May 5, 2014 By M Noushad/Interview

My Faith Forms My Politics


Salma Yaqoob is a British politician: the former leader of the Respect Party, the organizer of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition and an elected city councilor in Birmingham. Birmingham Post described her as a “doughty fighter for Birmingham’s inner city communities”. A brilliant orator, she is a regular commentator on current affairs. She was recently in Kozhikode attending the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Solidarity Youth Movement.  She talks to M Noushad about what it means to be a British politician and an unapologetic Muslim woman all the same.

Any Muslim political leader with a South Asian background historically comes across three major streams of political engagement: one, that of Muhammed Ali Jinnah who talked about a kind of identity politics in a plural society; second, that of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who engaged in the nationalist secular politics without sacrificing his religious identity; and third, that of Syed Abul Ala Maududi who campaigned for an Islamic state. How do you distinguish these three streams and where do you relate yourself to?

That is a tough question. My political journey was set in a different time and context, both geographically and historically. I am a Muslim; a visible Muslim; a proud Muslim. My journey started as a member of a minority community in the West. For me, any cause that separates me from them would be exclusivist. Already, after 9/11, Muslims are stereotyped and demonized as extremists. For me it was about how I engage in a way, which is not defensive, or but contributing to a wider discourse. It is about saying we don’t want a package to us as Muslims. It is also about having moral integrity, saying that I don’t want my country England fighting against another country Afghanistan. So, none of these models was appropriate for me in a rigid manner. And having many common things with the people of other faiths, I don’t think there is any simplistic rout to choose.

I believe in not being apologetic about my identity or my religion. My faith forms my politics. The idea of social justice; equality; justice for all; the idea of standing against oppression and standing for the impoverished people; and economic justice which is far higher than charity come from my faith in Islam. These are for me very much related to Islam. I also recognize there are many other people who move towards justice and may not be rigidly fit in the Islamic frame. There are people from the Christian and the Jewish traditions, from Hinduism, Buddhism, atheism and other isms, with similar convictions. I think there are overlaps when it comes to a joint action and joint struggle which is separate from individual’s spirituality.  As my experience goes, I am involved in movements like the Birmingham Anti-war Movement or the Respect Party. Religion for me is a concept of fitrah, the idea that every human being has a higher self and a lower self; that we are going towards what is good, regardless of the labour we give into it. I think there is a common unity as a clear line against oppression, which has no mismatch among different faiths, which is purposeful and clear. But it is inclusive.

The fact is that I progressed along the journey, in Briton, in a context different from what you said. It is not about a particular mode. I believe in a secular space in the public domain in terms of choice. We have secular fundamentalists and extremists in Europe as in France where a public servant can’t wear headscarfs. It is a kind of imposing ideology on others. The same way, I don’t think imposing any religious way of life on people is a constructive thing. Because faith has to come from the heart; it has to be a free choice between the creator and the created. I don’t agree many things that the Saudis do in the name of Islam, especially the way women are being treated.

You talked about being inclusive in politics. For a visible Muslim like you in a place like the UK, what does it mean to be inclusive? What were the challenges you faced in the process?

In England, it is easy to get stereotyped if you have a beard or a hijab. They think that these people only care about Muslims. It’s just about an identity politics; a divisive politics; about “them” and “us”. That mentality is there. Because of stereotyping and demonization, everyone wants to look at Muslims as Al Qaeda supporters. It is very simplistic. So, how you overcome this primary predicament is important. And you know that Muslims are under threat; that Muslim countries are being bombed; that Muslims are being arrested and persecuted and yet you are told that you are the biggest threat to the world’s peaceful existence. You are seen as people behind these bombings, you as a whole. When a Muslim commits a crime, it is not an individual crime; it is seen as a crime of the community. That is the difference at the moment and when it comes to politics, there are many stereotyped sensations and I have to be very explicit and say, ‘Look, I respect Christianity as much as I love Islam and I don’t agree with any terrorist act.’ At the same time, it is easy to be quiet and silent and accept the stereotyped image and decide not to remain as visible Muslims. I think we have to fight against that as well. Unfortunately, we do have some extremists who believe violence can be used against people of other religions. You will have to tell people that I have nothing to do with those people as much as I have nothing to do with the far right nationalist groups who think the migrants are the problem. Between these two extremist groups, one has to navigate a middle way.

