Global and local echoes of the anti-war movement: a British Muslim perspective

Issue: 100

Salma Yaqoob

The war is over and victory declared amidst scenes of jubilant Iraqis tearing down statues of Saddam Hussein. Political leaders and commentators rushed to consign the anti-war movement to history. The message was clear—those who opposed the war were wrong or misguided, and the ‘liberation’ of Iraq was the proof that the war had been just.

Events since the fall of the Iraqi regime have progressively undermined this argument. Resistance to the occupation is growing, and throughout Iraq there is widespread discontent at the failure of the occupying powers to adequately address even the most basic needs of the Iraqi people. More particularly, there is an overwhelming demand for Iraqis to be allowed to take charge of rebuilding their own country. Meanwhile, the mysterious absence of any ‘weapons of mass destruction’ continues to haunt the British government, which, in order to win support for its war, placed such stress on the immediate danger posed by Iraq’s weapons programmes.

While our rulers have every interest in erasing from public memory any trace of the anti-war movement, we ought not to make the same mistake.

Yes, the anti-war movement failed to prevent the war. But it is only a matter of months since opposition to the war climaxed with a worldwide day of protest on 15 February 2003. Up to 2 million people marched in London that day and the importance of this event, both globally and locally, should not be underestimated.

The anti-war movement had a real impact on world politics. It influenced the prosecution of the war; it gave confidence to opponents of the war in the Arab world; it led to a co-ordination of international protests to a degree not seen for many years; and it dramatically raised the consciousness of millions of people about the actions being carried out in their name.

A powerful antidote to the ‘clash of civilisations’

The presentation of the war in some quarters as a ‘clash of civilisations’ was a dangerous and reactionary development. It seeks to pave the way for more and more bloody clashes between East and West, deepens the process of internal repression directed against the ‘fifth column’ of Muslims in the West,1 and serves to legitimise the views of some of the more destructive and reactionary forces in the Arab world itself.

The international solidarity represented by the anti-war movement was a powerful antidote to this thesis of a ‘clash of civilisations’. Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrallah is in no doubt that 15 February had a profound effect on popular opinion in the Arab world:

Not only was the perceived confrontation between Arabs and Muslims on the one hand and a monolithic West on the other proved absurd, but Western Christians and atheists were defending an Arab cause much better than the Arabs themselves could hope to do. On Thursday, day one of the invasion, thousands of protesters collected in Tahir Square, in Cairo. ‘It’s like Hyde Park’ was the common refrain, expressed in exhilarated tones.2

One of those marchers in Hyde Park spoke for millions around the world when he said, ‘All the different groups that are marching today show the world that the West is not the enemy, that British people do not hate Islam and Arabs, and the coming together of people is the greatest way forward’.3

The anti-war movement ensured that Tony Blair could not claim the undivided support of the people for America’s war. Britain was profoundly divided, and this fact was noted throughout the Middle East. While the government’s actions served to increase hostility to the West as a whole, the anti-war movement offered a different vision—of peace and international co-operation.

Staying the hand of the hawks

Public protest on such a scale ensures, at the very least, that the eyes of the world are on our leaders. Their decisions become subject to criticism and scrutiny in ways they would certainly like to avoid. Public opinion, generally manipulated and controlled, begins to weigh more heavily in their calculations.

Under the watchful eye of a generally unconvinced public, they have had to work ever harder to maintain the pretence that ordinary people in Iraq would not suffer during a bombing campaign and invasion of their land. The so called ‘shock and awe’ bombing strategy was much less destructive than the initial boasts indicated—and was significantly less destructive of Iraq’s infrastructure than the 1991 bombing campaign.

While many thousands of innocent lives were lost, nothing comparable to the bloody massacre on the road to Basra during the first Gulf War took place. The anti-war movement can take some comfort from the fact that it stayed the hand of the most hawkish military planners.

The extent of public protest before and during the war also buried any notion of a triumphant prime minister sweeping away all doubts and criticisms. Pressure on the government to explain its use of intelligence assessments, and to explain just where the weapons of mass destruction are, has been growing steadily since the war ended. The wilder talk of a series of so called ‘anti-terrorist’ wars has been pushed to the margins of British politics.

Public opinion is, plainly, not decisive in the calculations of our leaders. But the existence of a mass public opposition undoubtedly forces the government to address public opinion, and continues to fracture and divide the pro-war coalition.

A new generation occupies the space for dissent

In the immediate period following 11 September 2001, the ideological campaign was intense. The genuine sympathy and solidarity felt across the world for the innocent lives lost was cynically exploited in the drive for war. It was not easy to be a dissenter during these first few weeks and months. In the US this has reached epidemic proportions, with a wave of random attacks on Arabs and Muslims, accompanied by new repressive legislation, and reinforced by an aggressive media line determined that the government shall not be questioned.

The ability of the anti-war movement in Britain to galvanise opposition among huge numbers of people was, in part, a defence against this type of ideological repression in the name of patriotism. Street politics became the order of the day—stalls, flyposting, door to door leafleting, internet campaigns, public meetings, as well as direct action, all carved out a space in which dissent was possible.

It is ironic that Tony Blair, so widely praised for being ‘in tune’ with the mood of the country, gave birth to such widespread radicalisation. Commentators have wrung their hands for many years about the apathy of the young in relation to politics. But the anti-war movement showed that it is not politics in general but a politics in which the young are merely bystanders that produces cynicism and apathy.

