A tale of two demos

Saturday's demonstration of moderate Muslims was presented as a peaceful counter to last week's aggressive gathering. In fact, similar resentments seemed to simmer beneath both.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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The British Muslim demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, on Saturday 11 February was cast as the peaceful counter to last week’s aggressive gathering. That demo was composed of young men in suicide-bomber garb, threatening Westerners with beheading. By contrast, here was a medley of different ages carrying blue-and-white banners: ‘United against Islamophobia‘, ‘Mercy to mankind’, ‘Muhammad, symbol of freedom and honour’. Last week’s demo was orchestrated by the crackpot ‘Saviour Sect’; this one was backed by respectable organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), as well as by London mayor Ken Livingstone.

Newspapers ran misty-eyed features about the ‘majority of law-abiding British Muslims’. By these counts, Islamic fundamentalism is a foreign growth on the body of the British Muslim community.

Saturday’s crowd was certainly good-natured; there was no mad talk of slaying infidels. However, similar sentiments lay behind the banners at both demos. Those at the MAB demo were convinced that the Danish cartoons were part of a ‘war against Islam’. An IT worker from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee talked about the ‘demonisation of Muslims‘. ‘We are being insulted, mosques are being attacked, people’s mental health is being damaged’, he said. A 36-year-old social worker said, ‘There is a war – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine – which is all about attacking Islam’.

A few of the demonstrators carried Union Jacks (and made it into the next day’s papers), but many others felt little identification with Britain and instead talked about belonging to a global Islamic community. ‘We [Muslims] are all one brotherhood’, said a 21-year-old woman in a thick London accent. Her two-year-old daughter wore pink booties – along with a black hat with ‘army of Allah’ written on it in gold.

Indeed, some saw British institutions as engaged in an elaborate plot against them. One 41-year-old man from London displayed placards arguing that the police ‘deliberately allowed’ last week’s demonstrators to carry placards ‘with incitement messages’, in order ‘to let the media print these messages to inflame hate against Islam’. He had a long list of all the publications guilty of ‘hate incitement messages’, from the BBC to The Times (though judging by a pencilled ‘Indep’, he was in two minds about the Independent).

In short, the MAB demo agreed with the fundamentalists that there is a ‘war on Islam’ – but while the fundamentalists appear to call for a warlike response, the MAB demo favoured a more passive, restrained approach. The two groups hold similar political assumptions, only the MAB argues that it is wrong to act on those assumptions. This suggests that homegrown Islamic fundamentalism is merely an aggressive expression of mainstream views.

The similarities might run even deeper; the difference is really one of attitude. The fundamentalists call for people to take matters into their own hands, but in the end theirs is just a posture. They write scary placards and dress up as suicide bombers, but this is aggression played up for the camera. Only two days later, the young man who dressed as a suicide bomber had apologised ‘wholeheartedly’ for his ‘insensitive’ behaviour.

Lacking even bluster, the MAB crowd is forced to appeal to the government for protection – the very same government that they believe is plotting against them. They call on the authorities to censor anti-Muslim cartoons and shut up right-wing figures such as the British National Party’s Nick Griffin. One man said: ‘There is a rising Islamophobic tendency in Europe. Muslims need protection and support; the government isn’t listening at the moment.’ But they also ask for protection from radicals within their own community. Many asked why the police hadn’t done more to tackle the previous week’s demonstration. The Muslim Public Affairs Committee representative said: ‘We were the first people to say that they should have been arrested.’

The British Muslim community isn’t alone here; everyone now uses the language of victimhood to seek public authority, from victims of train crashes to authors of misery memoirs. In addition, mainstream Britain has done much to inflate Muslims’ sense of persecution. Take the UK government’s numerous commissions on Islamophobia, which sanctify the idea that there is widespread hatred of Islam. Similarly, organisations such as Stop the War Coalition and Respect have opportunistically mouthed Muslims’ delusions back at them. ‘Muslims are under attack’, shouted Lindsey German, convenor of Stop the War Coalition at the MAB march. ‘This was a racist provocation in a racist newspaper’, she said, even arguing ominously that ‘Adolf Hitler started with cartoons’.

This understandably heightens Muslims’ sense of the world being set against them. There are calls for more integration, but integration lacks any positive ideological justification. In some cases, integration is associated with bland homilies such as ‘tolerance’ or ‘participation’, and is sold to Muslims in much the same way as kids are told to eat their greens. ‘Everybody needs to show tolerance’, one 19-year-old student told me.

The British Muslim community has certainly been radicalised by events of the past few years. Most of those I spoke to at the demo hadn’t been involved in politics before the Iraq war. ‘I never used to vote – now I campaign for Respect’, said one. ‘I didn’t support any party or pay attention to politics. I want to watch the news now’, said a young woman. On university campuses it is the Islamic societies that are having heated political debates – the rest of the student body seems preoccupied with passing ‘No platform’ motions and discussing sexual harassment.

‘We have been activated’, said one man. ‘We need to wake up.’ Yes, they have been activated and feel solidarity with a global Muslim cause. But this is the solidarity of narcissism, reading every global conflict as a personal attack. Cartoons and bomb strikes in Iraq alike are read as a form of personal offence.

The basis for this is a sense of disengagement from British society, rather than particular military interventions or offensive cartoons in themselves. British Muslims’ sense of estrangement at home leads to identification with an imaginary Muslim brotherhood. Global events are seen in a similar way to the cartoons, as icons of oppression, explaining and justifying a sense of victimhood.

So the MAB demo may have looked cheery on the surface, but underneath it suggested the same deep-seated social problems as the demo of the previous week.

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Topics Politics


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