The coalition government has unveiled new laws that target Muslims, while across Europe there is growing Islamophobia. But our movement can resist this onslaught, argues Hassan Mahamdallie.
The demonisation and securitisation of Britain’s Muslims are accelerating at a bewildering pace. What prime minister David Cameron meant in his speech in Munich in February 2011 by his call to flex “muscular liberalism” in response to the so-called “war on terror” is becoming clearer by the day. As is the grotesque myth of “superior” Western liberal ideas and values continually vaunted by politicians in Europe and on both sides of the Atlantic.
We are experiencing not so much as an erosion of human rights as the dumping of them wholesale into a dark, stinking pit of barbarism. The release of the US Senate report into the CIA torture programme enacted in the wake of 9/11 makes shocking reading, even for those familiar with the violent history of the US intelligence services.
Yet the narrative around the unending “war on terror” and “Islamic fundamentalism” continues to focus more and more on the “problem” of Muslim populations in the West. Governments, including the British, increasingly see them as a reservoir of terrorists and potential terrorists. The discredited “conveyor belt” theory that supposedly links an individual’s “anti-social” attitudes and behaviours in an inexorable chain that ends with terrorist attacks now runs through the state apparatus.
The space for dissent is being closed down. A common refrain nowadays among Muslims in this country hearing criticisms of British foreign policy is to whisper, “You wouldn’t get away with saying that out loud.” This has profound implications for all our freedoms. The latest intensification of controls has been triggered by government and security services in response to the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, renewed British military intervention in Iraq and the ramping up in the public’s mind of the threat of Islamic State (IS, also known as Isis and Isil) and British Muslims fighting in its ranks.
Like the previous Labour government, the Tory-LibDem coalition refuses to acknowledge the direct and incontrovertible link between the conflicts it is engaged in and the growth of organisations such as Islamic State and potential threats at home. Yet all credible studies show that Islamic State grew directly out of resentment among Iraqi Sunnis at the post-invasion regime put in place by the US and the abuse of thousands of Iraqis incarcerated without trial in hell holes such as the Abu Ghraib torture facility.
Instead it has turned the blame onto Muslim communities wholesale, thereby stoking racism and encouraging the rise of the right wing populist Ukip as well as the far-right outfits such as the English Defence League (EDL). Powerful sections of the media have eagerly pushed this agenda — launching witch-hunts and continually amplifying demands that Muslims prove their allegiance to the British state and its “values”.
Tory home secretary Theresa May’s new legislation, attacked from the right by her Labour shadow Yvette Cooper as too soft, enshrines in law restrictions and punishments against people who have not been found guilty of any crimes.
The Labour Party is to the right of the government — unsurprising given that it harbours war criminals such as Tony Blair in its ranks. There is no one in parliament apart from a few left MPs opposing this march towards authoritarianism. May justified the draconian powers with a speech that painted the picture of an Islamist miasma that could strike at any time and any place. Using apocalyptic language, she said: “We are engaged in a struggle that is fought on many fronts and in many forms. It is a struggle that will go on for many years. And the threat we face right now is perhaps greater than it ever has been. We must have the powers we need to defend ourselves.”
The government is engaged in a game of smoke and mirrors, asserting that the secret services have foiled this and that plot, but withholding the evidence so that we are unable to judge for ourselves the real extent of the threat. Under new powers, the widely discredited government Prevent Strategy — that the government claims “aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism” — will now become compulsory, forcing public bodies including universities to monitor meetings and ban speakers deemed by the police or the MI5, Britain’s secret police, as “extremist”, or face court orders forcing them to comply.
A hint of what is to come surfaced when Lucy Clayton, president of Lancaster University students union, was investigated by police who had come on campus during freshers’ week on suspicion she had committed a public order offence because of two posters in her office window — one against shale extraction and the other in support of the Palestinians. Other powers mean police will be able to seize passports and air tickets of those they believe to be leaving the country to engage in “terrorism-related” activities.
The authorities will also be able to render UK citizens stateless by preventing those they suspect from returning to this country, force internet companies to comply with surveillance demands and make it illegal for insurance companies to provide cover to pay ransoms. The government has already been stripping people of their citizenship under existing immigration rules. In December it came to light that a Newcastle born man and his three sons had their nationality taken away from them in 2012. He admitted his daughter had travelled to Syria, but he and his sons, one of whom is disabled, had nothing to do with it.
