SWP 'racism' fig leaf

The furore following the Danish cartoons has not subsided, writes Peter Manson. But the position of many islamic groups - backed up by the Socialist Workers Party - plays into the hands of islamophobes

Last week saw the continuation of the press campaign to demonise muslims. The Sunday Telegraph published a lengthy interview with professional islamophobe Patrick Sookhdeo, director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity. Ludicrously, Sookhdeo claims that in the near future "islamic communities within Britain will form a state within a state". The Sun took up the story and painted a lurid picture of Britain crammed with burqa-clad women.

Sookhdeo is himself a convert to christianity from islam and, reading some of his comments, you can almost sympathise with the literal interpretation of that section of the Koran which decrees that apostates should be put to death. He asserts: "In a decade, you will see parts of English cities which are controlled by muslim clerics and which follow, not the common law, but aspects of sharia law. It is already starting to happen "¦" (February 19). Helpfully The Sunday Telegraph publishes its own summary of what sharia law would mean.

Getting into his stride, Sookhdeo fills in the details of the nightmare that awaits us: "Islamic clerics "¦ do not believe in integration." Instead they try to "concentrate muslim presence in a particular area" until they become a majority, so that "the institutions of the local community come to reflect islamic structures. The education system will be islamic, the shops will only serve halal food, there will be no advertisements showing naked or semi-naked women."

The problem, you see, is that there just has not been enough scapegoating. New Labour's "whole approach towards muslim militants was based on appeasement. 7/7 proved that that approach did not work - yet it is still being followed."

The same issue carries a survey of 500 British muslims who - completely coincidentally of course - are asked, among other things: "Would you support or oppose there being areas of Britain which are predominantly muslim and in which sharia law is introduced?" Triumphantly The Sunday Telegraph announces that no less than 40% thought it was a good idea (while 19% refused to answer or 'did not know', 41% said they would be opposed).

The notion that the British state would cede control to whole areas that enforced separate laws is, quite evidently, utterly absurd, and it is clear that all but a tiny minority of islamist extremists know it. However, when muslims are put on the spot and effectively asked whether they are for or against the very moral/religious system by which they are supposed to be living their lives, it is hardly surprising that many will state that hypothetically they are in favour of sharia being put into practice.

The actual reality is rather different, as revealed by the answers to another question on attitudes to "western society". As opposed to condemning it as "decadent and immoral", 80% opted for: "Western society may not be perfect, but muslims should live within it and not seek to bring it to an end." Indeed 91% of those asked said they felt "loyal" to Britain (although, for some reason, this question only appeared in the small print of the paper's report).

Muslim Action Committee

The islamophobic attacks built up a head of steam following the demonstrations in London over the weekend of February 3-5 by a handful of islamist extremists, whose placards demanded that those who insulted islam by denigrating or mocking Mohammed be 'slayed', 'butchered' or 'massacred'. Amongst them were groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, who are also part of the much broader Muslim Action Committee - the organiser of last weekend's, overtly religious, demonstration - which claims the support of 350 mosques and islamic organisations, "led by religious scholars (the ulema)".

Despite the extremists' affiliation to the MAC, the latter's intention in organising the February 18 rally and march in central London was to portray muslims not as violent radicals seeking retribution, but as the very epitome of reason and light - gentle souls who only want people to be nice to one another. The MAC's February 17 press release was full of lofty phrases about "human dignity" being "a fundamental right" and stressed that serious debate needed to be conducted "through good manners and etiquette". It expressed a desire to "avoid irresponsible behaviour" leading to "vilification and demonisation of each other and our communities" and very much hoped for "mutual respect and harmonious co-existence" based on a "sincere insight of each other".

National convenor Shaykh Faiz Siddiqi declared himself to be "alarmed at the collapse of the whole concept and practice of civility in the recent events that began in Denmark". In fact he was so alarmed that he has helped launch the 'Campaign for Global Civility' - a noble cause, if ever there was one. "Unless we are prepared to respect everyone - ourselves and our neighbours - we will be surrounded by chaos," he said.

So the placards issued to demonstrators on February 18 in Trafalgar Square carried slogans such as "Don't they teach manners in Denmark?" and "The prophet Mohammed is the father of good manners". Another poster displayed the mildly worded admonition: "We do not fear debate or criticism, but no-one likes abuse."

This sentiment was expressed a little more forcefully by MAC spokesperson Imran Waheed, who said: "The Muslim community is not afraid of engaging in real debate - in fact we welcome it, but do not use insult as a basis or excuse for a debate." A speaker from the plinth was more specific: "Islam allows freedom of speech," he said, "but does not allow insults against religion." In other words, it does not allow freedom at all in any genuine sense, since, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, "Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently" - and such a person will inevitably give offence, especially to those who are easily insulted.

