This is a version of a talk given by Helen Lowe at a meeting of No One Is Illegal on September 22, 2010. It was subsequently edited and posted to the Women against Fundamentalism website as a contribution to an ongoing discussion within WAF (and elsewhere) on many of the issues involved.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Key Words: antifascism, antifundamentalism, antiracism, class, nonviolence, secularism
No to Fascism, No to Fundamentalism
Fighting fascism ain’t wot it used to be. In the heyday of the National Front and, later, the BNP [British National Party], the far right was homophobic, misogynistic and racist. And from the 1930s, the battle of Cable Street had shown us the way forward: ‘The people, united, will never be defeated’. But now we have a new face of fascism, the English Defence League (EDL), talking up democracy and human rights. They deny they are racist and claim to defend gays and women against Islamic fundamentalism.
Earlier this year Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF) received a flurry of emails from various east London groups wanting to organise an anti-fascist presence in Tower Hamlets. This was in response to an EDL attempt to launch a protest in the borough against an Islamic fundamentalist event. WAF discussed the issues and there was some disagreement about whether or not to become involved. In the event it was decided that if any member wanted to do so then they should, but WAF would not join the coalition. As I was interested in the developments in Tower Hamlets for a number of reasons I decided to attend a demonstration organised by the United East End coalition and a subsequent meeting. This experience has been instructive in many ways, which I hope to outline in this talk.
I want to look at four areas:
• the rhetoric of the EDL and what lies behind it
• the inadequacies of the anti-racist left
• the way in which anti-fundamentalism is equated with racism
• and finally, to start a discussion on possible ways forward.
Born again on the right
In 2004, a Dutch film-maker, Theo van Gogh, was murdered in Amsterdam by a Dutch-born Muslim. The reason was said to be a film he had made in which quotes from the Koran were projected onto a naked female body with a commentary made up of the testimonies of abused Muslim women.
The murder fuelled a growing tendency on the traditional Dutch right, to justify their attacks on Muslim immigration in the name of defending freedom, democracy, and ‘traditional values’. A few weeks before the murder, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders had left the mainstream People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and formed what is now called the Freedom Party. Geert Wilders calls for a society committed to ‘Judaeo-Christian values’. Many people in the Netherlands believe that he is standing up for gay rights and women’s rights. He made huge gains in recent national elections and may well be in a position to form the next government.
So, in an extraordinary about-turn, the values of women’s rights and gay rights have come to the fore as ‘western values’, and a carefully chosen selection of human rights rhetoric is presented as though it’s part of the far right’s genetic make-up. But the co-option of human rights rhetoric by the right has been going on for some time. At government level, we have seen Bush and Blair/Brown using the issue of ‘women’s rights’ as a justification for their invasion of Afghanistan.
Glaring omissions in the rightwing use of this rhetoric are feminist issues such as women’s to control their own fertility. And it is only when the perpetrators of rape and domestic violence, racism and homophobia, are Muslim that these issues get a mention. There is no mention of how equality law, gay rights and women’s rights have actually come about. You are just left to assume they have always been there, as part of a modern democracy. There is, of course, no mention of how we got a modern democracy. And there is certainly no talk about the human rights of asylum seekers, immigrants and refugees.
The EDL puts out a similar message to that of the Dutch Freedom Party. However, while the Dutch right includes a few ex-trotskyists, democrats, gay liberationists and others from a broadly left background who might bring a human rights rhetoric from their past alliances, the EDL’s personnel seem to be firmly rooted in the politics of the NF and the BNP. So where have the EDL got this rhetoric from?
Well, they express admiration on their website for Geert Wilders. But it’s more likely that their interest in ‘human rights’ and ‘civil liberties’ originally came from Alan Lake. Alan Lake is a rich businessman who runs a website called 4freedoms. In an attempt to build a power base he is advising the EDL on ‘countering jihad’ and – much more importantly – funding them. He states openly that he is looking for people who are not scared of a fight, and the EDL naturally attracts gangs of disaffected youths, among others, who might well oblige.
The EDL is, therefore, highly motivated to take his advice on board. 4freedoms declares that it is working against supremacism and racism and for the protection of 4 civil rights: Free speech, democratic election, equality in law, and equitable non-discrimination. The EDL has sections for gays and Jews among other unlikely recruits. It seems clear that the EDL is more informed by 4 freedoms than by its past connections to the BNP or the NF.
The BNP has proscribed the EDL, claiming that it is a ‘neo-con operation’ and a ‘zionist false flag operation’. The EDL claims that it welcomes anyone regardless of race, religion, colour or creed, and that the BNP are white supremacists and ‘Adolf worshipping cavemen’.
