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WHAT is “Britishness” — and who decides?
As a standard-issue leftie, it’s not a question that much interests me as much a rule, not least because of the iffyness of the whole concept.
But I’ve been forced to consider it lately, as the far right makes increasingly wild attempts to claim for itself a national identity based largely on “othering” everyone else.
There is too much historical precedent pointing to the perils of such dehumanising tactics not to address them.
The irony of the loudest voices on the subject tending to be those funded by foreign powers would, of course, be remarkable, were we not in an era so overdosed on irony the word has almost lost meaning.
So we see the eternally tiresome Tommy Robinson, much of whose funding and support now comes from the US, Israel and almost certainly Russia, earning “British” points by pitting himself against those he deems unworthy of the title, with Muslims being the chief target du jour.
A defining moment saw an overwrought Robinson standing in a street in Manchester after the Arena terror attack, gesticulating at a row of well-kept, ordinary-looking terraced houses which he claimed contained “enemy combatants.”
This weekend, I put his theories to the test and went deep inside “enemy” lines as the guest of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and their spiritual leader.
Robinson would be disappointed to learn I emerged unscathed, if a little overly full of lamb korma.
I’d been invited via Twitter, by Imam Qamar Ahmed Zafar, based at the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, south London.
Zafar is a young, newly qualified Imam (it’s a seven-year training, plus a year of missionary work abroad), but by no means faint-hearted.
He’s a press officer for the mosque, and had invited me to a key annual event in its calendar.
The 2019 Peace Symposium would be attended by 800 guests of all beliefs and walks of life (mayors, politicians, journalists, archbishops, opinion-formers and, er, me).
Entering the complex it was immediately clear this was not the secretive, closed world of far-right paranoia. There is a large public viewing room for the men’s mosque, and I watched evening and night prayers.
At the press conference with the Caliph Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the spiritual leader of the Ahmadiyya, questions inevitably focused on Islamic State (Isis) and Shamima Begum, the Bethnal Green schoolgirl radicalised at 15 and married to an Isis fighter.
Begum had only just lost her infant son, Jarrah, to pneumonia when the conference was held. Jarrah is the third baby Begum — still only 19 — has lost in Syria. Britain had refused her return after his birth, stripping her of her British citizenship.
Conditions in the al-Hol internment camp in north-eastern Syria, where she was being held, were not conducive to health.
Questioned about the status of Begum, the Caliph replied that she must be considered a Muslim if she declared her faith and believed in God.
The Ahmadiyya position at the outset had, he said, been that she should have been allowed to come home to Britain for the sake of her baby, and face trial here. He hoped now to see her adopted and offered sympathy by another Muslim country.
However he was also unequivocal in his condemnation of extremism as utterly contrary to the central tenets of Islam.
The Caliph’s later symposium address condemned them further, and warned they were not finished yet.
I was especially interested in his views on the rise of the far right. He accepted immigration as a legitimate concern and (going further than I would myself) said that migrants should try to seek work quickly to avoid the “belief that existing indigenous citizens are being short-changed in order to fund and support immigrants.”
But he also emphasised that “all that most people desire is the ability to provide for their families … it is only when such opportunities are denied to them that they seek to leave their homes in search of a better life. Accordingly, the long-term solution to the immigration crisis has to be to establish peace in war-torn countries and to help the local people, who have been forced to endure lives of misery and danger, to live peacefully.”
So here, seemingly, was a community that was the antithesis of the far-right stereotype: standing for integration and peace, taking balanced views on geopolitical issues, their activities transparent and visitors welcomed.
The Ahmadiyya in fact face hostility from some fellow Muslims over religious differences, but seem to respond with the motto literally writ large on the walls of Baitul Futuh: “Love for All, Hatred for None.”
Was this all too good to be true though — just a PR exercise, a “press night”? I had personal reasons for thinking not.
Within days of Zafar’s invitation, I had hit him with an SOS, just as he was knee-deep in planning. A fellow freelance journalist, Mike Stuchbery, had been targeted by neonazi nuisance Tommy Robinson.
As is his wont, Robinson had turned up at Stuchbery’s door in the middle of the night — as he had done only months before to the parents of student anti-fascist Luke Collins. Robinson proudly filmed and uploaded his “doorstepping,” and gave out Stuchbery’s address.
Police came and shooed him away, but he was, astonishingly, able to return after 5am, again banging on the door and demanding “a chat.”
