Lessons From An Islamist Neighbourhood Of London In The 1990s: Why ‘Urban Naxals’ Are The Wrong Kind Of ‘Safety Valves’

Pritam Banerjee

Oct 09, 2018, 12:24 PM | Updated 12:23 PM IST

Protestors demonstrate against the intended extradition of five terror suspects to the USA on terrorism charges outside the Royal Courts of Justice on 5 October 2012 in London (Matthew Lloyd/GettyImages)
Protestors demonstrate against the intended extradition of five terror suspects to the USA on terrorism charges outside the Royal Courts of Justice on 5 October 2012 in London (Matthew Lloyd/GettyImages)
  • Anyone who lived in north London in the late 1990s, and wasn’t biased to Islamism, would tell you that the propaganda that went unchecked there should have been nipped in the bud.
  • Justice Chandrachud’s reference to dissent as a form of safety valve in democracies is undoubtedly well meant and pertinent. But as any engineer would tell you, safety valves need to be well designed. Otherwise they can lead to all kinds of lethal accidents. To allow dissent without discernment is dangerous to the very fabric of civilian engagement and compromise that modern democracies embody.

    I am speaking from personal lived experience from late 1990s United Kingdom. Living as a student in London in 1999-2000, I found cheap lodgings with a Bangladeshi immigrant family in Bounds Green area of north London. This stretch of the city from around Finsbury Park northwards had a large immigrant population, South Asian, Turkish, and West African, which was predominantly Muslim. These were pre 9/11 days, and mosques, ‘social clubs’, and shops brazenly displayed poster exhorting the faithful to jihad, and the destruction of the infidel in Kashmir and Chechnya.

    The kind of violent rhetoric against the Indian state, and Hindus (not Indians) that these posters carried were shocking to me. Even worse, many shops openly had collection boxes to help fund such violence. As an Indian and a Hindu, I was angered and insulted by these posters. When I challenged a few Pakistani origin shopkeepers about these, some were openly hostile. The older generation (ironically the one with perhaps a direct memory of Partition) was more understanding. They pointed instead to the gradual takeover of the mosques and other social organisations by newer and more fundamentalist groups, and their helplessness in front of this rising tide.

    My curiosity drove me to delve a bit deeper into this phenomenon. Discussions in and around the neighbourhood where I lived pointed to the rise of two critical individuals and organisations.

    The individuals were Omar Bakri Mohammad and Abu Hamza. Mohammad was the founder of Al-Muhajiroun, a radical Islamist group in the United Kingdom. Abu Hamza was the imam at Finsbury Park mosque, an epicentre of radical and violent Islamist thought. Apart from Al-Muhajiroun, the other key organisation was Dawatul Islam which was systematically trying to infiltrate mosques in East and North London and replace an older, moderate generation of preachers and clerics with more ‘fire-brand’ versions.

    Both organisations ran an impressive network of social organisations, including study circles, film clubs, and ‘tute groups’ where older students provided free tuition and helped younger students. Both of these organisations had a strong presence in London campuses, directly or through student clubs that provided fronts.

    At the LSE, where I was a student, one such front was a theatre club-it organised street play performances highlighting Muslim victimhood. What I found rather disconcerting was that there were a few academics and graduate students who were openly supportive of these groups, and spoke the same language of victimhood and identity defined by Islam, as a theological and ideological construct.

    In the campus, they stopped just short of actual calls to violence. This restraint was taken off in the mosque and north London neighbourhoods. Listening to some of my Muslim friends who attended the Friday prayers in Finsbury Park Mosque about the content of these sermons made me even angrier. There were repeated calls for war against India and Hindus, and even calls to destroy the remaining Sikh places of worship in Pakistan, described in one sermon as wounds inflicted on Islam by Sikhs. One sermon, later made famous by internet posts, called for the flag of Islam to fly over Whitechapel and the Buckingham Palace.

    Even to my naive 21-year-old mind, what was happening was dangerous. When I started to discuss this with my British friends on campus, most of them were dismissive. The word safety valve might not have been actually used, but was it was indicated. The actual phrase was ‘young hotheads who need to let off some steam’. But what if ‘letting off steam’ meant violence, and allowing impressionable youngsters to be recruited as cannon-fodder by ideologues to fight their battles? Was that allright as well? And good for democracy? What if their rising influence in certain pockets of the UK ensured the end of free speech and choice in these areas? I recall a British Pakistani woman, a classmate, telling me she chose not to hang out with her white British friends during her school days out of fear of some of these groups in her neighbourhood in East London.

    Within the academia itself, especially its left-leaning elements, there was a tendency to see the Islamists as subalterns making a heroic stand against imperialism and state-power. There was post-modernist mumbo-jumbo about how the concept of the ‘ummah’ was akin to universal brotherhood and a reaction to the failure of twenty-first-century nation-state system and capitalist economy that impersonalised human beings (where have we heard that?). The largely leftist academic establishment was thus giving a veneer of respectability to the worst kind of fundamentalism possible. Keffiyeh wearing ‘radical’ rappers were often seen jamming together with Islamic rock groups that belted songs with the same narrative of Muslim (and not Pakistani, Bosnian, Turkish, or Bangladeshi) angst and victimhood.

