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Anarchist Orientalism and the Muslim Community in Britain

APOC | 16.07.2003 14:04 | Anti-racism

(may have been posted before, but everyone should read this!)

Muslims in Britain are predominantly from a South Asian background being either Pakistani or Bangladeshi and concentrated in various communities such as Tower Hamlets and Slough but also outside London there is a large Muslim community for example in the North of England. Many are also asylum seekers and immigrants from Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. After September 11th governments have found it easy to justify immigration and asylum laws thereby linking it to terrorism. Many Muslims in Britain since 9/11 have also been arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by the authorities under suspected charges of terrorism and with little proof. It seems that the law has decided that all Pakistanis and Arabs are potential terrorists just as they view all Afro-Caribbean people as potential muggers and drug dealers.

This new anti-Muslim racism has also led to an increase in racist attacks and violence; there have been reports in Britain after 9/11 of Muslim women having their hijab (headscarves) forcefully removed in public and mosques have been vandalised. In particular there has been racist anti-Muslim violence for example in East London and also other parts of the country all of which is well documented by grassroots community based anti-racist organisations such as Newham Monitoring Project, Forum against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR) and also the Islamic Human Rights Commission. It is this situation that led many of the Asian Muslim youth to riot in the summer of 2001 expressing their frustration with their marginalized situation caused by far right racism, police racism, housing discrimination, poverty and unemployment. This rebellion and direct action was undertaken by the Asian community in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley; Northern towns which the government has left to rot in the aftermath of the mass privatisation, deregulation and dismantling of the welfare state under Thatcherism. Furthermore the Northern rebellions were also necessary to defend the Asian Muslim community from physical attacks from the far right fascist thugs of the British Nationalist Party and the National Front. The BNP itself has specifically changed its tactics and now cleverly focuses on Muslims, often calling for an ethnic cleansing of Muslims. The BNP leader Nick Griffen, in a television interview stated how “its no an Asian or Black problem but a Muslim one”. It is clear that Islamophobia has become the legitimate racism in Europe as anti-Semitism once was in the 19th century.

It seems that there is a failure in understanding Islam and indeed the situation which Muslims face. For example the media has associated many of these frustrated Asian youth with fundamentalist politics and fundamentalist groups such as the exiled Syrian Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad’s Al Muhajiroun (The Immigrants) group. Alongside the New Labour government’s demand that immigrants should “integrate” and learn English, one can see clearly that this situation creates an atmosphere of ignorance and blame on these undesirable elements of society. But what has the British anarchist movement done to counter this situation? The answer to this question is absolutely nothing, the anarchist movement is badly networked and extremely sectarian to ethnic minority communities especially the Muslim community, mainly because of their Bakunin obsessed ideology and anti-religious fundamentalism. In this situation Islamophobia is unique because not only does the state, politicians and the media attack Muslims ideologically but also the left, anti-capitalist and anarchist movement.

In the mean time the BNP is very active in the North of England and has been standing in local elections with substantial support in areas such as Leeds, Burnley, Oldham and Bradford, in the aftermath of the riots last year. The far right in these areas are much stronger then the left, and have been involved in racist anti-Muslim violence as I have already discussed. Furthermore the BNP has recently won local elections in Burnley and Blackburn. In Bradford, the BNP has attempted to divide the Asian community and has been leafleting Hindus and Sikhs about the evils of Islamic fundamentalism in the hope that they would vote for them by attempting to fuel inter-religious hatred. In Bradford also the anarchist movement is reasonably active but has little connection to the Muslim community and therefore remains dumbfounded as to how to counter the fascists.

