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A new political home

This article is over 18 years, 7 months old
Asad Rehman from the Stop the War Coalition opens a new series in Socialist Worker about where the movement goes from here
Issue 1855

THE ANTI-war movement has to be seen in the context of what we built when we opposed war not just on Iraq but on Afghanistan. The strength of our movement was its breadth and its depth. The core of the movement has been increasing in size and in depth of knowledge.

We weren’t just turning people out for demos – we built a real movement. The anti-war movement is not just a tactical alliance over one issue. Rather, it is the politicisation of a whole new generation, both young and old. There is a rising awareness of issues around imperialism, the Project for the New American Century, and oil. This is not just in one section of the population, but among a really wide layer of society.

So even if there is a dip in the level of activity, the movement is still larger than most movements are at their height. People saw that in the beginning the anti-globalisation movement had a big impact on the anti-war movement. Now I think it is the other way around. The anti-war movement is feeding back into the anti-globalisation movement.

You saw that in the protests at the G8 summit in Evian. Ordinary people showed a real affinity with the anti-war aspect of the march, with the anti-war slogans, chants and banners.

I saw the same thing at the European Social Forum in Florence and at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. The local papers in Porto Alegre reported that the contingents that got the biggest applause were the Palestinian and anti-war groups.

You can go into any cafe or ride in a cab and people talk about how the war was about imperialism. What used to be the language of the left is now the language of many, many people.

The involvement of the black and Muslim community at all levels of the anti-war movement was fantastically important. This alliance gives us the opportunity to think strategically about other issues like welfare and poverty, and the disillusionment with New Labour over the war and over domestic issues.

Are we able to articulate the concerns of this layer of society, the concerns of people who are looking for a new political home, who are worried about privatisation, neo-liberal politics and so on? Political ideas which once would have been seen as abstract are now the way people describe their personal experiences. This is something we haven’t seen for 20 or 30 years.

There are three groups we need to draw together – the Muslim community, the social movement and the trade unions. These could form into an electoral force to offer an alternative to the politics of despair in places like Burnley and Oldham. We can be in the process of refounding the Labour Party. Would that mean being inside Labour or outside Labour? Would that involve being a social movement or forming a political party? All these questions are fluid and up for discussion. The mainstream parties are all in decline. They have shrinking numbers of activists. Many have resigned from Labour, but there is a danger they will just drift.

We want to create a space and a political home for them. We have to recognise that we have even greater opportunities than came after the anti Vietnam War movement. People have a real sense of responsibility. No one wants to make mistakes and let this opportunity slip. I was in the Labour Party for years. I joined when I was 14 and left when they dumped Clause Four.

This morning I heard an announcement about the health service. I am still amazed at how right wing New Labour are. They do things the Tories daren’t do. More and more people are so disillusioned with Labour, on international and domestic issues.

People in the anti-war movement say we came close to bringing Blair down. Well, we still might do it. Blair relies on people trusting him, but they don’t any more. It does remind me of Margaret Thatcher. We thought she was invincible, but when she became a liability it was only a matter of time till she was dumped.

The question is, what do we replace Blair with? Another New Labour clone? I can’t see people flocking back to Labour unless there are massive changes. If there is a viable alternative, people will come around it. This is our job. We don’t just want a movement of the left. We don’t need another revolutionary party. There is the Socialist Workers Party already. We need an old Labour party with revolutionaries in it, like the Scottish Socialist Party.

They went from one MSP to six because people want to punish Blair by going for a viable political alternative. If they can do it in Scotland, we can do it here. We need a democratic, socialist party like Rifondazione in Italy. Rifondazione involves trade unions, community groups and the anti-globalisation movement. It is an inclusive organisation that has had a huge impact on politics in Italy. A dynamic space is opening up.

There are groups like Muslims for Justice and Peace and the Newham Public Affairs Campaign that mobilise for demos but also involve people in wider political campaigns, lobbying MPs, challenging Islamophobia and so on. There is a deeper political maturity in the Muslim community than ever before. On the demos, there were lots of young Muslim women acting as stewards and helping to organise things – who would have thought that would be possible a few years ago?

It is something that those of us who occupy both spaces, the Muslim and the left, could only dream about. The Muslim community is not a single bloc. But it is a community that is disproportionately affected by poor educational opportunities, by high rates of unemployment and so on. There are traditionally two polarities in the community, a situation that goes back a long way.

The mosques and the Muslim infrastructure provided a place of worship and a way the community could gather together. From that came the Muslim youth movements of the 1980s. These second generation Muslims became political over fighting racism and fascism. They took their fight to the Labour Party and to local communities. But we took our eye off the religious institutions. Right wing Islamists were gaining influence in the mosques.

They pushed the idea that the mosques, local councillors and the police could be the advocates for all Muslims and represent them. The anti-war movement was the chance to recapture the mosques. The involvement of young Muslims was a symptom of the alienation people felt, the kind of frustration that exploded in the riots in Burnley and Bradford a couple of years ago.

But the anti-war movement meant that the progressive elements in the community won the battle over engagement with wider society. So the mosques became another centre of organising against the war. The right wing Islamists told people that they were on their own, that the West was at war with Islam.

But young Muslims went on the anti-war demos and found huge numbers alongside them waving Palestinian flags, and said, ‘How can you tell us we are alone?’ And also the fact that the movement was global had a big impact. Pictures of the demos here on Al Jazeera had a big impact in the Middle East. This created space for a new working relationship between what I call political Islam and the secular left to develop.

And this is happening here. The Stop the War Coalition was a great example of how different groups can work together. I was invited to speak to school students at Mulberry Girls School, in Tower Hamlets. The other speaker was Lord Faulkner, from the Home Office. He backed the war, of course, but he spent time talking about the Stop the War Coalition. He had to recognise that the movement had done more to bring different sections of the community together than anything else.

He said he had to give us credit for the fact that he was being asked about imperialism and international relations by 14 year old school girls. Some Muslim organisations say we are marginalised because we don’t have Muslim voices representing us.

The war showed that it wasn’t about being a Muslim, it was about politics. That’s why George Galloway, a Scottish Catholic, is the MP for the Muslim community. Traditionally, Islamic groups said you can’t work with the left. Now people are saying that we occupy similar space and we can work together. Now we have no communication problems. Different groups have worked together and trust each other. And as people are saying this and experimenting, their politics are developing all the time.

Asad is speaking at the Marxism 2003 event in London. He joins a platform on ‘Racism and fascism today’ – Saturday 5 July at 11.45am

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