No one gets to call me a racist.

Soweto-uprising-callout-Guardian

My first best friend was a Jewish kid with Egyptian heritage. He lived next door to me and, being a year older than me, was my absolute hero. I used to follow him around and although not really understanding it, I was aware of his Jewishness. Later, after we had moved away, we came back to go to his bar mitzvah and I can always remember finding the five pound note (hidden behind the piano music) and being very proud. Not long afterwards, I went on a school trip to Lightwater Valley, and there were some Hasidic Jewish children in the queue. I heard one of our class call them ‘yids’. It instantly sent a shiver down my spine and I was upset and angry when I got home, though again not understanding fully.

Growing up, our house was full of people from all over the world. My mum was a TEFL teacher and we had a constant stream of people from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Iran and China. It seemed almost every weekend, there would be some party with incredible food from different parts of the globe, and chatter about politics. Many of them were asylum seekers and refugees, and I would strike up conversations with them, and learn about their world. I remember clearly one time when two guys from Southern Africa (I think it may have been Mozambique) found out that I was a Bob Marley fan, and the next week one of them had gone out to buy an LP – ‘Survival’ – for me, incredible for someone who would have had very little money at the time. Even at that age, I knew what that meant, though. It was an act of solidarity and anti-racism. I learnt so much from those early experiences.

As a teenager, and as someone who’d been surrounded by people from so many nationalities, I was immensely affected by images I saw on the news, in films and in the papers from Apartheid South Africa. Even learning about Sharpeville, the Soweto Uprising and the Rivonia trials felt like living history, because I knew it was still happening, I was reading about it and absorbing that anger at racism and injustice into my very soul. I’d become an anti-racist, long before I was ever a socialist.

Around the age of 13/14, I decided that I needed to do something. I became involved in the anti-apartheid movement, going to meetings in Northumberland and Durham and joining marches as they wound their way through the North East on the way to London. One weekend, I cajoled my little sister to make a big banner out of a bedsheet. It’s said: ‘Hey, Botha. Don’t mess with my Tutu!’. We took it down, on a coach by ourselves, to a big demonstration in Hyde Park where Desmond Tutu was speaking, and to this day I’m convinced that he acknowledged it as we struggled to raise it between ourselves, in amongst the crowds.

In the following years I read Biko, Malcolm X and even tried some Frantz Fanon. This stuff really interested me and excited me, but it lead me to socialism and Marxism, not the other way round. By the time I got to University, I knew I was a socialist, and started hanging around with the paper sellers, eventually joining Militant (they seemed more interested in life beyond the student union). One of the things that disturbed me, though, was that (maybe subconsciously), issues of race were often subsumed under a catch-all call to  ‘unite the working class’. That seemed to me to be ignoring the needs of black and ethnic minority communities to address their own specific oppression. I felt uncomfortable with all that, and partly as a result, I didn’t stick around too long.

At Leeds University, and after, I threw myself into anti-racist campaigning. Confronting the far right, en masse, seemed an important and powerful expression of solidarity. In these years, I found it difficult to find a political home. I joined, and left the Labour Party, joined and left the Socialist Alliance, even had a spell in Arthur Scargill’s SLP and ended up back in Labour again, only to leave over the Iraq War and rejoin after Blair. Throughout that time, however, my anti-racism was a constant. I organised, small and big, I discussed how we could build anti-racism in the Labour Party, in unions and communities, so it wasn’t an add on, but something integral to what we are.

At times over that period , within the Labour movement, it was a bit of a lonely place to be. As New Labour took hold, fewer and fewer Labour MPs wanted to do the demos, develop the broad left alliances and the active work in communities. Only the Socialist Campaign Group Of Labour MPs would regularly come out to support us, and out of that group, Jeremy Corbyn would almost always be the first and most constant supporter. Amongst the party (and union) hierarchy, on the other hand, there became a stigma attached to big anti-racist mobilisations and I recall hearing Labour councillors say that a physical presence should be avoided, as it was just “picking at a wound”.

I became a trade union organiser myself, and specialised in supporting migrant workers to achieve their rights by joining trade unions. As Gordon Brown was talking about ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, I was organising with Polish immigrants and refugees. At the same time, I made myself unpopular with some in the union hierarchy by arguing that sectarianism and factionalism should be left at the door when campaigning against the ever-increasing threat of the BNP. In truth, though it was probably for the best, my union career was ended by the stance that I took.

While I started a PhD on trade unions and migrant workers, which covered the Imperial Typewriters strike in Leicester by Ugandan Asian women in the 70s, I also threw myself back into grassroots anti-racist organising. I helped set up the County Durham Anti-Racist Coalition with a couple of friends. The group later went on to organise one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Durham against the visit of the far right under the banner ‘Bishop Auckland Against Islam’. 300 filled Millenium Square. Set against the safe, and inconsequential ‘box ticking’ anti-racism which has become commonplace in our movement – e.g a pop up stand in the corner of County Hall – this was where I felt at home.

Racism made me angry as a kid, long before I understood socialism and the economic chains that bind all of us. This is a story common to many of us on the left, and especially those who have come into the Labour Party since 2015 – and who frankly will have seen the party’s efforts as inadequate pre-Corbyn and perhaps understandably so (David Blunkett’s punitive and uncaring approach to immigration, Phil Woolas’ behaviour, and those bloody immigration mugs being a handful of recent examples).

