An unholy alliance? Racism, religion and communalism
July 30, 2002 — Comment
Written by Arun Kundnani
For too long there has been a reluctance to discuss the issue of communalism in British Asian communities.
Organised religious groups can be powerful forces and their critics are either accused of ‘washing dirty linen in public’ or denounced for a supposed disloyalty. When those who have spoken out have been women, the denunciations have been even more severe. Too often, ‘fundamentalism’ has been a charge levelled only at other sections of the Asian community, while silence has reigned on fundamentalism in the name of one’s own faith.
Thus, in place of analysis, we fall back on the idea that these are age-old conflicts that are part and parcel of our cultural make-up. In so doing, we not only play into the hands of religious extremists but also ignore the ways in which their power springs from the answers they offer to contemporary problems – whether it be the questions of identity and loss associated with migration, or protection from playground bullying. And we ignore the ways in which these ideologies are products of the modern age, using nationalist techniques of mobilisation derived from twentieth-century Europe.
Communal tensions in British Asian communities are on the rise. Conflict between Sikh and Muslim youths and Hindu and Muslim is becoming a more common occurrence in Asian areas. In Bradford, in early 2001, violence flared up between Hindu and Muslim communities. Religious fanaticism – of the kind that promotes hostility toward others – holds a grip on a small but increasing number. And the tensions on Britain’s streets are increasingly tied to events abroad, not least the US-led ‘war on terrorism’ (and, more recently, the upsurge of the conflict over Kashmir). For example, in October 2001 in Derby, a 15-year-old Hindu girl was hospitalised following an argument about the events of September 11. Tensions were already high in the town following the distribution of an anti-Sikh leaflet, credited to the non-existent group ‘Real Khilafah’.
There are less violent signs, too. In January 2002, Sunrise Radio – Britain’s ‘leading Asian radio station’ – took the bizarre step of banning the word ‘Asian’. This was the culmination of a long campaign by groups such as the UK branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) that want to dissociate themselves from Muslims in the public mind by dropping the secular term ‘Asian’. Although the term has always been problematic, this campaign is premised on the idea that racist whites could be persuaded to exclude Hindus and Sikhs from their hatred and focus instead solely on Muslims. The tendency took on a disturbing twist after September 11 when many South Asians in America became victims of revenge attacks. Some Sikhs, instead of marching with Muslims and calling for an end to any revenge attacks, marched separately with banners saying ‘we are not Muslims’, as if American Muslims were any more valid as targets for revenge than they were. Then in January 2002, for the first time ever, the British National Party (BNP) managed to convince a tiny faction of Asians, the Shere-e-Punjab grouping, to co-operate on anti-Muslim propaganda.
Later in the year, three British Muslims on holiday in India were killed in the state-sponsored anti-Muslim pogroms that swept through Gujarat in February and March. In the lead-up to the pogroms, thousands of weapons were distributed to the young volunteers of the VHP’s paramilitary youth wing, weapons that had been paid for from funds raised by the Hindu diaspora in the West. On one level, then, these deaths are unrelated to developments in Britain, but, with the increase in ideologies and even funds flowing across continents, such distinctions become less tenable.
It would be tempting to try and blame just one side for this cycle of mutual demonisation. But, as Arundhati Roy has written in the context of the Gujarat carnage, for anybody to ‘arbitrarily decree exactly where the cycle started is malevolent and irresponsible’. All sides increasingly resemble each other the more they try to call attention to their religious differences through this process of mutual castigation. As a new generation of British Asians, born in this country in the 1960s and 1970s, comes to occupy more positions of influence in our communities, it is the future orientation of British Asian life that is at stake. Will we be divided and separated by religion or will we be able to find a place in our lives for both our own faith and an understanding of others’ faiths, within a secular framework?
