H O M E
Dear Salma Yaqoob
Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi
It is now almost four years since I last wrote - the last occasion was prompted by your speech to the Socialists Workers Party. However there has been much water under the bridge, and the heart is heavy.
What went wrong? So near and yet so far! Salma Yaqoob for Parliament seemed a certainty. Your friends are dazed and disappointed. Who would have thought that Roger Godsiff would retain his seat as the Labour MP for Birmingham Hall Green? But do not be disheartened – there will be further opportunities insha Allah. Godsiff’s margin of victory was under 4000 votes, and the fact that you polled 25% of the votes means that there is a not insignificant support base, that can grow, insha Allah. Many of us are puzzled how Godsiff managed to pull it off. After all he is not a particularly outstanding figure in the Commons and a certain pettiness of character came through in the revelations from the Expenses scandal – his ‘office sundries’ included a lawnmower, hedge trimmer, cushion covers and bath mats!
Perhaps the problem lies in the psyche of the local Pakistani community, though there may also be lessons in the way Muslim prospective candidates have conducted their campaigns. There was a similar example in Bradford West, where the Tory PPC Zahid Iqbal was unable to dislodge incumbent Labour MP Marsha Singh.
If we did a post-mortem on both your constituency and Zahid’s one can see at least two parallels: long-standing incumbent Labour MP succeeded because of the advantage of direct contact with constituents who come to the surgery with problems; the role of biradari-clan networks in delivering a block vote. However there may be other factors and this criticism is offered in a constructive spirit: how far were you and Zahid able to engage with ‘White’ voters? How far were both of you able to mobilize younger first-time voters, particularly women?
A further factor seems to be the continuing Labour-bias within BME communities – so that Party loyalty over-rides constituency-level tactical voting considerations. There is one way to deal with this – by raising specific issues and seeing how the different parties’ candidates respond. There are important lessons to be learned from Lib Dem Sarah Teather’s campaign. Her constituency of Brent East had been amalgamated with Brent South, so two incumbent MPs had to battle it out for Brent Central. Sarah Teather defeated Labour’s Dawn Butler not just because she emerged untainted from the Expenses scandal – but because she was strong on local issues such as schooling. Was there not a danger in your campaigning, Salma, that you focused on matters that were not of direct concern to the voters on Stratford Road?
So the lessons seem to be: keep connected with constituents, engage ‘White’ voters; speak local.
There are options to consider. With the Tory-Lib Dem pact, it seems that the New Labour project has reached the end of the road. There will have to be a realignment of the Left, moving closer to the traditional left-wing values of solidarity and social justice. Would not such a cleansed Left be a more natural home for your politics? Respect was a single issue movement and it is time for a requiem there as well. Abjol Miah was trounced in Bethnal Green and Bow, while dear George Galloway could never quite shake off his Big Brother celebrity fiasco and was beaten by both Labour and Tory in Poplar and Limehouse. It would be mere sentimentality if you continued with Respect. The support you received in Hall Green was not because of the Respect Party, but because of you as an articulate, principled and sincere person.
If this option is not acceptable, then why not eschew parliamentary ambitions and re-enter Muslim civil society? New Labour and its Prevent programme have succeeded in fissuring Muslim civil society and a healing touch is now required. The need of the hour is for someone who can be an authentic, unifying and inspirational figure, particularly for younger Muslims, men and women.
You have already chaired sessions of the Muslim Council of Britain and recently participated in its national community consultation on Islamophobia. Taking up the mantle of leadership in the community’s premier leadership body could be your natural home. Become the Sistani of British Muslims.
From a Political Observer
Some of the advice I do agree with. I have tendered similar advice to RESPECT members in TH. Go back to the Labour Party or any other mainstream parties incl. the Greens.
I really do not think REPECT is a viable political party any longer. They have been wiped out from TH and they will never return back. Its Chairman and chief funder resigned yesterday and on BBC London Tonight said he will not give a single penny more. Galloway's "disappearance" has totally disillusioned his once loyal supporters. He even failed to turn up at the vote count!
The British upper class has re-established its poltical hegemony after 65 years. 65% of the Cabinet are from Oxbridge and 61% from public schools.
The Labour Party needs to get real and go back to its roots. And we will not make any progress towards that goal if either of the Millibands get elected as a new leader! Though I have great regards for the father, Ralph- a profound Marxist political scientist on whose books I grew up in university, but I do not have the same regard for the sons who are true New Labour. Also others like Jon Cruddas are intellectual lightweights notwithstanding the tremendous fight back against BNP in Barking & Dagenham.
