Chance for a better world

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui is the leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain. He talked to the Weekly Worker

One issue that arose at today's conference concerned relations with the Muslim Association of Britain. Put another way, how can the left have a principled political relationship with muslim organisations in this country? Somebody in the Stop the War Coalition asked me for my opinion when the MAB first approached them. I said that despite my many - very serious - differences with them, I wanted them in. Despite what was said here today, you are not dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood when you are dealing with the MAB. You are dealing with a section of the muslim community here, in the UK. So the question for us is - do we want the muslim community to participate in initiatives like the STWC? The muslim community is far bigger than the small MAB network. There is always the possibility that it will become insignificant, that it will be left behind as the movement develops. The muslim community wants to be part of the wider political system. So when I was asked, I said I have reservations about the involvement of the MAB, but I want them to come in. The muslim community is a relatively very new community in this country. It takes time to adjust and understand the new circumstances. As more and more of our people are going into higher education and mixing with others in this society, their reservations are being broken down, their ideas about this society are changing. Their ideas about their own community are also changing. We have our own set of demagogues. They advocate that the community keeps itself separate, that we should not mix. There is a debate within the muslim community over these sorts of questions. There is a feeling that perhaps in the 19th century isolationism was appropriate. If you didn't agree with the way society was organised, then withdraw from it, go to the wilderness. But in the 21st century, we are a global village. It is simply not possible. The only way to make a space for yourself is through engagement, through argument and debate. Your point about argument and debate is an important one. We want to engage critically with people and organisations that define themselves as muslim - obviously, not about the finer points of theology, but about politics. Yes, that's important. For example, it is not only true that the MAB has roots with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Council of Britain has its own counterpart in Pakistan. We don't agree with them on many things. But, all the same, since September 11 we have been organising 'brainstorming' session in the muslim community involving academics, writers and activists. And these sessions are open to everyone. There is now a growing determination in our community that isolation is not the answer. If the war goes ahead, perhaps with Iran next in line, is there a danger that this may be perceived as a war against islam, provoking a fundamentalist backlash from, say, muslim youth? It is possible, yes. But I do not consider this will be understood in any way as a war on islam. Clearly, this is a war about markets and resources. I have spoken to many muslims and told them we must be realistic. Just look at the record of the United States since World War II. If we were counting the number of people who have died as a result of American aggression, we will find more non-muslims have been killed than muslims. More than that, so many people in the world today are opposing this war and the vast majority of them are not muslims. They clearly see that it is all about American hegemony, not a war on islam. Muslims have so many potential friends! So this is a great opportunity for us, both in this country and around the world. Together - muslim and non-muslim - we have the chance to stop this war and to make a better world. You have said that the mosques - very important organising centres, not simply religious spaces, of course - tend to remain in the hands of older, more conservative forces. Yes, that's still true. The bulk of our people came from villages. So a man comes from a particular small village, he settles down in this country. He calls more or less the whole village here because there are employment opportunities. Because he knew that in his village one of the most important institutions was a mosque, he converts a house into a mosque. And, to lead it, he brings someone from his own village - equally unaware of the things that are happening in this new society as himself. But this person becomes the imam. This is the pattern. So it is an unfortunate fact that illiterate people, divorced from the reality of the society that surrounds them, run most of our mosques. They see the culture of their village as the culture of islam itself. A couple of years ago, we had a campaign against forced marriages. We were the only people who stood up and said this is unacceptable. I received many calls from various imams. They asked me, 'What are you trying to do? You are challenging the culture of islam!' I replied that, while it might have been accepted in their village, it was happening for different reasons - it was not islam. It has no religious sanction, or logical basis to it. Eventually, we managed to get 30 imams together for a meeting. They agreed to back the stance that this practice was wrong and that sex in any non-consensual marriage was rape. This is the way forward. The pace is slow, but there are real changes. There can be a trend in the British left - which is overwhelmingly white and from a formally 'christian' background - to be very hesitant about criticising the politics of muslim organisations. Do you feel that political criticism can smack of 'islamophobia', or even 'racism'? I have no problem whatsoever with partners in the peace movement being critical of each other's politics. We need to talk to each other frankly. If we are making a mistake, if our political opinions are wrong, for heaven's sake let us know! In this context, this movement is god-sent. We were a besieged, marginalised, criminalised community. It has given us the opportunity to become part of wider society. To integrate in a democratic type of way. We can have a myriad of discussions and debates - that doesn't worry us. My impression is that this is what the younger generation in particular feel - a change is definitely coming.