Muslims in Britain: After the London Bombs

Against the Current, No. 118, September/October 2005

Liam Mac Uaid

WHITECHAPEL MARKET IS in the heart of George Galloway’s Bethnal Green (London) constituency, packed every Saturday wiith traders selling low priced fruit, unreliable electrical goods and cheap cigarettes.

It’s also where people go to hawk ideas. There you can usually find at least three varieties of socialist newspaper. During the general election one said vote Respect.* Another said don’t vote Respect, and the third said don’t vote for anyone at all because they are misleading you.

The socialists often find themselves in competition with various strands of Islamist. On the same day that one socialist group was handing out leaflets urging people not to vote Respect or Labour because the working class needs a new party, the Saviour Sect was distributing leaflets telling Muslims not to vote Respect or Labour because they would go to hell. It goes to show that you can get the same conclusions reading the Koran or misreading Trotsky.

The London bombings have opened a dark, repressive period in British politics and strengthened New Labour’s authoritarian hand. How we rise to the challenge will affect British politics for years to come.

Who Are Britain’s Muslims?

Official figures suggest that there are 1.5 million Muslims in Britain, about 2.5% of the population. Some community organizations, however, put the figure at closer to two million. About half originally came from Pakistan, several hundred thousand came from Bangladesh and others from Turkey, North and East Africa and the Middle East. The largest Muslim communities are in London, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Lancashire and central Scotland.

All this diversity means that there is no such thing as a homogenous British Muslim community. London’s May Day march would be a lot smaller and quieter if it were not for the presence of large numbers of Kurdish and Turkish socialists. On the other hand, Britain’s Somalis still have to develop a layer of political leaders who operate outside their own community.

All the principal political parties stand Muslim candidates for parliamentary and local government elections. Fringe fanatics call on Muslims to abstain from British politics on the basis that their god’s law is the only law that matters. The majority of Muslims routinely ignore these appeals.

There is a real class differentiation inside the British Muslim population. The majority of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims are concentrated in the low wage, hyper-exploitation sectors of the economy. Their exploiters are usually Muslim too.

In the London borough of Tower Hamlets the local Labour council’s own figures indicate that 50% of Bangladeshi families live in overcrowded accommodation. Half the councilors are Bangladeshi too. At the mosque all these earthly distinctions are supposed to melt away.

In addition to the class, political and ethnic divisions the age division is becoming increasingly important. In common with most immigrant communities British Muslims have, in the main, voted for Labour. Prominent local figures are capable of delivering dozens or hundreds of votes. Labour has always shamelessly played this communalist game offering grants, planning permission and the opportunities for corruption offered up by privatization.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made many young Muslims very reluctant to continue in the role of Labour voting fodder.

Who are the Bombers?

It can be said with confidence that the jihadists responsible for the recent bombs in Britain do not have any mass support base. In almost every case they were either estranged from their families or their families and friends had no inkling of their jihadist beliefs.

This absence of mass support is not surprising. Britain’s antiwar movement immediately involved some of the key Muslim organizations and they had a large presence on the demonstrations. The standard of living of many Muslims, while lower than that of other groups, does not induce the grinding misery that makes a bomb belt an attractive answer to earthly troubles for large numbers of people.

The British state knew that the bombers were coming. The rescue operations were impressively organized. Police units practiced the Israeli tactic of an officer putting five or six bullets into a suspect’s head while two others pinned him to the ground.

After Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes had his head blown off in a tube (subway) station, senior police officers went on TV admitting they had shot an innocent man and insisting that they would do it again if they felt it necessary.

The political response was just as well rehearsed. In the days after the bombing Tony Blair and other government ministers met large numbers of leaders of the Muslim establishment — the sort of people who think it’s an honor to meet Prince Charles and are happy to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

These leaders were given the message that they had to “root out extremism” inside their own communities. The dilemma is that the small groups which are radicalizing tiny numbers with a jihadist message are very peripheral to the mosques. They have their own websites, publications, DVDs and don’t have a single coherent leadership.

The jihadists look at the world, are outraged by what imperialism does (though only what it does to Muslims) and use their religious texts to come up with an Islamo- fascist response. Many are lumpenized, would-be intellectuals, petty criminals whose program calls for women’s oppression, the suppression of all democratic rights and the destruction of organizations with which they disagree.

Some of them take this further and plant bombs. Some of those responsible for the bombs in Madrid had long criminal records for drug dealing and other offences. Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a plane with a bomb in his shoe, became a radical Islamist while in prison for criminal offences. It seems that some of those responsible for the July 21 London bombs that didn’t go off have criminal connections.

Apparently we are seeing an exploitation of these petty criminals’ skills by the jihadist groups, which themselves have a rather more sophisticated infrastructure.

The Repression

To deal with them Blair’s government is looking for all sorts of new powers. They want to be able to hold suspects for six months without charge, and create a new criminal offense of calling for support for terrorism. This could mean that supporting the right of the Palestinians to wage armed struggle becomes a crime in Britain.

The Uncle Toms of the Muslim establishment will be asked to persuade their young people that the police are entitled to stop, search, hold at gunpoint and racially abuse them. This started within days of the bombs.

Respect and the antiwar movement articulated the anger and a program for many Muslims in Britain. Now they have to take leadership in the defense of their civil liberties too.

ATC 118, September-October 2005