Workers Vanguard No. 886

16 February 2007


Britain: Racism and the Islamic Veil

No to Racist State Bans on Muslim Dress!

For Women's Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

(Women and Revolution pages)

The following article is reprinted from Workers Hammer No. 197 (Winter 2006-2007), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).

When cabinet minister Jack Straw declared in October that he would prefer Muslim women not to wear the veil that covers the face (the niqab), he opened the floodgates for a torrent of racist bigotry particularly directed against Muslim women. He also unleashed a campaign for banning the niqab in certain areas of public life. This comes in the wake of the ban on the hijab (headscarf) imposed in French schools in 2004 which was followed by similar bans in some German states, and now the Netherlands government proposes to ban the niqab in public places.

Straw’s attack on Muslim women comes in the context of an escalation of the racist “war on terror” which seeks to brand Muslims the “enemy within.” Labour ministers are trying to drum up support among the public, which is deeply opposed to the occupation of Iraq. There is also much scepticism about government “terrorism” scares, following the 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and the police raid in Forest Gate in June 2006 in which Mohammed Abdul Kahar was shot in the chest. He and his brother were arrested although they were totally innocent. Meanwhile despite the massive “security” scare at the airports in August, no evidence whatsoever of a terror plot has been presented to the public.

In November, to whip up support for yet another tranche of “anti-terrorism” laws, MI5 head Eliza Manningham-Buller was wheeled out to give a speech that made the country appear to be awash with terrorist plots and potential terrorists. She claimed there are 30 “major terrorist plots being planned,” while 1,600 individuals are “actively engaged in promoting attacks here and abroad” and no less than 100,000 people “considered the London bombings to be justified” (Guardian, 10 November 2006).

Soon after Straw’s statement, a woman in Liverpool had her veil ripped off, there were arson attacks on mosques and the xenophobic capitalist press had a field day denouncing the veil, and all things Muslim. Straw of course says that it is Muslims wearing the veil that “could make community relations more difficult.” His opposition to the veil soon took on the status of a government-backed campaign. Tony Blair proffered that the veil could make some “outside the community feel uncomfortable.” Local government minister Phil Woolas called for the sacking of teaching assistant Aishah Azmi for wearing the niqab at work; Blair backed Kirklees Council in suspending her from her job, which was in a Church of England school with a majority of Muslim pupils. When Azmi was subsequently sacked, she denounced ministers who called for her dismissal, rightly saying it made her “fearful of the consequences for Muslim women in this country who want to work.”

Meanwhile the city council in nearby Bradford—home to one of the largest concentrations of Asians outside London—is drawing up guidelines stating that pupils and staff should not wear veils during lessons. And in a landmark ruling, the House of Lords unanimously backed Denbigh high school in Luton in their exclusion of a pupil, Shabina Begum, for wearing the Muslim jilbab (which covers the body but not the face). This overturned a previous Court of Appeal decision that Begum’s exclusion was unlawful and that she had a right to manifest her religion.

As Marxists—and therefore atheists and fighters for women’s liberation—we oppose the veil as both a symbol and an instrument of women’s oppression. Nonetheless we unambiguously oppose any state or government bans and restrictions on the veil, which are racist and discriminatory against Muslims. Contrary to liberal claims that banning the veil is designed to integrate Muslims into society, bans will lead to expulsions of Muslim women from schools, universities and the workforce, which will reinforce their isolation and oppression. Bans will also fuel racism and play into the hands of the fascist BNP [British National Party].

Across Europe, bans and strictures on Islamic dress are an extension of the racist “war on terror” directed in the first instance against Muslims, who are falsely and indiscriminately branded terrorist suspects as a pretext for state repression. In Europe, people of Muslim origin are mainly the descendants of immigrant workers brought into the imperialist countries as cheap labour in previous decades to work in the lowest paid, dirtiest jobs, just like today’s new generation of immigrants. In Britain, the majority of Muslims are of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin and constitute the most impoverished section of the population.

The “war on terror” is a classic “divide and rule” ploy, stigmatising Muslims as an excuse for a sweeping reduction in the legal rights of the entire population. It is also aimed at the working class, intended to stifle class struggle by insisting on “national unity” against a supposed common enemy. The “war on terror” must be fought by mobilisations of the multiethnic working class, involving its immigrant component, in a struggle against the hated Blair government and against the capitalist system as a whole. This system based on production for profit is the root cause of racism and of the oppression of women in society.

