On the weekend of 31 October, British Muslims for Secular Democracy organised a demonstration against the (cancelled) Islam4UK march in central London. Its vice-chair, Dr Shaaz Mahboob, spoke to Solidarity, about their aims and political views.
British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD) began in 2006. It was felt that the concept of democracy was being slowly eroded within the British Muslim community. More and more Muslims had the idea that politics is entirely about foreign policy — the Iraq war, Palestine and so on — and confidence in democratic forces and the governing principles of democracy were fading.
The organisation was begun by those who wanted to “re-promote” the idea of secular democracy — the idea that only a secular democracy can provide the breathing space for people who follow different faiths or no faith at all to prosper, to create an environment without preference or discrimination in which people can live according to their own wishes.
The founders were Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the journalist, and Nasrin Rahman, the well-known playwright — good friends who agreed to work together.
I joined because, after 7/7, I had been involved in a group called Progressive British Muslims, but I decided we should pool our resources.
We launched formally in May 2008, after we’d successfully registered with the Charity Commission.
We don’t have members, as we don’t claim to be a representative organisation. We function more as a think tank, commenting on issues, lobbying, influencing policy. We have a vast range of individuals on our mailing lists.
What sort of people are involved in the organisation?
In terms of ethnic origin, there are people on our board from South Asia, East Africa, and now North Africa as well. In terms of religious belief, it’s not important to us. Some people are religious, some are not, but for our activity it’s not relevant. From our point of view, if you identify yourself as a Muslim, you are, whether it’s religious, cultural or whatever.
One important thing to note is the involvement of women in BMSD. We were founded by women, our director Tehmina Kazi is female, so is our chair Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, so is my co-vice-chair Nasrin Rahman.
What have you done since you were founded?
Last weekend was our first demonstration. Prior to that, we’ve focused mainly on holding low-key events which would get together 10 or 15 young people to discuss contentious issues they felt unable to discuss in their community, in their family, among their friends, whether it’s for cultural reasons or whatever — issues like the burkha, or sex before marriage. We would involve these people via our email lists, through Facebook and so on.
We have also run “democracy workshops” alongside Praxis, which supports new immigrants and refugees when they arrive in the UK. These discuss the basic ideas of democracy and allow people to discuss their reservations about how they perceive democracy in this country. It’s a two-way dialogue.
In addition, we’ve held high-level meetings with the Home Office and the Foreign Office to discuss policies that are being formulated, and participated in delegations to Muslim countries.
Why do you think political Islam has been growing?
It’s partly a reaction to events since 9/11. Because of certain policies that have emerged from the western powers, from Britain and the US, people have asserted their religious identity. Before that, racism and discrimination were a focus for communities, but since then religion has taken precedence — particularly for Muslims, who have faced a lot of discrimination as Muslims. So it’s a good time for hard-line religious organisations to capture the imagination of young people.
Of course there were influential Islamist organisations before, for instance the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jamaat e-Islami in Pakistan. But after the fall of the USSR their influence was on the decline — until 9/11.
Isn’t there a social element too? I mean, don’t we have to look at the social conditions in which they are recruiting young people?
I think if you look at the differences between Britain and America, they are significant. In the US, there was much more careful control of which Muslims were allowed to enter, for economic needs, and you got mainly people from educated backgrounds, often from the big cities. In Britain, you had mass immigration in the 1950s and after, often people from rural backgrounds who ended up working in industries like the textile mills. They often had very conservative ideas, and clinging to their traditional religion and culture seemed like a way of preserving their identity in a period of flux. This was particularly true after jobs like textiles started to disappear.
That’s the mix in which the Islamists are recruiting today.
Isn’t there another element to this, by which I mean the decline of working-class organisations like unions which previously would have integrated migrants but are now much, much weaker? And the decline of the left? Even 20 years ago many disaffected Asian youth looked to the left, but now these people are going to the Islamists and other communalists.
You’re right that institutions like unions faded away. But don’t assume that people were always engaged by these organisations. A big problem is that bodies like unions failed to engage immigrant workers, and left them to their own devices. They experienced racism not only from the state, but from institutions at every level of British society. To an extent, there was a wall between the native British population and newcomers, a wall running all the way down.
On a related point, some might say that yours is a middle-class movement which can’t relate to those the Islamists attract. How would you respond?
I would say that somebody had to come up with the organisation, and we did it. All we can do is use the channels available — including the press outside the mainstream, like your paper — to reach the communities that are facing serious discrimination and social problems. And, in fact, more and more people are approaching us and asking for guidance. We are looking to form alliances and expand our network. If we do that we are confident we can engage with young Muslims, and help them take control of their destinies independently of the extremist clerics and the sectarians.
Could you be seen as endorsing the status quo? After all, we don’t live in a secular state. And there is an erosion of secularism, for instance with religious schools.
What we believe is that in all practical senses, British is a secular democracy, more secular in fact that France or Turkey (which take discriminatory measures such as banning headscarfs) or the US, where there is a massive religious influence in both political and daily life. So in a way we do endorse the status quo. If there are move to rethink the constitutional set up in Britain, we wouldn’t object to that, but for the time being we want to make the best of the democracy we have and encourage people to engage with it.
We feel that when people turn to the Islamists, or to far-right organisations like the EDL, they are like a youngster with a new car who doesn’t know how to drive — and then curses the car. We need to get people to learn to engage with democracy again.
On schools, we are absolutely opposed to all-state funded religious schools. You can’t stop private schools, but state-run religious schools are against everything we stand for. By subsidising religious schools we move towards a model of institutionalised religious discrimination, where a few people are favoured and a majority discriminated against. I mean, there are people who claim Jedi is a religion — logically, why shouldn’t they have their own schools too?
What’s your assessment of the demonstration on Saturday?
It was a huge success — to be honest we weren’t expecting such success in terms of turn out and in terms of Islam4UK cancelling their march. In fact, they moved it to another location in East London, where they felt more secure; an obscure location, so that the press only found out later.
They cancelled because they felt it would be embarrassing to be challenged by a large group of democrats, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. They would have been exposed as a tiny fringe, as against the large majority of British Muslims and non-Muslims who are sick of people trying to use religion or nationality as a political punchline. So we had our counter-demonstration, but instead it turned into a positive celebration of democracy and freedom.
Why didn’t you also raise anti-EDL slogans?
The police told us that the EDL were not involved, as did the English Democrats. The people there on the day had none of the slogans or rhetoric the EDL bring with them. There was no friction, and they said nothing against us. As far as we could tell they were not racist or Islamophobic. We kept our distance from them, but I want to repeat that there was no friction.
We only had minimal interaction with the English Democrats, but there was nothing that implied that they are racist or homophobic. We’re watchful of what people do or might do in future, which is why we kept our demonstration separate, but there was no indication of anything like that.
Please note that we didn’t even attack Islam4UK, or al-Muhajiroun, or [their leader] Anjem Choudary directly. Our slogans were positive slogans in favour of democracy.