In the final analysis, then, behind all this talk about "civility" are some very backward notions: "Freedom to insult = freedom of speech," read one MAC placard, while yet another proclaimed: "Free speech = cheap insults".

The MAC has a set of reactionary demands, which it couches in similar language to that of its press release. It wants amendments to the Press Complaints Commission code of practice that would discourage the publishing of "reckless and malicious expressions insulting or desecrating anyone's creed or conscience, including pictures". At first sight that would seem to be proposing a ban in only the most extreme cases, but, if put into effect it could surely stop anybody publishing anything critical about religion ever again.

Similarly all-encompassing is MAC's second demand to the PCC - that "the press must avoid any publication or reference leading to provocation, incitement to violence or hatred based upon an individual's race or religion". As we have consistently pointed out, what for one person is "debate or criticism" is "provocation" for another.

When it comes to the newspapers that have already published "reckless and malicious expressions "¦ including pictures", Siddiqi's demands are rather laughable: "First, all those who have published these offending caricatures have to give an unconditional apology. The copyrights of the cartoons need to be given to muslims and, finally, the publications in question must publish a saying of the Holy Prophet - peace be upon him - every day for a year. This in turn would give the readers of those publications the opportunity to know exactly what contributions the prophet Mohammed - peace be upon him - made in promoting global civility."

In order to maintain the impression of moderation, in contrast to the demonstrations of a fortnight earlier, the organisers attempted to keep tight control over the 15,000 or so gathered in Trafalgar Square. No placards other than those distributed by the MAC itself were allowed - Greater London Authority officials, backed in the last resort by the police, were on hand to assist them in enforcing this. MAC stewards also asked paper-sellers and leafleters to leave the square - and summoned the police if they refused. Another example of their notion of free speech, no doubt.

Also kept out (on an apparently voluntary basis, it is true) were women and children, who were graciously permitted to watch and listen from the raised pedestrianised area outside the National Gallery at the rear of the square. There were, however, three women speakers on a plinth that was otherwise crammed with male clerics and political islamists.

Easily the best speaker - male or female - was Respect's Salma Yaqoob, whose contribution concentrated not so much on the cartoons as a religious attack - although her speech contained the obligatory religious phrases in Arabic - but on the political nature of islamophobia and the need for a political fightback.

"People fought hard to defend their rights - black and white together," she asserted. "Today white people march with us." Instead of ending with the usual religious rallying cry and response, she asked: "Do we want to work with our white brothers and sisters?" - to which a good many replied, "Yes!" A section also responded similarly when she urged the demonstrators to "come back on March 18 to say, 'Get out of Iraq! Don't attack Iran!'"

SWP opportunism

Welcome as this was, it goes without saying that the type of political fightback proposed by Respect is completely inadequate. Salma Yaqoob is hardly a working class politician and the Socialist Workers Party - which has exercised a degree of influence over her - does its utmost to keep principled working class politics out of Respect as well as out of the wider movement.

Nevertheless, amongst all the Arabic and religious chants, prayers and slogans, Yaqoob's speech was a positive one. The rally - beneath the plinth adorned with a rather ambiguous "Be careful with Mohammed" banner - lasted for almost four hours, before the demonstrators set off to march to Hyde Park.

The Weekly Worker, with its front-page headline, "Islamophobia: no! Free speech: yes!", was met with equanimity by most demonstrators. Nobody was hostile and many young muslims were attracted by the slogan and asked for copies.

One protestor calmly explained to us why he thought it was right that those who insulted islam should be killed. However, when one of our comrades pointed out that he believed Allah did not exist and asked whether this statement was not an insult, the young man agreed it was, but good-humouredly promised not to kill us or anyone else.

SWP and Respect comrades, however, stressed only their understanding of the demonstrators' feelings and agreement with their demands. A Respect circular to members argued that "Anti-war activists are only just trying to form relationships with the organisers "¦ We hope that their decision to demonstrate may be the first steps in a wider engagement with the anti-war movement.

"We should use this chance for Respect to help strengthen our links with the muslim community, make contacts and open the beginnings of a dialogue. We should avoid arguments with the organisers or stewards" (February 17).

This avoidance of "arguments" clearly went beyond organisational questions. The position of the SWP/Respect is virtually identical to that of the MAC on the question of free expression. According to a Respect leaflet handed out on the day, "'Freedom of speech' should not be abused as a convenient cloak to cover up racism."

In fact for the SWP it is the other way round: accusations of "racism" are used as a cover for the suppression of free speech. The cartoons were commissioned as part of the ongoing campaign to demonise muslims in Denmark and some were certainly intentionally offensive. But the response of those who were offended was not to regard it as an attack on their 'race' - which, however dubiously, convey notions of biology - but their religion.

