ON 15 February 2003 I joined a million or more people on the historic demonstration against war. This was an extraordinary experience for all of us. If you want to know what solidarity feels like, think back to that day. If you doubt that “another world is possible”, think back to that day.
That real and deep sense of solidarity was especially important to us as Muslims. We had hoped, but hardly dared to believe, that our fellow citizens could show with such force that they rejected the imperialist war and the racist demonisation that justified it.
It came at the right time—a time when many Muslims felt a deep sense of foreboding. The fear that we were now the visible “enemy within”, isolated and left open to attack, was a real one. Now we were able to take our part, openly and proudly, in a worldwide movement of millions of people.
But what about everyone else in the movement—non-Muslims, socialists or radical activists? While some people were excited by our involvement, seeing it as a sign of the rising strength and breadth of the movement, the obvious culture shock was sometimes amusing to observe.
Traditional left-wing anti-imperialist movements found themselves marching side by side with women wearing the hijab (the headscarf worn by many Muslim women).
Crude conceptions of Muslim women as uniquely “oppressed” or “hidden” sat uneasily with the exuberant and militant leadership many of these women showed. Reality is full of contradictions, and this is one contradiction that many on the left have struggled to understand.
I am participating in the European Social Forum because I want to join with all those “opposed to war, racism and corporate power, everyone who wants to see global justice, workers’ rights and a sustainable society”, as the ESF puts it.
As a Muslim I see this as an expression of my personal faith. And at this ESF we will see something new—the active participation of leading Muslim organisations and individuals.
Developing a dialogue based on mutual respect will be a challenge. The official demonisation of Muslims—racism, in fact—runs deep in our societies. Understanding this is absolutely vital if this is to be a genuine movement for social justice.
Muslims are subjected to campaigns of hatred and distortion for a simple reason. By an accident of geography and history it is predominantly Muslim lands that possess great reserves of oil.
The war on Iraq is fundamentally an attempt by the US to lay hold of these natural resources by force of arms. It is old fashioned imperial conquest now repackaged as a defence of “civilisation” against “global terror”.
In the face of this new colonialism and militarism, millions have understood what imperialism means and have taken a stand against it. Muslim opposition to this new colonialism is overwhelming. History shows that wherever there is oppression there will be resistance. And in the face of unimaginable brutality at the hands of imperialist armies, armed resistance is inevitable.
But Muslim resistance is systematically painted as an “uncivilised” terrorism. We hear little or nothing of the non-violent mass resistance which represents the majority of Muslims.
The incessant chorus which describes us as “barbaric” and “uncivilised” serves a very definite purpose—to legitimise the military conquest of the Middle East. A green light is given to every bigot to spew out their bile against Muslims. And this is seeping into the official, “respectable” discourse of our political establishment.
Earlier this year the right wing Sunday Telegraph newspaper published a series of articles written under the false name “Will Cummins”. The author compared Muslims to dogs and called for “an anti-Islam Conservative Party” that would launch a new crusade against Islam’s “black heart”.
Perhaps these views are exceptional. But a major national newspaper saw fit to print them. And they are indicative of a growing tendency to treat Islam and Muslims as a people to be “tamed” and made fit for life in Western society.
Such prejudiced views and blinkered thinking, unfortunately, are not just confined to the right. Filtered through feminist and socialist phraseology, we hear again and again echoes of the right wing demonisation of us as Muslims.
This tendency is at its most extreme in France, where the bulk of the left, to its shame, has joined in the hysteria about the right of female Muslim students to wear a headscarf. Young women, like me, who wear a headscarf are apparently a threat to the values of the French republic.
Alternatively we are told that we need to be rescued from our own oppression, which we are apparently too backwards to recognise ourselves. The debate about the danger of Islamic fundamentalism dominates French discussion about their own Muslim population.
What is the reality confronting Arabs and Muslims in France? There are at least five million Muslims in France—the largest Muslim population in Europe. But there is not a single Muslim member of the National Assembly and not a single mayor.
Those of Arab origin experience systematic discrimination in housing and employment, and suffer the greatest levels of poverty.
The greatest threat to the “values of the French republic” is racism and exclusion, and not some supposed danger from within its Muslim communities. But let no one think this is a uniquely French problem. Our struggle in Britain mirrors that in France and elsewhere in Europe.
Those on the left who have worked with Muslims have been viciously attacked. The pro-war columnist Nick Cohen, writing in the New Statesman, said that “for the first time since the Enlightenment a section of the left is allied with religious fanaticism…a section of the left has gone soft on fascism.”
Such views assume a monolithic view of Muslims who engage in any political activity—as if the only possible reason Muslims could be politically active is to impose and spread a sinister ideology to unwitting or even complicit left activists.
The notion that there are genuine overlaps in an understanding of the injustice in the world, particularly the nature and impact of imperialism, is not acknowledged.
Pandering to the view that anything associated with Islam is necessarily “extreme” and “reactionary” is dangerous for our movement.
Firstly it is crude and unbalanced. It is ignorant of the rich history and achievements of Muslim culture. It serves to disrupt our unity in the struggle against imperialism and neo-liberalism.
Secondly it sings from the same songsheet as the prevailing imperialist ideological campaign. This campaign is very consciously nurturing fear and insecurity in the general population, and if the left wants to talk to Muslims it has to break free from the ideology of its rulers.
Thirdly it directly hinders the ability of those Muslims who are genuinely progressive to have greater influence within their communities.
There is a wide spectrum of views among Muslims, and visible changes are taking place within our communities. But we are under attack from all directions, and many feel forced into a defensive position.
Instead of engagement and dialogue, we see further isolation and a focus on preserving a (conservative) Muslim identity. Many Muslims are sincere about finding common ground in the fight for justice. These Muslims are often also working hard within their communities to push forward a progressive agenda.
There are real discussions around sensitive issues such as the family, abortion rights or gay rights. These are discussions that generate controversy in every part of society.
But it is a dangerous illusion to think that we will make progress on any issue by blanket contemptuous attacks on an individual’s cherished beliefs.
As I prepare to engage in these debates at the ESF, I reflect that it is the worldwide system of exploitation, war and oppression that is the greatest threat I face as a woman, as a Muslim, as a human being. This is the enemy that I choose to confront.
In doing so I am sustained and heartened by the solidarity and friendship from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Let the ESF act to deepen this solidarity between us, and harness the energy and talents of all those who understand what we have in common.
Salma Yaqoob chairs the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition. She will be speaking at the ESF seminar A joint struggle for justice: Muslims and the left on Sunday 17 October at 9am.