People who had never protested before took to the streets. At the heart of this was the involvement of a new generation of young people. As part of a national day of student action, Birmingham saw the largest school and further education students’ strike in the country. More than 4,000 students left their schools and colleges and occupied the city centre.

Emily Churchill, 16, a student from Queensbridge School in Birmingham, describes her experience:

My school has absolutely no history of protesting or of being particularly politically active, and I was very pessimistic about the kind of response I’d get to suggesting we protest, but 300 of us walked out (of a school of around 600) and held a peaceful protest in Birmingham city centre. After the walkout, people kept coming up to me at school and asking what we were going to do next. Two weeks later we had a walkout of about 4,000 students from across Birmingham. I think our protests genuinely worry the government, and they show that we’re not just going to carry on with our daily lives like the government wants while it shows such a horrific disregard for our world and its people. It’s integral that we don’t forget how right we are, and how strong we are—in numbers, in feeling, in vision.4

Her actions and sentiments were echoed by Umbreen Hussain, 17, from Birmingham’s Joseph Chamberlain College, who commented:

I led 500-600 students on a walkout from my college through the streets of Birmingham with a feeling of unity and peace… It is amazingly reassuring to see Muslims and non-Muslims uniting on this issue.5

These experiences were echoed by the experiences of millions of people around the world. As John Pilger noted:

Since 11 September, the consciousness of the majority has soared. The word ‘imperialism’ has been rescued and returned to common usage. America’s planned theft of the Iraqi oilfields, following historical precedent, is well understood. The false choices of the Cold War are redundant, and people are once again stirring in their millions. More and more of them now glimpse American power, as Mark Twain wrote, ‘with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other’.6

And, across Europe, methods of struggle and protest became sharper:

In January, Scottish train drivers refused to move munitions. In Italy, people have been blocking dozens of trains carrying American weapons and personnel, and dockers have refused to load arms shipments. US military bases have been blockaded in Germany, and thousands have demonstrated at Shannon which, despite Ireland’s neutrality, is being used by the US military to refuel its planes on route to Iraq.7

The anti-war movement has changed the terms in which political protests are judged. The assertion of a ‘national interest’ is no longer sufficient for governments to win support for wars. Their propaganda is subject to scrutiny in a manner that seemed to have gone out of fashion in recent years. And the scale of public protest has moved onto a new level. Opponents of unjust wars have become a real factor in the calculations of our governments.

Muslims step into the limelight

Within this movement of such breadth and diversity, a new factor has come into being. The Muslim communities of the West, and this is particularly true of Britain, have stepped forward—not merely leading within the Muslim community, but collaborating with others as part of a broad political movement.

All wars need an ideological justification. And the vicious backlash against Muslims that followed the events of 11 September 2001 helped to create the necessary climate of fear and mistrust. Muslims living in, and born in, the Western countries felt this backlash very directly. While racial and religious discrimination has been a feature of our lives since the dawn of colonialism, the direct and personal attacks on Muslims and our faith forced us to confront the questions of our own identity and place in Western societies.

In Britain, for the first time, we saw the growth of a genuine alliance between Muslims and non-Muslims, united against war. In the face of widespread hostility, Muslims responded on a massive scale to the anti-war movement, and a new generation of British Muslims stepped forward with self-confidence to take their place as leaders of this alliance.

In several European countries, Muslim communities represent a significant proportion of the population. In Birmingham, a city of 1 million people, Muslims now account for 14 percent of the city’s population. Sharing a common faith, and a sense of community, it is perhaps surprising that Muslims have not played a more prominent role in British politics before now.

The experience of the anti-war movement has been an important lesson in this regard. Muslims are more conscious than ever that they have the right, and duty, to assert their interests in the wider political system. They are more conscious than ever of the potential influence they can wield as the community grows in size, by finding common ground and common interests between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The anti-war movement sharply accelerated a process of growing self confidence and assertiveness among British Muslims, who are not willing to accept second-class status. Isolation and withdrawal from wider political institutions is a dead end—the anti-war movement showed how unity and solidarity offers a more positive avenue for Muslims to engage with these wider institutions.

This is a profound development. It raises many questions about how Muslims can participate in the political process in Western countries, and the terms on which alliances can be built between Muslims and non-Muslims.

As a British Muslim woman, I was swept up in this movement, and found myself in the leadership of the anti-war movement in Birmingham. The experience of the anti-war movement in Britain, and in Birmingham in particular, holds valuable lessons for both Muslims and non-Muslims, and drawing out these lessons is one of the central aims of this article.

The involvement of Birmingham Muslims in the anti-war movement

We experience such big historical events through a myriad of individual and personal responses. It is easy to feel small and insignificant in the face of much greater power. But through our participation in a mass movement of diverse individuals we can begin to see how our own experiences are mirrored and reflected in the experiences of others.

