Keeping silent over 'offensive' film

Huw Bynon reports on the protests surrounding the film version of Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane - and wonders why Respect and the Socialist Workers Party will not comment

The filming in London's East End of Monica's Ali's Booker award-nominated novel Brick Lane about Bangladeshi life has been scrapped on police advice.

Two weeks ago Ruby Films, in association with Film Four, abandoned attempts to film in the community where the book is based. A small group of politicians, shop-owners and residents who originate in the Sylheti area of Bangladesh say that Ali, who is of mixed Bangladeshi-English parentage, does not represent the community, knows nothing about it and indeed has insulted it.

This supposed insult stems from Bengali characters in her novel who mock Sylhetis - they form the majority of Brick Lane's Bengali population - as "dirty little monkeys". They are "Uneducated. Illiterate. Close-minded."

However, despite the cancellation a planned demonstration went ahead on July 30. The protest followed previous attacks on the book by the same petty bourgeois community leaders in 2003, when it was published.

Following the initial announcement that filming would cease there has also been a split in the ranks of the liberal intelligentsia. Rightly, there were those who saw a parallel between the Brick Lane protests and the Christian fundamentalist attacks on Jerry Springer: the opera, the storming of Birmingham Rep by Sikhs protesting against Gurpreet Bhatti's play Behzti and the fatwah issued against Salman Rushdie over The Satanic verses.

Rushdie, along with Gillian Slovo, Hari Kunzru, Hanif Kureishi and Lisa Appignanesi, deputy president of the English branch of the writers' association PEN, signed a joint statement defending Monica Ali. However, this was attacked by the feminist Germaine Greer. Writing in The Guardian, Greer said: "The community has the moral right to keep the film-makers out" (July 24). A dangerous concession to those who fear freedom of expression and a morally repugnant stance.

So last Sunday about 60 demonstrators assembled at the end of Brick Lane. Hasanat Husain MBE, leading the demonstration, said that the 'community' was "offended by lies, slander and cynicism". He said there should be "a limitation to what you can write or can say, because we live in a multi-lingual and multi-cultural society, which all of us contributed to", adding that the book had "negatively portrayed and offended our community". With chants of "Monica's book - full of lies, full of slander" and "Stop demeaning the Bangladeshi community", the protest then proceeded to march along Brick Lane, finishing up at nearby Altab Ali park.

At the head of the campaign is the chair of the Brick Lane Traders Association and owner of several businesses in the area, Abdus Salique. A Labour councillor in Tower Hamlets, Salique had allegations of postal vote fraud levelled against him at the time of the 2005 general election. He was amongst the most prominent supporters of Oona King, the Blairite defeated by Respect's George Galloway. He reportedly smeared supporters of Respect with allegations of intimidation. Also prominent in the protest was Syed Nurul Islam, Liberal Democrat candidate in 2005.

The protests could be viewed as part of wider fight against Respect. There is definitely an agenda to lever support away from Galloway and Respect. The politics of the Tower Hamlet's Bengali population are dominated by various prominent businessmen who both cooperate with, and rival, each other. They own restaurants, shops, small factories and run import-export companies. They also take their families, supporters and retainers from one political party to another in the attempt to get themselves elected as councillors and promoted to positions of influence. So there is considerable chopping and changing. Labour to Lib Dems and now Respect, of course.

The politics of these men are extremely conservative when it comes to social issues. Hence the sensitivity of Respect when it comes to abortion, women's rights and gay equality. As a classic unpopular popular front, Respect's Socialist Workers Party leadership bows to its most conservative components. These small capitalists are concerned to preserve traditional religious values, traditional moral standards "¦ and traditional family power relations. In short their politics are patriarchal. Behind their concern for tradition and purity lies the exploitation of their own subordinate family members: wives, children, brothers, nephews. Here is the political economy that drives the anti-Monica Ali campaign.

What of the reaction from Tower Hamlets' second party? George Galloway has diplomatically urged calm while saying that it is "dangerous to spread alarmist rumours about the protest". He defends the "right of people to peacefully express how they feel". Yet, while he did not join the protests himself, he pointedly refuses to condemn calls for bans and censorship.

Interestingly, a Respect candidate for the May council elections, Hussain Ismail, reviewed Brick Lane when it was published for the SWP's Socialist Review. He wrote: "Monica Ali only touches the surface of the community, its pain, suffering and anger, and its attempt at combat. The racism and poverty in reality were far worse. The reaction to despair in the Bangladeshi community was the hope born out of individual and collective struggle. It is important to read this book, if only to enter this neglected world" (July 2003).

Sadly, given this critical, but on balance, favourable assessment, the SWP has disgracefully chosen to stay silent. But then what do we expect of the SWP? It did after all support Blair's religious hatred legislatio

n, showing that it is quite prepared to join with conservative sections of the 'muslim community' in calling for state bans and restrictions on free expression deemed 'offensive' or 'insulting'.