Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1989

Cartoon protests: uniting against Islamophobia

This article is over 15 years, 11 months old
Joseph Choonara looks at the discussion on how to fight back after thousands of people have protested over the publication of racist cartoons.
Issue 1989
On the demonstration last Saturday (Pic: Guy Smallman)
On the demonstration last Saturday (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The anger following the publication of racist depictions of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper, and their republication across Europe, has continued to find expression in meetings and protests.

And the right wing columnists and politicians have continued to pump out their bile. First Islamophobia, the last “respectable” form of racism, was used in an attempt to scare Muslims into submission. Then, when some dared to protest against the onslaught, Muslims were once more attacked for daring to assert themselves.

Trevor Kavanagh, writing in the Sun on Monday of this week, was typical. “The strident voice of assertive Islam is here to stay,” he wrote. “Flames are being fanned to intimidate the West and its allies in the Muslim world.” He evoked the image of “women walking the streets of Britain wearing Taliban-style burkas”.

Italian government minister Roberto Calderoli, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, wore a T-shirt with the cartoons on them. After an outcry he was forced to resign from the right wing government.

But continued racism has not silenced Muslims, or those on the left who remain determined to defend them.

On Friday of last week, a 300-strong rally in Respect MP George Galloway’s constituency of Bethnal Green & Bow brought together Muslims and non-Muslims opposed to the Islamophobic scapegoating. Other Respect meetings over the last two weeks have met with similar success.

Then last Saturday, for the second weekend in a row, many thousands of protesters packed into London’s Trafalgar Square. They held a rally and then marched to Hyde Park.

The demonstration was organised by the Muslim Action Committee, who estimated the turnout at 40,000.


Once more it shattered the myth of a homogenous “Muslim community” – those who attended came from different areas of Britain, from different immigrant communities and from all walks of life. Many of those who spoke to Socialist Worker challenged the idea that Muslims form a self segregated minority, unwilling to engage in wider society.

Anwar came down to the demonstration from Bradford. He said, “My dad was an immigrant from Pakistan. He came to Bradford to become a mill worker like many others.

“Today I work as a bus driver. I mix with lots of people at work, Muslims and non-Muslims. When I sit with people in the canteen Islam is a big issue. Some of the people I work with are great, some not. I’d say some are pro-Bush and Blair, but many are against them.

“The majority of working class people treat Muslims fine, there’s just a few individuals who are a problem.

“It’s the same among Muslims. There are a few who misbehave, but whenever a Muslim does something wrong it is magnified – we are all being demonised.”

Like many Muslims, Anwar has moved away from Labour in disgust at their pro-war policies and their scapegoating of Muslims. “At the last election I voted Lib Dem because they had the best chance of beating Labour. I would have voted Monster Raving Loony if necessary to get rid of them.”

Bodrul is a student living in east London. His grandparents were immigrants from Bangladesh. When he arrived in Britain, Bodrul’s grandfather joined a trade union and supported Labour. “But now, I think with everything that has happened Muslims will look to other parties, like Respect,” said Bodrul.

Like many of those on the demonstration, he sees the media as key to whipping up racism against Muslims. “I’ve been called a terrorist a couple of times and it hurts when people say that,” he said. “It shows how Muslims are viewed today, and it comes from the war.

“There’s always going to be a struggle over racism. I think we have to integrate different groups more and I mix with lots of non-Muslims at my college.”

Farzana, aged 16, was also at the protest last Saturday. She said, “I’ve been on two of the anti-war marches, not that it stopped them going to war, but I think that it is still very important to stand up and be counted.

“There is an assumption in this country that Islam is a terrorist religion, that it produces terrorists, because of a tiny minority among millions.

“It all boils down to racism. It makes it easier for them to attack places like Iraq, and maybe Iran next, if people think that the religion in these countries produces terrorists.”

Mohammed is a student in Bolton. He travelled to London from Accrington, Lancashire to attend last Saturday’s protest. He described himself as a third generation Muslim immigrant. His grandfather was in the British army during the Second World War, and settled in Britain.