The reality reflects that the anarchist movement in Britain is very anglo-centric and very white. Its hegemonistic class purist outlook makes it clear that class homogeneity is superior to all other variables in society therefore the existence of any cultural homogeneity is ignored as being undesirable. The anarchist movement in Britain has an especially ignorant and hegemonistic perception of the Muslim community, and this is no doubt linked to the anglo-centric nature of the movement. The London based Anarchist Federation produced an article in their resistance magazine in December 2001 stating, “Islam is an enemy of all freedom loving people”. Such statements after the tragedy of September 11th are indeed something, which Muslim minorities in the West have had to get used to. The problem with the above quote is that it is no different to the bigoted rhetoric of George Bush or even BNP leader Nick Giffen. In addition to the anarchists, the tactics of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and their front the Anti-Nazi League mainly involves plastering posters on walls, giving out leaflets, expanding membership lists and then disappearing into the sunset. This approach is unwise as the South Asian Muslim community in the North of England is in a very marginalized situation and what is needed is a radical anti-racist movement, which organises within the community. As I have already stated, this universal bigotry towards Muslims, their culture, their religion and identity is reflected in the media, academia, the right and left, they all seem to sing the same chorus using fundamentalist groups such as Al-Muhajiroun, as there example and thereby portraying Muslims as being monolithically reactionary, homophobic and oppressive towards women. If the anarchist movement claims to be progressive then something is seriously wrong here.

I once came across a white anarchist who was extremely ignorant with regards to his perceptions of Muslims. What was disturbing was the fact that he was attacking not only Islam, with the primitive and simplistic knowledge he had of the religion; but also Muslims in general, namely their culture, way of life, beliefs and showed a complete conviction in the media and right wing stereotypes. This was also reflected at a “No War but Class War” meeting, a UK coalition of anarchists against the War on Terror in 2001 and at the yearly anarchist book fair. I seemed to be the only coloured face in the whole room of at least 50 anarchists. The discussion seemed to show an acceptance of Muslims monolithically being fundamentalist, reactionary and oppressive towards women. It is clear that patriarchy, homophobia and conservatism exists in Muslim societies but do not these tendencies also exist in white, European and non-Muslim societies? Patriarchy, homophobia and conservatism are universal because capitalism is universal. With regards to women, the left and the anarchist movement accepts the stereotype that Muslim women who wear the Hijab (headscarf) are oppressed and docile creatures. The anarchists have therefore fallen into the trap of believing that Western women are liberated whilst Muslim women are not. Implying that Muslim women are only free if they remove the Hijab and don the mini-skirt is as ridiculous as the Taleban imposing the Hijab, and indeed the Burqa whilst abolishing the mini-skirt. As the Moroccan Feminist Fatima Mernissi has once said “a size 6 is the Western woman’s harem”. A universal patriarchal system is clearly the problem here, not the exclusive evils of a puritan Muslim culture

One can say that this is an example of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, thus it is the West who dictates to the Muslim what Islam is, despite its immense diversity as a culture, religion and way of life. As descendents of an orientalist culture, the British anarchist movement’s phobia of religion is merely an added variable to their extreme eurocentrism and anglocentrism, therefore Muslims are judged in accordance to the concept of modernity and thus they must change to accept Western values. It is this situation, which drives many of the alienated Muslim youth to join groups such as Al-Muhajiroun as a reaction, and yet I have come across anarchists who refer to such people as “twats” which is disturbing as they have no knowledge whatsoever with regards to their experiences. Al-Muhajiroun has won an almost celebrity status in the UK thanks to the media which constantly portrays them as mainstream Islam thereby helping governments in their racist “war on terror”. What is needed is a movement, which not only organises within Muslim and Asian communities, but also presents ideologically progressive alternatives to Islamist and religious conservative elements within our communities, thereby reclaiming our identity from the perversions of the media, politicians and white radicals and leftists.