Mahmoud Mamdani argues that Muslims are categorized in the dominant political discourse as “good” and “bad” Muslims. How do you understand this in the context?

Here, “good Muslim” is someone who doesn’t associate with Islam. On the other hand, someone who is a radical and follows Islam and believes in justice and women’s rights is deemed as a “bad Muslim”. But these concepts were never alien to Islam. For many Muslims, what they love about their religion is that it supports justice; that we have this intimate spiritual connection with Allah and we have the model of Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him. We see him as the champion of the poor and the oppressed and as somebody who brought equality to women and children and eradicated racism. And yet these are the last things many people associate with Islam. They think Islam is very conservative and Muslims are very reactionary as well as being status quoists. Any religion can be a power for liberation but it is constantly used to oppress. In Christianity, many people recognize this spectrum. So in Latin America we have priests who fought for liberation movement and when it comes to Islam it can also be used as a force for the good of the people.

Media play a big role in demonizing Muslim communities, particularly after the 9/11. According to you, what could be the creative ways to engage with the media?

To engage is very important. You can’t be just frustrated as your image is always distorted and your community is demonized. It is a pessimistic attitude. Yes, I can see the emotional, sentimental story in it. But you must place it in a historical context; you are not supposed to take it too personally. The Jewish community faced the same, in fact worse, persecution. They have survived Holocaust; all the illnesses of Europe were blamed on them. In Briton, the Black community has had many stereotyping images. They were demonized as criminals and culprits. Even the White Irish community, following the political situation in Ireland, was stereotyped as the Irish Republican Army was associated with bombings and terrorist attacks, and thus all Irish people were demonized as terrorists. This is politics. After the 9/11, Muslims are now at the receiving end. We were never in this position before. We had a different image in the West: they are a hard working community; their children are getting education; they are law-abiding etc. Now after the 9/11, we all are terrorists.

We have to engage in the media and public life in a constructive way. We have to meet people and talk to them. We have to engage with them in common struggles. We have huge economic issues in England. It’s not only Muslims who are suffering. There are many other communities who are finding it difficult to exist. The White working class communities find their wages coming low, the jobs getting harder, and the cost of living increasing. People have to pay huge amount of money to go to universities. The capitalist divide is creating huge disparities. Our part should not just be talking about these issues, but contributing to the struggles to overcome it for the common good of the people. I am an elected counselor at Birmingham for the last six years and I have made a point in this line. At the same time, national and international issues are to be taken into account without a partisan approach. Just like a non-Muslim politician works for all members of his constituency, a Muslim politician should also do the same with integrity and dedication.

In the West, there have been several cases of insensitive encroachment on the Muslim faith in the name of freedom of expression. The reaction to them from the Muslim community was mostly emotional and counter-productive. How do you look at this situation?

I think we have to act in a very smart way as often they are deliberate provocations. We are tired of all this. We love our Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him. Sometimes people make mischief and we have to react positively. When the Jewish woman kept putting garbage on him, it was a physical attack as well as mental. You know what the Prophet did. He visited the woman as he came to know that she was sick and prayed for her recovery. This was his adab or manner.

I don’t think we do a service to our faith by responding to such things in a very violent way. It says the exact opposite about what Prophet used to do. It’s counter-productive. You say you are a religion of peace, and in every chance you are violent. Is it not hypocrisy, as well as falling into the trap? I think spiritually, mentally and politically, it is counter-productive to be reactionary. This is not to say that we must sit silent, this is to say to them that your understanding of Islam is wrong. It is about responding with dignity and creativity.

Also, we have to be aware of their hypocrisy. It is only recently that Margaret Thatcher passed away. Now, in the heart of democracy and freedom of expression, people are buying the song, “the witch is dead…” You can say it is disrespectful, but it has a political point to argue against the deceased politician. You can say this is in bad taste and this is not the way to talk about someone when she has passed away. But you are consistently talking about freedom of speech. You wouldn’t deny people’s right to say what they want. Yet on the BBC and the main channel number two, they didn’t play the whole song. So, when they want, they do censor; when they want, they do curtail the freedom of speech. Because, they recognize that your right to offend doesn’t mean you have a duty to offend. I think in the name of freedom of speech, many people deliberately attack Muslims.  The question is whether we realize this and whether we are able to win the argument.