Stuchbery writes fearlessly about the far right, and has no regrets about exposing them. But he and his wife are still a young couple who haven’t long lived in Britain, and whose family are abroad. I felt anger and shame that my country was offering them hostility, not hospitality.
As an NUJ member, I also wondered who was looking out for the free press which is so integral to the free speech Robinson claims to stand for.
Unite against Fascism and Stand up To Racism rose immediately to my request for support for the Stuchberys, as did the NUJ to the idea of an open letter in support of him and journalistic freedom.
But we needed people on the spot, too, and my thoughts turned to the local Muslim community who, because Stuchbery is unfortunate enough to share a home town with Robinson, are perforce no strangers to the far right.
Almost before I’d finished asking Zafar how best to approach the local mosque, he’d done it for me.
The next day, I went over to Stuchbery’s home to find the police had still not responded to a 999 call made 20 hours previously, when another obnoxious far-right figure had appeared at his door. Stuchbery is a calm and thoughtful man, but this was not a heartening state of affairs.
I called in a press enquiry to Bedfordshire police asking about this apparent lapse; two detectives arrived soon afterwards.
The matter is now being taken extremely seriously, and Stuchbery’s file of hate mail is in police hands: and what a file it is, from the kind of crude threats you would expect to a note written in elegant copperplate, calling him a disgusting hypocrite and then signed, in the sender’s full name, with “Kind regards.” Stuchbery and his wife were able to laugh about it, but the barrage of abuse was surreal and unpleasant.
I also called Stuchbery’s MP Kelvin Hopkins. Hopkins, an independent MP since his dismissal from Labour, was unavailable due to family issues; and his office said they felt he shouldn’t take this on, due both to his current personal stresses and the fear he might be targeted by the far right in turn.
As requested I subsequently emailed Hopkins’s office with the salient details — at the time of writing, five days on, I have had no response.
Unlike the police and Hopkins, it isn’t technically Imam Zafar’s job to help Stuchbery and his wife.
When I first asked, Zafar and I hadn’t even met in real life, and he was new to Stuchbery’s work and targeting by Robinson.
Yet he took me at my word, and representatives of the local Ahmadiyya community were sitting with Stuchbery, his wife and me less than 24 hours later.
Zafar further suggested I bring the Stuchberys to the symposium the next day: quite an offer, given virtually every seat was booked well in advance, and arranged transport for them door to door.
After the main symposium Stuchbery, his wife and I talked with our Muslim hosts over dinner (which deserves a mention: a glorious array of dishes served and prepared by an all-male team). We were struck by the absolute commitment to community service the young Muslims at our table demonstrated.
Trainee Imam Mustafa Siddiqui, who had shown me round, had spent most of his life doing community work and was animated talking about how much he gained from it.
Siddiqui had initially planned to go to university, study law and do worthwhile, but also well-paid, work, specialising in human rights.
He’d considered very carefully before giving it up, and drawn up a list of all the things he would have to sacrifice — including the cars he’d dreamt of buying.
The Ahmadiyya demurred when the Stuchberys and I thanked them for their solidarity: it’s not something they do for gratitude.
I naturally have points of issue around women’s and gay and lesbian equality and Islam, but found Siddiqui and Zafar open to debate, and politely interested in my views; while both sides would concede there’s not a lot of room for manoeuvre in our beliefs, it’s clear the Ahmadiyya have no malicious intent towards those who disagree.
That’s more than you can say for the far right. I wrote last week for the Star’s International Women’s Day edition about attacks on feminists around the world by the far right, which have intensified since, not least in Spain, where the far right are cruising the streets in buses emblazoned with images of Hitler in lipstick (not Katie Hopkins — a Photoshopped Adolf) and the message “Stop Feminazis.” We’ve also seen homophobic abuse directed at journalist Owen Jones, and threats to “purge” the left.
To the far right, feminists, the left and Muslims are “the enemy.” Yet it was left-wing anti-fascist organisations, unions, Muslims and an Australian journalist who demonstrated the “British” (in fact, simply the human) values of mutual support and courage in the face of hostility, aggression and abuse from those who call themselves patriots.
The Stand Up To Racism and Islamophobia: national demonstration takes place tomorrow, Saturday March 16, at noon, Park Lane, London. The event is initiated by Stand Up To Racism and backed by the TUC and the Muslim Council of Britain.
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