It’s time I put the text of my speech to the South London Anti-Fascist Group’s AGM online.
The talk nearly did not happen. Much to my surprise, Hope Not Hate objected to me speaking, describing my presence as ‘intolerable’. Hope Not Hate’s predecessor organisation, Searchlight , long enjoyed a monopoly over media coverage of the far-right – it is worrying if Hope Not Hate believe they have a similar monoply over analysis of fascism, or even of opposition to it?
Anyway, after the AGM’s business those present had a talk by Hackney Unites on their work in east London, and performances by Dean Atta and the Ruby Kid . That gave me the most difficult slot of all – the last one. Here’s what I said:
Talk To South London Anti-Fascists
I am slightly embarrassed at being described as an activist. I’m as active as anyone with 3 part time jobs, twin sons and a PhD to finish.
I was very active for best part of two decades, a member of Class War for 16 years, I was involved with Anti-Fascist Action on an occasional basis (those who remember Red Action will know Anarchists were always kept in reserve for when the numbers were short, we were the auxillary force) and a founder member of No Platform and Antifa.
If I have theme this evening it is that things are very different today to 1992 or 1993 – but in some ways they can still be rather similar.
In 1993 anti-fascists had to contend with a large, fluid group of disparate young men, ostensibly protesting about terrorism. Their numbers certainly contained organised fascists, loyalists and ex-soldiers, but also from football firms, people with little or no political background, and people looking for a scrap. Those anti-IRA demonstrations – the cries of No Surrender – were the precursors of the EDL demonstrations of today.
Those demonstrations passed. Indeed they were a distraction from doing what was necessary – reaching a mature peace in Ireland. And the EDL are a similar distraction
- The first is that they will stimulate racist attacks – either on lone Muslims on the fringes of demonstrations, or as we have seen in Luton in an attack on a mosque.
- That EDL actions will stimulate racist attacks by Muslims on whites. At the counter-demo to the EDL in Birmingham at least one white passer by was beaten up, with footage of the incident displayed across the papers.
With hindsight, there are other dangers we could perhaps add, although I have to say the idea of the EDL as an electoral force conjoined with the British Freedom Party is one that at this stage I don’t fear. Social movements tend to lose something, some of their sparkle when they try and become political parties.
3. The third danger I saw, which is by far the biggest, is that the EDL retard debate about Islam, and more importantly Islamism, in the UK. There is something different potentially about the EDL to the anti-IRA – read anti-Irish – demonstrations of the 1990s.
Lets consider where the EDL emerges – in Luton – following the Al-Mujihiroun demonstration against the Royal Anglian Regiment. Historically Luton is a town with comparatively good race relations. It has good relations between white and black, and good relations between Irish and British. It has very poor relations between Muslim and non-Muslim. Those problems long predate the EDL.
In 2009 I argued the presence of the EDL runs the risk of dividing debate into racists on one side, and professional anti-racists and Muslim representative organisations on the other, with little or no space for anyone else to operate in. Melanie Phillips on one side and the Muslim Council of Britain on the other. And that divide excludes the vast majority of people in this community, and indeed the UK.
There is a problem, for people on the left, in considering issues in those terms. Look at the hysterical reactions from some on the left when, I think it was Nick Lowles, made the comment that Al-Mujihiroun and the EDL were two sides of the same coin. It was hardly a bizarre comparison to make.
There are problems, and indeed real concerns with some of the brands of Islam we now see in the UK. In Tower Hamlets, the most important political institution is not the Labour Party, trades unions or a particular community group – it is East London Mosque. How we articulate and discuss these issues is an even bigger challenge than dealing with the EDL. They are another distraction from where we want to go, from where we want society to be.
I want to say a few things about multi-culturalism. It is something I suspect everyone in this room is comfortable with. As an Englishman of Irish descent with an African wife, I know I am. A London where we get on with our neighbours and our workmates precisely because they are our neighbours and colleagues. That gives us shared interests and things in common. A multi-culturalism where we see people as people, not as representatives of particular ethnic or religious groups, to be spoken to and interacted with on those terms.
I don’t usually see the need to articulate most of the problems of London in racial terms. That is not to say racism does not exist – it does. But there are two types of multi-culturalism. Kenan Malik’s attack on a top down multi-culturalism, where identities are imposed by authorities – read his book From Fatwa to Jihad – is I think essential reading. He sets out how in Birmingham identities were imposed, by the local authority, and funding and power allocated on that basis. And within two decades, you have blacks and Muslims fighting each other in the streets. In the 1980s they had been fighting alongside one another against the police.
Onto the contemporary far-right. As in the early 1990s, the main far right party is underachieving. The spivvy nature of Griffin’s BNP has been understood by his own supporters, taking a lot of his base away. Griffin’s sole priority is probably to get re-elected as an MEP – those who have served two terms in the European Parliament get a very significant pension. It is hard, but not impossible to see him getting the BNP back to where it was.