I make mistakes. Like everyone in this movement, I get things wrong. When I do, I kind of expect to be called out on it. If it’s justified, I will try to reflect on it. That is fair and right. This is politics – debate is part of the lifeblood of the party and the movement, and if you can’t take criticism, it may not be for you. However, that is a very different thing from throwing around the word ‘racist’ or ‘antisemite’ as a way of scoring political points, when even the accuser knows in their heart of hearts it’s unfair and wrong. So, call me what you like, criticise my decisions and pull me up for my mistakes. Rip into my politics and question my outlook. But don’t ever call me a racist.

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Islamophobia cannot go unchallenged

The racist backlash after last week’s atrocity was appalling but tragically predictable. Many will have had the experience of unfriending people on Facebook as their timeline became awash with racism. That the EDL and BNP have sought to use the horrific murder of Lee Rigby to push their own racist agenda is equally unsurprising. The climate last weekend was so toxic that many of my Muslim friends were too frightened to leave their home or travel alone. But what I find perhaps just as worrying as the apparent acceptability of openly articulating anti-Muslim rhetoric is the frequent reluctance to challenge Islamophobia from many people who identify as progressive or even or left-wing.

First all, I’d like to deal with some of the standard excuses. The claim is often made that Islamophobia cannot be racist because, so the argument goes, ‘Islam is not a race’. However, when people talk about ‘Muslims not respecting our way of life’, or ‘Muslims not integrating’ do they picture in their mind’s eye the relatively small number of white Muslims in Britain? Or are they in fact referring to Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Somalians, Turkish people and Arabs who reside in the UK and adhere to the Islamic faith? It’s really not a complicated issue and it is certainly nothing new. In 19th century Britain, job adverts which concluded ‘No Irish need apply’ just as frequently read ‘No Catholics need apply’ or ‘Protestant preferred’. No prizes for guessing why: because Catholic meant Irish. When Jews and their religious practices were attacked in the UK in the late 19th and early 20th century it was no coincidence that the vast majority were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Another clear parallel with the UK’s Irish community comes from the 1970s and 1980s where an entire community was often perceived as being made up of people who were either potential terrorists or terrorist sympathisers – and treated as such by the British state.

Like all Abrahamic religions, some of the ideas espoused by Islam are unpalatable to 21st century Britain. However, it would not take long to find similar passages in both the Bible and the Torah. Yet, no-one fears or hates Christians or Jews nor protests against the building of churches or synagogues because of Leviticus. Indeed, singling out Islam is striking given how much overlap there is with Jewish religious practices. For example, some Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women wear veils that are identical to the burqa. The fact that most people have even heard of the burqa is an indication of how pervasive Islamophobia has become, given the incredibly small number of women who actually wear one. The existence of Sharia courts in the UK is often met with tabloid outrage, but do those same journos know about Beth Din courts, which serve the exact same purpose for the UK’s Jewish community? There is often opposition to Islamic schools, but the existence of Catholic or Jewish faith schools do not elicit the same hostile response. To give another illustration, kosher slaughter is identical to halal. At the risk of evoking Godwin’s Law, the fact of the matter is that the very first anti-Jewish measure passed by Hitler’s dictatorship was the outlawing of kosher slaughter. Was it because they were concerned with animal rights, or did it have more to do with isolating the Jewish community and marking them out as different? Today, if someone were to rant about the ‘barbarity’ of kosher meat, declare that Jews were a threat to ‘our way of life’ or fume about how the Torah and Talmud sanction the death penalty for a whole range of things, they would almost certainly labelled an anti-Semite, and rightly so. But say the same about the Qur’an and Muslims and the response would not be so clear cut.

Another feature of Islamophobia is to see Muslims as invariably intolerant on issues like gay rights and women’s rights and therefore, dislike of Muslims isn’t really prejudiced. But what is the reality? Is hostility to gay rights really something led by British Muslims? As far as I could see, opposition to the recent gay marriage bill in parliament was championed overwhelmingly by white, (nominally) Christian men on behalf of ‘middle England’. However, the majority of Muslim MPs such as Labour’s Rushanara Ali, Shabana Mahmood and Sadiq Khan all voted in favour of marriage equality, as did George Galloway, who enjoys the support of a large number of British Muslims in the Bradford West constituency. In addition, a poll in 2009 found that the vast majority of Muslims were ‘proud of how Britain treats gay people’. Likewise, when a few years ago, there were efforts to undermine abortion rights, this was not led by Muslims but by the likes of Tory MPs Nadine Dorries and Anne Widdicombe.

All of these rationalisations for Islamophobia from sharia courts to the burqa call to mind what George Orwell once wrote about the hated and feared minority of his day: ‘The Jews are accused of specific offences … which the person speaking feels strongly about, but it is obvious that these accusations merely rationalise some deep-rooted prejudice’.

Over a century ago, the great German social democratic leader August Bebel unequivocally condemned popular sentiments which fused anti-Semitism with anti-capitalism as ‘the socialism of fools’. Today, instead of echoing Islamophobic discourses with a secular or left-wing slant, we must forthrightly defend the rights of Muslims in this country. The idea that a community which makes up less than 5% of the population poses an existential threat to society as we know it is nothing but hysteria. And just for the EDL, who were recently in Newcastle, there has been a Muslim community in the North East for well over a century and they’re not going anywhere.

There’s nothing progressive about Islamophobia. It cannot just be the case of Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism opposing the EDL and the BNP. We all have a duty to speak out against this bigotry in every day life. It is not Muslims, many of whom are among some of the poorest people in the country, who are selling off the NHS, forcing people to use food banks, subjecting disabled people to Atos, imposing the Bedroom Tax or cutting jobs but those at the top. And as long as anger about a whole range of social problems is directed at Muslims (or any other minority group for that matter) rather than at the government’s policies, the urgent task of transforming society for the better will be severely hampered.

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