Straw’s provocation ignited a fierce controversy over race relations, religion and women’s rights. Supporters of Labour’s “war on terror” waxed venomous against the religious strictures of Islam, which in Britain is a minority religion of the most deprived and downtrodden. The British capitalist state has its own established Christian churches in England and Wales that are tied to the heart of the conservative establishment, the monarchy and House of Lords. British society at large has been relatively secular for decades, but the Blair government has done its utmost to change that, by funding a huge growth in religious schools while over 40 of the 100 new “city academies” are to be run by Christians.

From Blair’s crusading Christian godliness to local government minister Ruth Kelly’s membership of the far-right Catholic sect Opus Dei, Christianity constantly interferes in the private lives of the population. The social consequences are all around. Creationism—once the preserve of Christian fundamentalists—is increasingly being taught in schools, repackaged as “intelligent design” while reactionaries of all stripes have been beating the drums for a reduction in the time limit on abortion. Religion ought not to have any official backing by the state, and people should be free to practise their religion without state interference and persecution. Abolish the monarchy, the House of Lords and the established churches! For separation of religion and state! For free abortion on demand! For an end to state funding of religious schools—for free, secular education!

In the polarisation over the veil, Salman Rushdie, who supports the “war on terror,” was hailed in the racist gutter press for having said “veils suck.” Labour MP Harriet Harman also denounced the veil, saying, “if you want equality, you have to be in society, not hidden away from it.” This hypocrisy is breathtaking coming from a cabinet member in a government that is responsible for the bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Try telling relatives of the countless thousands of women and children slaughtered in Iraq that they ought to be “in society”!

Imperialist Butchers of Iraq Will Not Liberate Women!

Liberal journalist Polly Toynbee also backed Straw, arguing that “because some racists may jump on the bandwagon to attack Muslims, that’s no reason to pretend veils are OK” (Guardian, 17 October 2006). In the name of secularism, Toynbee is echoing the Islamophobia being whipped up by Labour ministers. This campaign has nothing to do with secularism. It is not directed at Christianity (as can be seen in Blair’s backing of a Christian airport worker’s right to wear a crucifix at work) but is part of a generalised assault on Muslims worldwide. Pope Benedict gave it his seal of approval in September when he provocatively described Islam as “evil and inhuman.” This is rich indeed, coming from the head of the Catholic Church which is responsible for the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Outrageously, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) leapt to the Pope’s defence! Condemning the international outcry from Muslims that forced him into a half-hearted apology as “the effort to silence the head of the Catholic Church,” Sean Matgamna opined: “If the spiritual absolute monarch of a billion and a quarter Catholics can be treated like that, the cause of free speech and freedom to criticise religion, is surely in a very bad way” (Solidarity, 28 September 2006). The AWL’s Islamophobia is an extension of their craven loyalty to “democratic” British imperialism born out of anti-communist hostility to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Their defence of imperialist “democracy” against Islam today is a basic denial that the biggest force for terrorism on earth is U.S. and British imperialism.

Prominent liberals from Muslim backgrounds reluctantly lined up with Jack Straw, whom they otherwise despise. Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said, “Jack Straw’s politics usually make me either furious or bilious,” but on the veil, “I find myself agreeing with his every word.” Alibhai-Brown was scathing against liberal apologists for the veil in Britain. Noting that unveiled women in Iran are imprisoned, “branded whores and beaten” while women in Afghanistan and Palestine suffer a similar plight, she complained bitterly that: “Instead of expressing solidarity with these females, sanctimonious British niqabis are siding with their foes” (Independent, 9 October 2006).

Also backing Straw was Houzan Mahmoud of the Worker Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI) who said, “I could never have imagined having anything in common with Jack Straw, but I find myself in agreement with him about how it feels talking to a woman covered up in hijab or the ‘niqab’ that covers women fully” ( Web site, 7 October 2006). Despite the name, the WCPI is an anti-clerical reformist organisation which often looks to the imperialist powers as allies in the fight for women’s rights in the semi-colonial world. Mahmoud points to the horrors of Iraq, where “the veil is being imposed at gunpoint.” Yet despite the British government’s role in Iraq, she sees no contradiction in calling on them to defend women at home by banning the veil.