Before 11 September 2001 my immediate concern, as a mother, was naturally the wellbeing of my own family. I was interested in the world, and had opinions, but never saw myself as a ‘leader’ or a spokesperson. But within a few short months I was involved in political organising on a local and national level. How this transition occurred is but a small example of how many Muslims, and others, had their lives transformed by their response to these big events. My story begins with the shock of 11 September and its immediate aftermath:

It is difficult to describe in words the feelings that I experienced after hearing about the horrific attack on 9/11. The sheer scale of the attack produced an unprecedented level of media coverage, with many turning quickly to the expression of anti-Muslim sentiment. Within a few hours, Muslims were being blamed for the terrible attacks, and the words ‘Islamic terrorism’ were being screamed from every media outlet. Suddenly I was not Salma any more, but a terrorist somehow connected with these despicable acts. My fear was very real and I felt isolated and a stranger for the first time. Returning to my home I was spat upon in the street. I was shaking with anger. I had my three year old son with me and I feared for his safety. Nobody said or did anything—they just looked and passed by. I felt utterly helpless, and the indifference of the witnesses was the greatest shock. It was clear that I was not being seen as a person any more. I clutched my son closer and from that moment decided that I would never be passive again. I would never be like those people who saw but just walked on by.

This experience in the days after 11 September was not unique. Some people wanted to pretend it was not happening. But as we talked among ourselves, it was clear that something had changed:

My friend, on her way home from work, had overheard people saying, ‘I want to stab all Muslims.’ She was later humiliatingly sprayed with a can of beer, whilst onlookers stood by and did nothing. I began to think if just in my close circle of friends we had experienced this kind of reaction, what must be going on elsewhere and what must the Muslim community at large be experiencing? These racist attacks were particularly upsetting as I have lived in Birmingham, a thriving multicultural city, all my life and had never experienced such racism before.

Even before 11 September there was a growing sense among Muslims that we were being singled out for attack. We had all watched the events in Bosnia:

A part of me was now beginning to ask myself the dreaded question, ‘When will it be us?’ When I sat with my friends and family we all experienced the same fear and panic. We genuinely drew a comparison of this dark time to the events that took place in Bosnia. The ethnic cleansing of Muslims had just taken place in the 1990s on our doorstep in modern Europe. Those Muslims were the same colour and shared the same ethnic roots as the rest of the population, and yet were still able to be marginalised and demonised to such a degree that their fellow neighbours and colleagues were able to justify and carry out their extermination. We agreed that our position was even more vulnerable—the vast majority of British Muslims are non-white, and most of our community are only first or second generation immigrants. I had taken my place in this society for granted, and now this assumption had been badly shaken.

The world and our lives took on a new meaning. All those things I took for granted—my home, my children, our future, my hopes—all were now in question. Nothing seemed stable or safe. The irony of this was that we were feeling so afraid with our very existence being threatened, yet we were being portrayed as the threat.

It was not until a friend of mine, quite by coincidence, came across a group of Socialist Workers Party activists campaigning in the city centre against the proposed bombing of Afghanistan, that things began to turn around. At a time when we were feeling powerless and were being told to keep our heads down, it was reassuring to be approached by people who were sympathetic to our stance and predicament. She told me of an anti-war meeting to be held and persuaded myself and another friend to attend.

Things began to unfold very quickly from there onwards. That meeting was a ray of hope, and my friends and I had a renewed sense of optimism. For the first time our views and thoughts were being heard and taken seriously, and the fear and frustration of being constantly misunderstood began to lessen. I was encouraged to become a member of the Stop the War Coalition committee which was being set up, and soon thereafter found myself entrusted with the responsibility of being the chairperson.

Within 18 months we were at the head of a vibrant coalition that involved thousands through local and national demonstrations, public meetings and direct action. At times the activity was frenetic. Local groups were set up across the city, regular street stalls took the arguments directly to the public, links with the media were established to raise the profile and arguments of the anti-war movement in the mainstream, a billboard campaign—the first of its kind—was launched, and fundraising activities were organised. And throughout this, the contribution of the Muslim community grew and grew.

Before 11 September 2001 I could not have imagined playing this role. But from fear and demoralisation came a realisation that, with others, I could turn this into something positive. This was an experience, felt in different ways, by many thousands of Muslims—and particularly many young Muslim women.

But developing this coalition was not without big challenges.

Two steps forward, one step back

Looking back it seems almost inevitable that a large anti-war movement took shape across Britain, and particularly in Birmingham. However, there was nothing inevitable in the coming together of so many different people and the process of establishing links and working closely with differing groups occurred over a period of time. It was also certainly not without its challenges, and some of the ways the elements of the coalition related to each other are now explored.

Although initially we were welcomed and accepted, it became apparent very quickly that not everybody saw our involvement in positive terms and as being unproblematic. Our relief turned to disappointment when labels such as ‘reactionary fundamentalists’ and ridiculous accusations regarding our beliefs and motives were thrown at us by a few individuals who believed that the secularists should not be working with religious people, especially Muslims. This was shocking, not only because this was not what we expected from people who claimed to be anti-racist and fighting against prejudice and injustice, but due to the fact that the accusers did not know me, had not asked me or the other Muslims about our beliefs and stance, clearly had no knowledge of Islam itself, and yet were publicly denouncing our involvement with derogatory and negative statements about Muslims and Islam. They also extended their condemnation to non-Muslims, especially socialists, who were working closely together with us.

