Combating religious hatred and chauvinism

On Saturday November 8, Awaaz South Asia Watch held its first conference in Camden Town Hall. This activist organisation was set up in the wake of last year’s Gujarat state-inspired pogroms against muslims in western India.

On Saturday November 8, Awaaz South Asia Watch held its first conference in Camden Town Hall. This activist organisation was set up in the wake of last year’s Gujarat state-inspired pogroms against muslims in western India.

Around 60 anti-fundamentalists gathered to discuss not only the carnage in Gujarat, but all forms of religiously fuelled bigotry, persecution and undemocratic practices, and especially how this impacts on the situation in the UK.

One of the first speakers in the morning plenary session was Chetan Bhatt, a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, who outlined in some detail the parallel organisations set up in Britain by the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a group that forms the core of the current government party, Bharatiya Janata Party, both centrally and in the state of Gujarat. In India, the RSS has an estimated membership of between two and a half and six million. Here in Britain, one of its front bodies, Vishwa Hindu Parishad UK (World Hindu Congress), has received hundreds of thousands of pounds from Labour local authorities ignorant of its true nature.

Members of the RSS’s UK arm, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, operate through VHP UK in Labour Friends of India and as local Labour councillors. Other directly controlled RSS fronts in Britain include Hindu Sevika Samiti (the women’s organisation); Overseas Friends of the BJP; Sewa International UK (which collected over £2 million allegedly for the Gujarat earthquake, but gave most of it to the RSS to set up its own schools in Gujarat); Kalyan Ashram Trust UK; National Hindu Students’ Forum UK; Hindu Sahitya Kendra (publications distributor); and Friends of India Society International. These organisations have memberships totalling several thousands in the UK.

Shias have become the main victims of recent sectarian violence carried out by other muslims in Pakistan, according to the next speaker, Athar Hussain, who is deputy director of the LSE’s Asia Research Centre; there is also sporadic violence against christians, though to a much lesser extent. He explained that Pakistan’s religious schools, or madrasahs, arose because of gross failure of the state in providing school places: there is often no alternative for many parents. Examining the situation in Kashmir, he thought it important that instead of using its own forces there the Pakistan government uses religious zealots, the muslim fundamentalists - though this presents it with the problem of how to turn them on and off according to its external requirements. We should, however, not treat these fundamentalists as completely separate from the Pakistan state, since their organisations and movement are so favoured by it.

Iftikhar Malik, senior lecturer at Bath College of Higher Education and author of Religious minorities in Pakistan (Minority Group report, 2002), identified and defined political islam - a term he found more useful than ‘islamic fundamentalism’, ‘islamism’, or ‘islamic terrorism’. Essentially, political islam seeks to glorify an idealised past, and possesses both a religious-economic agenda and a political movement. Since the Iranian ‘revolution’ there has been a split in political islam between the immediatists, who favour armed struggle, and the gradualists.

Iftikhar emphasised that wherever islamists operate they promise empowerment, but deny it in practice: gender equality, for example, is nowhere to be seen. In Pakistan there has been a transformation from an initial founding idea of ‘muslim rights’, promoted by the country’s (arguably secular) first president, Jinnah, to the present pre-eminence of ‘islamic rights’. Of course, this has an impact on the estimated 12-14 million non-muslim Pakistanis. He concluded by taking issue with Athar Hussain and thought that the question of the madrasahs presented secularists with the need for the development of a dialogue with many of those who run them, not mere condemnation.

Speaking of the rise of religious hatred post-9/11, Arun Kundnani, editor of the Institute of Race Relations news bulletin, cited a recent demonstration on which hindus and sikhs carried banners declaring, ‘We’re not muslims’. He reminded those present that Sunrise Radio, which formerly described itself as ‘Britain’s leading Asian radio station’, has now banned the use of the word ‘Asian’, following a campaign by the VHP and other rightists. Chillingly, Arun brought to the conference’s attention the fact that the BNP has persuaded a group of Asians from the Shere-e-Punjab group to embark on a joint anti-muslim campaign: Rajinder Singh and Ammo Singh cooperated with the BNP in producing the CD Islam - a threat to us all; Rajinder Singh now even writes a column for the BNP magazine, Identity.

Turning to the ease with which fundamentalist hindu organisations gain credence in Britain, Arun blamed multiculturalist unthinkingness, which sees ‘community groups’ being represented by such bodies and the HSS as part of the ‘hobnobbing’ that fits so well with Blair’s latest reactionary fad of ‘faith groups’.

Two speakers from the Dawood Family Justice Campaign spoke movingly about the murder of their family members during the anti-muslim pogroms in Gujarat and the lack of concern of the authorities, including the police. They made the point that advance for their particular campaign, highlighting the murder of British men, would have the benefit of helping greatly the isolated and poor in Gujarat who had also had family members murdered, but whose power to organise had been circumscribed: 2,000 muslims have been killed and 100,000 are still living in relief camps.

Differences over multiculturalism arose in the plenary sessions and discussion workshops, with some participants correctly attacking the concept and others finding something positive in it. Acceptance of multiculturalism means accepting ideas of ‘community’ and the immutability of cultures, which may help our rulers to divide and rule us. Multiculturalism is not grounded in a humanistic appreciation of all that is best in human culture(s) and it attempts to negate the power of assimilation from below by ossifying and ultimately destroying all that it touches.

These and other issues will require further discussion within Awaaz to clarify its approach to the destructive divisiveness of the chauvinists that it has been set up to combat.