Tuesday, 3 April 2012

British Muslims, the anti-war movement and the Left - a response to Mehdi Hasan

This is a response to Mehdi Hasan's article 'British Muslims must step outside this anti-war comfort zone'.

I was surprised and dismayed when I read the latest article by Mehdi Hasan, political editor of the New Statesman. He is someone I respect and very often agree with. But his article for the Guardian struck me as severely mis-judged.

Hasan makes a number of propositions. I will run through them and indicate where in his article you will find them (this may seem fussy, but at least nobody can complain I'm not substantiating my summary of his views).

First, he argues that claims that 'it was the Muslims wot won it' for George Galloway are in fact correct (1st paragraph). Second, he echoes the right-wing preoccupation with religion (specifically Islam) in understanding the Bradford West result - at the expense of political considerations like poverty, inequality, war and austerity (second, third and fourth paragraphs).

Third, he argues that Muslims have been preoccupied with war and need to focus more on domestic issues, notably austerity, which they have allegedly failed to mobilise around (fifth, sixth and seventh paragraphs). Fourth, he suggests that an anti-austerity agenda was not (contrary to Galloway's own claims) an important factor in Respect's win (eighth paragraph).

Fifth, he argues that Muslims' apparent preoccupation with foreign policy gives racists a propaganda boost. He seems to be saying here that Muslims are partly responsible for fuelling Islamophobia. This is a deeply contentious claim - one I hope he retracts (tenth and eleventh paragraphs).

Sixth, and finally, he seems to imply that being taken seriously as more than just anti-war requires a rejection of Respect. Considering Hasan's own political allegiance, he seems to be suggesting that Muslims should get involved in Labour because it works across the political board, whereas Respect means being stuck in 'an anti-war ghetto'. I am being a little more speculative in saying this is part of his argument, but it's a synoptic point based on a reading of the whole article and a knowledge of his other work.

Before I respond to particular points, let's get a few potential misconceptions out of the way.

Hasan does not have any automatic authority here because he is himself a Muslim. Neither should we - conversely - dismiss him because he is a London-based pundit with a nice salary who's out of touch with working class Muslims in Bradford. These things are irrelevant.

It is the political substance that matters - I don't care who the messenger is. Hasan himself sadly has different standards. When Richard Seymour challenged his lazy analysis on Twitter, his response included a jibe about the SWP. This sectarianism only served to diminish him.

It is very welcome that Hasan has a commendable track record of often powerful and incisive anti-war writing and support for the anti-war movement. But that doesn't prevent him being wrong about this.

Let's run through those points in turn.

The high Muslim population of Bradford West was, yes, a demographic factor making it more likely that Galloway could make an electoral breakthrough. But the 'it was the Muslims wot won it' line is one I'd expect to read in a right-wing paper like the Telegraph. It reinforces the notion of a cohesive Muslim block which can be mobilised for elections. That's the popular right-wing stereotype Hasan is drawing on here.

This notion depends, in turn, on two further assumptions. One, that the Muslim community is operating in a dubious and communalist manner in relation to elections. Two, that Muslim voters are dupes who will do whatever they're told, an unthinking and undifferentiated mass.

Hasan must be aware of these perceptions - and the extent to which right-wing commentators have mobilised them in the last few days. He could use his column to challenge them or to implicitly reinforce them. He made the wrong choice.

Then there's the use of religion as the prism through which to assess the result. Again, this is a right-wing trope. It depoliticises the whole subject and condescendingly (and inaccurately) treats Muslim voters as Muslims only, when they might also be workers or unemployed or parents or pensioners or whatever other categories you can think of. It is a discourse that accepts core right-wing assumptions.

What about the argument that Muslims should care about, and organise around, issues other than war and imperialism? Well, yes. But who on earth argues otherwise? If there isn't anybody arguing otherwise then it is - by definition - a straw man argument.

Instead of engaging with a genuine alternative viewpoint, he is setting up a false case then shooting it down. There will have been Muslims on the 26 March demo, but they weren't necessarily mobilising as Muslims, through the Muslim community. Two million workers took strike action on 30 November 2011. Some of them will have been Muslims.

His dismissive reference to an 'anti-war ghetto' is disappointing. It wasn't always the case that Muslim communities were politically involved and forming alliances with non-Muslims. One of the greatest achievements of the anti-war movement was, and remains, the on-going co operation and united mobilisations of Muslims with non-Muslims on the left, peace activists, trade unionists, and so on.

This should not be treated dismissively with the cheap caricature of an 'anti-war ghetto'. Such unity had to be worked for, argued for, fought for - in opposition to elements of the left which were sceptical (to put it politely) of working with Muslims, and simultaneously the more separatist and reactionary elements inside Muslim communities.

Hasan claims to want to help Muslims emerge from their 'anti-war ghetto'. Yet he is the one claiming they're not politically sophisticated enough to have been motivated by anything other than anti-war sentiment last Thursday. This takes some nerve. Read the accounts by people who live in the constituency to get a sense of the mix of factors influencing the result. Two good examples are here and here.