There is no future for progressive politics as long as New Labour and the 'sons of New Labour' are not truly defeated in the battle of ideas and in the battle for the soul of the future Labour Party.
If, and it is a big if, the Con-dem alliance sustains then the progressive left will be in the wilderness for a long time to come! That is unless they start re-connecting with the bottom third of the British society and begins articulating their hopes, aspirations and dreams. Just pandering to middle England will not just simply do. The Con-dem will do a better job of it.
==================================================================================================== July 2006
The word on the street is that the Muslim Council of Britain is inviting you to join its central working committee for the 2006-2008 term. I very much hope you will accept, because this is the closest Muslims in Britain have to a debating chamber. You will be pleasantly surprised by this committee’s capacity to examine issues from all points of view before reaching a conclusion. You will represent not only the Respect Party constituency within our community, but also the generation of incredibly talented young Muslim women making their mark on British life. For example there is Dr Amna Malik, art historian at the Slade, film maker Alia Syed, writer on cultural politics Sara Ahmed….perhaps your characteristic inclusive approach would help build links with those circles the old grey beards cannot reach. You ran a remarkable campaign as the Respect candidate in Birmingham, coming second with a vote of 27%. You were brave to stand up to the bully boys of the ‘voting is haram’ tendency within our community and I agree with you that this is a “spoof group with no real base or roots anywhere”.
There seems to be a sense of rapprochement with the Left in the air and a convergence of thinking, if I compare recent statements of Tariq Ali and Tariq Ramadan. The reason I am raising this with you – apart from the fact that you have a good political antennae – is that I presume you will be fighting your corner in the MCB’s central working committee to argue for ‘principled alliances’ with the Left. My concerns are to do with the bases for constructing trusting and trustworthy alliances on a fair assessment of the situation and avoid glosses. We need your expertise to better understand the nuances within the British Left, and the phenomenon of yesterday’s progressives emerging as today’s neo-cons.
First it seems to me the role of religion and importance of religious values is being underplayed. On the one hand, Tariq Ramadan argues that “the rate of religious observance among young Muslims is relatively low, which means that for many of them integration into their host countries has actually meant assimilation”. He backs this contention with the statistic that only about 12-18% of young Muslims pray. In the other corner, so to speak, we have the veteran socialist Tariq Ali stating that “religion is not the central element in the life of Muslims. People work, eat, make love, build families. Some go to the mosque, others don’t. Exactly like in other parts of the world…I think that among young people there are more points of convergence than there are differences. I am an optimist: the importance of religious dividing lines will not last”. I think both Tariqs are taking Eurocentric positions and are losing touch with the street.
One I believe is coming from the position that European values are so close to the ‘maqasid al-shariah’ that the struggle is no longer one of core beliefs but of civil rights and fighting racism. The other remains the Marxist internationalist who views all religious history through the prism of the European Enlightenment: “We are in desperate need of an Islamic Reformation that sweeps away the crazed conservatism and backwardness of the fundamentalists but, more than that, opens up the world of Islam to new ideas which are seen to be more advanced than what is currently on offer from the west. This would necessitate a rigid separation of state and mosque; the dissolution of the clergy; the assertion by Muslim intellectuals of their right to interpret the texts that are the collective property of Islamic culture as a whole; the freedom to think freely and rationally and the freedom of imagination”.
Notwithstanding our two Tariqs, from what I can see, the religious identity is strong and kicking. Over 92% of all Bengladeshis and Pakistanis responded to the religion question in the 2001 Census, ticking the ‘Muslim’ box. Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe that we have multi-layered identities; it is just that I don’t think they are all on one plane. Surely there is a hierarchy because there are some we would be prepared to die for? If I am a football fan and it is Election Day, I hope my identity as a Lib Dem supporter would prevail over my allegiance to Arsenal.
Sarah Glynn in a brilliant paper writes, “George Galloway and Respect are attempting to unite Muslim groups and socialists to an instant radicalism; but one thing that Islamists and Marxists both agree, is that their respective philosophies are based on different, and mutually incompatible, understandings of ultimate truth. A religion such as Islam may incorporate ideas that can be interpreted as socialist, but the very name, Islam, means submission to the rule of God, as revealed to Muhammad. In the Marxist view, ‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man’…this does not mean that Marxists and Islamists cannot and should not work together on particular issues when, as is often the case, they share similar immediate aims. But each should remember that their ultimate aims are very different. There have been many times in history when alliances have been formed, and as many bitter disappointments. This Popular Front politics is achieved at the expense of fundamental principles. The Islamists know this. They have kept a semi-detached position, and (apart from the pressures caused by their revolutionary co-religionists) have generally come through the political upheavals of the last few years stronger and uncompromised” (in ‘Marxism and Multiculturalism’).