He said, “This is about institutional racism. The atmosphere over the last three years has been tense, but now things have become more difficult.

“We feel it is important to have a debate about the cartoons with non-Muslims, because so many people are influenced by what the media are telling them. The media talk about fundamentalism and extremism, but this insults all Muslims, whether you believe we should be separate or we should integrate.

“My parents faced racism – as many minorities did – but what we are experiencing today is directed at us because we are Muslims. In the past there was never an issue about us having time and facilities to pray, now everything we do is viewed with suspicion.”

The demonstration last Saturday gave expression to some of the anger felt by those who attended. However, there were problems with the way it was organised.

In the run-up to the protest, an organiser from the Muslim Action Committee told Socialist Worker that the central slogan would be a “call for global civility” and that it would be “more religious and less political” than the protest held a week earlier.


That earlier protest was called by organisations including the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), which has worked closely with the Stop the War Coalition and CND to build the mass anti-war demonstrations of the last five years. MAB has reflected the politicisation of many Muslims and their desire to engage with wider forces to make radical political demands.

Last Saturday’s protest, by contrast, featured almost exclusively Muslims speakers on the platform, and was built largely through individual mosques. Stewards told women protesters to assemble in a separate area, and march separately from the men.

They strictly policed the demonstration removing placards that were deemed inappropriate.

Some figures identified with Stop the War and Respect, such as Salma Yaqoob, were allowed to speak, calling for Muslims to join the 18 March Stop the War protest.

But groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is affiliated to the Muslim Action Committee alongside other religious organisations, has opposed the unity between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Those responsible for organising last weekend’s protest reflect one strand of politics among Muslim groups. But these politics are heavily contested. The different options facing Muslims were one of the central themes of the rally hosted by Respect in Bethnal Green & Bow last week.

That meeting was addressed by speakers including Muhammad Ali of the Islam Channel, journalist Yvonne Ridley, Respect councillor Oliur Rahman, George Galloway MP and Respect national secretary John Rees.

Like the Stop the War demonstrations from which Respect was born, the audience was highly political and mixed.

John Rees won applause from the audience when he argued, “Any community under attack, whether you’re talking about black people in the 1970 and 1980s, the miners during their strike in the 1980s or Muslims today, faces a choice.

“There are two wrong responses and one right one. The first wrong response is to bow the knee, to say what those attacking you want you to say in the hope that they will stop attacking you.

“The other wrong response is to say that if this is what society wants to do to us, we will cut ourselves off from that society.

“But neither of these routes offers a way out. It requires a unified response from Muslims and non-Muslims who are willing to fight.”

New Labour has sought to both frighten Muslims into submission and to co-opt selected “Muslim leaders” in recent months. Its strategy reflects its need to justify bloody imperialist attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq by scapegoating Muslims, and its fear that they will lose Muslim voters.

Neither succumbing to this offensive, inviting yet more attacks, nor turning to the kind of isolationist politics of some fringe Islamist groups can defeat the growing tide of racism.

Unity between Muslims and non-Muslims opposed to Islamophobia is the key. But that unity cannot simply be a meeting of moderate figures – of certain carefully selected Muslim “community leaders” with Anglican ministers and New Labour MPs.

A more radical unity is needed to tear the ground away from both those preaching reconciliation with New Labour and from those who claim to be the most radical, but who in fact point towards an isolationist dead end.

The spirit that runs through Stop the War and Respect can draw together politicised Muslims and non-Muslims in a common fight against racism and war.

The Stop the War demonstration on 18 March will continue this fight.

‘We have to raise our voices – we shouldn’t be quiet’

“There’s a lot of things that have changed in Britain. 9/11 was used as an excuse to attack Muslims. The bomb attacks in London on 7 July last year were another excuse.

The media talked about the ricin plot by Muslims, but they never found any. They lied. They talked about a plot to bomb Old Trafford, but they never found anything. It’s all lies.

