Thanks to Alex Snowdon for this great response to Mehdi Hassan
Posted: 03 Apr 2012 03:33 PM PDT'British Muslims must step outside this anti-war comfort zone'.I was surprised and dismayed when I read the latest article by Mehdi Hasan, politicaleditor of the New Statesman. He is someone I respect and very often agree with.But his article for the Guardian struck me as severely mis-judged.Hasan makes a number of propositions. I will run through them and indicatewhere in his article you will find them (this may seem fussy, but at leastnobody can complain I'm not substantiating my summary of his views).First, he argues that claims that 'it was the Muslims wot won it' for George Galloway are in fact correct (1st paragraph). Second, he echoes the right-wingpreoccupation with religion (specifically Islam) in understanding the BradfordWest result - at the expense of political considerations like poverty,inequality, war and austerity (second, third and fourth paragraphs).
Third, he argues that Muslims have been preoccupied with war and need to focusmore on domestic issues, notably austerity, which they have allegedly failed tomobilise around (fifth, sixth and seventh paragraphs). Fourth, he suggests thatan anti-austerity agenda was not (contrary to Galloway's own claims) animportant factor in Respect's win (eighth paragraph).
Fifth, he argues that Muslims' apparent preoccupation with foreign policy givesracists a propaganda boost. He seems to be saying here that Muslims are partlyresponsible for fuelling Islamophobia. This is a deeply contentious claim - one I hope he retracts (tenth and eleventhparagraphs).
Sixth, and finally, he seems to imply that being taken seriously as more thanjust anti-war requires a rejection of Respect. Considering Hasan's ownpolitical allegiance, he seems to be suggesting that Muslims should getinvolved in Labour because it works across the political board, whereas Respectmeans being stuck in 'an anti-war ghetto'. I am being a little more speculativein saying this is part of his argument, but it's a synoptic point based on areading of the whole article and a knowledge of his other work.
Before I respond to particular points, let's get a few potential misconceptionsout of the way.
Hasan does not have any automatic authority here because he is himself aMuslim. Neither should we - conversely - dismiss him because he is aLondon-based pundit with a nice salary who's out of touch with working classMuslims in Bradford. These things are irrelevant.It is the political substance that matters - I don't care who themessenger is. Hasan himself sadly has different standards. When Richard Seymourchallenged his lazy analysis on Twitter, his response included a jibe about theSWP. This sectarianism only served to diminish him.It is very welcome that Hasan has acommendable track record of often powerful and incisive anti-war writing and support for the anti-warmovement. But that doesn't prevent him being wrong about this.Let's run through those points in turn.The high Muslim population of Bradford West was, yes, a demographicfactor making it more likely that Galloway could make an electoralbreakthrough. But the 'it was the Muslims wot won it' line is one I'd expect toread in a right-wing paper like the Telegraph. It reinforces the notion of acohesive Muslim block which can be mobilised for elections. That's the popularright-wing stereotype Hasan is drawing on here.This notion depends, in turn, on two further assumptions. One, that theMuslim community is operating in a dubious and communalist manner in relationto elections. Two, that Muslim voters are dupes who will do whatever they'retold, an unthinking and undifferentiated mass.Hasan must be aware of theseperceptions - and the extent to which right-wing commentators have mobilisedthem in the last few days. He could use his column to challenge them or toimplicitly reinforce them. He made the wrong choice.Then there's the use of religion as the prism through which to assessthe result. Again, this is a right-wing trope. It depoliticises the wholesubject and condescendingly (and inaccurately) treats Muslim voters as Muslimsonly, when they might also be workers or unemployed or parents or pensioners orwhatever other categories you can think of. It is a discourse that accepts coreright-wing assumptions.What about the argument that Muslims should care about, and organisearound, issues other than war and imperialism? Well, yes. But who on earthargues otherwise? If there isn't anybody arguing otherwise then it is - bydefinition - a straw man argument.Instead of engaging with a genuinealternative viewpoint, he is setting up a false case then shooting it down.There will have been Muslims on the 26 March demo, but they weren't necessarilymobilising as Muslims, through the Muslim community. Two million workers tookstrike action on 30 November 2011. Some of them will have been Muslims.His dismissive reference to an 'anti-war ghetto' is disappointing.It wasn't always the case that Muslim communities were politically involved andforming alliances with non-Muslims. One of the greatest achievements of theanti-war movement was, and remains, the on-going co operation and unitedmobilisations of Muslims with non-Muslims on the left, peace activists, tradeunionists, and so on.This should not be treated dismissively with the cheapcaricature of an 'anti-war ghetto'. Such unity had to be worked for, argued for, fought for - in opposition to elements of the left which were sceptical (to put it politely) of working with Muslims, and simultaneously the more separatist and reactionary elements inside Muslim communities.Hasan claims to want to help Muslims emerge from their 'anti-warghetto'. Yet he is the one claiming they're not politically sophisticatedenough to have been motivated by anything other than anti-war sentiment lastThursday. This takes some nerve. Read the accounts by people who live in theconstituency to get a sense of the mix of factors influencing the result. Twogood examples are here and here.Let's also take a step back to reflect on why Respect originated in thefirst place, and why its earlier incarnation (2004-07, prior to