May is also strengthening the TPIMS (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures) to force suspects to be “relocated to different parts of the country” — in other words, an internal exile.
This is despite the Kafkaesque titled “Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation” pointing out that TPIMS “remain controversial because they are imposed on unconvicted persons (including some who have been acquitted by a jury), because their restrictions are highly intrusive and because, in order to defend them in court, the government relies upon material that is not disclosed to the subject”.
The “independent reviewer’s” latest report, published in March 2014, reported that there was not one person considered dangerous enough to be under a TPIMS order at that time, despite their wide-ranging and arbitrary nature — completely undermining the government’s argument for strengthening the powers just six months later. When two men under TPIMS absconded in 2012 and 2013 the home secretary admitted that they posed no threat to the public, again undermining the stated purpose of the controls.
The persecution of Moazzam Begg, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee, demonstrates how the government and security services are targeting high-profile individuals within the Muslim community.
Begg was arrested in February 2014 on suspicion of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas. He spent the next eight months in the high security wing at Belmarsh prison, and then five days before his trial was due to start all the charges were dropped.
The leadership of particular communities is also being targeted, with government agencies co-opted for the purpose. The use of Ofsted is a particularly blatant example, shifting from inspecting the education system to failing Muslim and Muslim majority schools on the basis they are not doing enough to prevent “extremist” ideas. After effectively disbanding a group of powerful and successful Muslim educators in Birmingham via the Trojan Horse affair, Ofsted shifted its focus to the London borough of Tower Hamlets, failing a number of schools, some Islamic, two of them connected to the East London Mosque.
At the same time the government stepped in to take over the administration of Tower Hamlets council with Tory minister Eric Pickles justifying this by deploying a monstrous slur that: “The abuse of taxpayers’ money reflects a partisan approach to politics that seeks to spread favours and sow divisions. Such behaviour is to the detriment of integration and community cohesion in Tower Hamlets and in our capital city. This is a borough where there have been widespread allegations of extremism. Homophobia and anti-Semitism has been allowed to fester without proper challenge.”
Why Tower Hamlets? One reason is that its independent mayor Lutfur Rahman had refused to implement the government’s Prevent programme to their liking, particularly the “Channel” strand aimed at identifying and “treating” individuals thought to be harbouring “extremist” thoughts (see box overleaf). (Tower Hamlets, along with a growing list of other areas with Muslim populations, is on the Prevent high priority list).
Instead Tower Hamlets decided to concentrate on projects promoting “community cohesion” — bridges between different groups — and chaired its own version of Channel that excluded the anti-terror squad SO15 in favour of a partnership with local police. The government has also long resented the fact that the East London Mosque is so central to the local community — with its anti-terror advisers regarding it wrongly as an Islamist stronghold.
And so Tower Hamlets was duly forced into compliance, along with schools connected with it and the East London Mosque, and local democracy and the fabric of the community undermined in the process. Although the government rhetoric around extremism is supposed to encompass the far-right as well as Islamic fundamentalism, it is clear who is bearing the brunt of the state clampdown. The judicial system certainly knows where the emphasis lies.
Take the double standards around the case of British soldier and EDL supporter Ryan McGee who was jailed last month for two years for making nail bombs. His intention was clearly terrorism, and suicidal. In his diary McGee vowed “to drag every last immigrant into the fires of hell with me”. He had downloaded a video of two men beneath a swastika flag, one being beheaded, and the other shot in the head.
Yet he was charged not under new terror laws but the old Explosives Substances Act. McGee was described in court not as a terrorist but as an “immature teenager”. Compare McGee’s treatment with Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Nahin Ahmed from Birmingham who were each sentenced to 13 years in prison for travelling to Syria to “do jihad”. The judge branded the 22 year olds as “deeply committed to violent extremism” There was no evidence (unlike McGee) they intended to carry out attacks in Britain.
Although the term “Islamophobia” is widely used to describe the phenomenon of hatred and discrimination against Muslims, we should regard it like other racisms as having historic roots, and a particular role to play in modern capitalist societies.