The BNP and Shere-e-Punjab
The BNP has had ambitions to pit Hindus and Sikhs against Muslims since Nick Griffin’s successful leadership bid and the subsequent ‘rebranding’ of the party. The focus is now on Islam as Britain’s primary enemy and the party claims to have abandoned its policy of forcibly repatriating all non-whites. Of course, the ‘media-savvy’ reinvention of the party is a sham. Yet for some on the fringes of the Khalistani movement (which calls for a separate Sikh homeland in the Punjab), hatred of Muslims is so strong that even the BNP can be seen as a potential ally. This is ironic as, in India, the Khalistani movement has traditionally seen Muslim separatists as friends while the enemy has been a central government perceived as Hindu.
The BNP has worked with two Sikhs, Rajinder Singh and Ammo Singh, who have co-operated on the production of a CD entitled ‘Islam – a threat to us all’. Rajinder Singh has also appeared in the BNP magazine, Identity, in which he voices opposition to Britain’s ‘liberal immigration policy’ and congratulates the BNP for taking a stand against ‘Afghans and Bangladeshis clutching their copies of the Koran, fighting desperately to enter a totally unfamiliar country, settle down, produce children, establish mosques and Al-Qaeda cells and then begin all over with Holy Jihad in a few years’ time.’ He also urges British voters to support the BNP in the name of those Sikhs who were ‘silenced forever by the Sword of Islam’ in the 1947 partition of India.
Both Singhs are connected with the Shere-e-Punjab (Lions of Punjab) group, which has been active since the mid-1980s, operating as part street gang, part political grouping. The organisation has been successful in offering its ‘muscle’ when Sikhs have felt under threat from local Muslims, such as in 1997 when Shere-e-Punjab descended en masse on the largely Muslim Chalvey estate in Slough to exact revenge for earlier perceived slights. As a political organisation, the group can claim a mere handful of poorly organised members. While Ammo and Rajinder Singh call themselves ‘leading figures’, they represent only a marginal fraction of British Sikh communities. Even so, the BBC still saw fit to invite Ammo Singh on to Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme, Today, in July 2001 to praise the BNP’s response to the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford.
Islam and the ‘war on terrorism’
Many Asians were shocked by Rajinder Singh’s open support for the BNP. Yet anti-Islamic feeling is becoming increasingly acceptable across society, especially under the guise of the ‘war on terrorism’, and anti-Muslim elements in all communities have found renewed confidence in the wake of Bush’s ‘You are either with us or against us’ rhetoric. Hindu nationalists, both in India and the UK, believe that their own Islamophobia has now been vindicated. Meanwhile, Muslims are finding that somehow they are all being held responsible for the September 11 attack. In a revised version of Norman Tebbit’s cricket test, Muslims are being told that their loyalty to Britain must come before their faith, even by liberal commentators such as the Guardian‘s Hugo Young.
Shabana Najib, a community worker in Derby, described how, following September 11, many Muslim women stopped going out, especially into the town centre. Anyone wearing a headscarf would get nasty comments. ‘Why should my mum or my sister have to hear racist remarks?’, she asks. ‘You can’t go around attacking all Muslims when only a tiny number were to blame.’ As well as the verbal and physical abuse, there is the feeling of always having to explain yourself. As Shabana says, ‘I don’t condone what happened in America, I think it was horrendous. But I shouldn’t have to say that. You feel like you have to, because, if you don’t, people don’t necessarily understand. We get associated with terrorists and extremists constantly – you can’t move away from it. You say Islam and automatically somebody is thinking “extremist” or “terrorist”.’
In a context in which their faith is constantly being questioned, in schools and workplaces, Muslims are finding that they have to develop their own personal strategies for handling situations in which they are expected to be ambassadors for an entire world religion suddenly under the spotlight. Some have dealt with this by deepening their awareness of Islam, perhaps reconnecting with a Muslim community they had left behind; many have become more aware of events in places like Palestine, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Islamic identity has been strengthened.
In addition, many Hindus and Sikhs have shown little solidarity with Muslims during this period of heightened anti-Muslim feeling, quickly forgetting their own experiences of racism. As Shabana Najib points out, ‘Anybody who has experienced discrimination should have empathy for others who are going through it, not to pity them or sympathise to a great extent, but just to understand the pain.’ Instead, each community is asking itself, ‘what have they ever done for us?’ This has led to much of the common ground between Muslims and Asians of other faiths being stripped away.
