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Submitted by AWL on Sat, 23/11/2013 - 21:20

By Martin Thomas

Recent polemics against our 2006 introduction on "Marxism and religion" have claimed that AWL overstates the strength of political Islam in Britain.

The introduction said only that political Islam had become "a force", not that it had become a majority or hegemonic force, so the polemic is thin. More interestingly, it is exactly the opposite of the complaint made against AWL when relations with political Islam were a practical and immediate question on the British left, in 2002-4.

Then, the SWP and other left groups accused us of not understanding that refusing to ally with political Islamists was tantamount to refusing altogether to work with Muslims. They would not accept our argument that the Islamists represented only a reactionary minority in the mainly-Muslim communities.

The SWP got the Muslim Association of Britain, the British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, accredited as joint organiser of the big demonstrations against the US/UK invasion of Iraq, on equal status with the Stop The War Coalition and CND. To draw MAB in, it altered the slogans of those demonstrations. To the slogans about Iraq, it added another, "Freedom for Palestine".

The words were vague enough that they didn't deter many people from joining the marches, but it was a sectarian move. For MAB, "Freedom for Palestine" meant destruction of Israel and erection of an Islamic state over all the land between the Jordan and the sea.

In early 2004, the SWP tried to get MAB involved in the Respect coalition which it set up with George Galloway MP. MAB refused; but MAB leader Anas Altikriti stood as a Respect candidate in the Euro-elections of June 2004.

AWL argued against those alliances with Islamist clerical-fascists. Iranian and Iraqi exile socialists concurred with us, but all the other British left groups, every one, backed the SWP.

They accused us of being against working with Muslims. We replied that MAB represented only one faction in the Muslim-majority communities, and a reactionary one. Agitation against the Iraq war could appeal to Muslims without having to accredit Islamists as intermediaries.

The stance of the SWP and the other left groups made sense only if they thought the MAB was so strong that it almost monopolised politics among Muslims in Britain. We contested that.

Up until then, there had been no real dissent in the British left from the proposition that Islamists were a force in the Muslim-majority communities, but a reactionary force, not a dominant force, and certainly not a preferred ally.

There were big demonstrations by British Muslims to support Ayatollah Khomeiny's call in 1989 for Salman Rushdie to be killed for writing the novel The Satanic Verses. No-one on the activist left suggested we might "critically support" the demonstrations, or do anything but denounce them.

Hizb ut-Tahrir became a force on some campuses. There were calls to ban Islamic student societies led by HuT; AWL and all the activist left groups opposed the bans. The SWP was "softer" on HuT than we were, but not even the SWP claimed HuT could be allies.

As far as I know, the only attempt before 2002 to engage in a more direct way with the Islamists was the debate with Hizb ut-Tahrir which we, AWL, organised at our summer school in 1995.

For that, we were criticised by others on the left for being soft on HuT. We were not soft: we wanted to see if we could get access to Muslim students influenced by HuT but not fully drawn in, and we wanted to educate ourselves at first hand in the arguments against political Islam.

That is how things stood until 13 April 2002. The "second intifada", much more Islamist-tinged than the "first" in 1987-8, had started in late 2000 (after the collapse of the Taba peace talks) and would continue until about 2005.

On 2-11 April the Israeli army had attacked Jenin, in the West Bank: first reports were that the Israelis had killed many hundreds of Palestinians. (The final toll was between 52 and 56).

On 13 April, the committee of the Socialist Alliance, which was then a coalition involving most of the activist left groups, met and discussed a proposal from the SWP that the SA support a demonstration on Palestine called that day by the Muslim Association of Britain.

Everyone at the committee said they knew nothing or little about MAB. John Rees, then the leading SWPer on the Socialist Alliance committee, must have been disingenous when he told me, in response to a direct question, that he thought that the MAB was "some sort of community organisation, not really political", but I think the non-SWP people really did know little about MAB.

Not knowing about MAB, we in AWL had asked the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The PSC said they did not know much about MAB, but had been reassured that the march would not be "too Islamic". At the Socialist Alliance committee I expressed concern because the MAB's website highlighted a link to Jamaat e-Islami, the main Islamic fundamentalist party in Pakistan. SWPers responded with the ploy, which sounds difficult but can be done by the adept and unscrupulous factionalist, of deriding my complaint without ever actually denying it.

The SWP proposed that the Socialist Alliance join the march with placards saying "Freedom for Palestine, Victory to the Intifada". In fact they had already printed the placards, with the SA logo, and had them ready in the back of the meeting room. John Rees of the SWP recommended the slogans by saying that we must above all be in tune with militant Muslim youth. Everyone other than me voted for his proposal.

