Why I changed my name to sound more Muslim

Recently, someone I know through my student AWL comrades told me about a claim a prominent student SWP member had made about me. This SWPer had told her that I changed my name to Sacha Ismail in order to sound more Muslim: the implication being that I was seeking to cover up or mitigate the AWL's supposedly "Islamophobic" - in fact secularist, anti-racist - politics. My original name, believe it or not, was John Smith.

(Just to be clear, I haven't changed my name. Sacha Ismail is my real name. My father is Bangladeshi and my full name is Alexander Salim Ismail: Sacha is short for Alexander.)

In itself, this is just ludicrous and bizarre - not worth mentioning in writing, let alone writing an article about. I am writing about it by way of introduction to a more general point, because it seems almost emblematic of the surreal torrent of lies which gets poured out against the AWL by some others on the left - particular the SWP, and particularly in the weird world of student politics.

Unfortunately, most of these lies are more significant than me changing my name. There are so many that it's hard to know where to start. The AWL supports the presence of Israeli troops in the Occupied Territories; we support an Israeli attack on Iran; we think Islam is worse than other religions... I have even been told, on Facebook, that we drag Muslim people into bars in order to then throw them out (yes, you read that right - that was from the same person who said my name is John Smith). The claims made by a small number of "left-wingers" run on and on, becoming more and more hysterical and implausible. God knows what gets said behind our backs, when we can't respond.

Let's take one example which is clear and instructive.

At the National Campaign and Fees and Cuts conference, there was a motion proposed by members of various left groups to oppose war and sanctions on Iran. It said nothing about the character of the Iranian regime or solidarity with its victims. We proposed a four line amendment stating our solidarity with the struggles of students, workers, women and national minorities in Iran (see here), which passed. Because of this, the SWP, Counterfire and others who had originally proposed the motion voted against it! That was bad enough. But it was not all.

SWP student leader Mark Bergfeld got up and told the conference AWL students had proposed the amendment because the AWL supports war on Iran! This was despite the fact that our amendment didn't remove a single word from the original motion. And despite the fact that it reiterated opposition to war. And despite the fact that in his speech for the amendment our comrade Bob Sutton began with our opposition to war and sanctions and repeated it several times.

It so happened that the back page of our paper that week also included a headline: "No to war and sanctions" - pretty clear evidence of our position, you would think.

The point is that members of the SWP, rather than debating their real diffrences with opponents on the left, particularly the AWL, regularly slander them. In the case of the Iran debate, they probably felt under particular pressure to do so, because their position - opposing any solidarity with Iranian students, workers etc as pro-imperialist - is really pretty embarrassing. Easier to claim the AWL is pro-war than to defend that.

If SWPers made arguments along the lines of: "We think the AWL's opposition to war on Iran is unreliable. Despite stating they oppose an attack, they published an article saying Israel had good reason to strike Iran's nuclear program. Is that a record we can trust? In any case, this is why we believe their stance on solidarity, despite its good intentions, weakens the thrust of the anti-war position we are trying to put forward..." - that would be wrong (in our view, of course), but at least a respect-worthy attempt to actually debate us. Why don't they do that? I think partly because many of them are not very confident in their own arguments, and partly because slandering opponents is increasingly part of their political DNA.

My student comrades also experienced this kind of nonsense in the election for University of London Union Vice President (see here). AWL member Daniel Lemberger Cooper, who won the election, was accused of all kinds of ridiculous things by campaigners for his opponent, SWP member Ross Speer, including being a racist and a sexist. (The large number of black, anti-racist and feminist activists who backed him across London, and particularly at his university Royal Holloway, obviously disagreed.)

There is no doubt that all kinds of people on the left tell lies about all kinds of other people on the left - that is one of the legacies of Stalinism which has polluted even anti-Stalinists. Why is the AWL the focus of so much lying? I think partly for political reasons: our ideas stand in fairly stark contradiction to much of what passes for "left-wing" politics. And partly for factional reasons, in that we have historically been of the SWP's main competitors in organising the student left, despite our small size. Those two streams have flowed together.

(For the record, if I ever hear an AWL member or contact saying something which I think misrepresents the position of another left-wing group - I take them up on it. And while I'm sure we are far from perfect, I think that reflects a broader culture in our organisation.)

I'm not sure why this kind of dishonesty and sectarianism is worse in the student movement than the labour movement. But I suspect it may be to do with the fact that people stay in the student movement for relatively brief periods of time. In the labour movement, where people often work together, in the same workplaces, industries and unions, for many years, there is a built-in tendency against this sort of behaviour. If SWPers in the NUT or Unison, for instance, regularly called us racist, they would much more quickly discredit themselves in the eyes of union activists. (And in fact, the SWP and AWL have worked together more closely, sometimes, in the unions, for instance standing on joint election slates for the national executive in Unison.) In the student movement too, though, the SWP's behaviour alienates a lot of people: which is one of the reasons that most independent left activists, including many who disagree with us about issues like Palestine, backed Daniel Cooper in the ULU election.

And on the other hand, there is lying and dishonesty on the left in the labour movement as well. In all cases, the willingness of the SWP and others on the left to tell lies about their opponents poisons the political atmosphere. Cut it out, comrades! Let's debate our differences openly and honestly instead.