The very institutions these people look to and support are responsible for the bloody mess in the semi-colonial world. It is absurd to appeal to the British imperialist state, whose military occupying forces in Iraq are actively fomenting the communalist terror Mahmoud so vehemently opposes. The imperialists are perfectly capable of seizing on the oppression of women in the Muslim world and elsewhere, but only to justify colonial subjugation. It is fatal to fall for the illusion that they will actually improve the status of women.

Afghanistan today is a case in point. In 2001, George Bush cited the status of women—who are brutally oppressed—as part of the justification for a devastating military assault on one of the poorest countries on earth. Among the liberals who fell for this lie was feminist journalist Natasha Walter who visited Afghanistan at the time. On a recent return visit she was shocked by the situation of women: the majority of girls cannot go to school; women who participate in public life, including a well-known member of parliament and a TV presenter, live in constant fear of being killed by fundamentalists (Guardian, 28 November 2006). The Independent (29 November 2006) also reported on a 46-year-old school teacher, Mohammed Halim, who was savagely killed and disembowelled by the Taliban in a series of murders of teachers who dare to educate girls.

There is nothing new in the imperialists using the oppression of women in the colonial world to justify enslavement of a weaker country. In Victorian times Lord Cromer, the Empire’s chief overlord in colonial Egypt, cited the fact that women there wore veils to justify the British occupation which began in 1882. Cromer’s claim was bogus, to put it mildly: so vehement was his opposition to women’s rights that in London in 1910 he became president of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage! He also opposed suffrage for working-class men, seeing it as a slippery slope towards socialism.

Soviet Bureaucracy’s Betrayal in Afghanistan

The U.S. and British imperialists are responsible for the growth of the global network of Islamist forces, including Osama bin Laden, committed to jihad against the West. In the 1980s, the CIA organised and armed the Afghan mujahedin (holy warriors) who were known for throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women and shooting schoolteachers for educating girls. This massive mobilisation by U.S. imperialism was directed against the Soviet Union and its allies in government in Afghanistan.

When the Soviet Army entered Afghanistan in December 1979, we said, “Hail the Red Army!” and “Extend the social gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples!” The Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy—for its own reasons—sent in the army at the request of the nationalist government in Kabul which was attempting to lower the bride price and to introduce land reform. These modest measures provoked the reactionary Islamic fundamentalists into a “holy war” against the government forces. The reformist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the AWL and other reformists around the world lined up with the imperialists, howling against the Soviet troops, in the first war in modern history in which women’s emancipation was a central issue. The reformists lined up with their own “democratic” bourgeoisie because what was at stake was not only social progress within Afghanistan but also the defence of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was a workers state that emerged from the victorious October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that overthrew the rule of the landlords and capitalists and established the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the vast peasantry. Even though tsarist Russia was the most backward of the imperialist countries, the Russian Revolution was a beacon to workers and the oppressed in all advanced capitalist countries and of course to the oppressed masses of Central Asia. Despite the Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration that took place in the Soviet Union beginning in 1923-24, it remained a workers state until counterrevolution in 1991-92.

Nowhere were the remaining gains of the Bolshevik Revolution more clearly visible in 1979 than in Soviet Central Asia. An Afghan schoolteacher looking across the northern border at that region, which two generations earlier was as wretchedly poor as Afghanistan, saw a literate, relatively modern society where women were no longer degraded slaves. The Soviet Army presence could have resulted in the incorporation of Afghanistan into Soviet Central Asia, opening up the possibility of a social transformation, something that did not exist before because a proletariat as such did not exist. But rather than fighting to defeat the brutal mujahedin, the Kremlin Stalinists under Mikhail Gorbachev criminally withdrew the Soviet troops in 1989. This was a huge betrayal of Afghanistan, especially its women. It also paved the way for handing over East Germany and the USSR itself to counterrevolution, a colossal defeat for the working masses of the entire world.