    By providing platforms, and support networks to this groups, the left-liberal establishment was helping create a ‘value-chain’. At the apex of this value-chain were the core fundamentalist groups that would fund terror and violence. In between were ‘moderate faces’ couching their narrative of Islamist victimhood using reference points of human rights and anti-imperialism that made them popular with the leftist leaning academia. The base of the value-chain had the ‘social workers’ and NGOs who also doubled up as recruiters, as well as the entrenched elements in the academic and cultural establishment who also did recruiting, on campus.

    Simplified narratives were popularised and new myths created all the time. Any effort to question this was often silenced. There were seminars and workshops with participants presenting ‘facts’ such as how being children of genocide, Bangladeshi second generation had a growing affinity with their Islamist tradition. When I tried to raise the point that in this case the genocide was actually carried out in the name of Islam, and by Islamist groups, and it is therefore not logical that an aware Bangladeshi second generation person would find affinity with the same ideology that massacred her people, a speaker in the podium silenced me with a volley of jargonese-the trauma of broken identities and how memories are a social construct, etc.

    At another such exalted discussion, a Pakistani graduate student presented a hypothesis that India going nuclear was one of the prime reasons why the youth in Pakistan were turning to fundamentalism, and if India were to reduce its military spending and remove the insecurity felt by the average Pakistani, it would reverse this trend. All this to a bunch of nodding heads. When I raised my voice and pointed out that Pakistan itself had gone nuclear, and had just been globally censured for its military adventurism in Kargil, the moderator thanked me for my comment, and in a tone that was meant to belittle, said can we now move on to ‘relevant and pertinent’ questions.

    What also bothered me was the ‘Islamification’ of victimhood. Kashmir, Palestine and Chechnya were Muslim problems. East Timor and Ireland were never Catholic problems, though religious identity had a role to play in both. These conflicts remained firmly rooted in their nationalistic discourse and identity as Irish or Timorese. This reduction of such a diverse group that constituted believers in Islam, with distinct national and cultural identities, to a single point of identity was also amazing to me, then as is now.

    Immigrants tend to create a distinct identity in their adopted homelands. In London too there were Indians (and sub-groups such as Punjabi and Gujarati), Jamaicans, Nigerians, Poles, Chinese sub-cultures and identities. None of them defined themselves by their religion. There is no equivalent to the term British Muslim so widely used in media and socio-political discourse for other religions - there is no British Hindu, British Orthodox, or British Buddhist. That supposedly liberal and secular media has no problem accepting this simplistic binary identity seemed mind-boggling.

    I left London in mid-2000 after completing my course, but the feeling that something will give remained. The sense of impending doom I had felt, and shared with my British friends came to pass on 7 July 2005 with the London serial bombings. The very same Finsbury Park mosque was the epicentre of it all. There is a very good investigative book, The Suicide Factory-Abu Hamza and the Finsbury Park Mosque, by Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory published in 2010, that reveals the details of how this north-central London mosque, and the social networks it spawned played a major role in radicalising young minds and turned them towards violence. The authors point out that British media and even intelligence had dismissed Hamza as essentially harmless, before events proved them wrong. When Shekhar Gupta refers to some of the characters involved in the urban Naxal debate as ‘useful idiots’, he is treading down that same dangerous path.

    9/11 and 7/7 happened, but the attempts to expose political Islamists, to isolate and call to account the value-chain of recruitment and intellectual support which sustained and gave respectability to the worst kind of fundamentalist ideology, and the ability to call spade a spade never happened. In other words, seriously faulty ‘safety valves’ were never repaired. The result was the unprecedented success of recruitment for the Islamic State from Britain just a decade later.

    There are strong parallels here with the Indian situation. Maoists, who are as ideologically driven as Islamists, and just as violent, have a created value-chain of support, supply, and on campus recruitment. This is aided and abetted by an intellectual establishment, and fronted by ‘social activist’ organisations. Just like in the case of Islamists, there is a linear narrative of victimhood cantered around caste and tribal affiliations, ignoring the multi-layered socio-economic power structures in India that are dynamic, and differ from region to region. Just like in the case of Islamists, where activists change their tone depending on the audience, i.e. hateful vitriol against the Indian state and ‘caste’ Hindus in the shadows, and the use of Marxist tropes and narratives of victimhood in the open. Turning the whole Kashmir ‘azaadi’ narrative to azaadi from poverty and violence in the whole JNU-Jadavpur campus upheavals are a case to the point. There is now an attempt to marry caste identity politics, Islamist irredentism in Kashmir, and frustration created by the gap between aspiration and reality of educated urban and urban youth into a potent mix of discontent against the Indian state.

    So the question is, are these just ‘hotheads’ letting off steam, and well-meaning ‘dissenters’ helping India’s democracy by acting as a safety valve? Or is the valve poorly designed as was the case in UK, and we are waiting for our 7/7 moment, and the unstoppable wave of Islamic State type recruitment that followed a decade later? Actually, if you ask the people scarred and broken by Maoist violence across Central India, the point of reckoning has long come, and our safety valve has been malfunctioning for a while. Perhaps, it’s time to repair the valve, or even re-engineer the way it works. Being dismissive of real and present danger can be a very dangerous thing.

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