With these tensions in the air, it has become easier for organised groups or gangs that define themselves by religion to persuade youngsters to join them. For some, the fear of bullying leads to outside groups being ‘called in’ for protection, especially as rumours fly around of the attacks being planned by ‘the other side’. Much youthful male pride is at stake when your faith is being attacked or, worse, when there is a perceived threat to ‘your’ women. For others, these groups provide simple answers to the difficult questions young Muslims in particular now face. In either case, such tensions feed the growth of organised groups prepared to use violence in the name of religion.
The new puritans
Since September 11, all the media attention has been on Muslim fundamentalists in the UK, such as Abu Hamza al-Masri, of Finsbury Park mosque, and Sheikh Omar Bakri, leader of the Al-Muhajiroun group, who have become household names. Yet for all the pages devoted to their ‘links’ to al-Qaeda, little effort has been made to place their antics in the wider context of British Islam and point out how small their respective followings are. Nor has much thought been given to what the appeal of groups like Al-Muhajiroun may be to the small number of followers they attract. The constant media coverage has given the impression that these tiny groupings are, in fact, more influential than they are, thereby flattering their own apocalyptic pretensions.
Since the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s, growing numbers of youths have been attracted to the puritan strands of Islam, in particular the Salafi sect, which makes up a tiny percentage of the Muslim population. Although some Salafis support the use of political violence to establish a state based on Shari’ah law, others emphasise a process of ‘self-rectification’ in which followers embark on a personal struggle to transform their lifestyle on the model of the Prophet Muhammad. The puritan movement in Islam is thriving among young men in the UK because it offers a brand of Islam very different to that of their parents. The preachers are often more dynamic, younger and able to relate to their target audience in a way that most mosques, whose Imams have often been brought over from abroad, cannot. Particularly in medium-sized towns like Luton, the Salafis are recruiting many youngsters who have previously dabbled in crime. Well-known local criminals have been converted to the Salafi lifestyle, swapping fast cars, womanising and night-clubs for the discipline of a minimum-wage job, voluntary work and a strict personal code covering every aspect of dress, manners and family relations.
At the heart of the appeal, though, is the question of identity. The process of conversion begins by asking what it means to be a Muslim. For many, that is not an easy question to answer but for Salafis, who seek to purify Islam of all innovation since the time of Muhammad, it means a simple set of lifestyle prescripts that remove all the confusions of being Muslim in the modern world. For many young men, who see other Muslims suffering across the world and connect that suffering to their own experience of racism, such messages have a potent appeal. That is why Sheikh Omar Bakri places the following lines at the heart of his recruitment speeches: ‘They want to keep calling us Pakis, bloody Arabs, brown Kaffirs. So you change your name to Bobby. You change all your clothes. You dance. You rave with them. They still call you Paki. You ask, “For God’s sake who do I belong to?” You belong to the Muslim ummah, brother, come on in.’
The problem for Muslims generally is that groups like Al-Muhajiroun, which revel in negative publicity and lace their rhetoric with anti-Semitism, homophobia and calls for jihad, have dominated the public representation of Islam. Their presence in a town can be devastating. In Luton, the local ‘branch’ of Al-Muhajiroun attracted national headlines in October 2001 after two men from the town, who had gone to fight for the Taliban, had been killed in a US bombing raid on Kabul. Al-Muhajiroun, which has just six members in Luton, organised a ‘demonstration’ in memory of the two. Although only ten people turned up, racism against all the town’s 20000 Muslims increased. Once again, the majority was forced to suffer for the actions of a tiny minority because of a lazy racism that lumps all Muslims together. Soon afterwards the leader of Luton’s Al-Muhajiroun, known as ‘Shahed’, was beaten up in the street by ‘moderate’ Muslims and warned off continuing any activities in the town.
