Last month the English Defence League announced plans to march in Tower Hamlets, East London, in protest at an Islamist conference planned for June 20th at the Troxy centre. The conference was planned by groups tied to Islamic Forum Europe, among the major Islamist groups in the area.
Anti-racists planned to demonstrate against the EDL: but the SWP-run Unite Against Fascism and its front group United East End insisted this should be on the basis of uncritical support for — and collaboration with — the conference organisers. This meant whitewashing the worst religious fundamentalists and supporting their right to represent the Bengali community in the borough.
While the conference was ultimately cancelled by the Troxy centre, and the EDL abandoned their march, UAF held their demo regardless. Here local Bengali secular activist Ansar Ahmed Ullah reflects on the episode.
What is Islamic Forum Europe?
In 1971, during the Liberation War of Bangladesh, there were widespread killings of the civilians and other atrocities were carried out by the occupying Pakistani forces and their local collaborators.
The collaborators were local Islamist groups, namely Jamaat-e-Islam, Nezam-e-Islam and the Muslim League.
Soon after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 some of the alleged Jamaat-e-Islami war criminals fled Bangladesh and took refuge in various Arab countries, Pakistan and the UK. A Channel 4 Dispatches programme aired on 1995 exposed such 3 alleged war criminals.
The IFE was set up by one such alleged war criminal in 1989 to disguise their past crimes and fundamentalist ideology.
What was your reaction when the EDL announced their plans to march and UAF planned its counter-demo?
The entry of the English Defence League into Tower Hamlets to protest against the meeting was a direct provocation to stir up racial tensions, foment dissent among faiths and attempt to bring disunity amongst the communities of the borough. We condemned the fascist EDL whose sole objective is to act as storm troopers for the British National Party and pick up the pieces for them after their miserable rout in the local and national elections in neighbouring Barking and Dagenham Council.
However, we are also opposed to fundamentalism and so had watched with growing concern the way in which the United East End coalition become a hub for legitimising the base of Jamaat-e-Islami activists in the borough. We had questioned how and why the Islamic Forum Europe came to occupy such a central place in the mobilisations.
We believe that fascism and fundamentalism should be challenged equally.
They are both right wing forces growing in strength and numbers within local areas, and any campaign against the right wing should encompass an active stand against both fascism and religious fundamentalism.
We continue to oppose the EDL unconditionally but we also do not want to be involved in anything that consolidates the power base of IFE in this way.
We in the Bengali and the Muslim community were being asked to stand side by side with the most reactionary, far right, anti-Bengali, Anti-Hindu, Anti-Jewish, fundamentalist group, IFE. This we refused to do. The IFE does not represent the Muslim community in Tower Hamlets nor do they uphold the glorious tradition of Cable Street, Altab Ali (murdered by racists in 1978) and the anti-racist movement.
Under the patronage of an exclusivist Wahhabi Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia they are attempting to impose it amongst the Bengalis in the borough. Just as the EDL takes the guise of being ordinary English citizens to hide their true identity of fronting the fascist BNP, so do IFE act as the sole representatives of ordinary Muslims but are in fact operating under the direction of their parent organisation Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh.
What effect did this episode have on the Bengali community?
It is hard to say what threat the EDL posed because they do not exist in Tower Hamlets: but whatever the threat the Bengali community is able to defend itself.
The Bengali community has a long tradition of resisting racists from the 1970s to 1990s. Racism has to be fought on many fronts, socially with the local white working class, politically with alliances with other progressive anti-racist parties, institutionally and in unison with all communities.
The cancellation of the Troxy event was a victory for secular forces and those who are opposed to fundamentalism. The majority of Bengalis are secular, (in the South Asian sense, not necessarily opposed to religion but against religious persecution). Like any other community, the Bengali community has many factions based on ideology, class, region, profession and party political lines. But a sense of community does exist when it comes to the greater welfare of the whole Bengali community.
Why have Islamist groups become influential in Tower Hamlets, and why do the left associate with them?
By the 1990s another key development was the increasing importance of religion, in the case of Bengalis, Islam. This was partly due to New Labour government association of faith in its agenda.
In addition, in the weeks after 11th September 2001, with the prospect of a US-led war in Afghanistan, the Stop the War Coalition was founded in London, bringing together a number of organisations, the largest of which was the Socialist Workers Party and more importantly MAB (Muslim Association of Britain) associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and MCB (Muslim Council of Britain) its leadership associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami. The inclusion of MAB & MCB enabled the mobilisation thousands of Muslims, including the young, to get involved in the anti-war movement. This ensured for the first time that large numbers of third generation Muslims took part in global political campaigns.
The MCB-linked Jamaat-e-Islami is the largest Islamist political party of the Indian sub-continent, that operates under various charities and religious organisations centred around the East London’s biggest mosque. Its activists have managed to infiltrate all the major political parties including the Respect Party that came out of SWP-MCB partnership.
The SWP under the banner of Stop the War Coalition and Respect Party has been working with Islamist groups. This wasn’t surprising as in 1994, Chris Harman, one of the SWP’s chief ideologists argued that the party should make common cause on the issue of “anti-imperialism” with Islamist movements, in part as a way of recruiting their members.
George Galloway’s victory in the 2005 General Election in the Bethnal Green and Bow area was seen as a protest against the Labour Party’s foreign policy. But it also demonstrated the strength of the Islamists within the community and the dramatic shift in British politics when it came to securing the support of Muslim voters. It reaffirmed that global issues were prioritised in the Islamist agenda and when it came to appeal to the Bengali voters, the ‘Muslim’ sentiment was the focus of the election campaign.
We must challenge those who advocate the racialisation of politics.