia and Italy, general strikes have brought society to a halt, while in Pakistan we have seen the heroic struggle of the Telecom workers against privatisation. It is struggles such as these which show the potential for the working class to change society, if armed with a clear socialist programme.


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