Several weeks ago, the English Defence League announced they were organising a protest against an Islamist conference in the Troxy conference centre in Limehouse, East London, which was backed by the Islamic Forum of Euope (IFE) and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS).
Predictably for this sort of religious fundamentalist event, the speakers at the conference included all sorts of reactionary bigots.
The Tower Hamlets council, led by Helal Abbas, pressured the Troxy to cancel the conference. When the Troxy did indeed pull the booking, the EDL claimed this as a victory and cancelled their demonstration. The local anti-fascist coalition, United East End, decided that it would continue to mobilise for its counter-demonstration anyway.
Thousands of people turned out for what was effectively a rally followed by a small march, with member of the SWP and local Asian youth the two biggest identifiable contingents amongst those demonstrating. Workers' Liberty members attended and gave out leaflets arguing for a working-class approach to anti-fascism and promoting the newly-founded Stop Racism & Fascism Network.
The demonstration was not without its critics. The old guard of the Bangladeshi community, grouped around the Brick Lane mosque and in various Bengali secular organisations, issued a statement against both the EDL and the Islamic Forum of Europe called the “Unity Platform Against Racism and Fascism.”
This “platform” has substantial political problems of its own, but it does at least make clear that the idea of the Bengali community being a homogeneous political bloc under the leadership of religious zealots is essentially a racist fantasy. Unfortunately the organised secularist elements decided to effectively boycott the United East End demonstration. Without such an intervention, Islamists were able to retain hegemony of the demonstration, supported by their sycophantic “left-wing” fans in Respect and the SWP.
Consequently, and unfortunately, the demonstration had a distinctly religious character. The SWP-led chants of “black and white, unite and fight” proved less popular than “Allahu Akbar”. Councillor Helal Abbas, who publicly called for the Islamist conference to be cancelled, was booed off the stage at the rally. Every other speaker (including George Galloway) said that it was a disgrace that the conference had been cancelled.
While AWL does not call for state bans against fascists or other reactionaries (just as we would not support a police ban on the EDL, which was repeatedly called for by Galloway and others), we will not shed a tear that a load of wife-beaters, anti-Semites and homophobes were denied a platform.
More seriously, an AWL member was physically threatened during a confrontation about the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, which we reproduced on the AWL website in 2006 in response to the international campaign for religious censorship which met them. Around 20 young Muslims took a copy of Solidarity from him and started to look through to find the offending cartoons. Realising that they were misinformed (by whom we wonder?) and that the cartoons did not appear in this (or indeed any other) edition of Solidarity, the main antagonist disappeared and the rest stayed for a fruitful and interesting discussion about political Islam. In the end the exchange was positive, but it is alarming that an anti-fascist demonstration includes organised elements attempting to police their political opponents.
With the Islamists dictating the terms of “unity”, people with criticisms of the IFE were either absent or silenced. Incidentally organising alongside Islamists or other organised religious forces to defend a particular community against a specific fascist threat is one thing; building ongoing political unity with right-wing, clerical “community leaders” is quite another.
In Tower Hamlets, the logic of the SWP's “united front” with organised religion reached new levels of lunacy when an SWP sympathiser and Unison member suggested that Tower Hamlets Unison affiliates to the IFE. At the anti-EDL mobilisation in Bolton, an SWP speaker argued that non-Muslims should join in with chants of “Allahu Akbar” in order to show “solidarity”. As the EDL racists attempt to claim political territory from the left on women’s rights, gay rights and opposition to Sharia law, it is political suicide to bury our beliefs under the banner of this fake unity with religious reactionaries.
The day ended with Luftur Ali making a speech calling for “strong political leadership” and for those who cancelled the Islamist conference to be held to account. Ali recently resigned as Tower Hamlets council's assistant chief executive under suspicion of corruption. He is thought to have links with the IFE and is manoeuvring himself for a run at the position of Tower Hamlets mayor.
As the rally ended, around a thousand mainly Muslim men stayed on throughout the evening to protect the mosque. The EDL were nowhere in sight; they will be chalking this up as a victory, as will the IFE and their supporters. The forces of secular, working-class politics must intervene against both sides.