This was exemplified following a particularly successful meeting organised jointly with an Islamic organisation (which agreed to pay for the considerable cost of the event even though the majority of the panel were not Muslim speakers) called ‘Peace in Troubled Times’—one of the largest indoor political rallies ever held in Birmingham—which was attended by more than 2,000 people. The platform was diverse including leading environmentalist George Monbiot, John Rees from the Socialist Alliance, myself, and Zaid Shakir, an American imam and scholar. Up till then very few non-white people were involved in the coalition, and Muslim participation remained very small. The presence of the imam attracted large numbers of Muslims who were able to hear the anti-war arguments and were encouraged to participate in peaceful protest.

The meeting seemed to symbolise the spirit of unity and mutual respect that we were seeking to foster. Not only were Muslims able and prepared to listen to non-Muslim analyses, but non-Muslims were able to hear a Muslim perspective.

This meeting, however, sparked a great controversy within the anti-war movement due to the presence of the imam, who naturally referred to Islam and the Quran in his address. Whilst no Muslims at the event or after had expressed any objections to the fact that the majority of the speakers expressed secular views, some people in the coalition expressed strong objections to the fact that one of the five speakers had overtly referred to Islam. Many of us could not comprehend the intolerance of such views—after all, the imam had only used verses of the Quran stressing the importance of peace and unity—there did not seem to be any cause for such contention and lack of inclusiveness. However, they maintained that any reference to Islam or Quranic verses, whatever their content, was offensive to them. It should be noted, however, that a similar attitude to Christian speakers at other meetings who quoted from the Bible was conspicuously absent.

Also, some people expressed moral indignation at the fact there was a section of the hall reserved for ‘women only’. The fact that many Muslim women expected and preferred such an arrangement escaped the intellectual grasp of some people, who thought that this was more evidence of enforced sexism and patriarchy, just as some of them could not accept that wearing a headscarf might actually be a choice exercised by Muslim women, and not forced upon them by men and an unjust religion. The accusations of forced segregation afterwards were simply untrue. There was no coercion—if some men and women wanted to sit together no one insisted on other than their choice. Not having interacted with Muslims as a community, the sight of some men and women sitting separately may have been an unusual one. However, instead of seeking to understand it and contextualising it in terms of other people’s experiences and culture, some people were quick to condemn and judge behaviour that was not completely their own norm.

On reflection, it seems our critics could not conceive of any notion of Islam other than an extreme one. The mere fact we were Muslims, some of us visibly so because we wore the hijab, meant that we must be extremists. Ignorance of Islam as practised by the majority of Muslims is unfortunately widespread, and most Muslims do not expect deep understanding with regard to their faith, and indeed it is a welcome surprise when people show some knowledge of it.

The irony is that the very things that many Muslims consider as fundamental to their faith—respect for freedom of choice, importance of human rights, equality of men and women, emphasis on solidarity and fighting for justice—are the things least associated with Islam. Instead the polar opposites—intolerance of others, abuse of women, mindless violence and terrorism—are the more usual associations. The unremitting condescension and lack of any positive discussion of Islam is tiring, at the least, and often frustrating and dispiriting for many Muslims.

Many people have questioned the lack of political engagement of Muslims in this country up till now, and while many of the other factors which have led to political disengagement across the population apply equally to Muslim communities, the extra burden of having to constantly fight off these negative stereotypes before even being able to enter a dialogue with others is a significant factor. In this way, while full acceptance by some elements of the anti-war movement was a welcome and refreshing novelty, the hostility and degree of animosity of other elements was very disturbing and disheartening.

It was certainly a very testing time in terms of personal resilience and patience, and at times I even reconsidered my own involvement, questioning whether the coalition work was the best use of my time and energy. However, we resolved to maintain dignity and maximise unity in the face of unprovoked attacks. Indeed, this article is the first time I have publicly given our version of events, as I feel that as we look to the next stage of building the movement there are important lessons that we have learned that need to be shared with the movement as whole. I kept deliberately silent at the time as there was far too much ‘real work’ to be done in terms of building a strong movement, and we could not allow our energies to become diverted in negative bickering.

Unfortunately many Muslims had already left in disgust and disbelief by the time we held city-wide elections, whose results vindicated the majority’s co-operative stance and completely isolated the hostile minority. It was quite telling of this minority’s understanding of democracy that, instead of accepting the majority verdict and working together in anti-war activities, they decided to form a splinter group whose main activity was to attempt to undermine the Stop the War Coalition by distributing leaflets at our events and articles on the internet calling it ‘undemocratic’, and referring to the ‘unholy alliance’ of Muslims and socialists.

I had hoped that our actions and co-operation in the spirit of unity would allay some of their fears and remove some of their prejudices, yet it seemed that they were unwilling to look at the evidence in front of their eyes, blinded by the barriers they had erected in their minds.

Sadly, despite the successful experience of Muslims and non-Muslims working alongside each other in the anti-war movement, many prejudices are still very much alive. A recent example was an article by Nick Cohen with the headline ‘Why is a British socialist group forming a political alliance with repressive, Islamic fundamentalists? Because it really is exceedingly stupid’, referring to Birmingham Muslims in the Stop the War Coalition. In the article we were called ‘the enemies of political freedom, and the enemies of religious and sexual freedom’, ‘friends of tyranny’, and ‘supporters of dictatorship’. Repeating the slanderous claims about the ‘Peace in Troubled Times’ rally, he stated that ‘clerics and their supporters instructed Asian women to sit separately from the men’, and that ‘Iranian socialists had to be shut up when they protested that they knew from bitter experience where religious bigotry led’. All these claims were completely unfounded.8

The truth is that many of the negative stereotypes used to describe Islam and Muslims by Cohen have been internalised by many on the left, as well as the more expected attacks from the right. Islam remains one of the most referred to, yet least understood, faiths in media discourse. The manner in which it is dismissed and disparaged by both the right and left wing press would be deemed completely unacceptable if such broad negative generalisations were applied to Judaism, Christianity or any other religion.