Fear and loathing in Derby
In Derby, tensions between Sikhs and Muslims worsened following September 11, as rumours spread that Al-Muhajiroun members were active in the area distributing anti-Sikh leaflets. A hoax letter, which has been circulating on the internet for some years and aims at fomenting Sikh-Muslim conflict, inflamed the Sikh community when it was allegedly distributed in Normanton Road, the heart of Derby’s Asian community. The letter accuses the government of only being interested in funding ‘Gurdwaras and Gays and Homos’ and goes on to suggest that Muslim boys need ‘to bring Sikh girls into the arms of Islam’ by taking them out on a date: ‘it is easy to take the Sikh girls out on a date as they generally like a good drink’. There was talk of a boycott of Muslim shops and angry meetings were held at the Gurdwara. With many Sikhs having already moved out of the Normanton area to Derby’s suburbs, those who remained felt vulnerable and outnumbered.
Soon afterwards, a dispute flared up between schoolgirls over the events of September 11, leading to one Muslim girl’s headscarf being torn. Later, a gang of Muslim boys from outside the school smashed their way into a lunch break armed with hammers and axes and attacked pupils. A Hindu girl suffered a fractured skull and spine injuries. So far, a 15-year-old has been charged with racially aggravated wounding and grievous bodily harm. Community leaders organised meetings to try to avoid a total collapse of trust but, according to Paramdeep Singh Bhatia of the Derby Sikh Youth Association, these meetings were ineffectual. In the end, the gang leaders themselves negotiated a truce.
Bhatia believes that, in order to avoid future tensions, youths need to be allowed to take the initiative in seeking solutions. He hopes that forums can be established where young people of different faiths can develop a mutual respect. For others, the incident highlighted how women are sidelined. ‘You get quite frustrated with men wanting to fight things out, rather than wanting to talk,’ says Shabana Najib. ‘Why is it that men feel the need to protect us and yet never ask for our views on it? A lot of the women that I come across are quite frustrated about the way things were dealt with.’
Britain’s Hindu Right
Hinduism is often thought of as a religion that is inherently tolerant and humane, yet Hindu communities too have their small minority of active ‘fundament-alists’, who often escape scrutiny because of the religion’s reputation for peacefulness. Few are aware of the history of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) in India: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which was formed in the 1920s on the model of Mussolini’s Brown Shirts, or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat earlier this year. In Britain, the offshoots of these groups present themselves as cultural and social organisations and downplay their political agenda. But hostility to Muslims is never far away. At a VHP meeting in Southall, held in response to the situation in Gujarat, speakers demanded that non-Hindus should be made to leave India. And writer Sunil Khilnani has described attending the March 2002 ‘Festival of Hindu Youth’, held in north London, at which speakers ‘worked the audience in televangelical style, exhorting the youngsters to stand up for their Hindu religion, to defend their caste identities, and to face down other religions that might intimidate them – especially Muslims’. Yet the UK branch of the VHP has also been given a platform in the mainstream media, in the Daily Telegraph and on Talk Radio, as the representative voice of Hindus, particularly after last summer’s riots.
As in India, the Hindutva movement in Britain operates through a number of linked organisations, each presenting a different face for different purposes. The Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), which is a registered charity, describes itself as a cultural organisation ‘right at the core of being British and Hindu’, according to spokesman Manoj Ladwa. Although he claims HSS has a ‘distinct identity in the UK’ from its Indian equivalent, the RSS, he accepts that it shares ‘common roots and beliefs’ with the Indian anti-Islamic paramilitary group, one of whose members was responsible for Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. HSS organises youth ‘training camps’, regularly invites RSS speakers from India to UK events and organises fundraising events such as the ‘Hindu marathon’. At the time of writing, the next training camp is to be held over ten days at the end of July 2002 in Hounslow and around 100 youths are expected to attend. The well-known charity Sewa International which, according to Ladwa, is ‘managed by HSS’ shares an address with HSS, as does the National Hindu Students Forum, which has a fluctuating membership in the low thousands.
