Socialists and Muslims: Holier than thou?

Submitted by Janine on 5 September, 2004 - 9:26

My letter is inspired by Cathy Nugent’s review (Solidarity 3/56) of the novel Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam.

“I hope the Russians love their children too.”
Song lyric by Sting

“You give me 20 minutes or an hour — a special programme to dissect the Koran — and I will show you that we have a monster in our midst.”
Nick Griffin, BNP leader on “Newsnight”, 14 July 2004

“…some Christians justified the persecution and mass murder of Jews by claiming that Jews wanted to take over the world. But these fascist fantasies were based on deliberate lies, such as the notorious fake book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Now, many in the Muslim world are open about their desire for Islam to conquer the West.”
Anthony Browne, The Times’ Europe correspondent, in The Spectator, 24 July 2004

My letter is inspired by Cathy Nugent’s review (Solidarity 3/56) of the novel Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam. I want to give some content to the first idea in her final paragraph, and thereby, by implication, qualify the second idea: “There are many other stories that could be told about Britain’s Pakistani community. These may be stories of the mainly young people, and possibly richer people, who are happy to be integrated into UK society. But this story by Nadeem Aslam is much more urgent and important”.
By filling out the first idea, I am asking Solidarity to re-examine how it covers Islam, all religion, in fact, and Muslim life in Britain.
Filling out: “There are many other stories that could be told…” But I doubt whether a publisher would pick them up right now. Right now books about misery in Asian immigrant communities in Britain, written by people from those communities, are banked on by literary fiction departments. Every publishing house should have one.
Doubtless they are good books with important messages. But read in isolation I think they give a distorted view of Asian immigrant families.
So much for the world of literary fiction publishing; how are things in mainstream culture?
Mainstream culture gives us little picture of the huge amount of “natural love” — the “natural love” that the novel Maps for Lost Lovers argues for — already existing in Asian immigrant, including Muslim, families. “Natural love” between parents and children, siblings, spouses (even in marriages that were arranged), and, more than in indigenous British culture, other members of the extended family abounds. Doubtless, even among the Muslims that, fitting the stereotype, pressure their daughters to wear headscarves and marry a Muslim man from the sub-continent.
What is the effect of failing to give Muslims credit for this “natural love”? It feeds the general attitude in society that Muslims are more cold, more unfeeling, less human than non-Muslims. At the worst extreme, the sort of views the BNP now espouses, that Muslims are ready to put non-Muslims to the sword, or at least rape “their” women.
If you think views like this are fringe, remember: the BNP got 800,000 votes, 4.9% of the total, in the recent European elections; the UK Independence Party, whose views on race are nearly as bad as the BNP’s, got 2.65 million votes, 16.1% of the vote.
If what I say is true, if Muslims are “just like us”, aren’t they so despite their religion? Isn’t Islam worse than other religions (and a lot worse than no religion)?
While I acknowledge that different religions and cultures can be more or less humane, the gulf between Islam and other mainstream religions today and between the cultures they influence is far, far from yawning. (The idea that Islam is not so bad, really, compared to other religions, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc, is not a new idea in the AWL but, unfortunately, you don’t see it written down very often.)
Even the gulf between Islam-dominated culture and the predominant culture in Britain imagined without its immigrant cultures — “white” British culture, a mixture of atheism and uncompleted secularism, remnants of Anglicanism, non-conformism and Roman-Catholicism, and new forms of mumbo-jumbo like astrology, pseudo-Buddhism, etc — is not so yawning.
Particular sexist ideas that predominate within Muslim communities about women’s role and status are not, historically, light years, but less than a century behind ideas about women’s role among the indigenous “white” British population, as reflected in the young history of women’s rights in this country.
If I’m right about this, what proposals do I make for what the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty does and what Solidarity says?

1. We need to recognise that there is such a thing as Islamophobia. An unwarranted fear of Islam out of proportion to any threat. We should recognise that Islamophobia is being used to whip up and to excuse racist hatred against people of Asian origin. It is absurd to argue otherwise, as, for instance, Maryam Namazie of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran does in an article posted recently on the Workers’ Liberty website.
If Islamophobia means not fear but hatred of Islam, there is no value in proudly proclaiming our Islamophobia: “I do hate Islam!” That prevents us getting an audience among Muslims and thus prevents us… opposing Islam.
We should oppose Islam and Islamophobia.

2. We should separate out what we mean when we say we are against religion. There are many different ideas involved, and our activity and our propaganda will be richer if we tackle them separately, rather than rely on phrases like: “I hate religion, all religion”, “I hate Islam just like I hate Christianity”.
Some of those ideas are:
* we don’t believe in God, with all the ideas atheism implies in the way of people taking responsibility for their own action, etc.
* we support separation of religion and the state, secularism.
* we are for religious tolerance by the state and between religions.
* we oppose the authority of clerics, where they claim their authority from God; we expose clerical wrongdoing — we do not say that all clerics are bad people.
* we should not pretend that all religious thought, action, movements are bad. They cannot be, since they are made by people. What is erroneous is the view that such things are divinely inspired. It would be useful and probably chastening to catalogue the progressive actions that have been inspired by religious belief and by ideas developed by religious movements.

3. We have to present our ideas sensitively to Muslims and all religious people. It is hard to earn a hearing from a Muslim. We can try saying: look, we’re different from the Stalinists, and from Tony Blair, and from the British establishment… And we have to try. But why should they take our word for it? To most self-defined socialists and secularists, on the historic record, Muslims can justifiably say: “Who are you calling backward?”

4. We might research whether arguments against Judaism, the religion, were used as a cover for or justification of the anti-semitism in turn of the 20th-century Britain.

Finally, I make a plea for some soul-searching. Socialists are not immune to the ideas in society around them, to the images they receive through the media. We need to examine our attitudes and where necessary recalibrate our views. I began to after 9/11 2001.
Going into work a week after the Twin Towers and Pentagon attack I did a double-take as I emerged from the lift into the reception area of my workplace: there was a young Muslim woman working on reception wearing hijab, and I gave her a hostile look.
On this day my hostile reaction was not as a feminist to another woman wearing what I think is a reactionary piece of headgear — I do have that reaction — this was a racist reaction. Or if it wasn’t a racist reaction — because not all Muslims have brown skin — it was an Islamophobic reaction, although the phrase had yet to be invented, I think.
It was a hostile reaction to a Muslim as a Muslim, it was unfair and unuseful, and that I had had it, a second later made me ashamed of myself. The important question is: where did that reaction come from?
Vicki Morris, London

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