That is why I am a bit worried, Salma, when I note passages such as these (from your speech to the Socialist Workers Party): “If we want our [anti-war] movement to be strong, if we want to create the biggest force possible against the real enemy right now – then we have to have a united basis for it….I find myself in the curious position of having more in common with atheist, socialist activists than with some of my own Muslim brothers and sisters. But for me it is not a compromise, for me it is very much an expression of what I understand to be the Islamic notions of justice. If you want to call it socialist internationalism and I call it Islamic notions of brotherhood and sisterhood I don’t care – as long as it means that we work in solidarity with those who are oppressed around the world”. I am worried because I am not sure whether you see the alliance based on immediate aims or ultimate aims – drawing on Glynn’s terms cited above. Moreover, as an astute commentator of the Muslim scene, R. Ahmed, observes, “the ‘problematic’ (to borrow a term from Althusser) for MCB or like-minded fellow-travellers is in whose language we conduct the debate? This is of utmost critical importance as language is a powerful weapon. If we are unable to formulate our discourse within our own ‘epistemological framework’, then we are not going to be able to set the agenda or even be effective in articulating what our position is or should be”. Salma, please take this in the spirit that it is given – the desire to engage with you in a constructive mode.
Of course there is a convergence with the Left on immediate aims - a wide swathe would identify the ‘enemy’ (your term) as the war-mongering neo-cons, who believe that the US should, in the words of Fukuyama “use its margin of power to exert a kind of benevolent hegemony over the rest of the world”. A less rose-tinted view is that neo-conism is about exercising US power to do away with ‘evil empires’ in the world. Thus the bloody colonialist experiments in Iraq and elsewhere with the colossal human cost borne by Muslims. ‘Evil empires’ is code-speak for those offering resistance to the US hegemon. The Left, historically anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist is apparently a natural ally of Muslims in their resistance to the hegemon. ‘Trot’ George Galloway has spoken out with far more courage and panache than all the Muslim MPs in the House put together.
However I would urge that life is not that simple. It seems that given the choice between the anti-imperialism struggle and Israel, influential left wingers have chosen the latter: “most of the first generation of neo-cons were Jewish; just about all of the later ones were. Israel looms large for many of them, such as Mr Feith, [US] undersecretary of defence for policy, who are closely identified with hard-line policies of the Likud party. But to others, Israel is one of a number of friendly democracies such as Britain whose continued well-being is in American interests” (Stephen Fidler and Gerard Barker, writing in the Financial Times, 6th March 2003). If left wing intellectuals have made their choice in this way – placing Zionist interests over US interests – Muslims should not enter the alliance with unrealistic expectations. Put aside Israel – you will recall there was some confusion in the Left on how to respond to the Balkan crises. Old Labour Party hands were quietly sympathetic of Serbia and even outspoken against the NATO bombing of Serbian forces in Serbia and Kosovo – out of a lingering nostalgia for Tito’s Yugoslavia and the belief that his brand of communism had straddled ethnic divisions? Are trusting and trustworthy alliances possible with crypto-Zionists and crypto-Stalinists? Even in the writings of the much-respected Noam Chomsky, one is hard-pressed to find the word ‘Israeli lobby’ and he was recently embroiled in a controversy relating to the true scale of the genocide in Srebenica.
So I hope that one of your contributions in the MCB would be to help the organisation think through the Muslim engagement with the British Left and look out for the signals of emerging neo-cons – we have been surprised when the likes of Tony Blair or Martin Bright have emerged in their true colours. Recently the Euston Manifesto nailed its declarations on Islington railings. It rejects “without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking. It considers as “disgraceful” the “ alliances lately set up inside the ‘anti-war’ movement with illiberal theocrats”. The Manifesto goes on to say, “Anti-Zionism has now developed to a point where supposed organizations of the Left are willing to entertain openly anti-Semitic speakers and to form alliances with anti-Semitic groups ….Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today. It threatens democratic values and the lives and freedoms of people in many countries”. All this without a word on state terrorism and the war crimes in Iraq and Palestine.
Moreover, if we base our alliance on the basis of shared values – most notably peace and social justice – what about Tory initiatives such as the ‘Centre for Social Justice’, whose slogan is ‘Putting social justice at the heart of British politics’? The old divisions of Labour being progressive and the Tories reactionary are not clear cut, are they? And then there are other questions: what is the lie of the land as Gordon Brown seeks to position himself in the centre Left? To whose advantage is a hung Parliament in 2010?
You have your work cut out for you!
Yours sincerely, al-Maktabi