It seems that Muslims are ‘acceptable’ when seen as the victims of Western imperialism in other countries, deserving to be rescued from the evils of their ‘imperial masters’. However, any understanding or respect for their actual beliefs is rare, and the idea that Muslims and Islam can be agents for positive change in struggling for a better world has not even begun to be embraced.

Stereotypes of the Muslim community as a monolithic ‘bloc’

The irony of all this was that we could not take the British Muslim participation within the anti-war movement and its response to the coalition for granted. The initial shock and repercussions of 11 September had resulted in no forthcoming clear public criticism of the government’s war in Afghanistan by the Muslim leadership. The reason for this was that British Muslims, like everybody else, shared in the grief at the loss of innocent life, but they also faced a particular pressure in constantly having to publicly condemn the attacks to ‘prove’ that Islam did not justify these actions.

In this way many Muslims became paralysed by a defensive and apologetic stance. This translated into a lack of any criticism of the government, effectively leading to a muted acceptance of the situation.

Indeed, some felt that openly and publicly speaking out may have posed a threat to the wider Muslim community by attracting further unwanted attention, stoking the flames of a racist backlash. Our involvement in the anti-war movement was indeed a heavy responsibility and a path that needed to be trodden carefully.

Most people assumed that the Muslims in Birmingham formed some kind of ‘bloc’ whereas in reality they formed many different groupings. While these groupings had much in common, they included very different attitudes towards politics. However, it was taken for granted that because large numbers of Muslims live in Birmingham they were somehow sitting there en masse waiting to be mobilised. But the reality was very different. We had to have the arguments and convince them as individuals just like everyone else.

If anything, the sense of disillusionment and helplessness was more marked within the Muslim community because of the stronger personal link to the issues—at a basic level many Muslims felt their brothers and sisters were under attack—and the experience of demonisation and Islamophobic attacks in Britain engendered further reticence in coming forward. It was therefore in many ways even more difficult to mobilise the Muslims. There was a lot of fear, apathy and cynicism that anything positive would come of such an alliance or by demonstrating.

At first, initiative and ownership in participating in the anti-war movement remained restricted to very few mosques. In order to involve as many people as possible the Muslims within the coalition asked co-operative mosques such as Birmingham Central Mosque (with the vital support of chairperson Dr Naseem) to provide funding for coaches to leave from less active mosques. By having departure points from these different mosques we hoped for an expectation to be created within the congregations that these mosques would participate in any future anti-war activities and demonstrations. A few demonstrations down the line, congregations did indeed expect their own mosques to actively support anti-war activities and provide transport, which eventually happened across increasing numbers of mosques.

Processes of engagement within the coalition: ‘interactionists’ versus ‘isolationists’

Some organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain and the Islamic Society of Britain were quicker than others to respond, as their understanding of Islam embraced politics. However, the majority of mosques and Islamic groups had no history of addressing political issues, and much persuasion was required. While some remained sceptical about any kind of success, many simply lacked confidence and experience or were frightened, but many more were happy that someone was doing something, and once a rallying point had been established were happy to join in.

The large turnouts were therefore very significant, as such large numbers had not responded to calls for demonstrations in this way before. Their involvement at this time was partly to do with consistency and determination by Muslims working within the coalition to win the argument, as well as the reassurance that non-Muslims were genuinely campaigning on similar issues. This was a real turning point and beginning of hope for many in the Muslim community.

The united front approach also helped to quell the fears of even greater threats of violence towards Muslims if they protested, as part of the widespread racist backlash following 11 September. Muslims were a part of something much bigger, and it was much less easy to portray Muslim opposition to war as ‘unpatriotic’ when they were joined by the majority of the population. British Muslims were constantly being asked if they were ‘British or Muslim’ via media ‘investigations’ into our loyalties—as if we could not be both. Such questioning only served to highlight how mainstream society had difficulties in even imagining Islam as an integral part of the British landscape. The anti-war movement played an important role in rebuffing such negative perceptions, helping Muslims to move away from the confining and further marginalising position of constantly being on the defensive.

As The Observer noted:

There is a new buzz among British Muslims—there are few calls for violent retaliation or slogans of hatred, even from groups of young men. Instead the anger is being channelled into the broader movement of Britons who oppose this war, and which…British Muslims have come to respect and trust. [Muslims] are re-engaging, mobilising and, by the looks of it, being thoroughly British.9

This positive example of solidarity also completely marginalised the more extreme Islamic groups who opposed working with non-Muslims. Of course, much of the fear about a violent reaction from British Muslims was just more of the same Islamophobia. But it was not beyond the realms of possibility that these groups may have won new recruits to a simplistic anti-Western message from the ranks of those overcome by despair and helplessness.