Returning to the issue of Muslim women, in Europe it is true that Muslim women are beginning to reassert their Islamic identity in reaction to a Western secular society’s post-colonial orientalist perception on migrant culture. In France for example, Algerian and Tunisian women in many situations are prevented from wearing the Hijab. The French left however has done nothing to oppose this, and constantly maintains that women’s oppression in Muslim societies is due to the existent of the headscarf. It is ridiculous to use feminist rhetoric to prevent a woman’s right to wear what she wants to wear, the essence of that is patriarchal. However most leftist and progressive forces, because of their eurocentric nature fail to acknowledge this reality. In Britain Muslim women are wearing the Hijab with pride, and are also often leading our communities in the context of struggle. If we look to the Bradford defence campaign for the Asian youth who revolted in the summer of 2001, it is clear that the campaign itself is run and led by Muslim women from Bradford. Religion can often be a source of strength for the Muslim communities in a society which constantly demonises them.

On April 13th 2002, a pro-Palestine demo mobilised up to 50-100,000 people on the streets of London. What was different about this demo was that it was mainly composed of Muslims, Asians, Arabs, Somalians and refugees. There was only a small contingent from the usual anti-war leftists, anti-capitalists and an even smaller contingent of anarchists. Some hard left newspapers have referred to the demonstration as being reactionary because it was supposedly composed of hard-core religious elements; this view was also reflected by many anarchists. The reality reflects that the demonstration was most definitely not reactionary rather it was a mobilisation of ordinary people expressing their solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada. It is both racist, Islamaphobic and ridiculous to assert such a view. Just because the demonstration was not composed of the usual Trotskyist and anarchist elements, does not mean that it was reactionary. Nevertheless, anti-war demonstrations have continued, the most recent being against the war in Iraq mobilising 500,000 people on the streets of London. The anarchists still remain as sectarian as ever, recently an anarchist expressed his views to me of how Asians are oppressed and are struggling against their religious traditions. But he also admitted that he has had little dialogue or contact with Muslims and Asians. How he became such an anthropological expert on the experiences of the Asian and Muslim community is a mystery to me.

Religion is a part of many people’s cultures not only in Muslim countries but also for example in Latin America and especially in the indigenous communities. The Zapatistas have shown us that revolutionary and anti-authoritarian tendencies can happen in different contexts, or as Subcommandante Marcos says “Zapatismo is not a paid for doctrine, it is an intuition” and as an intuition it can be whatever it wants to be in all its contexts and locales. The Zapatista movement is therefore a revolutionary movement in the context of being an indigenous Mayan in Chiapas, Mexico, of which Mayan spirituality and Catholic liberation theology is rooted in the Chiapaneco communities. Muslims can do the same and indeed have done this many times throughout history to counter colonialism and imperialism. The class struggle therefore can take on a black, Asian, Muslim, religious, gay or feminist identity, and must reject any purism, and must therefore be as impure as possible.

When South Asian immigrants first came to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s they brought with them their cultural experiences from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Therefore the religions of Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam, in their South Asian context affect the Asian community irrespective of whether an individual within that community is religious, agnostic or atheist. During the 1970s and 1980s, radical activists within the Asian community inspired by Black power ideas of the 1960s, started forming community defence groups and anti-racist groups so as to oppose police harassment and also the rise of the far right National Front, who were especially violent at the time. Many of these community activists had learnt their politics not from some socialist party, but from the Mosques, Gurdwaras and Hindu Temples and it was through these institutions that the Asian community was able to mobilise politically. When organising within the Asian community the left, anti-capitalist and anarchist movement must acknowledge and respect such organic experiences. A Mosque in Bradford for example can be much like a radical Church in Chiapas, Mexico; namely that it already has a connection to the community and therefore has the potential to be progressive and very grassroots. The challenge today however is not just for progressive white activists of a predominantly middle class background to acknowledge this reality and not be patronising, but also there is the need for the Muslims to reclaim their religious spaces from corrupt Mosque leaders who claim to represent the community.