the verydamaging split in November 2007) had modest but significant success. There werethree levels to the political basis of Respect.The first level was the war on terror and the anti-war movement which itprompted. The war in Iraq especially created a massive rift between Labour andmillions of its supporters. This was true throughout society, but particularlyacute in the Muslim community.The second level was deeper: a general disaffection with a New Labouradministration that pursued policies of privatisation and deregulation,curtailed trade union rights, eroded civil liberties, stoked up Islamophobia,and allowed the gap between rich and poor to grow. Iraq was very importantitself, but also a lightning rod for a whole set of other issues.The third level was deeper still: the legacy of a quarter of century ofneo-liberal policies, recurring capitalist crisis, growth in inequality, and ageneralised anti-establishment mood marked by a sharp alienation frommainstream politics and a nagging sense that democracy had become hollowed out.It is this multi-layered analysis that provides an understanding of howa radical left-of-Labour electoral challenge was possible. This analysis isstill largely relevant today. Labour is now in opposition, so the situation isnot exactly the same. But last Thursday reminded us that Labour has notrecovered from the damage done by its culpability in the devastation of Iraq.This failure to recover credibility and support isn't merely a matter of Labour's relationship to its own past. It has a great deal to do with the party's continued support for allmanifestations of the 'war on terror'.It should, then, be clear that Hasan gets it fundamentally wrong when hetries, vainly, to separate war from everything else that matters to people,Muslim and non-Muslim alike. It is a conservative argument by depoliticisingthe votes cast for Galloway, fragmenting politics into artificially separatespheres, and ignoring the capacity for people who are Muslim to be a wholebunch of other things too.We come, then, to the most troubling element in the article. Here iswhat Hasan writes:'It isn't just a combination of anti-terror laws and media demonisationthat has hindered efforts at Muslim integration into mainstream Britishsociety. So, too, has the reluctance of many British Muslims to step outsidethe political comfort zone of the anti-war movement. When we only talk offoreign affairs, is it any wonder that we seem to come across as foreigners?Muslims do not lack for opponents or antagonists; those who want to portray usas foreign, alien, un-British, are growing in number. We should not be handingthem a club with which to beat us.'
I find it hard to believe Hasan can really believe this, but it is what he haswritten. Hasan is putting 'the reluctance of many British Muslims to stepoutside the political comfort zone of the anti-war movement' together with'anti-war terror legislation and media demonisation' as a cause of problemswith Islamophobia and discrimination in our society. If that isn't at leastpartially blaming the victims of racism for the racism they suffer, what is it?
It crassly overlooks the contribution of the anti-war movement to Muslim'social integration', the way the movement broke down barriers and helpedconfront and challenge rising anti-Muslim racism. Can Hasan really think thatMuslims demonstrating over foreign policy issues is responsible, even slightly,for racist perceptions of British Muslims as 'other' and deserving of socialexclusion?
It is the 'war on terror' and the poisonous, racist discourse which has beenits ideological accompaniment that has promoted such bigotry towards Muslimshere. The anti-war movement has pushed in the opposite direction.When tens ofthousands of British Muslims took to the streets of London to protest againstIsrael's brutal assault of Gaza, united with many others not from Muslimbackgrounds, were they 'handing them [racists] a club with which to beat us'?Were they aiding 'those who want to portray us as foreign, alien, un-British'?Finally, we come to Hasan's implicit endorsement of a supposedlyall-encompassing Labour over an apparently single-issue Respect. It isrevealing what Hasan doesn't say here. The Labour Party historically has anappalling record on imperialism and war (whatever the stance of many individual members). In the last decade it has been evenworse.Those who can be broadly defined as the Labour Left are often much betteron these issues - especially most of the Campaign Group MPs and of course manythousands of grassroots party members - but I'd argue that many of the broadLabour left have a poor record. For every Jeremy Corbyn or Paul Flynn there are10 'soft left' MPs who won't vote for troops to be brought home fromAfghanistan, but will vote for bombing Libya. Voting against the invasion ofIraq (as many of them did, under enormous pressure) has not been matched bybroader opposition to the 'war on terror'.Rather than lecturing ordinary Muslims, shouldn't Hasan be directing hiscriticism at elected MPs, Labour Party leaders and so on? Why isn't hedemanding they connect with Muslims by adopting anti-war policies? (there areof course many other reasons for adopting such policies). #Why doesn't he demand they address the deep grievances over disastrous New Labour policies (across a range of issues) felt by people from all backgrounds? Hasan is writing for a left-of-centre readership which isoverwhelmingly non-Muslim. Aside from the specific errors he makes, hecertainly has a strange sense of audience and priorities.I have devoted more time than I would have liked to refuting thisarticle. But when people on the left echo the arguments of the right, giveammunition to our opponents and undermine those of us fighting cuts, war andracism, then they need to be called out.It has been clear from my Twitter timeline that some socialists - whoshould know better - have defended Hasan's article. We need to see clearly and hit the correct targets if we'regoing to be build stronger (and multi-racial) movements of resistance andnurture a powerful, non-sectarian, Left.
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