Hammer and Crescent
A potential electoral force is emerging from the antiwar movement. But why is a supposedly progressive grouping making room for religious conservatives, asks Amanda Day?
When millions marched against the war last year, the New York Times announced the birth of a new superpower: world opinion. In Britain in particular, the contrast between popular sentiment on the streets and the actions of a supposedly leftwing government led to speculation that Tony Blair's 'New Labour' had found its match, not in the fusty Conservatives or upstart Liberal Democrats, but in voters disillusioned by mainstream parties and prepared to stand up and say so. Though it failed in its objective, the alliances formed within the Stop The War Coalition still exist, and, if certain groups have their way, may become a force in this year's European elections. A new grouping centred around the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), as well as representation from Islamic groups such as the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), is hoping to mobilise new young voters at the ballot box.
Directing its election efforts at an amorphous mass, i.e. all those who didn't agree with Tony Blair's decision to go to war against Iraq, this unlikely communion of socialists and Islamists has already engendered charges of being homophobic, antiIslamic, antiSemitic, antiwomen's rights and antidemocratic. And it's barely twelve months old.
The most influential party in this group is the SWP, whose leading member John Rees has been a key figure in both the anti-war movement and the Socialist Alliance, an electoral coalition that has increasingly become a vehicle for the SWP.
One former Alliance press officer expressed her alarm at the SWP's 'hijacking of the Stop The War Coalition: "Having run the Alliance into the ground," she says, "the SWP is now threatening to do the same to the fragmented anti-war movement."
The SWP's history with the Alliance is not a pretty one. Many Alliance members quickly became disillusioned with the SWP's authoritarianism, exemplified in the purging of nonSWP members from executives and diminished communication between leadership and ordinary members. The SWP's links with the Muslim Association of Britain will also give cause for concern for many of those who marched against the war over the past twelve months, and who want to see political changes as a result. Very few are likely to be keen admirers of the SWP's extreme left agenda, or indeed of Islam's inherent conservatism. While they may have marched alongside hardline Islamic groups over Iraq, their sympathies with them are unlikely to extend to calls for an Islamic Caliphate of Great Britain.
The SWP certainly fancies its chances at exploiting antiwar feeling. At an SA conference in May, it claimed that the occupation of Iraq "has created the biggest potential audience for a new left alternative for generations." It then stated that in order to "rise to the opportunities presented" it needed "a new and more determined approach."
Soon after, it elaborated: "We cannot answer this crisis of representation on our own. The development of the Socialist Alliance is one stage in the development of an alternative. We would like to see a new or broaderbased initiative built out of current and unfolding political events...or at least a relaunch of the idea behind the SA." This included involving "those in the Muslim community who have been radicalised...religious belief should not be a barrier to being part of such a project."
It's not the first time the SA has attempted to court religious communities in order to make electoral gains. Sue Blackwell, a former member from Birmingham, recalls: "The first time the issue arose for me was in 2000, not in connection with an Islamic group but with the Council of Sikh Gurudwaras. The SWP seemed to have latched onto a particular Sikh chap when he got involved in local protests and meetings, and persuaded him to stand as a council candidate for the Socialist Alliance."
"To my knowledge he had never been a member of a socialist party and had only recently got involved in politics. I had heard that he was being put forward by the Council of Sikh Gurudwaras. I took the opportunity to raise the issue in principle of how the SA should relate to religious organisations. I was told that my contribution was a racist one. When asked if I would raise the same question if a Catholic priest had been standing, I said: 'Yes, I would want to know his views on abortion because no way would I accept an antiabortion candidate as an SA candidate.' For me this was a basic issue of principle; for the SWP, it was 'sectarian'."
The party's blind tendency to regard any challenge to a member of an ethnic minority as 'racist' or 'sectarian' has continued ever since. The SWP's current postergirl, Birmingham Stop the War chair Salma Yaqoob, is consistently defended from any criticism by cries of 'Islamophobia'. Yaqoob, a Muslim psychotherapist who, legend has it, became politically active after being spat at in the street in the aftermath of 9/11, has the full support from the SWP, keen to hitch their wagon to her mediafriendly, and perhaps more importantly, Muslimfriendly hijab wearing image. Yaqoob herself has admitted that she was elected Chair of Birmingham Stop the War Coalition at her second ever political meeting.
This perceived fasttracking of names to the top of the list has raised a few eyebrows among other leftist groups. Alliance members, particularly in Birmingham, have felt marginalized, especially since it emerged that an executive member of the SWP was in discussions with Birmingham Central Mosque. Former Alliance members claim that the SWP replaced proven socialists in Birmingham with its own apparatchiks, hastily recruited to the Socialist Alliance in order to pack out meetings. Those purged included firefighter Steve Godward, the respected Birmingham SA chair, and longtime campaigner Rumy Hasan, who says now: "I think what happened was the SWP got very excited by the presence of Muslims at marches and meetings. The election of a councillor in Preston, with the backing of the local imam, also went to their head. What seems to be happening now is that they hide the atheism at the core of leftist politics in order to pursue a blatant getrichquick electoral scheme."
Across the country Muslim groups have been granted great concessions by a supposedly secular movement in return for electoral support. Some Stop the War meetings had gendersegregated seating, (reportedly for Asian women only) while Muslim holy men have been allowed to conduct prayers and invoke Allah on what are supposed to be secular platforms.
At the SWP's Marxism 2003 conference one former Alliance member claimed that women's rights and gay rights were described by the secretary of the Stop the War Coalition as a 'shibboleth' which couldn't be allowed to get in way of unity with Muslim groups.
Other farleft parties long thought moribund have also seized the chance to commandeer peace movements. In September, Communist Party of Britain member Kate Hudson took the CND chairmanship by one vote. Ms Hudson is keen for a closer working relationship with Stop the War Coalition and Muslim Association of Britain. A further 12 of CND's 15 new national executive positions share these views.
Meanwhile, another, more highprofile grouping has begun to set out it's electoral stall.
Leading lights of the left, such as Guardian columnist George Monbiot, Salma Yaqoob, John Rees of the SWP, 'awkward squad' union leader Bob Crow and MP George Galloway, recently exiled from the Labour party, are planning a movement to contest the European parliament elections next summer. Mr Galloway has said he 'suspects' the conservative MAB will affiliate to the new group, provisionally named 'Unity'. This unity, apparently, does not stretch to women and the gay community. Some SA members allege that this new electoral platform would be "limited in its commitment to women's rights", with no mention of gay rights, in a bid to placate influential Muslim Groups such as the MAB.
For its part, the MAB was established in the UK in 1997 "to fill in the gap in the terms of Islamic dawah work where the call for a comprehensive Islam that encompasses all aspects of life is lacking." The MAB "tries to implement this through wisdom and good preaching."
Not very progressive is probably the mildest way to describe the MAB. But then, the same can probably be said for political groups which throw their ideals overboard in order to capitalise on the mass antiwar movement.
Antiwar feeling in this country ran so high last February that two million people marched against the war in London. Since then, the only alternative those people have had to demonstrate their disquiet has been more marches and at some point the opportunity to vote for a catchall Unity candidate at European Parliament elections. Amorphous mass or not, it remains to be seen whether they will fall for the dubious charms of a 'left wing' party that promises all to everyone. They've marched down this road before.
Additional reporting by JulieAnn Davies and Pádraig Reidy