Over 650 delegates from across the country gathered in central London last Saturday for the People’s Assembly on Islamophobia and the “war on terror”, called by the Stop the War Coalition.
The assembly heard a broad range of people speak out against the recent drive by senior ministers and sections of the media to demonise British Muslims as an “enemy within”.
“The attacks on Muslims are war propaganda,” said Lindsey German, national convenor of Stop the War. “The government has lost the argument over the war and its last refuge is to try to develop a scapegoat. We need to fight back together.”
Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg recalled the racism he faced as a teenager growing up in Birmingham. “It’s happening again,” he said. “This whole idea of Islam as diametrically opposed to the Western way of life – it’s relentless.”
Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru MP leading parliamentary efforts to impeach Tony Blair for his role in taking the country to war, spoke of the disastrous history of Western intervention in the Middle East.
He attacked the government for refusing to condemn the recent atrocity in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, when 19 Palestinians, including women and children, were killed by Israeli shelling.
The assembly passed a statement declaring “solidarity with all the Muslim peoples in Britain facing a hurricane of official and unofficial legal, political and physical attacks in a climate of Islamophobic hysteria”.
Chris Nineham from Stop the War outlined the campaigning priorities following the assembly. “Every Stop the War group in the country needs to take up our statement against Islamophobia,” he said.
“We need to get local people to sign the statement and get it into the local paper. We also need to organise local meetings. And we want to turn up the pressure on MPs – parliament is the only institution in British society that doesn’t register an anti-war majority.”
Students take on Islamophobia
A major theme running through the People’s Assembly was the pressing need to organise university students and staff against government attempts to spy on Muslim students on campus.
Sumiya Hemsi from Dundee university told the assembly about how local Special Branch officers were rolling out a pilot scheme to monitor students coming to Islamic Society events.
“They’re coming round quizzing people about their political views,” said Sumiya. “I feel intimidated and let down by the system. My parents worked so hard here – and now I’m being made to feel like a foreigner in my own country.”
Sumiya talked about how she had organised a public meeting at Dundee university bringing students and academic staff together to oppose the monitoring scheme. “They want to roll this pilot programme out across the country – but we can stop it,” she said.
Paul Mackney, joint general secretary of the UCU lecturers’ union, pledged UCU’s opposition to the scheme. “The department of education and skills has given draft advice to universities and colleges about identifying ‘Islamic extremists’,” he said.
“It is about vetting student societies. It says that Islamic student societies are being inflamed by radical leaders and that this leads to extremism and terrorism.
“But radicalism is not the same as terrorism, and identifying it gives no one the right to contact Special Branch.
“If you’re at university now and you’re not radical, then you aren’t paying attention.”
Noreen Fatima from London Metropolitan University testified as to how the government’s spying plans were designed to weaken support for the anti-war movement, especially among Muslim students.
“We need to help people come forward, and give them the confidence not to be silent in the face of this racism,” she said.
Many student unions organised delegations of Muslim and non-Muslim students to go to the conference, including Plymouth university, Southwark College and Glasgow university.
Sid Howard, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender officer at Birmingham university, said, “Two weeks ago we organised a big rally against war and Islamophobia at the university with George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob.
“Around 350 people came, making it the biggest meeting at the university for several years.
“The majority of people there agreed that it was vital for minority groups to stick together against the bigots.
“That is the only way to beat racism and homophobia.”
Alex Callinicos, professor of European Studies at King’s College London, warned that the government’s surveillance plans amounted to a “new McCarthyism in higher education”.
“This witch hunt is not just a Muslim issue – it’s an issue for everyone who cares about academic freedom,” he said, noting how Zionist organisations in the US have “worked systematically on campus to prevent even the most moderate public debate over Israel”.
“This is an attempt to shut down political debate and discussion – and we have to stand up very strongly against it,” he added.
For the full People’s Assembly Declaration, and for videos of the speeches, go to www.stopwar.org.uk
‘We need a new civil rights movement’
One of the most thought provoking speeches was by the playwright David Edgar.
He spoke of how superficially liberal invocations of “Enlightenment values” were being used as a cover for racism against Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
He noted that 50 years ago saw the birth of a black civil rights movement in the US that drew white student activists to the cause.
“The black campaigners were poor, self educated and steeped in the language and beliefs of the bible,” he said.
“The young people who came to work, live, fight, and in some cases die alongside them were largely students, often Jewish, and in many cases brought up in left wing secular families.
“To be honest, I think the politicisation of religion is a regrettable and increasingly dangerous phenomenon.
“But the reason I am here today is that racism still exists. And while I don’t think that religious discrimination and racial discrimination are the same thing, clearly racial hatred is now being expressed in the vocabulary of religious hatred – and not just by Nick Griffin.”
David Edgar ended by calling for unity between different cultural and religious viewpoints against oppression, and a commitment to equality and fraternity as necessary conditions of liberty.
Edgar’s argument provoked varied reactions from delegates. “I didn’t agree with all the points he made,” said Albert Collymore from west London, a former activist with the Panther UK black liberation movement.
“Some of his remarks on the Black Panthers were off key – and I think he could be more questioning of the role of the white liberal intelligentsia,” he told Socialist Worker.
David Edgar had argued that insisting on black leadership of the civil rights struggle had split the movement, while Albert was sceptical about the willingness of white liberals in the US to back harder and more radical demands for black equality.
“I think the issue of Islamophobia is really about racism, and it’s about class,” Albert added. “Islamophobia is aimed at people in the poorest housing and receiving the poorest education – they are being attacked on the basis of their class.
“There’s a tendency not to look at the class question, to not talk about it. We need a broad church to fight Islamophobia, but also we have to start articulating what’s really going on.”
- Last Sunday more than 200 people attended a vigil in Edinburgh after a 15 year old Sikh boy was attacked on the previous Tuesday.
He was set on by four youths who abused him, attacked him and then cut off his hair.
The vigil was organised by the Sikh Human Rights Group and the British Organisation of Sikh Students.
The local Sikh community, socialists and anti-racists from across the city supported the vigil.
- Syed Sorafot Ali died after a racist arson attack on his daughter’s home in Sunderland last Friday.
After rushing to her home the 76 year old grandfather collapsed and died.
The family escaped the fire, which is the latest in a string of racist attacks in the area.
- A mosque in Cardiff was set on fire in the early hours of Tuesday morning of last week. Police say the blaze was started in two places.