SWP Extols the Virtues of Islamic Reaction

Today the SWP is allied with Islamic organisations in Respect and the Stop the War Coalition (StWC). In response to Straw’s statement, StWC held a “People’s Assembly” in London on 18 November against Islamophobia and the “war on terror.” This gathering (which provided prayer rooms, as is now standard at SWP events) issued a declaration condemning the government’s attack on Islamic religious practices, and the occupation of Iraq. But in keeping with the SWP’s gross capitulation to Islamic forces, the declaration says not one word on the rights of women. Referring only obliquely to the veil, it does so positively, presenting the issue as if it were a lifestyle choice and a welcome example of “diversity.” It said:

“In particular we condemn the statements made by government ministers designed to isolate, demonise and even criminalise Islamic religious practices, choice of dress and cultural expression. We affirm that such diversity in fact makes an important contribution to the overall development of our society.”

The notion that the veil is just some “choice of dress” or a matter of “cultural expression” is liberal nonsense. Marxists reject such “cultural relativism” which serves to prettify hideous oppression in the neo-colonial world as merely “cultural differences.” Often those who speak of “cultural relativism” do so in a laudable effort not to impose Western cultural standards on the rest of the world. However it can also be used to condone gruesome crimes like female genital mutilation or so-called honour killings. Contrary to such drivel, the head-to-toe veil is a walking prison that physically excludes women from society. It embodies the submission of women to men and their supposed inferior status. The hijab too is a tool of oppression, covering the hair based on the notion that female attractiveness and sexuality must be suppressed and hidden because it leads men into “sin” and is a sign of Western “decadence.” We solidarise with the countless thousands of women who have sought to escape the tyranny of the veil, whether in the Muslim world or in the imperialist centres.

To justify their capitulation to Islam, the SWP sometimes cites the fact that Lenin’s Bolshevik Party regarded religion as a private matter. Lenin made it very clear that Marxism is based on dialectical materialism which is “absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion” and “has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organisation, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class.” At the same time he noted that religion serves to solace the oppressed masses in a cruel world, and therefore to free the masses from its yoke requires class struggle for socialist revolution against the capitalist system that gives rise to the brutal social conditions religion thrives on. However Lenin was adamant that revolutionaries “regard religion as a private matter in relation to the state, but not in relation to themselves, not in relation to Marxism, and not in relation to the workers’ party” (“The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion,” 1909).

The SWP’s adaptation to Islam is based on the utterly false notion that political Islam is “anti-imperialist.” Since counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1991-92, the imperialists have sought to portray Islamic fundamentalism—exemplified by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda—as the replacement for the “red menace” in order to justify domestic repression and imperialist military aggression. The U.S. imperialists feel emboldened in their military adventures and are seeking to strengthen their hold on the historically Muslim oil-rich Near East.

The dramatic rise of political Islam in this region is a result of the bankruptcy of secular nationalism and of Stalinism, forces that were once dominant among the poor and oppressed in Iraq, Iran and Egypt. Today the masses increasingly look to Islamic jihadist forces that are reactionary and hostile to any form of social progress. These forces are reacting in their own distorted way to the crimes of U.S. and British imperialism against the peoples of the Near East, including their backing for Israel’s bloody repression of the Palestinians. The fundamentalists also utilise the perceived threat by the imperialists to “Westernise” Muslim societies as a justification for the degradation of women. However this threat is actually non-existent. The U.S. and British imperialists are not about to set up secular democracies in either Afghanistan or Iraq, or anywhere else in the neo-colonial world.

Islam is not uniquely reactionary or anti-woman; in fact anti-woman bigotry is just as much an integral part of Christianity and Judaism as of Islam. However, while Christianity and Judaism adapted to the rise of industrial capitalism, Islam remained rooted mainly in those parts of the world that remained poor and undeveloped, due to the world system of capitalism. Historically and today, the development of the weaker countries has been arrested and retarded by imperialism. Capitalist imperialism is based on the domination of the world by a handful of wealthy states using their military might to protect their markets and spheres of influence. All religions reinforce the patriarchal family, and the institution of the family is the main source of women’s oppression in society. It is the mechanism for inheriting property, for socialising new generations of workers and for inculcating the moral and sexual codes of the ruling class.