Interestingly, there was one occasion at which an extreme Muslim group tried to disrupt a Stop the War coalition meeting, campaigning under the (somewhat ridiculous) slogan ‘Don’t Stop the War Campaign’, calling on Muslims to refrain from working with non-Muslims. They were attempting to threaten the sense of unity and solidarity the coalition had built. The marginality of their views, however, was quickly made apparent when the Muslims present rejected them completely. The event proceeded smoothly, and they were not seen again.

What was striking was the similarity of their approach towards the coalition with that of the sectarian leftists. They too believed that working in any kind of alliance was wrong and a betrayal of their own principles. Yet it seems to me that both these groups of people represent an extreme of their own ideologies and, while claiming to represent their respective belief systems, had little to offer expect except sinister warnings about the dangerous Other based on prejudiced assumptions. In this way they had more in common with each other than with their co-religionists and comrades. Ironically this only served to highlight the degree of similarity and overlap in the approach of the Muslims and socialists within the coalition who were put in the situation of working even closer together to combat such extremism and ensure a balanced and inclusive movement.

Solidarity in the movement

The mobilisation of the Muslim community was, however, only one part of the work of the coalition. I viewed my role as encompassing the building of as broad a coalition as possible. I spoke at various trades council meetings, churches, peace vigils, schools and universities, at the Longbridge car plant, to firefighters during the strike, to council workers during their strike, and with various union representatives. We had video showings across the city and lobbied MPs at their surgeries.

A sharing of experiences was under way. In Birmingham a local mosque invited socialists as well as Christian, Buddhist and Jewish faith representatives to speak to the congregation. A Sikh temple opened its doors for a 48-hour inter-faith prayer. Socialists, some of whom may have been initially uncomfortable with the idea of working alongside religious people, were able to view Muslims as people equally dedicated to opposing oppression. Christians and Muslims, some of whom may have been uncomfortable with working alongside ‘people of no faith’, were able to view socialists as people who also shared their notion of social justice, and would talk about the dangers of unfettered capitalism.

Solidarity became a reality, and new relationships were forged. The Fire Brigades Union, with the experience of fellow firefighters in New York in their minds, were among the staunchest supporters of the anti-war movement. The links created through the anti-war movement paid off during the firefighters’ strike, when the congregation at Birmingham Central Mosque raised £900 in a single collection, identifying with the slogan ‘This government is willing to spend money on taking lives but not on saving lives’.

Indeed, I believe it is this process of engaging with each other, communicating our stance to others, while being open to change ourselves, that has been the key to the success of the anti-war movement.

I place emphasis on ‘being open to change ourselves’. I would go as far as to suggest that for many people, including myself, it has been a transforming experience. While maintaining our distinct identities, we put aside our differences and worked with other groups to find points of commonality.

In our experience in Birmingham, however, I found that by working closely together in a very practical manner we actually influenced each other’s identities and views, resulting in the different groups relating to each other, and even themselves, in a different way than before. In effect a transformation in our identities had taken place—in which we were mutually enriched without compromising our principles.

A strong grounding in our own identity enables us to engage confidently with others, with a degree of openness. This has led to a deeper examination of our own identities, which have evolved in the light of interaction with each other.

The irony is that the people who were so adamant in defending a ‘purist’ stance and vocal in expressing the dangers of eroding fundamental beliefs, and thereby in effect advocating an isolationist stance, were betraying a certain lack of confidence in their own beliefs. Their fear of the negative influence of others highlights a certain weakness in their convictions. Why would they fear the possibility of change in themselves or others, and assume it would lead to a loss of identity, as opposed to a further strengthening of it? Indeed, our beliefs and attitudes are really only tested when they are exposed to different and even conflicting ideas.

An isolationist approach is one of not being prepared to take any risks. But by not taking risks we lose the opportunity to both learn ourselves and influence others.

I believe that much of the success of the anti-war movement can be attributed to the fact that the energies of people who may not previously have felt ‘included’ were now able to be channelled positively, because they felt they were being respected.

The emergence of Muslim women leaders

As Muslim women we frequently feel that our place in society is misunderstood and downplayed in the West. We are all familiar with the stereotype of the ‘passive’ Muslim/Asian woman. While we reject this crude stereotype, we are also aware that Muslim women playing a leading role in politics is a challenge for many in our community.

It is notable that the majority of the Muslims playing a leading role in the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition were women, confident in their Islamic identity and increasingly confident in their ability to present themselves as leaders of this broad movement. Contingents of young Muslim women, well organised and often more forthcoming than Muslim men, were a striking feature of all our demonstrations and protests. I would attribute this effect to the fact that, by wearing the hijab (headscarf), many of these women are constantly conscious of their Muslim identity when interacting in public. Having to continually combat and overcome perceptions of Muslim women being oppressed, and challenging negative stereotypes of Islam, they are actually more experienced and confident than many Muslim men in engaging with others.

I had anticipated some of the initial criticism and disapproval about my leading role in the anti-war movement from within the community. Many Asian and Arab cultural practices and traditions regarding the roles and interaction of men and women within our communities are all too often confused with the Islamic religion, which is wrongly invoked to impose restrictive behaviour. However, to my surprise, only a handful of people expressed criticisms, in comparison to the overwhelmingly positive response by mosques and organisations.