One cannot know exactly what was in the artist's head when he drew the picture of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. But it is not hard to guess. Mohammed would have approved of planting bombs. Some/all muslims believe that doing so is in accordance with the prophet's views. Therefore, because of the nature of their religion all muslims are potential bombers.

In fact hardly any of the speakers at Saturday's rally said anything that could be interpreted as opposition to the Danish cartoons on the grounds of their alleged 'racism'. They want such images banned first and foremost because they regard them as sacrilegious.

This is not to say that for some - the British National Party, for instance - anti-islam is a convenient and less unacceptable form of racism. But the SWP in particular goes on from there to say that all attacks on islam - from whatever point of view - must be racist, since, apart from those who come from the Balkans, most muslims in Britain are black or brown.

Communists are certainly not arguing that freedom of speech should "be abused as a convenient cloak to cover up racism". But we are arguing for freedom of speech in the sure knowledge that some people will undoubtedly use it for ends which we thoroughly disapprove of. The implication and the dangers of the SWP/Respect position are quite clear. Laws which restrict or ban racism outright should be extended to include religion. The catholic church has already jumped in to agree. So will other faiths. In other words in the attempt to prevent offence to muslims Britain could end up with blasphemy laws which shield all religions from hostile attack or ridicule.

The SWP/Respect needs racism in order to excuse its abandonment of any pretence to defend free expression (and secularism). Racism serves as a fig leaf for its opportunism. The idea is to create a semi-hysterical atmosphere - eg, stupid claims that islamophobia is now so all-pervasive that such cartoons are merely the first step to the equivalent of the Nazi death camps. Ironically, to prevent such an outcome, the SWP/Respect wants to give the state wider and more oppressive powers. For Tony Blair or his successor this is a gift.

Thus, the Socialist Worker leaflet handed out on February 18 stated that, while islamists like Abu Hamza are jailed, "Nazi Nick Griffin "¦ scandalously walked free from court this month". It asks: "How can they utter the word 'justice' when Nazi thug Nick Griffin of the BNP escapes conviction for inciting hatred against muslims and black people in Britain?"

So the SWP not only believes that describing islam as a "vicious, wicked faith" and asylum-seekers as "cockroaches" ought to be enough to put Griffin and co behind bars. It also implies that further steps should be taken to ensure that this actually happens. It cannot have escaped the SWP's attention that Griffin 'escaped conviction' because a jury was unable to decide on his guilt. Perhaps the SWP agrees with Tony Blair not only on New Labour's anti-democratic religious hatred legislation, but on the introduction of no-jury trials as well. Maybe their extension to cases brought under the Race Relations Act would achieve the 'right' result.

The SWP's opportunism in its (correct) attempt to engage with muslims radicalised by the 'war on terror' and consequent islamophobia does not stop at echoing the calls of muslim leaders to ban this speech and that image. It leads it to play down any notion that its membership is made up of "secular socialists". So, in the same leaflet, the comrades state: "We believe in the unity of working people, no matter where they were born or how they pray" (my emphasis).

This is not just a case of careless phrasing. Rather than declaring for the secular principle of the equality of all religions and none as the basis for working class unity, the SWP implies that working people (including SWP members?) are (or would like to be viewed as?) believers.

But the most serious mistake of all in the SWP's approach is its total one-sidedness in its view of the current muslim mobilisation. It is progressive in that muslims are resisting attempts to demonise them. But the muslim establishment has formulated a set of demands that can only play into the hands of the Blairites and their control-freakery.

Certainly elements within the mosque can be allies in trying to build opposition to war and islamophobia. But the muslim establishment can never be an ally when it comes to building a principled, working class alternative. That is why our aim must be to break rank and file muslims away from that establishment and win them to a movement that sees the working class, not the mosque, as the answer.

Engaging from the left

Apart from the SWP/Respect and the CPGB, only two other left groups attempted to engage with the MAC demonstration. By contrast to the SWP and Respect, the Socialist Party and International Socialist Group issued leaflets that were relatively principled.

The Socialist Party flyer, based on its article in The Socialist (February 9-15), stated: "We oppose the production of any material that is used to create or deepen religious, ethnic, national or sexual divisions "¦ At the same time, it has always been the workers' movement that has been in the forefront of the struggle to win and defend democratic rights, including free expression "¦.

"We defend the democratic rights of all - non-believers and believers - to express their views. This includes the right to produce anti-religious material, whether it is philosophical or satirical."

The ISG comrades handed out a Socialist Resistance leaflet, which read: "We defend free speech and oppose censorship "¦ There has to be freedom of speech on religion, as on all questions of politics, philosophical outlook and morality. That is why we oppose the legislation proposing to criminalise the incitement of 'religious hatred'. Censorship and criminalisation will only strengthen the very state power responsible for stoking up islamophobia in the first place."