Hue and Cry Over “Multiculturalism”

The row over the veil in Britain overlaps with a controversy over “multiculturalism,” a policy of voluntary cultural and racial segregation of minority communities that has been promoted by governments for decades. It has always been hated by right-wingers as a concession to racial tolerance. Now it is being denounced as “self-segregation” and Blair has declared that everyone has a “duty to be part of an integrated United Kingdom.” This means conform to so-called British values, or, in Blair’s words, “don’t come here” (Guardian, 9 December 2006). Multiculturalism is also detested by liberal Muslims because it strengthens conservative, patriarchal and religious forces within minority communities. It was invoked to justify the government’s tacit support to reactionary protests by Sikh elders that shut down the play Behzti (Dishonour) in Birmingham in December 2004. Written by a Sikh woman, the play was savagely critical of the oppression of minority women, including by religious elders.

We Marxists fight for voluntary integration of all minorities based on full equality. But we understand that the eradication of racism, women’s oppression and all forms of discrimination requires a revolutionary struggle, mobilising the power of the proletariat, to uproot capitalism and liberate humanity from poverty and want. Predictably, the reformist SWP defends multiculturalism. This denies that minority communities, like the rest of society, are class-divided and that the struggles of immigrant and other minority workers for jobs, unions and equal status means breaking the grip of religious and other conservative community leaders. Moreover, supporting multiculturalism promotes illusions that the capitalist state can be used as an instrument to fight racist oppression. The capitalist state exists to defend class rule based on private property; it is the executive organ of the capitalist class for the suppression and exploitation of the working class.

The increased prevalence of the Islamic veil in Britain is in part due to the rise of political Islam internationally. It is also a result of relentless racism, poverty and hardship suffered by immigrant workers and their descendants under British capitalism. Two decades ago, religion had much less influence among minorities from South Asia. In 1985 the film My Beautiful Laundrette, based on a novel by Pakistani-derived writer Hanif Kureishi telling of a gay relationship between a young Asian man and a National Front “hard man,” was hugely popular. Today an Asian gay film would cause uproar.

In so far as integration of minorities exists in this country, it was not handed down by government policy, but was fought for in the streets and on picket lines. In 1958 in London’s Notting Hill and in Nottingham, black and Asian residents fought back racist mobs backed by police in scenes similar to those in Oldham in 2001. Blacks and Asians have been integrated into the workforce and the trade unions and have historically played a prominent role in the class battles of this country. The Grunwick strike in 1976 in London was a landmark battle by Asian women for decent working conditions. In the great miners strike of 1984-85, the black and Asian communities provided huge support to the overwhelmingly white miners, as an act of solidarity against the common enemy—the Thatcher government. The Heathrow airport wildcat strike that paralysed BA [British Airways] last year and cost them millions, carried out by the ground crews in support of over 600 sacked catering workers, was a powerful demonstration of the social power of the working class. The racially integrated workforce struck in class solidarity with the catering workers, the majority of whom were Sikh women, showing how class struggle can transcend ethnic lines.

Within the Respect coalition, the SWP has dropped their reformist claim to fight for “socialism” or the working class. They have disavowed secularism and any meaningful fight for women’s or gay rights in order to maintain their bloc with Islamists. In its own way, this shows the SWP has absorbed the “death of communism” myth to the same degree as Jack Straw, who argues that unlike 50 years ago when the divisions in society “were ones of class,” in the post-Soviet world and especially since 9/11 they are “principally ones of religion” (New Statesman, 18 September 2006). This myth must be combated and shattered through class struggle. A class-struggle fight to defend the rights of Muslims and all immigrants and minorities against the racist capitalist state is in the interests of all the working class. Against anti-immigrant racism, we call for full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

We are dedicated to building a multiethnic revolutionary workers party which will champion the rights of all the oppressed and whose task is to bring revolutionary consciousness to the working class, overcoming backwardness and prejudice in the struggle for the overthrow of capitalist class rule. The liberation of women requires successful struggle for working-class rule. This will lay the basis for an egalitarian communist society of material abundance, which alone will make it possible to replace the family, the key institution of women’s oppression. This is also the only route to the eradication of racism and inequality and will open the road to the full emancipation of women.