Let's also take a step back to reflect on why Respect originated in the first place, and why its earlier incarnation (2004-07, prior to the very damaging split in November 2007) had modest but significant success. There were three levels to the political basis of Respect.

The first level was the war on terror and the anti-war movement which it prompted. The war in Iraq especially created a massive rift between Labour and millions of its supporters. This was true throughout society, but particularly acute in the Muslim community.

The second level was deeper: a general disaffection with a New Labour administration that pursued policies of privatisation and deregulation, curtailed trade union rights, eroded civil liberties, stoked up Islamophobia, and allowed the gap between rich and poor to grow. Iraq was very important itself, but also a lightning rod for a whole set of other issues.

The third level was deeper still: the legacy of a quarter of century of neo-liberal policies, recurring capitalist crisis, growth in inequality, and a generalised anti-establishment mood marked by a sharp alienation from mainstream politics and a nagging sense that democracy had become hollowed out.

It is this multi-layered analysis that provides an understanding of how a radical left-of-Labour electoral challenge was possible. This analysis is still largely relevant today. Labour is now in opposition, so the situation is not exactly the same. But last Thursday reminded us that Labour has not recovered from the damage done by its culpability in the devastation of Iraq.

This failure to recover credibility and support isn't merely a matter of Labour's relationship to its own past. It has a great deal to do with the party's continued support for all manifestations of the 'war on terror'.

It should, then, be clear that Hasan gets it fundamentally wrong when he tries, vainly, to separate war from everything else that matters to people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. It is a conservative argument by depoliticising the votes cast for Galloway, fragmenting politics into artificially separate spheres, and ignoring the capacity for people who are Muslim to be a whole bunch of other things too.

We come, then, to the most troubling element in the article. Here is what Hasan writes:

'It isn't just a combination of anti-terror laws and media demonisation that has hindered efforts at Muslim integration into mainstream British society. So, too, has the reluctance of many British Muslims to step outside the political comfort zone of the anti-war movement. When we only talk of foreign affairs, is it any wonder that we seem to come across as foreigners? Muslims do not lack for opponents or antagonists; those who want to portray us as foreign, alien, un-British, are growing in number. We should not be handing them a club with which to beat us.'

I find it hard to believe Hasan can really believe this, but it is what he has written. Hasan is putting 'the reluctance of many British Muslims to step outside the political comfort zone of the anti-war movement' together with 'anti-war terror legislation and media demonisation' as a cause of problems with Islamophobia and discrimination in our society. If that isn't at least partially blaming the victims of racism for the racism they suffer, what is it?

It crassly overlooks the contribution of the anti-war movement to Muslim 'social integration', the way the movement broke down barriers and helped confront and challenge rising anti-Muslim racism. Can Hasan really think that Muslims demonstrating over foreign policy issues is responsible, even slightly, for racist perceptions of British Muslims as 'other' and deserving of social exclusion?

It is the 'war on terror' and the poisonous, racist discourse which has been its ideological accompaniment that has promoted such bigotry towards Muslims here. The anti-war movement has pushed in the opposite direction.

When tens of thousands of British Muslims took to the streets of London to protest against Israel's brutal assault of Gaza, united with many others not from Muslim backgrounds, were they 'handing them [racists] a club with which to beat us'? Were they aiding 'those who want to portray us as foreign, alien, un-British'?

Finally, we come to Hasan's implicit endorsement of a supposedly all-encompassing Labour over an apparently single-issue Respect. It is revealing what Hasan doesn't say here. The Labour Party historically has an appalling record on imperialism and war (whatever the stance of many individual members). In the last decade it has been even worse.

Those who can be broadly defined as the Labour Left are often much better on these issues - especially most of the Campaign Group MPs and of course many thousands of grassroots party members - but I'd argue that many of the broad Labour left have a poor record. For every Jeremy Corbyn or Paul Flynn there are 10 'soft left' MPs who won't vote for troops to be brought home from Afghanistan, but will vote for bombing Libya. Voting against the invasion of Iraq (as many of them did, under enormous pressure) has not been matched by broader opposition to the 'war on terror'.

Rather than lecturing ordinary Muslims, shouldn't Hasan be directing his criticism at elected MPs, Labour Party leaders and so on? Why isn't he demanding they connect with Muslims by adopting anti-war policies? (there are of course many other reasons for adopting such policies).

Why doesn't he demand they address the deep grievances over disastrous New Labour policies (across a range of issues) felt by people from all backgrounds? Hasan is writing for a left-of-centre readership which is overwhelmingly non-Muslim. Aside from the specific errors he makes, he certainly has a strange sense of audience and priorities.

I have devoted more time than I would have liked to refuting this article. But when people on the left echo the arguments of the right, give ammunition to our opponents and undermine those of us fighting cuts, war and racism, then they need to be called out.

It has been clear from my Twitter timeline that some socialists - who should know better - have defended Hasan's article. We need to see clearly and hit the correct targets if we're going to be build stronger (and multi-racial) movements of resistance and nurture a powerful, non-sectarian, Left.


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