Looking a bit higher up the right-wing ladder, the Conservative party has won votes on a message that celebrates neo-liberal Britain and the human rights gains that have been achieved. However, Cameron also goes on about broken Britain, and his solutions seem to be far from liberal. Indeed the right wing in the Conservative Party thinks that what was wrong with Thatcher’s policies was that they were too liberal.
Born again on the left
In the years of New Labour the concept of class was swept under the carpet by all mainstream political parties. The social divisions that we have become familiar with are gender, race, disability, sexuality, to some extent age, and most recently, religion. The entry of religion into the equalities scenario represents a distinct political shift to the right. In their haste to embrace religion while still affirming liberal values, both New Labour and Cameron’s Tories have been left mumbling incoherently, particularly when it comes to the contentious issue of sexuality.
Political philosopher John Gray has put forward a convincing argument that fundamental characteristics of neoliberalism include increasing tolerance of economic inequality, alongside increasing intolerance of discrimination.
That the granting of diversity as a response to the demand for equality is actually a right-wing politics that obscures the need to address class. But this does not mean that anti-racist and anti-sexist politics always obscure class. There are many anti-racist and feminist campaigns and groups that clearly put forward a creative politics that embraces a class analysis. The problem, surely, is that the far left does not – or cannot – creatively integrate anti-racism and anti-sexism, let alone gay rights, into class politics, not that feminists and anti-racists don’t embrace a class analysis.
Although the left may be able to point to anti-racist and anti-homophobia campaigns they have been involved in, these are still kept separate from what they see as their ‘main’ activities. How else could they so boldly embrace an alliance with Muslim fundamentalists when they launched Stop the War? In that context, challenging homophobia was ruled off the agenda. Now the we see the same thing again in United East End.
What seems to be beyond many left groups is the capacity to understand the dynamics at the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality, which is why they can’t grasp the problem of religious fundamentalism or the crucial importance of defending secularism.
At the United East End protest demonstration in June, a couple of WAF members gave out a leaflet headed ‘No to Fascism, No to Fundamentalism’ in Stepney Park. Most of those present were young Muslim men. I entered into friendly discussions with some of them, asking: where are all the women? and suggesting that if their girlfriends, mothers, sisters and so on had come along, the demonstration would be twice the size. Some of them seemed quite receptive.
The only opposition I came up against was from SWP [Socialist Workers Party] members. A couple of them turned quite nasty and I was told self-righteously that this was not the time or place to discuss fundamentalism.
After the demonstration I began an email correspondence with the convener, raising concerns about homophobia at the East London Mosque. I then went to a United East End meeting in July but there was no space at the meeting to discuss these issues.
Anti-fundamentalism and racism
The decision NOT to attack Islamic fundamentalism colludes in the process of silencing anti-fundamentalist and secular Muslims, as well as Muslim feminists and Muslim gays. It reinforces the impression that ‘the Muslim community’ is a single entity with one voice – the loudest one – in this case the East London Mosque (ELM). This mosque is the largest in London. It has links with the extreme Islamist Jamaat e Islami party in Bangladesh and Pakistan, a political party whose objective is an Islamic state governed by sharia law.
Nearly all official recognition and funding that is earmarked for the Muslim community in the area is channelled through the mosque, which means that many who do not choose to worship there are forced to go there for essential services, such as funerals and marriages.
Accusations that anti-fundamentalism is racism also serve to silence non-Muslims who feel threatened by an increasingly active religious presence. Or of gay people reacting to a video on YouTube of a homophobic seminar that was recorded in the ELM.
What is racist is to assume that the ELM speaks for all Muslims in Tower Hamlets. There is clearly mistrust in the secular Bengali community about its activities but this mistrust has been dismissed by both the Mosque and the anti-racist coalition as sectarianism. But how do you deal with the situation in which people now living in Tower Hamlets were in the past victims of human rights violations and massacres by Jamaat e Islami in Bangladesh, and are understandably extremely reluctant to ally themselves with those who have ongoing political connections with the perpetrators of those crimes?
Even in the face of a racist threat from the far right, as in Tower Hamlets, the United East End alliance have failed to establish a unity of purpose in building an inclusive anti-racist movement. Rather than going along with those who appear to have the largest following, it might be more productive for the alliance to hear what other Bangladeshis have to say instead of writing them off as ‘sectarian’.
All those who want to challenge far right activity, both within and outside of the Muslim communities, must have their voices heard. How do we address these issues? It seems that the United East End coalition has no will to address them. Instead there is a pretence that the issues do not exist, or those that do are merely a display of sectarianism.
