Is that so, Mr Blair?

Politics After BlairIs that so, Mr Blair?

By Salma Yaqoob

Morning Star, 11 June 2007

EARLY last week, Tony Blair made his latest and, hopefully, last foray into Muslim affairs as Prime Minister.

In a speech in Cambridge to a carefully selected audience that excluded representatives from the leading Muslim organisations, Blair said that he wanted the “voice of moderation” among Muslims to be heard.

It is difficult not to be cynical about the Prime Minister’s motives. In light of the rivers of blood which he has helped unleash in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blair’s lectures on tackling extremism ring hollow.

While Muslim leaders are constantly berated for “not doing enough” to tackle the appeal of Islamic extremism, our government still refuses to acknowledge the role of its foreign policy in fertilising the ground from which such extremism grows.

This denial of their own culpability for the appeal of religious sectarianism makes more difficult any serious discussion with Muslims on how best to marginalise it.

Instead, Muslims are told, somewhat patronisingly, that we need to achieve a greater understanding of “British values” like democracy, rule of law and equal rights, from a government that wages an illegal war based on lies and is planning the introduction of internment in all but name.

Yet, for all Blair’s talk about wanting to find moderate Muslim voices and despite the barbarity of the July 7 2005 bombers and all the lurid newspaper headlines about intolerant Muslim opinion, the striking thing about the reaction of Muslims to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq was exactly its moderation.

The overwhelming bulk of Muslims expressed their dissent with government policy either via protest on the streets or at the ballot box.

Crucially, it was not the religious sectarians in the Muslim community who harnessed mass anger at new Labour’s most recent wars. Rather, it was the unity between Muslims and broad swathes of the left, united in their opposition to imperialist war, that became the engine to direct anti-war anger into democratic and overwhelmingly peaceful channels.

As millions marched, diverse in their creed and colour, overwhelmingly non-Muslim but in solidarity with people of overwhelmingly Muslim lands, the British anti-war movement did more to ease the strain between Muslim and British identity than any number of government citizenship classes.

Most government statements about the “threat of Muslim extremism” today deliberately miss the point.

The dominant character of Muslim radicalism today is not towards al-Qaida-style religious extremism, but in the opposite direction – towards political engagement in new, radical and progressive coalitions and dialogue that seeks to unite Muslim with non-Muslim in parliamentary and extraparliamentary strategies to effect change.

The anti-war movement is the most striking example of these developments. But it is not the only one.

Last week, the Mayor of London, the British Muslim Initiative, the director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality and a wide array of politicians and trade unionists launched a coalition to defend freedom of religious and cultural expression.

Its origin lies in response to the threat of Islamophobia. And its aim is to counteract the view that “different communities and faith groups openly expressing their culture or faith threaten community relations in Britain.”

Next week, the main speaker at the Muslim Council of Britain’s annual general meeting will be TUC general secretary Brendan Barber. His appearance builds on the joint statement issued by both organisations last year pledging to encourage more Muslims to join trade unions and to tackle racism at work and in society.

This relationship is an important one. And there is a challenge to translate it into real action on the ground.

Muslim communities invariably find themselves living in areas with highest levels of unemployment, the poorest housing and worst wages.

It is easy in such circumstances for deprived communities to take their frustrations out on each other.

I am an elected councillor for an inner-city ward in Birmingham. When I hold my advice surgeries, it is not uncommon to hear Pakistanis stuck in overcrowded conditions complain about Somalis coming over here and jumping the housing waiting list.

In late 2005, similar tensions and competition between Asians and Afro-Caribbeans over scarce resources in the Lozells area of Birmingham spilled over into disturbances that left two people dead, sparked by an unfounded rumour that Asian men had raped a young Jamaican girl.

In the recent council elections in the city, the BNP polled strongest in deprived white working-class communities which feel abandoned and betrayed after 10 years of Blairism.

The appeal of extremism thrives on the politics of despair and hopelessness. Competition over scarce resources invariably leads to a fraying of community cohesion within and between working-class communities.

The antidote to both lies in the left’s ability to forge resistance and unity in the face of injustice and inequality.

The challenge for progressive forces is to deepen and extend this process of Muslim and non-Muslim dialogue. Together, we must work out how best to build the broadest unity among all sections of our communities.

In doing so, struggles for social justice are strengthened and the space for religious sectarianism can be closed down. And, from a Muslim perspective, the space for more self-critical voices within the community is widened.

As Blair prepares to pack his bags, there is an opportunity and challenge for progressive forces to engage in a new dialogue as to how we can best build unity around common objectives.

To that end, I look forward to participating in the Morning Star’s important conference on Politics After Blair on June 16. I hope to see you there.

Salma Yaqoob is Respect councillor for the Birmingham Sparkbrook ward and vice-chairwoman of the Respect coalition.