Now about the issue of Muslim woman. Many Muslim societies, including in the migrant West, practically treat women as inferior to men, though this has no theological support in Islam. What was the feedback you received from the Muslim community when you, a hijab wearing woman, became a mainstream politician?

Well, when I started it was not about being a Muslim woman and doing something for the community. The biggest crisis the community was facing was something else. We were experiencing a racist backlash. We were being demonized and stereotyped, Muslim countries were attacked and my country was going to wage an unjust war against innocent people. There was racism and immorality in that. I saw the very people who talked about justice and talked about being proud Muslims suddenly became silent when the pressure came on. I found it unacceptable. How could we stand silent when the verses of Quran are clear about standing up for justice even if it is against your own parents, community or even yourself? So where is this fight for justice?  For me this was an accidental journey and I also had to meet those people who said, ‘this is haram as woman’s voice is haram and woman is not supposed to take active roles in the public sphere.’ But they didn’t mind their wives going to the supermarkets and bazaars. They didn’t mind their daughters going to universities or having jobs. Interestingly, 20 years ago they didn’t think it was right for a woman to drive or go to the university. They changed. In the same way, many Muslim women are accepted by their own husbands and fathers and brothers to be doctors and teachers and other professionals. I think the door has been opened by the events in the last decade. I think it is more the practicalities that changed the thinking and the women who are participating in public protests have changed the perspective about them as well.

In the West when you are doing a job, you are constantly aware of your identity. You have to talk to people and negotiate with them to clear their anxieties and to clarify who you really are. And many Muslim men didn’t face this as they could blend in. But, after the 9/11, it was a new experience for the men to navigate through the public space with a Muslim identity. They were less confident in doing so in comparison with their female counterparts. Because women have been doing this for many years and they had already built that bridge. Many developments have been made and people have more and more realized that isolation won’t do any good.

Samuel Hundington’s idea of “the clash of civilizations” was an appealing thesis to the west. As a politician, how did you address this?

What they want to do is divide politically. It was important to explain to people why they are using this language and why now. This is a new phase of imperialism and long back in the 19th century they used similar language: this is White man’s burden. We are coming to Africa and Asia and all these places to civilize the non-Whites whereas it was really abut exploiting the natural resources and the people there. In the same way, this was the language of a new form of imperialism. They would never say we are liars or we are oppressors or we are colonizers. They say Islam is backward; Muslims lack democracy. They even used Muslim women’s plight to justify their invasion. That the American army is on a feminist mission! They used this language to justify a savage military war on innocent people. And for us it was a challenge to expose their real face. This clash of civilizations is nonsense. There is no clash between the East and the West. People in the East like Americans. They like Hollywood movies. They don’t hate America as a whole. What they don’t like is the oppressive policies. We might be different in ethnicities but we are all the same.

So, this clash theory was used to demonise a group of people so that their agendas are justified. We organized massive rallies to say we don’t agree with this war and the ideology behind it. We gathered thousands of people to say peace is an alternative. We could get people from all faiths and identities and orientations. It was so precious and important. The question is not whether you win the battle or not. It’s about the act of showing solidarity to the oppressed. The process is so precious. We were getting emails from Iraq and Palestine from ordinary people. There were people who asked whether it makes any difference with a marching. But these people were saying that when we see you marching there, we get strength. It is hopeful to know that we are not alone in suffering. It was about doing our duty, as far as we can. I think there would have been more terrorism in the world, had not there been so massive peace marches against the unjust war. Extremism can attract people when they are oppressed continuously and there is no alternative. It is a response of the weak and the hopeless. We have to give them hope and strength.

How do we tackle the issue of extremism among Muslims, according to you?

It comes from hopelessness. But it is lack of faith. How could you justify an immoral act of killing people in the name of a religion which says killing an innocent person is equal to killing the entire humanity? The end doesn’t justify the means in Islam. During the prophet’s times, sometimes they had victory and sometimes they had defeat in wars. But morality never changed. The Quran says not to do an act of injustice when you are subjected to injustice. So, for me, emotionally and politically, we will have to convince them through various acts of solidarity towards the people who suffer. And there must be efforts to bring justice to the ones who suffer.

A Columnist, M Noushad teaches journalism at SAFI Institute of Advanced Study. 

Posted in: Person in Focus