Clearly, there is a rapport between Muslim communities and the political Left in the United Kingdom. Left-wing parties traditionally stand with oppressed minorities. Faced with a national rise in Islamophobia, British Muslims constitute one such example.
Still, the groups may seem ideologically irreconcilable ‒ consider their contradictory stances on homosexuality and feminism, for instance. A Gallup poll in 2009 found that zero out of the 500 British Muslims in the sample found homosexuality “morally acceptable,” which is in stark contrast to the ideals advocated for by social liberalists. Why are the two sides still drawn to each other?
As Jonathan Laurence wrote for Dissent magazine in 2013, “the interests of Muslims as religious people lay to the right of the center, but their interests as socio-economic actors still tend to be best protected by socialist and social democratic parties.” Muslim immigrants are perhaps particularly attracted to the proposals of the Left to defend those that are marginalized or oppressed in society.
Is the far-left’s care for Muslim communities genuine?
The far-left Socialist Workers Party and Stop the War Coalition have long solved the ideological incompatibility of leftism and Islam. They have demanded good enough conditions for all Muslims to feel comfortable in national institutions. Meanwhile, they have tolerated Islamist views that conflict with liberal principles, leading counter-extremism expert Maajid Nawaz to coin them the “regressive Left.”
“British Muslims, however much we might disagree with some of the views that some hold, are struggling to uphold their rights and culture in an environment of pervasive racism – a racism used to uphold the policies of the new imperialism,” wrote Lindsey German, Vice-President of STWC and former SWP member, for The Guardian back in 2004.
The British far-left’s position fits in the wider debate of nativism versus identity politics and intersectionality that divides contemporary society. The nativist position is strongly associated with the far-right. Left-wing groups like the STWC and the SWP want to differentiate themselves from the (far) right, and fear being called “Islamophobic.” In order to gain an electorate among Muslims, the far-left claim to want to maintain the identity of Muslim communities and help integrate them. However, this false promise of alliance leaves Muslim communities in Britain even more isolated in society, and allows racism and nativism to thrive. It makes one wonder whether the far-left’s care for British Muslims is genuine in the first place.
The true intentions of the STWC and SWP
The STWC has been heavily criticized by Muslim community activists as well as members of the Left itself for becoming confused in its ideology. Counter-extremism expert Haras Rafiq called them “largely white, middle-class, and privileged individuals from the shires”, whose activism is “risk-free” and “self-indulgent.” And left-wing journalist James Bloodworth wrote that STWC’s “anti-war politics has the double purpose of hoovering up young and impressionable recruits to Communist and Trotskyist political parties.”
The STWC has cooperated closely with the fundamentalist Muslim Association of Britain, which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. It has treated Muslim fundamentalists as representatives of Islam, seeing their visions as legitimate and unthreatening. Does the STWC side with these fundamentalists because it genuinely cares for their cause, or because it happens to fit their agenda of gaining support for their opposition to the UK’s war policies?
The latter seems to be the case: Muslim fundamentalists have grievances against the war policies of Western governments, which the STWC seeks to exploit. Where was the STWC when Assad and Putin’s forces bombed innocent Muslim civilians in Syria? Quick to demonstrate opposition to all Western interventions, the coalition has failed to even once rally against the violent military intervention in Syria by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Maajid Nawaz has suggested renaming the organisation “Stop the Western Coalition.”
British Muslims feel increasingly alienated by an organisation that turns a blind eye to the Assad dictatorship. This selectiveness in what STWC stands for and who it supports will dissuade even more Muslims that may have otherwise supported the coalition. Significantly fewer Muslims have been present at STWC marches in recent years, and it is realistic to believe that the relationship will continue to wane.
Similarly, the relationship between the SWP and Muslim communities and fundamentalists is complicated. Decades ago, the SWP took its members to an Anti-Nazi League carnival instead of defending the immigrant area of Brick Lane in East London against an announced fascist march. Where was the “unity” they claimed to share with Muslim communities that day? Again, I am of the opinion that this lack of genuine support has alienated a lot of Muslims, and raises the question of how solid the relationship between the far-left and Muslim communities in the UK actually is.
Labour: the better approach?
On the center-left, the Labour Party should be praised as they have had relative success at countering racist rhetoric. Jeremy Corbyn has heavily criticised those that discriminate against Muslims. He has praised Islam and called for tighter bonds with Muslim communities. At the same time, he has refrained from supporting fundamentalists and Islamists or regimes that kill innocent Muslims, such as Assad.
Corbyn’s positioning has provided Muslim communities with optimism going forward, despite continuing racism in British society. The fact that 85% of Muslims in the UK voted for Labour in the 2017 general election is representative of this good relationship. In fact, Labour gains in Muslim areas seem to have made a difference in 2017.
Categorizing the relationship between the Left and Muslim communities and fundamentalists as either good or bad would thus oversimplify a complex relationship. On the one hand, leftists who speak out against Islamophobia and engage with Muslim communities highlight that intersectionality builds rapport. On the other, this is negated by far-leftist organisations that only seem to care about hitting back at the West and gaining support from fundamentalists for doing so. This has hampered their credibility and confused their ideology, alienating many Muslims.
For now, Muslim communities still seem keen to build a relationship with the center-left, but their alliances with far-leftist organisations are under threat. Considering that even the STWC’s election of a Muslim Chair, Murad Qureshi, in 2016, has not appeared to improve the relationship, the alliance’s sustainability seems inauspicious.