Finding common political ground

Tina Becker spoke to Salma Yaqoob at the European Social Forum in Paris

The French government uses the argument of secularism to impose the ban on hijabs in schools. As somebody who always wears a headscarf, I presume you are quite opposed to this.

I think this is a real red herring. What exactly was the threat that these kids posed? Or other women wearing a hijab? For me, this is a typical device to divide and rule and quite obviously a distraction from the real issues: attacks on working people, privatisation, the whole neoliberal agenda and so forth. Just like the bombing of different countries was carried out under the pretext of a ‘war on terror’ and supposed security threat.

They are creating a whole discourse which is actually a smokescreen for the real issues: quite clearly they wanted to get hold of the resources in Iraq. They don’t just say ‘Hey, we are going to bomb you, because we want your oil’, but this is in effect what they were doing. Unfortunately, a lot of people are not aware of this, because they believe this smokescreen.

The question of the hijab is similar. In Britain, this topic is a real non-issue. Does it make Britain a less secular country because women and girls can freely wear headscarves? We have to look at why it has suddenly become an issue in France. Unfortunately, the left in France is acting in cahoots with the right on this issue, which is a very sad thing. They are allowing the right to set and push through a much wider agenda, which comes as a package with the scapegoating of asylum-seekers, immigrants and muslims.

Which left organisations are you referring to?

All the largest organisations of the French left have been weak on this issue. I was shocked to hear that in one of the first anti-war demonstrations muslims were actually separated out from the march by certain union officials so that they had to march behind everyone else with a line of stewards between them! My hope is that the call from the European Social Forum for a European-wide day of protest against war in March will provide a fresh opportunity for the left to unite with the muslim community in France around what they have in common: opposition to US imperialism. Doing this also creates the space and trust to discuss differences. The situation can be turned around.

Communists fight for freedom of religion, of course, but we also fight for secularism and the separation of church and state. Would you describe yourself as a secular politician?

I strongly believe in people’s right to choose and we need states where there is the space for this to happen. The separation of church and state, originally designed to safeguard freedom of conscience and religion, is being invoked to justify limiting religious freedom. The tragedy in France is the so-called defence of ‘secular values’ is being used to further marginalise and attack the muslim communities. The message it sends is that they are not valued or respected in society. So what space have they got left?

What do you think about religious schools?

There are of course quite a number of religious and islamic schools in Britain. I think it is up to parents to decide where to send their children. I don’t send my children to a religious school; they attend a state school in Birmingham. That was my choice. But I do not think that I can tell other people how they should bring up their kids.

What about societies that are run by political islam like Iran and Afghanistan, where women can only walk the streets totally veiled?

I feel equally passionate about defending the right of women not to wear a scarf or veil. Why should any state, man or woman tell somebody else what to wear or how to run their lives? Nobody has that right.

We also need to understand that the label ‘political islam’ is a very broad one, and there are many muslims who would say they are politically active due to their islamic convictions, but this does not mean they support in any way what certain non-muslims mean when they talk about ‘political islam’. For example the imposition of the hijab is associated with ‘political islam’, whereas I would say that it is a manifestation of a distorted and extreme interpretation of islam. Going on an anti-war or anti-privatisation demonstration, speaking out against extremism would be regarded by most muslims as enacting ‘political islam’, yet this is not understood in many non-muslim circles. Hence attacks on people using terms like ‘political islam’ can be easily assumed by muslims to be an attack on the right of ordinary muslims to take part in political activity.

Stereotyping should be avoided and in this way unnecessary misunderstandings can be removed. For example, it would be unfair to look at the worst excesses of Stalinism and draw the conclusion that socialist ideas are inherently totalitarian and any political alliance with socialists is dangerous!

During the war against Afghanistan and later Iraq my own organisation has been critical of both sides. While the main aggression was of course down to US imperialism, we warned strongly against siding with either the Taliban or Saddam Hussein.

The Stop the War Coalition has never sided with Saddam Hussein or the Taliban. At every single public meeting we made it clear that condemning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not mean that we were condoning their particular regimes. However, we should never lose sight of who is the biggest killer. For me, there is no doubt that is US imperialism. It is George W Bush who represents the biggest threat to the world’s peoples and it is against him we have quite rightly focused the bulk of our opposition. Our supporters have never been confused on this issue.

So you see no need to abandon the struggle against an oppressing force like Saddam Hussein or the Taliban, even when their countries are being invaded by another oppressing power? It seems the Stop the War Coalition did just that.

We should support struggles against oppression wherever it is. We have to look at where we can be most effective and where our greatest sphere of influence is. The best solidarity we can give to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan is by focusing our fire on the imperialism of our own government. The Afghan and Iraqi people can’t do that for us.

The reality is that the brutal aspects of the Iraqi and Afghan regimes have been given widespread coverage in the west by both the movement and the mainstream media. Unfortunately, the supporting role of our own governments in that brutality is not as well known in our own populations (due to very little mention of it in the mainstream media) and hence there has to be an emphasis on this in the movement. And of course we have to acknowledge that, when it comes to mass killing, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein are merely apprentices of their US imperialist masters, who have both trained them and provided them with the resources to keep their populations subjugated. In the last 30 years alone just look at what they have been responsible for in Latin America alone. In addition there is economic terrorism: US neoliberal policies through the IMF and World Bank kill 16,000 children every single day.

You have obviously become very politicised during the war and have come into close contact with the organised left in Britain. Do you feel that there is a conflict developing between your religious beliefs and your politics?

Not at all. We are all motivated by different things. Somebody might have read about Marxist ideology and thought that is how they want to bring justice to world. I read the Koran and see some hope and purpose in that and it motivates me. That does not mean that I do not have a common ground in wanting justice with people who do not share my faith or my specific motivation.

My experiences in the run-up to the war further politicised me. Myself and a lot of other muslims felt very excluded. It was a worrying time - we did not know where it was going to lead. It was a very real situation, not a theoretical, abstract one. When other people with Marxist beliefs started to defend us, we felt a real sense of solidarity.

You have been integral to setting up a new electoral alliance with George Monbiot, in which George Galloway, the Socialist Workers Party and other socialists are involved.

It is very important to start to articulate a positive alternative. We are very good at saying what we are against, but it is so much more difficult to say what we are for and get a consensus on that. You got the environmentalist movement, the anti-capitalist movement, the peace movement and various faith movements. There is a great opportunity to unify people on a shared agenda, like anti-privatisation, the defence of public services and our opposition to imperialist war. You do not have to be a socialist to be for all of these things, although of course many socialists would agree with them.

Let us find a common ground, otherwise the voices of the alternative remain very marginalised and that would be a great tragedy for all of us.

Do you envisage a coalition in which groups or individuals can freely express their differences?

Of course. We should find out what things we agree on despite all of our different backgrounds and use all our combined weight to put the issues forward. Instead of promoting our individual groups, be it muslims or this or that socialist group, we should promote certain issues which affect many more people. I would not call this a party, but a coalition. And George Galloway has already given his agreement to stand with us. Our unofficial launch was the ‘Britain at the crossroads’ public meeting in London at which George spoke on October 29. This new coalition idea is very much at an early stage, but my hope is that it will be a campaigning body that will also come together at election time to show an alternative is possible.

It is up to the people involved to shape it. For example, there is no real name yet: we have to decide this together. It must be bottom-up and cannot be imposed from above. The ‘manifesto’ that has been going around is really just a collection of ideas, a starting point for people to discuss. I cannot assume that I know everybody else’s opinions, so we have to work on it together and find out the issues we can unite around. That might be possible on more than I think or on less than I think.