Muslim women fighting for women’s rights have been largely abandoned by the left, by human rights organisations, and by anti-racist campaigners.
That sums up the basic argument put forward by Gita Sahgal at a meeting held in Glasgow on 28 October as part of Black History Month 2010.
Sahgal left her post of Head of Gender Unit at Amnesty International earlier this year after Amnesty had ignored her complaints about the organisation’s collaboration with Islamists (specifically, Moazamm Begg and his “Cageprisoners” organisation).
Sahgal began her talk with excerpts from a documentary which she had helped make about war crimes committed by the Islamic-fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh during its war of independence in the early 1970s. Members of the organisation massacred hundreds of thousands and committed mass rape.
Bangladesh achieved its independence. As a result of the growing influence of Islamism, it falls well short of being a fully secular state. But there is now an ongoing popular campaign to secularise Bangladesh, spearheaded by women and youth.
It was therefore wrong, concluded Sahgal, to see secularism as something imposed on other countries by the West.
From Bangladesh in the early 1970s Sahgal moved on to Britain in the late 1980s, dealing with the attempts to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and the campaigning work undertaken by women in the Muslim community, such as Women Against Fundamentalism, in opposition to the increasing influence of Islamism.
Jamaat-e-Islami provided the link.
British Islamists who called for an extension of the blasphemy laws and for Satanic Verses to be banned included Bangladeshi Jamaat-e-Islami members who had migrated to Britain. The Islamist campaign against Satanic Verses also gave rise to the later emergence of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), in which Jamaat-e-Islami supporters continue to occupy leading positions.
Excerpts from documentaries which Sahgal had made at the time showed women from the Muslim community staging counter-demonstrations against the Islamist anti-Rushdie demonstrations, and also organising demonstrations in protest at domestic violence.
Their slogan was “Here to Doubt, Here to Fight”. This was an adaptation of the anti-racist slogan of the 1970s, “Here to Stay, Here to Fight”. It meant that women in the Muslim community were not prepared to surrender their right to question the social “orthodoxies” which the increasingly vociferous Islamists were wanting to impose on them.
But the excerpts from her documentaries also showed the start of a different political response to the reactionary Islamist mobilisation around Satanic Verses: a readiness by politicians to accept the Islamist leaders as genuine representatives of their communities, and a willingness to accommodate to their demands.
Both Labour and Tory MPs, for example, put their names to a Bill which sought to extend the blasphemy laws to cover Islam as well as Christianity. (By contrast, the late socialist Labour MP Eric Heffer was shown calling for the abolition of all blasphemy laws.)
This failure to confront Islamism and this accommodation to its political demands was described by Sahgal as “one of the most remarkable and saddest aspects of politics since the Rushdie Affair, or since 9/11 in 2001.”
Organisations like the MCB had been boosted and funded as government partners, supposedly providing a conduit into the Muslim community. As Sahgal pointed out, this was a continuation of an old colonial policy: to allow some self-appointed leaders to rule over their followers as they wished, provided that they kept them from rebelling against the colonial power itself.
In Afghanistan and Iraq the West had espoused the cause of women’s rights. But it had not hesitated to abandon the same cause by appeasing and forming alliances with Islamists. There could therefore be no reliance on Western governments to promote women’s rights.
On the left, organisations such as the Stop the War Coalition had boosted the Muslim Association of Britain (the British “section” of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood) while the political party “Respect” was effectively an alliance between sections of the left and Jamaat-e-Islami supporters.
The MCB was not even prepared to recognise Ahmaddiya Muslims as Muslims, still less represent them (or, Sahgal might have added, defend them against the murderous attacks of Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan).
The Islamic Human Rights Commission, another Islamist organisation popular with the left, was concerned only with what it defined as the breaches of human rights of Muslims committed by Western governments (and Turkey) but did not lift a finger to defend the human rights of those oppressed by Islamist regimes such as Iran.
And yet, in the name of “anti-racism”, the bulk of the left and the bulk of the anti-racist movement had shrunk back from confronting the threat posed by the rise of Islamism as a political movement.
Nor was there any reason to suppose that the situation was going to improve in the immediate future as more funding was being made available for “faith-based” groups to fill the gap left by cutbacks in local-authority social services.
This would provide an opportunity for Islamist organisations not only to secure more funding from the government but also — as the holders of the purse-strings for local social expenditure — to exercise a greater degree of influence and control in Muslim communities.
Some of what Sahgal said was open to criticism. But it was refreshing to hear a spirited denunciation of Islamism and the threat it poses to women’s rights in particular.
It would have been better to have heard such a denunciation in a socialist meeting or in a trade union meeting rather than in the Glasgow Centre for Contemporary Arts.
But the venue for Sahgal’s talk underlined the point she was making: the bulk of the left, having accommodated to political Islam at the expense of women’s rights, would not be prepared to hold such a meeting.