Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Britain's black and Asian communities have squandered the unity that gave us strength

What happened to our mutual soul? Where did the bonds of anti-racism go?
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The Independent Online

Suddenly, and unexpectedly, Sir Iqbal Sacranie's Muslim Council for Britain has found itself under media scrutiny. Perhaps it was inevitable. There is little we can do to stop iniquitous inquisitors, for whom all Muslims are treacherous suspects, but equally we must accept that Muslim organisations have got to be accountable.

Although Sacranie is a perfectly decent chap, I believe his MCB should be interrogated more thoroughly than it has been up to now. Recently knighted, Sacranie has been too closely connected with the British establishment, regularly sipping tea in fine china cups at 10 Downing Street; he has crowned himself spokesman for all British Muslims, a position both fanciful and arrogant.

The MCB cannot proclaim itself representative of British Muslims when none of its members have ever been elected by the million-plus Muslims in Britain. And many of us resent this presumption.

On Saturday night, our family went to a joyous pre-wedding party for the young daughter of a friend of mine, who was born a Pakistani Muslim and is married to a British Muslim doctor. Hers was an arranged marriage that has proved steady and fulfilling. Their daughter has chosen to marry a distant cousin who lives in the United States.

Their family combines ancestral traditions with progressive politics, modernity and humanity. My friend and I and many others at the party ­ which included Hindus, Caribbeans, Jewish people, white Christians, atheists, agnostics and Sikhs ­ have been anti-racist activists for over 25 years. We have fought together against racism, discriminatory immigration policies and police officers, and the endemic oppression of women and girls in too many Asian families.

We have made a difference: changed decisions, bringing the forces of justice to bear down on and preserve the basic human rights of all people of colour. If a black man died in custody he was our son; if an Iranian family was threatened with deportation, we demonstrated and remonstrated outside the Home Office.

We were politically "black", committed egalitarians, anti-imperialists, idealistic internationalists. Our cultural, historical and religious disparities and enmities were put aside ­ they had to be. Sure, once in a while we fell into quarrels, but always we drew back together, disgruntled and dishevelled but aware that together we could wield some power against institutions that remained resolutely white and against prejudices that blocked our aspirations.

We had serious battles to fight and our white allies were valuable comrades. Today this spirited and united resistance has been ripped to bits by self-defined separatist communities and government complicity. Sometimes the conspiracy theorist in me (always alert, just in case) wonders if the state wanted this fragmentation, the disabling of a broad and effective anti-racist politics.

Two boys play football in a street in Southall. They have two balls, and they are kicking them around a few yards from each other. They do not play together. They do not look at each other. They go to the same school. Their grandfathers ­ one Sikh,one Muslim, both from the Punjab ­ came over the 1960s to work in local factories. They were fellow trades unionists, neighbours, poor immigrants trying to survive. The families celebrated festivals together, lent each other money, grew closer as the years went by.

Then in the 1990s, one of the sons in the Muslim family started getting more "religious"; he joined a group that was promoting the idea of a world divided between true believers and "kaffirs". He imposed this disgraceful ideology in his family home. Although the grandfathers still meet to play cards in the local park, the others in both households have parted company, reverted to tribalism based on faith and ethnicity.

Now two young, brown-skinned boys with a mutual history no longer kick a football around together. "He's not a Muslim; I shouldn't play with him, " Kamran tells me. Joginder, says nothing, just vanishes into his house. How did we get here? What happened to our mutual soul? Where did the bonds of anti-racism go?

There are many reasons why collective movements break up, some unavoidable, some merely personal.I think that there were two key forces that led to the disintegration of the anti-racist movement in Britain.

In the 1980s, a number of Asians and Afro-Caribbeans had already started splitting off for spurious and self destructive motives. Wiser black and Asian Britons understood the dangers and determinedly tried to hold steadfast. Then, like a bomb, the Satanic Verses furore shook the world. It led to a schism between Muslims and other Britons.

Anti-racists were confused. This was a confrontation of ideas and ideologies that kicked away previous configurations and allegiances. An author who had been one of the most incisive voices against British racism and imperialist fantasies was in hiding for his life, hounded by his own, for writing a novel.

But many Muslims who hated Rushdie's book never wished him dead; they simply wanted their objections heard. And at that time they had no voice and were among the poorest people in this country. I came out as a Muslim at that time because I found intolerable the hysterical attacks on Muslims and their faith.

I was a Muslim within a British/Asian identity, but most important to me was my common humanity with others. However, some Muslims used this moment to destroy all other identifications and multiple identities and to exaggerate and privilege their religion in the public sphere.

The magazine Q-News, for example, went on a campaign against the work of the Commission for Racial Equality, accusing the body of mis-labelling Muslims as "Asians". They were demanding Islamic rights. Sacranie too, among others, started lobbying for "Muslim" entitlements, including new blasphemy laws and state-funded Muslim schools. Respected researchers, politicians and ­ later ­ the media were happy to oblige; they never questioned the implications. The next generation of Muslims were to learn the lessons of separation that we now see in the two boys in Southall.

Then came New Labour with its many fervent Christian ministers who are instinctively drawn to faith-based policies. They daily betray the fundamentals of state secularism. It is also clear that Tony Blair is crucially dependent on the goodwill of the MCB as he faces the consequences of his disastrous foreign policy decisions.

We would like to blame Omar Bakri and radical mosque leaders for the home-grown bombers. But these knowing men could only corrupt the young whose sense of self had been ploughed and fertilised by mainstream Muslim and British leaders. Together they have encouraged the Islamisation of politics ­ and all of us are the worse for it.