As the bombs fall, where does Britain's Muslim community stand?
As the bombs begin to drop in Iraq, fears abound that their effect will be felt in British Muslim communities.
There are concerns that war will foster Muslim resentment – perhaps even sparking riots like we saw in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley in the summer of 2001. There are also predictions that war will lead to an increase in attacks against Muslims, by racists or pro-war Britons.
But although the build to war against Iraq has heightened British Muslims’ dissatisfaction with the government and mainstream British society, it is unlikely that this will lead to a polarisation of communities. Muslims may well feel that this war has nothing to do with them and that they have been shut out of debate – but, as the growing anti-war movement has shown, in this they are certainly not isolated.
This discussion has been building for months. In January 2003, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Great Britain Iqbal Sacranie warned that war in Iraq would cause community relations to deteriorate and breed ‘bitterness and conflict for generations to come’ (1). Professor Muhammad Anwar from Warwick University said that ‘war is going to create a lot of problems and the danger is that there will be such damage it will take us decades to recover’ (2).
The vast majority of British Muslims are strongly opposed to the war. In a Muslim News survey, 91 percent of readers said that the British government was wrong to support war on Iraq (3). Large numbers of Muslims have travelled from all over Britain to march in anti-war rallies – Andrew Murray, national chairman of the Stop the War Coalition described the anti-war protests as ‘the biggest Muslim political mobilisation this country has ever seen’ (4).
Even the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), not known for being antagonistic towards the government, has been coming out with strong anti-war statements. As the war began, MCB described this as a ‘black day in our country’s history’. On 5 March, a MCB press release called the war ‘an undisguised attempt to impose a neo-colonialist world order and occupy the lives and resources of the earth’ (5).
Reports suggest that this anger about the government’s Iraq policy is causing British Muslims to desert the Labour Party in droves. In the Muslim News survey, 82 percent said that if the government supported war they would not vote Labour in the next election (6). Foreign secretary Jack Straw has faced an embarrassing grilling from Muslim representatives in his constituency of Blackburn – and 10 Muslim Labour councillors in his district are threatening to resign (7).
Maria Ahmed from the Eastern Eye told me that the Muslims she had interviewed showed ‘a total disillusionment with New Labour’ – many who had voted Labour for years are now switching to other parties or saying that they won’t vote. ‘Whatever political apathy there was before, there will be more now’, comments Ahmed. Young Muslims in particular, she said, are ‘looking at the mainstream and seeing that there is nothing positive for them’.
Many British Muslims’ concerns about the war are similar to those of the mainstream anti-war movement – arguing that it is a US-dominated pursuit of oil, that the attacks are against international law, that the UN should be involved, and so on. But there are also more specific concerns. According to an ICM poll published in December 2002, seven out of 10 British Muslims believe that the war on terror is a war on Islam (8).
As Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra from the MCB told me, this view is increasingly common among young British Muslims. ‘Muslims follow the news and see how the US government is dealing differently with different countries’, he says. ‘Israel can get away with flaunting resolutions and possessing weapons of mass destruction.’ The countries that are singled out by the West are mainly Muslim countries: nearly all the ‘rogue states’ are Muslim countries. And while Iraq is being bombed, North Korea is ignored.
There is a view that Muslims are being blamed for the world’s problems. ‘Anything that happens, it is regarded that the root cause is Muslims’, says Ibrahim Mogra: ‘there is an assumption that a terrorist has got to be Muslim.’
11 September certainly threw Islamic extremism into the spotlight, and the USA has certainly concentrated its fire on Muslim countries (though the reasons for preferring Saddam to North Korea may be that the latter is actually properly armed). But the ‘war on Islam’ argument in part rests on British Muslims’ own sense of victimisation. ‘There is paranoia, definitely’, Maria Ahmed told me. ‘There is a general feeling that they are misunderstood’ – a feeling that affects the way international events are seen.
This by no means amounts to an opposition to Western intervention in Muslim countries. In the Muslim News survey, for example, 65 percent of respondents said that they would be willing to see Iraq challenged if Israel was also challenged about its weapons of mass destruction (9). Others have insisted that the USA crack down on North Korea too, as this would make things more ‘fair’.
Official institutions have attempted to recognise and deal with British Muslims’ concerns. Tony Blair arranged to meet Muslim community leaders on 6 March 2003 to discuss the Iraq issue – as he had around the time of the attacks on Afghanistan. The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) has established a ‘Safe Communities Initiative’, which aims to defuse any community tensions that may result from the crackdown on terrorism or the war against Iraq (10). CRE spokesperson Lisa Mackenzie said that part of their aim was to try to avert another Oldham-like situation. ‘If communities are becoming fractured, we will get people around the table’, she said.
Much of this concern about impending violence is overblown. There seems to be a ‘single spark’ theory of community fracturing, whereby a few marginal individuals could set it all off. ‘It only takes one or two people to do something really stupid, and people will be sucked into it’, Ibrahim Mogra told me. Indeed, for all the euphemistic talk about ‘tensions’, ‘difficulties’ and ‘pain’, it is as if the mere mention of ‘riot’ or ‘attacks’ could spark them off. (Professor Anwar warned that building alienation and dissatisfaction ‘could lead to something else’….) (11)
But the sense of Muslim resentment building around the war on Iraq is real, and will result in a further estrangement of many groups from the government and mainstream British society. The war itself, however, is not the cause of these sentiments. These kind of divisions did not emerge around the 1991 Gulf War.
Rather, the war against Iraq is bringing out a pre-existing alienation of Muslim communities from mainstream institutions – giving a focus to a feeling of not belonging, of not having a stake in political life. A government that does not seem to be their own is pursuing a war that does not seem to be their own.
In this, British Muslims are certainly not alone. We are not seeing a polarisation between white Britons and British Muslims: British Muslims are expressing their disquiet marching side-by-side with a broad cross-section of British society. The Muslim experience seems to be one variety of a general British experience – and this experience is one of what Ahmed describes as ‘looking at the mainstream and seeing that there is nothing positive for them’.
That it is becoming mainstream to feel isolated from the mainstream means that there is little worry of the ‘fracturing of communities’ that has been predicted. But perhaps the mainstreaming of isolation is actually the biggest worry.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
(1) British Muslims fear conflict for generations, Guardian, 14 January 2003
(2) Muslims fear Iraq conflict consequences, 7 February 2003
(3) Muslims give the Government a huge thumbs down over Iraq, Muslim News, 28 February 2003
(4) Key role for young Muslims in struggle for peace, 14 February 2003
(5) Last minute plea against invading Iraq – Muslims meet Blair, 5 March 2003
(6) Muslims give the Government a huge thumbs down over Iraq, Muslim News, 28 February 2003
(7) UK Muslim voters to punish Labour MPs, Independent, 16 March 2003
(8) Quoted in British Muslims fear conflict for generations, Guardian, 14 January 2003
(9) Muslims give the Government a huge thumbs down over Iraq, Muslim News, 28 February 2003
(10) ‘Taskforce to ease tensions arising from Iraq conflict’, Financial Times, 4 March 2003
(11) Muslims fear Iraq conflict consequences, 7 February 2003
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