Some men did not think it appropriate for a woman to be a chairperson (although at the time no Muslim men were forthcoming). Some questioned my ability as a wife and mother. Interestingly, some questioned the wisdom of my husband in ‘allowing’ me to do this, and some even criticised him for putting me in a ‘vulnerable’ position. There did not seem to be room in their minds for the idea that we were actually in a mutually supportive and respectful relationship, politically and personally—in accordance with our understanding of practising Islamic relationships. Such public scrutiny in tight-knit communities is certainly one of the factors that put women off coming forward. However, only by doing so can attitudes change within our communities.

Many people explaining the stance of Islam regarding the equality of women emphasise the rights accorded to them 1,400 years ago in the Quran. The practical reality, however, is that growing up as a Muslim woman I had witnessed few tangible examples and precedents regarding Muslim women community leaders.

While some men may previously have felt a woman should not be on a public platform, the seriousness of the situation began to overcome some of these objections. Most people were relieved that at least someone was taking this public stance at such a difficult time. It is interesting to note that this may have actually helped to change attitudes within the community. The boundaries began to shift, and other women also felt confident they could step forward too.

On a personal note, I admit that the task of juggling family life (I had two boys and was pregnant with my third child), work (as a psychotherapist and PhD student) and political activism (with all its demands and complexities as described above) was quite challenging. Striking a balance was and remains a constant struggle. I am fortunate to have had the support of my husband and family. I cannot help wondering, however, with the various challenges I faced in gaining the support of the community, whether a single Muslim woman would have had to face even more obstacles.

Faith and politics

The challenge of building a broad anti-war movement therefore involved struggles within our Muslim community, and between different political perspectives. For me, as a Muslim, it also involves assessing and reassessing how I relate my faith to the world I live in. My individual response is, I think, symptomatic of a wider process taking place among British Muslims.

I acknowledge that I had to confront many questions about myself throughout my participation in the anti-war movement. I had to struggle to maintain clarity in my intentions, purpose and actions, based on my grounding in Islam.

The fact that I was a Muslim woman may have been of novel interest to some, and a token of diversity within the movement to others, but for me my faith is a core part of my identity. It provides a meaningful context to my life, shaping both my external actions and my inner thoughts and beliefs.

My understanding of Islam left me no choice but to take some action in the face of the intention of our government to participate in the killing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. The Quran is very clear about the duty to stand up in the face of injustice—even if it is very difficult and goes against your own interests:

O you who believe! Stand up firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, be he rich or poor.10

In the light of the above verse I found it unacceptable that some Muslims argued that publicly condemning the government would invite further attacks on ourselves. The principle of standing up for justice was very clear.

Although I acknowledge the pressures to take the path of least resistance were very real, I took inspiration from the verse in the Quran relating to the concept of ‘Jihad’—a much misunderstood term—about the duty to exert effort in the context of oppression:

What is wrong with you that you do not fight in the cause of Allah and for those who are weak, ill-treated and oppressed among men, women and children and whose cry is: Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors and raise for us from You one who will protect and raise for us from You one who will help.11

I viewed this decision to work with different people fighting injustice, not as a compromise of my Islamic beliefs, but as an expression of them. I see myself and other Muslims who have found their faith a source of inspiration in the struggle against injustice as standing in a rich tradition of faith-based resistance. In recent times this can be seen to stretch from the central involvement of Southern Baptist ministers like Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement in the United States, to those inspired by ‘liberationist Christianity’12 in Latin America, as well as Muslims struggling against apartheid in South Africa.13 All of these successful struggles have been characterised by broad movements in which people of faith have united with those of differing or no faiths in the struggle for justice.

Whilst Islam is often characterised in terms of ‘fanaticism’, hostile to democratic values and religious tolerance, the Quran itself is explicit in its promotion of freedom of choice and religious diversity:

And if your Lord had willed, all those on earth would have believed together. Would you then compel people to become believers?14 … Unto every community have we appointed [different] ways of worship, which they ought to observe. Hence do not let those [who follow ways other than yours] draw you into disputes on this score, but summon [them all] unto your Sustainer: for, behold, you are indeed on the right way. And if they try to argue with you, say [only]: God knows best what you are doing.15

It is important to note that the real backdrop to the recent phenomena of attacks on Western targets is not one of religious ideology but of political reactions and demands.16 The support of the US and its allies for the undemocratic regimes in the Middle East, together with its financial and political support of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians and stability of the whole region, are the motivating factors. It is clear to many people that the Quran no more explains violent attacks carried out by Muslims than the Bible explains Catholic and Protestant involvement in paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland. By ignoring political realities it is clear that the response of the West (under the misnamed ‘war on terror’ which is actually a ‘war of terror’) will not contain but fuel further violence.

However, if a more peaceful world is genuinely desired, Muslims and non-Muslims will need to reconsider their own identities and presumptions. On the Muslim side, difficult as it is, we have to avoid falling into the trap of a purely reactive response to Western military and cultural hegemony. Undiscriminating vilification of the West, as enacted by minority ‘extremists’, only serves to isolate Muslims from constructive engagement, leading to ‘throwing out the baby’ (some of the West’s progressive features which are totally compatible with Islamic values) with the ‘bathwater’ (colonial acculturation and military occupation).

The challenge for many non-Muslims, especially in the West, is to admit the possibility that there are values as universally valid as their own, and that it does not have a monopoly over the production of modernity. For example, the breadth and complexity of the Islamic movement and the Muslim presence, with its contribution to Western culture historically and its current role in extending modernity in the Middle East, needs to be acknowledged.