With the War on Terror entering its latest phase in Iraq; it is important that an anti-war movement has links to those communities who are directly affected by this war. Anarchists need to abandon their purist ideology and work with the community by for example leafleting mosques, holding meetings with Islamic and Muslim community groups, to co-ordinate opposition to the war. At the moment the anarchist movement does very little but organise exclusivist meetings and small direct actions which have little effect in opposing the war and does little to scare the British state. Furthermore anarchists seem to view direct action as something which belongs to them, I would argue that it is an autonomous working class tactic which is needed to oppose capitalism let alone the trade unions and Trotskyist leftist parties who have always tried to sabotage working class direct action. Unfortunately at the moment the anti-war movement in Britain is dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party through what is known as the Stop the War Coalition. It is the SWP therefore and not the anarchist movement which is organising within Muslim communities to help build huge anti-war demonstrations. However this is a problem because this usually involves the SWP dictating to demonstrators that they protest within the confines of the British state, listen to a couple of speeches in Trafalgar Square and then go home. Furthermore the SWP has had a history of trying to hijack struggles which involve ethnic minority communities and people of colour thus any links usually end up being superficial and insincere. I feel that the due to their rejection of party politics and hierarchy the anarchist movement has the potential to form a non-sectarian grass roots anti-war movement which could mobilised mass non-violent direct actions at local and national level, indeed this is something which the ruling class fears. Furthermore Muslims need to start forming political groups which are conscious of the way capitalism works and to help create new radical ideological sources for struggle which present itself as an alternative to Islamic fundamentalism as the latter reduces the complexity of Islam to a static and monolithic ideology.

The reality reflects that Islam, Muslim societies and individuals can be both reactionary and progressive thereby reflecting the dialectics of capitalist society. This dichotomy exists in all contexts therefore Anglo-Saxon and European culture can also be both reactionary and progressive with its secular traditions. Thus it is not an issue of being nice to Muslims and Islam, on the contrary it is one of finding an intelligent sociological analysis of society which seeks truth and is based on the reality, namely that we are all human and humans are complicated. The anarcho-sufi Hakim Bey has often talked of the need to find egalitarian and radical impulses within the Islamic context and indeed this can be used to counter Islamophobic leftist stereotypes of Muslims being reactionary. For example we can find anti-authoritarian and revolutionary tendencies within Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam; many Sufi orders and Sufis such as Mansur Al Hallaj and Yunus Emre advocated and struggled for women’s equality and social justice long before Marx and Bakunin; however anarchists because of their eurocentrism choose to ignore the importance and possibility of non-European revolutionary tendencies. We can also find a socialist liberation theology amongst the ideas of the Iranian revolutionary, Ali Shariati who inspired many workers and students to form left wing Islamic movements in the 1960s and 1970s to oppose capitalism, Western imperialism as well as the authoritarianism of the Shah and the Ayatollahs.

There are many other examples, the point I am making is that any cultural reification of Muslims and indeed “Third World” and Black people in general, can lead to hegemonism, and the anarchist movement must do away with their hegemonistic application of modernity if it is to become truly dynamic otherwise it is doomed to continue its existence as a small, exclusivist and sectarian white middle class gathering. Despite all their ignorance towards Muslims regarding their hatred of religion, it is clear that the anarchist movement is often more religious then most religious people I have known. This is especially true considering that they are so opposed to changing attitudes, ideas and tactics. They have created their own orthodoxies and heresies, of which the current orthodoxy needs to be challenged. Ideological hegemony must be abolished within any anti-capitalist and revolutionary praxis so that people can be free to be what they want to be.



Display the following 8 comments

  1. No gods, no masters — Nestor Makhno
  2. What Rubbish! — Gerk Francis
  3. The misery of islam — nastyned
  4. Two faces of Islam and naïvety with good intentions — Fakhri bin Farraj Surur
  5. A warning about Steven Schwartz — Anon
  6. Suleyman Ahmad Stephen Schwartz — Fakhri bin Farraj Surur
  7. my apologies — Fakhri bin Farraj Surur
  8. More on "Suleyman Ahmad" Stephen Schwartz — A commie