Anarchist Orientalism and the Muslim Community in Britain

By Adam K.

Most Muslims in Britain are from South Asia being either Pakistani or Bangladeshi and concentrated in areas such as East London, Slough, Luton and the North of England. Many are also asylum seekers and immigrants from 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 both Britain since S11 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. In particular there has been racist anti-Muslim violence in East London and also Slough, which is being under-reported. In Slough for example, one week after 9/11 the Pakistani community was subjected to a National Front rally in the town centre and later that night received attacks on Asian homes. It is this situation that led many of the Asian Muslim youth to rise up last summer expressing their frustration with their marginalized situation caused by racism and poverty. It seems that there is a failure in understanding Islam properly 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 Muhammed’s Al Muhajiroun 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. As Mubshir Hussein, a young Pakistani once said to me, “things are really fucked for us at the moment”, but how can anarchists help to make sure that things are not so “fucked”.

The reality reflects that the anarchist movement in Britain is very eurocentric 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 goes out of the window and is ignored as being undesirable. The anarchist movement in Britain has an especially ignorant and hegemonistic attitude and perception of the Muslim community, and this is no doubt linked to the eurocentric 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 only problem I have with the above quote is that it is no different to the bigoted rhetoric of George Bush or even Nick Giffen the leader of the far right British Nationalist Party which has in recent years focused its attack specifically on Muslims instead of all coloured people. The BNP itself 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 fact it was in these areas that the last summer’s riots occurred with the exception of Leeds. The far right in these areas are much stronger then the left, and have been involved in racist anti-Muslim violence. In Bradford, the BNP is cleverly attempting 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 quite active but has little connection to the Muslim community and therefore remains dumbfounded as to how to counter the BNP. In addition to the anarchists, the tactics of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and the Anti-Nazi League mainly involves plastering posters on walls, giving out leaflets, expanding membership lists and then buggering off 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. The bigotry towards Muslims, their culture, their religion and identity is therefore universal and 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 left, anarchist and anti-capitalist movement claim to be progressive then something is seriously has to be addressed.

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. 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 of Muslim women who wear the Hijab, as being 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 Morrocan Feminist Fatima Mernissi 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 it’s 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, therefore South Asian Muslims are judged in accordance to the concept of modernity and thus they must change in accordance to Western society. It is this pressure, which drives many of the alienated Muslim Asian 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 Al-Muhajiroun thereby reclaiming our identity from the perversions by the media, politicians and white radicals and leftists.

It is clear that the anarchist phobia of religion within the framework of an anti-religious secular culture is indeed another reason to attack Muslims as being reactionary. 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 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 some 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.

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 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. Cultural reifications can lead to hegemonism, and the anarchist movement must do away with their hegemonistic application of modernity. Hegemony must be abolished within any anti-capitalist and revolutionary praxis so that people can be free to be what they want to be.

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