In this way, all concerned have to take the difficult step of adhering to their claims of upholding the value of ‘no compulsion in beliefs’, which actually is a rejection of idea of holding only one system of reference as legitimate. This actually requires individuals to leave the confines of the cosy familiarity of their instinctive membership to enter into the less familiar terrain of engaging with the symbolism and meanings valued by others. This can be seen to be the beginning of the constructive process of developing a ‘consensus of modernity’,17 founded on common values, which encourages pluralism and co-operation.

The anti-war movement, notwithstanding the sectarian elements, provided a rare safe space for Muslims to express themselves in their own terms, without fear of attack, and I found it a fairly liberating experience to be able to articulate what I really felt about the situation.

Many Muslims who went to the massive demonstrations and attended public meetings could not deny that they were given hope when they saw how many other people shared with them their sense of injustice and outrage. Indeed, it was the fact that the majority of the people in the anti-war movement were not Muslims but shared many of the same concerns as themselves that began to give them some hope in their state of despair and powerlessness.

Paradoxically, then, it was by joining with different people, and gaining a sense of strong commonality with them, that they were able to feel strengthened in their identity as Muslims, and feel proud of their identity.

Furthermore, by becoming more involved in the struggle many could see at first hand that there were many other people (who were not Muslim) who worked extremely hard to fight injustice. Even if they might have disagreed with some of their analyses and theoretical approaches, they could not deny that all these ‘other’ people were genuine in their desire to remove injustice and fight for a better world.

An interesting observation made by some Muslims was that while we had a belief in the concept of an afterlife to comfort us in times of difficulty, our secular friends did not, yet they still remained persistent in their struggle.


The anti-war movement succeeded in drawing together in an unprecedented manner a huge number of people from all sections of society around three key aims—preventing a war from happening, stopping the racist backlash and stopping the attacks on civil liberties.

Despite the fact that the military interventions took place, the fact that millions of people participated in a movement against these interventions has meant that people have formed a genuine understanding and feeling of solidarity towards one another, transcending national boundaries as well as false divides such as East and West. They have overcome even the barriers between the religious and the non-religious to discover and express a common humanity.

The racist backlash has therefore been more contained, and civil liberties are being defended by the fact that a greater democratisation is being encouraged through the large participation of ordinary people in politics. All of this is paving the way for the possibility of peace and harmony, which is what we set out to do. Although the battle to stop the war was lost, the battle to win hearts and minds is going in our direction.

All of the conflicts in the world today relate to some unredressed injustice, which is itself based on lack of equality. It seems to me that there is a very simple equation—where you have inequality you have injustice, where you have injustice you cannot have peace. Therefore if we really desire peace we must move backwards along this equation. To attain peace we must have justice, and to have justice we must have real equality.

More and more people are drawing the conclusion that simply being reactive and protesting against what we don’t want in the hope that those in power will be persuaded is not enough. Instead it is time for a genuine proactive alliance that reflects the real wishes of the people. An alliance that proposes both ethical domestic policies and ethical foreign policies. One that aims to integrate just economic, social and environmental policies at local, national and global levels. One that works towards a ‘civilisation of solidarity’.18 There is no short cut to such a proposition. It requires us to build on the powerful working relationships already formed within the anti-war movement.

Muslims and non-Muslims alike need to continue to rise to the challenge of overcoming simplistic perceptions through joint work, education and information. British Muslims should seek and be encouraged to make positive contributions in building the wider movement, not merely being content with passive integration. Similarly , socialists should be able to regard Muslims as their allies in their struggle for a better world. The doors to mutual respect are slowly being opened. That can only be a good thing—for everyone.


Thanks to Ger Francis, Mark Holland and Shaista Anjam for help in preparing this article.

  1. R Younes, ‘The Crackdown’, Al Ahram Weekly, 7 August 2003.
  2. H Shukrallah, ‘We Are All Iraqis Now’, The Guardian, 27 March 2003.
  3. E Ferguson, ‘One Million. And Still They Came’, The Observer, 16 February 2003.
  4. ‘Generation “Why?”’, Red Pepper, 1 May 2003.
  5. As above.
  6. J Pilger, ‘Disobey’, March 13 2003,
  7. As above.
  8. N Cohen, ‘The Lesson the Left Has Never Learnt’, New Statesman, 21 July 2003. Cohen was not present at the meeting in question, or any other Birmingham coalition meeting, and has not spoken to any of the Muslims involved in the coalition.
  9. F Alam, ‘How War Has Brought Hope to British Muslims’, The Observer, 23 March 2003.
  10. Quran, Chapter 4, Verse 135.
  11. Quran, Chapter 4, Verse 74.
  12. M Lowy, The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America (Verso, 1996).
  13. F Esack, Quran, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression (Oneworld, 1997).
  14. Quran, Chapter 10, Verse 99.
  15. Quran, Chapter 22, Verse 67.
  16. F Burgat, Face to Face With Political Islam (I B Tauris, 2003).
  17. As above.
  18. M Lowy and F Betto, ‘Values of a New Civilisation’, in W F Fisher and T Ponniah (eds), Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalisation at the World Social Forum (Zed, 2003).