The support for groups like HSS and VHP in the UK rests on a mixture of elements. As indicated above, for many economically successful Hindus, particularly entrepreneurs from East African Asian merchant communities, Hindu chauvinism aims at dissociation from less well-off Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities which are seen as giving Asians a bad name. This snobbery feeds into wider fears of Islam as a fundamentalist religion and is supported by the idea that Muslims have historically been ‘invaders’ of the Hindu homeland. The VHP has also been successful in mobilising around anti-defamation issues. Recently, after an international internet campaign, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut had scenes re-edited so that extracts from the Gita were not read during an orgy. Another factor is the strong Hindu tradition of contributing ‘service’ to the welfare of one’s community. As Hindu nationalist groups are often the only voluntary sector groups doing welfare and educational work in the name of Hinduism, they attract support, in spite of the fact that their ideology is a distortion of the Hindu faith system.
Perhaps because of the VHP’s deeper roots in the Hindu community, perhaps in anticipation of the backlash that would follow, the VHP did not follow Shere-e-Punjab in an alliance with the BNP. When Nick Griffin heard Hasmukh Shah, a VHP leader, denounce Muslims following the riots in Bradford last July, he turned up at Shah’s office seeking an alliance, but his overtures were rejected.
For anti-racists, the growth of groups in Asian communities that promote violent hatred of other faiths raises difficult questions. Should they be treated in the same way as white extreme-Right political parties, like the BNP? How do we understand these groups’ place in the context of the wider racist society? It would be wrong, however, to lump together very different political movements under the catch-all term of ‘fascism’. Whereas Asian communalist groups in the UK are reactive, distorted responses to a racist society, white working-class far-Right movements, in the final analysis, scapegoat ‘immigrants’ for the iniquities of the class system. The former aims at separation, the latter at subordination. And each requires its own specific analysis and oppositional strategy.
One practice that needs to be urgently challenged is the tendency of ‘multiculturalist’ policies to take an unthinking, and often tokenistic, approach to ‘minority’ representation. Under the guise of multiculturalism, leaders of communalist groups can easily become accepted as authentic representatives of Asian ‘culture’, as has happened in some newspapers and radio programmes over the last year. Leaders of groups like HSS have been invited to become a part of the multicultural hobnobbing that is, these days, a part of the British establishment’s attempts to manage race relations. As a result, the most reactionary elements in our communities are being given undue influence. Under Blair, with his authoritarian and hermetic idea of ‘community’, we are increasingly being defined as ‘faith groups’, and religiously defined organisations are seen as key players in tackling ‘anti-social behaviour’.
Not only do we need to take more responsibility for the tacit support we give to people who claim to speak on behalf of a particular faith, we also need to develop strategies to give young people a greater sense of empowerment, to provide alternatives to the easy and simplistic sense of belonging offered by religious gangs and fanatics. The Aik Saath project, which emerged as a response to the Sikh-Muslim conflicts in Slough in 1997, aims to do just that. The project recruited youth leaders who had previously been involved in violent incidents and taught them ‘conflict resolution’ and team-working skills that they then passed on to their peers. Gradually, the project developed in them the confidence and knowledge to challenge religious division and break down the fear and insecurity that surrounds these issues. Religion could then no longer be used as an excuse for violence.
For information on how the Gujarat riots were fuelled by support from abroad, see Joydeep Ray, 'VHP's hand in Gujarat's weapons of murder', Indian Express (10 April 2002). In India, there have been repeated questions about the funding of the VHP, which, like its UK and US branches, claims charitable status. Large sums of money that ought to be helping the poor, rather than promoting the interests of any particular religious community, are unaccounted for. Under India's secular laws, even constructing a temple cannot be considered a charitable activity. Much of these funds come from abroad, often by Hindus who believe the money is being used for genuine purposes. Given the relative wealth of many Hindus in the US IT industry, some estimate the sums involved to be as large as tens of millions of dollars per year. Although the VHP claims not to receive foreign donations, it has held conferences in New York, Copenhagen, Netherlands and Singapore, as well as Milton Keynes, and has conducted fundraising tours of the USA. One such tour in 1999 had a target of raising $400000. (Murali Krishnan, 'The VHP's long tax holiday', Outlook India (22 March 1999).For a detailed analysis of Hindu nationalism in the UK, see Parita Mukta and Chetan Bhatt (eds), 'Hindutva movements in the West: resurgent Hinduism and the politics of diaspora', Ethnic and Racial Studies (Vol. 23, no. 3, May 2000).
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.