Muslims marched over the Danish cartoons two weeks ago and there was not one violent incident. It was hardly reported anywhere – no one said why we were there.

They use their propaganda to try to divide us into extremists and moderates. Of course there are a handful of idiots in our community, but whenever anyone does anything they use it to attack us all.

We have allowed ourselves to get forced into a cocoon and in order to get out of it we have to start promoting our religion. Muslims should invite non-Muslims round to their houses. They should celebrate festivals such as Ramadan together.

We have to raise our voices – we shouldn’t be quiet.

I’ve lived in Britain since the 1970s. Back then things were not so bad – we were mainly left alone.

We came here to work and many Muslims have supported the Labour Party. We are important to them because we make up about 3 percent of the British population.

But since New Labour came in they have turned against Muslims, and we have moved away from New Labour.”

Ayub from Bradford

“I came here 22 years ago from Pakistan, along with my husband who is dead now. I used to actively support the Labour Party.

But what Tony Blair is doing is wrong. We need a party that looks after the whole community. No one cares about Muslims. There is more racism against us today – I’ve had people try to tear off my headscarf in the street.

I think we should have more, peaceful protests against what is going on.”

Mrs Ahmed from London

“I think that you have to see the whole cartoons issue in the context of a growing Islamophobia across Europe. They are racist depictions that were meant to offend Muslims.

The racism against Muslims in Europe pre-dates 9/11, although that was a real turning point the way Muslims are treated in Europe.

It has to do with immigration—people who move to a new country get scapegoated. Most recently we have seen the riots in France, a reaction to the fact that Muslims in France, second or third generation, are treated like second class citizens.”

Waheeda from Croydon

“We discussed the cartoons at school, and lots of our friends at first didn’t understanding why would be so angry. They were saying ‘why are you getting upset’, but after we explained that we found the cartoons offensive they were fine.

We can see how by publishing these cartoons the media just want to piss us off. We will be joining the anti-war demonstration on 18 March because it’s important to show that people of all cultures want the troops to come home.”

Hadjia , 17, and friend Fahima , 15, Algerian-born school students from north London

“You have to put the cartoons in context. It’s not just the context of the anti-immigrant and racist policies in Denmark.

It’s what’s happening across the whole world. These people who talk about Western civilisation ignore all the crimes of what Europe did in Africa. And that’s happening today. I’d ask what’s so great about a civilisation that leaves children without food, clean water or access to AIDS drugs.

I’m not particularly religious, so my objection to the cartoons is not mainly based on that. I’m most angry about the way it denigrates the non-Western world as barbaric.

There’s a long history to all this. Africans and Asians are presented as either helpless children or savages. There’s a lot of talk about Muslims taking responsibility. When are the Western governments going to take responsibility for what they are doing in the rest of the world?”

Hassan Ali , 43, came to Britain from Sudan 15 years ago

“I might be young but this is still really important to me. We need people to stand together, to prove that they will not stand by when they are insulted. They talk about freedom – then they harass people if they want to protest, like those people who were arrested for protesting against the war near parliament.

How can they let off BNP leader Nick Griffin? The things he has said are racist and disgusting, but he gets set free. But can you imagine if a Muslim said things like that?”

Sohreb , 12 years old

“I’m a law student at London Metropolitan University, where I’m involved in the Bangla Student Society. I’m from Bangladesh and I’ve been in Britain for two and a half years. At the last election in Tower Hamlets many Muslims supported George Galloway – and New Labour is very angry about that.

Last year students from my college met with Labour councillors. Students and local residents asked what they were doing for young people locally.

The answers were not very positive about what they had done or what they had planned for the future. We were not happy with what they said. Respect has been involved in all the recent protests, so it will attract young people who are angry about racism and about attacks on Iraq and Afganistan.

Only a few people benefit from the war. Some people were involved in expanding their businesses or involved with the government, and they created propaganda against Muslims. But other people, the majority in Britain, are standing alongside us and against Islamophobia.”

Nazmul Chowdhury from east London

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