These are still challenging times though for anti-fascists. I would recommend to you some of the work Matthew Goodwin of Nottingham University has done on far-right voting patterns and opinion poll data across Europe. In most countries the populist (read fascist) party has a rising vote – Norway and the UK being the most noticeable exceptions. It is not hard to see why the vote is collapsing in Norway – in Anders Breivik, they have seen fascism in action. In France and Austria the majority of white working class voters indicated they would vote for the ‘populist’ party.
I am not sure anything about a trend ensures its continuation. To me, a whole series of dangers exist, but one of the most dangerous is to play into the hands of fascists. If there is such a thing as ‘the black community’ or the ‘Vietnamese community’ or the ‘Muslim community’, with fixed leaders, structures and needs, can we really wet our pants in shock and distress when someone says “I represent the white community vote for me”?
Yes we need multi-culturalism. It is what I live. But we need a bottom up multi-culturalism, not a top down government approach that plays into the hands of our enemies.
No Platform, which I tried to uphold for two decades, is harder than ever to implement. Firstly because of police repression – consider the six Antifa members jailed last year, the amount of CCTV, the limitless expenses these specialist police units seem to have. Secondly look at the rise of social media and the Internet – the BNP could be prevented from leafleting, but that same leaflet placed online and seen by hundreds of people within minutes. Which makes no platform more of an occasional tactic than part of a sustainable, permanent programme.
We have to beat the fascists in argument. And we can. Our ideas are better than theirs.
Thank you for listening.
By Kenan Malik from his blog Pandaemonium
I gave a talk on Wednesday night to the Studienbibliothek in Hamburg. Entitled ‘Left, Right and Islamism’ the talk explored the ways in which the responses of both left and right to Islamism have betrayed of basic principles of freedom and liberty. One of the key themes in the discussion afterwards was about how the liberal fear of giving offence has helped created the space for Islamists to take offence. The more that we worry that people will be offended by a book or a play or a cartoon or an idea or a thought, the more we give licence for people to be so offended, and the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended.
It is not just Islamists who live by outrage. Returning to Britain, I discover in the three days I’ve been away three incidents that perfectly illustrate how everyone now wants to feel offended – or rather how the authorities, from the police to trade union bureaucrats, seem to want everyone to feel offended.
First, there was the case of the woman whose racist rant on a Croydon tram went viral after another passenger videoed it on a mobile and posted it on YouTube. The police tracked her down from that video, charged her with ‘racially and religiously aggravated harassment’ and got her remanded in custody. Then came Jeremy Clarkson who made a typically inane joke about public sector workers needing to be shot. UNISON, the public sector union,demanded his sacking and a police investigation. And then Manchester City footballer Micah Richards received some racist backchat on his Twitter feed. @WillMadine94 tweeted: ‘You big fat nigger u r shit. Martin Kelly over u all day for england. Play for africa!!!’. Lincolnshire police launched an investigation (the tweeter is believed to live in the county) and are trying to track him down.
Each of these incidents is different, ranging from poor taste to hateful abuse, and each requires a different response. What none of them requires is for the law to intervene.
Tram woman was nasty and abusive; she is of a kind I have faced many times in my life (though thankfully rarely in recent years). The way to deal with her was as the passengers on the tram actually did: they confronted her and challenged her abuse.
Clarkson should simply have been ignored. He is like the pub bore whose whole aim is to provoke a effect. The more that people rise to the bait, the more they make his day. At least Clarkson had the excuse that he was trying to make joke. UNISON has no such excuse. There is, as David Allen Green pointed out , something more than a little odious about a trade union ‘calling for someone to be summarily sacked. No disciplinary procedure, no due process, no contract rights: the man should be fired immediately.’
@WillMadine94 is one of those foul-mouthed, bigoted trolls that pop up all too frequently on the web (though he seems now to have deleted his Twitter account). Richards, if he had really felt offended, could have blocked @WillMadine94 on his Twitter feed. Instead, Richards responded : ‘Love the racist abuse keep it coming… ☺.’Hardly the response of someone shattered by the abuse. The police decided to step in anyway.
Outrage these days has become almost a means of defining oneself, of marking out one’s identity. I know who I am because I am outraged by this, you know who you are because you are outraged by that. Muslims, Christians, atheists, liberals, conservatives – for every group outrage has become an expression of self-definition. The mark of identity is the possession of a thin skin. Monica Ali, whose novel Brick Lane caused umbrage among some Bangladeshis , talked in an interview I did for my book From Fatwa to Jihad , of the creation of a ‘marketplace of outrage’:
What we have developed today is a marketplace of outrage. And if you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.’
Indeed they do. It is a marketplace that is quickly becoming more crowded than a passport queue at Heathrow airport.
The marketplace of outrage is not, however, simply a means of creating self-identity. It is also a means of social regulation. Speech regulation – whether of hate speech or of offensive speech – is becoming a mechanism through which the authorities can police relations between groups in an era of identity politics. in an increasingly tribal society, the slightest whiff of saying something unacceptable has become a matter for social discipline. It is a kind of society that Islamists revere. What is extraordinary is how many liberals, and those on the left, seem to desire it too. I’m outraged.