Worse, indeed. Because the EDL is cashing in on these complexities. They are using the situation to woo those such as Jews and homosexuals who feel threatened by talk of sharia law. There is no point in pretending that people do not feel angry about these issues or that their feelings are not justified or are inherently racist. However, if they feel they have no allies on the left, they could well be persuaded to support the far right.
There is no doubt that gay people feel threatened by Islamic fundamentalism, indeed by all religious fundamentalism. There is no doubt that secular Bengalis feel threatened by Islamic fundamentalism. There is no doubt that secular people of all religions and none feel threatened by the general rise in religious dogma.
There is also no doubt that the increase in religious dogma is accompanied by the phenomenon of religious leaders of all colours congratulating and encouraging each other in their efforts to re-inject God into our secular life.
Far from being a racist intervention, the attempt to discuss issues such as homophobia and secularism from within an anti-fascist struggle is an attempt to ensure the inclusion of a broad base of society in the challenge to fascism. If we don’t include everyone, the EDL will.
The importance of challenging fundamentalism
WAF has always challenged fundamentalism in all religions. Religious fundamentalists across the board set out to restrict women’s rights and to control sexuality. They use people’s beliefs and fears to try to control what they even think about. This control does untold damage to vast numbers of people.
Emotive terms such as ‘modesty’ and ‘family values’ extend this influence even into secular society. These concepts then become valorised as representing a ‘better’ way of life than that of western ‘decadence’, with the intention of making women (and men) of any faith – and none– feel guilty or ashamed if they do not conform at least to some extent.
This is an area in which leaders of different religions find common ground, and indeed often get together in efforts to extend their influence (for example on abortion, gay rights and divorce law). It is no coincidence that the Muslim Council of Britain, the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury were all falling over themselves to meet and greet the pope.
Meanwhile, secularists are fighting to protect secular spaces, secular education – even the whole concept of secular society – and those basic human rights that underpin the ‘welfare state’. Secularism offers the only real protection for people of every religion, as well as for those who want truck with no religion at all.
No need for conspiracy theories
We are at a crucial crossroads in British life. The welfare state is being systematically dismantled. Government is all but destroying the state- and local authority-controlled services that were set up as a cushion for the most vulnerable people and the most impoverished communities. These services were far from perfect, but they were at least provided by democratically elected local and national bodies. Now the government is actively encouraging – and funding – private, voluntary and religious organisations to step up and take charge of these services. These bodies are not democratically accountable. And the religious bodies are not even bound by the same equality requirements as secular private and public bodies.
Meanwhile, in many religions, years of public apathy have given an advantage to the evangelical preachings of the more fundamentally minded religious leaders. At the same time the backlash against gay rights and the ordination of women is gathering strength. (Helped along huge amounts, no doubt, by the Pope’s visit.)
It would seem that British society at all levels is witnessing increasing moves to the right. In the midst of a disastrous economic crisis we have economic policies that will disproportionately affect the poor, fundamentalist influence in all the major religions, and a neoliberal influence across the political spectrum. At the same time we have a radical left that seems to be unable to act effectively.
You don’t really need to be a conspiracy theorist to see that these rightwing shifts in political influence, while apparently diverse and disparate, have the potential both to build on each other’s successes and to work together for common ends.
Coming out of the box
Clearly the kind of far left anti-fascist alliance that we see at the moment conjures up images of fighting in the streets between activists on the right and left. But what about disabled, old people and other vulnerable groups who are not able to or do not want to participate in that kind of action? And it is not solely a question of inclusion. There are people from all backgrounds who feel extremely angry and worried by economic cuts and by religious prejudices as well as by the increase in far right activity, who also want to find alternatives to streetfighting to express their feelings.
It’s one thing to criticise the left for not addressing issues of inclusion. It’s altogether another thing to build an inclusive movement in which everyone feels welcome and able to play a role.
I believe that the only place to look for alternatives is in the ways in which groups outside of the vanguardist left have organised over the past twenty or thirty years, around all sorts of issues. Indeed, activists in single-issue politics have been amazingly inventive and innovative over the years. Groups of disabled people, for example, have launched effective and successful actions in their struggle for accessibility and equality. Women in Black have been enormously effective with their silent vigils. Non-violent actions have also been effective forms of protest used by Greenpeace and the anti-war protestors.
Nonviolence takes a vast amount of courage, a different kind of courage from going out for a fight. It also takes preparation, developing innovative strategies.
We need to build a secular and inclusive movement, one that affirms the role of women and gay people, people of all religions and no religion, and people of all ages and abilities.
This will only be possible if we abandon traditional forms of left versus right and embrace the alternative strategies developed by so many brave people in their struggles for equality and human rights.
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