Islam, Colonialism, and Resistance

Published on Naked Punch, by Zia Sardar /Interviewed by Bux Qalandar Memon, 10-07-2010.

1 – In your recent book Balti Britain you recall racist encounters that you had as a child growing up in East London.  Could you explain the operative dynamics behind the racism of your youth and how it operates today?  Has there been a change?

During my childhood racism was much more overt. It was largely about the colour of your skin. ‘To Let’ signs on houses often carried the refrain: ‘No Blacks, Irish or Dogs’. People would cross the road to avoid you when they saw you coming. I was a regular bunch bag for racist bullies and thugs and came home from school routinely battered and bruised. Initially we were all ‘blacks’; then all Asians become ‘Pakis’ and ‘Paki bashing’ became a favourite sport of racist thugs.

The 1960s and 1970s, an era of recession, saw the rise of the fascist movement; and the consequent rise of several youth movements such as the Southall Youth Movement. There were two dominant kinds of racism: police and popular. Various racist murders and cases of police injustice led to a number of riots in places like Birmingham, Bradford and Brixton.

During the late 1980s, the generic black identity label began to recede. After the Rushdie affair in 1989, racism acquired a more cultural and religious dimension. Muslims became the new scapegoat. In addition, racism based on perceptions of patriotism also emerged during this period, indicated most clearly by the famous ‘cricket test’ of Norman Tebbit. When patriotism is contrasted with the charged language of ‘immigrants’ and ‘bogus asylum seekers’, minorities become easy targets as unpatriotic outsiders. Bring in the metaphors of ‘nation’ and the ‘national way of life’, based as they are on common descent, kinship ties, language, and custom, and every Black and Asian automatically becomes an alien Other. A variation of this form of racism is based on liberal secularism. Cultures and traditions that do not conform to the dictates of liberalism,  such as the rural traditions of Asian Muslims in Britain, are constructed as intrinsically and immutably hostile to the European liberal ideals and consensus – that is, as ‘alien’ par excellence. Arrogant liberals, in my opinion, tend to be as racist as the easily identifiable, extreme conservative and nationalist types.

So I think racism in Britain has become broader and widened its parameters. Paradoxically, Britain appears to be a less racist society now than it was during my youth. But apart from religious racism against Muslims, which is openly expressed, the old-fashioned racist attitudes are expressed in more subtle, sophisticated forms – as nods and winks and paternal attitudes … //

… 7 – Radicalisation of Muslims in Europe towards a jihadi agenda has in large part been a reaction to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. How, except through violent counter-attack, are such invasions to be countered?

Clearly radicalisation amongst Muslims has increased since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But I think it has longer and deeper roots. The Iranian revolution played a part in increasing radicalisation. And the Saudi petrodollars and support for mosques and Muslim organisations is also responsible for promoting fanaticism and fundamentalism. I would argue further that ossified traditionalism, and the closed minds it produces, also has something to do with the emergence of fundamentalism in our time – this only makes my agenda of reinventing tradition that much more urgent.

Before we talk about the futility of violent counter-attack, let me say that I subscribe to the analysis of the Moroccan scholar Malek Bennabi, a contemporary of Fanon, who argued that nations are not simply ‘invaded’, they invite invasion, the attention of imperialist vultures, by the state they are in. More precisely, his thesis concerned what he called ‘colonisibility’: to be colonised, he said, a society has to be in a physical and mental state which makes colonisation almost inevitable. Bennabi, an electrical engineer, studied in Paris and had spent over three decades in Europe. Colonisation was not the basic cause of Muslim decline, Bennabi argued against common assumptions. It was the phenomenon of colonisibility, which had set in centuries before, that made the Muslim world ripe for colonisation. Bennabi was suggesting that Europe was not invincible, rather it was the weaknesses of Muslim societies that was the major hurdle to decolonisation. Similarly, I would argue that the real problem, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, is the weakness of civil society, the disunity and intractable warfare between Muslims, and the general corruption and moral decay of these countries. If Iraq had been a thriving democracy, instead of a brutal and inhuman dictatorship, it could not have been invaded so easily by America and its allies. So I would say that our prime task is to reform our own societies – this is the best way of resistance.

Violence is where I depart from Fanon. Fanon thought violence was necessary to resist imperialism. Ghandi proved him wrong. Thoughtless violence, I would argue further, serves only one purpose: to increase the pain and agony of Muslim people. Consider this: the most brutal and savage violence in Iraq and Afghanistan has been meted out by Muslims to other Muslims. Think of Shia-Sunni violence in Iraq, and brutal murder of innocent people, including children and women, by suicide bombings in Pakistan and Iraq. Violence only begets violence.

- So what is to be done?

I would argue that our main goal should be to build strong civil society and establish transparent and accountable governments in these countries. Governments that actually reflect the needs and desires of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. And Muslims in America and Britain need to mobilise themselves and put pressure on their respective governments to get the allied troops out. In Afghanistan, as I have always advocated and written about in the New Statesman, we need to negotiate with the Taliban. You can’t beat the Taliban into submission. Our counter-attack has to come in the shape of politics, not violence. (full long interview text).

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