I proposed the slogans "Solidarity with the Palestinians", "Israel out of the Occupied Territories", "Two Nations Two States", and got some support for them; but my proposed slogans were voted down by the SWP and its allies.

"Israel out..." was voted down as well as "two states". That was not a blip. John Rees defended the voting-down in a written exchange with me; and at a bigger Socialist Alliance committee meeting, on 11 May, the SWP would again vote down "Israel out..." when proposed by others who did not back "Two states". For the SWP, being "in tune" with (their idea of) militant Muslim youth ruled out any slogan which implicitly conceded that there would still be an Israel which could withdraw from the occupied territories.

And so to the demonstration, later on 13 April. Several other AWLers joined me there. It was fairly big, but reactionary.

Dominant on the march were banners equating Sharon to Hitler, Zionism to Nazism, and the Star of David to the swastika, or claiming that the "real" Holocaust was Israeli brutalities such as at Jenin. Specific political demands such as "Israel out of the Occupied Territories" did not appear on leaflets or placards. Calls to "put Jews to the sword" did (not on official MAB leaflets, but on others circulated widely). The dominant tone was simply hostility to Israel: "Death to Israel" and "From the river to the sea".

We, the AWLers there, refused to join in, and stood at the side of the road with placards showing our slogans. Some of the Asian marchers, shocked by the tenor of a march that they had thought would be pro-Palestinian, welcomed our presence and asked to take our placards.

All the other British left groups joined the demonstration, with none of the concern to differentiate that those Asian marchers showed. John Rees accosted me with a gleeful grin on his face: "You see!" He was very pleased about the demonstration, and so were other SWPers.

How the MAB got that big mobilisation is a mystery. Piecing together information over the next months, we found that MAB was the British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. It had been set up many years previously, but had made little headway, and was still a small group, mostly of Arabs, not at all integrated into the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities where most of Britain's Muslims are found.

The march seemed to be mainly made up of contingents from mosques. Presumably some especially energetic and enterprising MAB people had phoned round the mosques, presenting MAB in the same vague way as it had been presented to the SA committee, and maybe got endorsement from one or two well-known mosques and then used them to bring others in.

Many of the imams and mosque committee members must have been as disconcerted by what they found on the day as the Asian marchers were who came to AWL to ask to take our placards. In any case, the MAB was never again able to mobilise mosques in that way.

MAB was still a small group. But if the imams were disconcerted, the SWP wasn't! The SWP got MAB the status of being "co-organiser" of the big marches against the US/UK invasion of Iraq. Now the SWP would take leaflets advertising MAB to mosques in every big city!

The SWP, presumably, hoped that this was a cunning way to recruit young Muslims to the SWP. In fact it was a way to recruit young Muslims to... MAB, which grew considerably, though of course not to a hegemonic force in the mainly-Muslim communities. It promoted and was influential in the Muslim Council of Britain, a would-be "umbrella" body, which got government recognition and money.

MAB did not conceal its Islamism. On the big September 2002 demonstration against the US/UK invasion of Iraq, it distributed a freesheet, Inspire, which called for death for apostates (people brought up as Muslims who then move away from the religion) and said that it wanted "the widespread implementation of Islam as a way of life; no longer to be sidelined as merely a religion".

It did dress up its Islamism, though. Its speakers could also use liberal and leftish language, and it distanced itself from the stridency and purism of Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamist "ultras", who, for their part, had contempt for the attempts of secular groups like the SWP to court favour with Islamism.

No group on the activist left, other than AWL, made any objection to the ideas in the MAB freesheet. Stop The War continued to accredit MAB as joint organiser of its demonstrations until MAB itself lost interest.

MAB has visibly lost profile since. Part of that was a split which produced another group, the British Muslim Initiative. For example, MAB has not been seen on the demonstrations against the English Defence League since 2009, and none of the activist left groups concerned (rightly) to help Muslim youth mobilise against the EDL has suggested that MAB provides the right channel for that.

But, right up until MAB itself withdrew from demonstrations about Iraq and receded from the streets, the SWP insisted that allying with MAB was the only way to reach out to Muslims, and that AWL, by opposing an alliance with MAB, was shunning Muslims. And all the other activist left groups went along with the SWP, with this or that fractional demurral.

So Simon Hardy of the ACI/ISN and Marcus Halaby of WP now think that political Islam is only a tiny minority force in Britain's mainly-Muslim communities? Will they criticise their groups' previous line that MAB was so strong that the British left should accredit it, for the purposes of the protests against the invasion of Iraq, as representing Muslims generally?

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