This is true in the west, whose governments are failing to deliver the needs of their working classes, whilst engaging in military interventions in regions they see as strategic. Muslims in the West are being used as scapegoats for a situation not of their making, and simultaneously being divided from the rest of the population, cast as alien, dangerous and thereby set apart from those with whom they have most in common.
There is no serious element inside mainstream politics to reflect the widespread anti-war or anti-racist sentiment in Britain. The only counter-currents have been principled and unconditional grassroots mobilisations in solidarity with Muslim communities, such as the alliance pulled together by the Stop the War Coalition to stop the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the hard slog by Unite Against Fascism to grind down the EDL, and recently the huge protests that erupted to oppose Israel’s war on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Key local initiatives include the vibrant campaign around the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham; the work of activists to repulse the racialisation of child abuse “grooming” cases in towns such as Rotherham; and the defence of Tower Hamlets council and schools. This is a vital bulwark against Islamophobia, not only in demonstrating that Muslims can count on the support of others, but in radicalising a new generation of activists, Muslim and non-Muslim, who can feel that they can move from the defensive to the offensive, and by doing so making themselves active in changing the world around them for the better.
The role of the trade unions and workplace campaigns against Islamophobia is vital, because the vast majority of Muslims are an integral part of the working class, and have common interests in fighting alongside their fellow workers against austerity, against the dismemberment of the NHS and the welfare state, as well as other key issues facing us all.
Understandably some of the initiatives from Muslim organisations have been defensive in character, seeking to project the image of the “good Muslim”, against the dominating image of the “bad Muslim”, but in doing so some have been dragged into ceding too much ground to those they are arguing against. This can be seen in various symbolic campaigns to prove that Britain’s Muslims can be patriotic too, recently in relation to the First World War commemorations.
Of course, many Muslims do feel patriotic, or identify strongly with being British, which is perfectly legitimate. One could, however, argue that buying into the rehabilitation of a past imperialist war is not the best way to combat the effects of present-day imperialist adventures.
But there are bigger issues at stake, which means breaking out of the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim framework and championing the right of Muslims to practise their religion and to express themselves culturally and politically freely and without fear, to organise against war and injustice without suffering the fate of activists such as Moazzam Begg and to defend their communities and leadership without being labelled as “fundamentalist” conspirators.
It is natural that Britain’s Muslims should reach out for allies in this struggle. The responsibility falls on the wider movement against racism and imperialism, on trade unionists and socialists to actively demonstrate, without pre-conditions, that it will consistently unite with Muslims under attack. Only then can we begin to roll back the state repression and the bigotry and discrimination that are in danger of being embedded in British society.
Rising levels of racism in Europe
A Pew Research Centre poll taken in the spring of 2014 found that, across the European Union, “negative feelings” towards Muslims are running at 46 percent, with the figure for the UK being 26 percent.
The poll further showed that, of those polled in the UK who registered negative feelings, 19 percent said that they considered themselves on the left, 26 percent “moderate”, and 34 percent on the right.
The British Social Attitudes Survey found that racism in Britain has risen in the past decade, reversing a long-time downward trend that started in the late 1980s. Professor Tariq Modood of Bristol University said the findings suggested many people were conflating anti-Muslim sentiment with racial hostility and ill feeling: “I don’t think there is any doubt that hostility to Muslims and suspicion of Muslims has increased since 9/11, and that is having a knock-on effect on race and levels of racial prejudice.”
Government channel to persecution
Part of the apparatus around the Preventing Violent Extremism programme (PVE), introduced by New Labour and extended by the coalition government, is a strand of activity called “Channel”.
Its purpose is to identify at an early stage those who state agencies regard as “vulnerable” to “being drawn into terrorism”. Note the social work language at use. Indeed, it is bodies such as social services, schools and health agencies that are tasked to come together in “multi-agency partnerships” overseen by the police to spot and then “treat” individuals (particularly young people) “at risk”.
Under new laws it will be compulsory for bodies to comply with Channel. Among the “22 indicators” are such things as spending increasing time in the company of other suspected extremists; changing your personal appearance; identifying another group as threatening what they stand for and blaming that group for all social or political ills; using insulting or derogatory names or labels for another group; speaking about the imminence of harm from the other group and the importance of immediate action; having occupational skills that can enable acts of terrorism, such as civil engineering, pharmacology or construction; or having technical expertise such as IT skills, knowledge of chemicals, military training or survival skills.