The spirit of Southall led me to Harrow

Rahila Gupta commented in the Guardian

I attended the demonstration called by Unite Against Fascism (UAF) to defend the Harrow Mosque against the Stop Islamification of Europe (SIOE) last Friday because, at one level, it felt like a re-run of the National Front election meeting held in Southall town hall 30 years ago. A community under siege. That act of provocation, in which the police killed Blair Peach, an anti-fascist activist, seared the collective memory of the Southall community and became a defining moment in British black history.

However, the circumstances and the alignment of forces were different enough to give pause for reflection. In the Southall uprising the lines were clearly drawn between a largely secular community, police racism and the National Front. Thirty years on, racial and religious identities have been conflated to such an extent that I was worried about participating in an anti-racist demonstration that might end up protecting some extremely dodgy religious fanatics. On the other hand, I did not want my opposition to Islamism to be used as a truncheon against all Muslims, indeed all black people, by far-right groups.

I did not know enough about the Harrow mosque. Would I simply be defending brown fascists against white fascists? By all accounts it is a mosque with liberal traditions that abhors extremism, promotes interfaith dialogue and tolerance and could not understand why it had attracted the attention of far-right groups. According to the SIOE website, the mosque’s sheer size makes it a valid candidate for attack. It is a symbol of “triumphalism”, rather than integration with its 40ft minarets making it the largest mosque in England.

Many of the emails advertising the event increasingly based the call for action on a wider platform: the protection of the multicultural community of Harrow. Other colleagues of mine from Southall Black Sisters decided to come along with our banner. There were small huddles of young women in hijab, in a predominantly, but not exclusively, young, Muslim and male demonstration. Our placard read: “Southall 1979, Harrow 2009. Here to stay, Here to fight Racism, Fascism and Religious Fundamentalism”.

For a picket that went on for seven hours, and was variously advertised as starting and ending at different times, it was extremely well attended, numbering approximately 1,200 people. Though tense, it was mostly peaceful despite press reports of riots. On two occasions, youths reacted to taunts from the fascists and gave chase. On one occasion, a burly white man, who a demonstrator said “looked like a fascist”, was chased until he pulled out his police badge and proved that he was an undercover police officer. Generally sensible policing, which used kettling against the 20 or so fascists, helped to keep a lid on the violence. It was reassuring that the anti-racist forces heavily outnumbered the provocateurs. We were indeed here to stay and here to fight.

The fascists have been variously described as EDL (English defence League), SIOE and the BNP. While there appears to be some collaborative working between the EDL and SIOE, the BNP website claims to have proscribed them. One blogger, a supporter of SIOE, writes that he was unable to find any fellow demonstrators, apart from three non-white women who were opposed to the introduction of Sharia courts in this country! See what I mean about muddied alliances.

Provoking violence in Britain’s multicultural areas has ensured that the EDL and SIOE have shot out of oblivion into the national consciousness. No doubt other rightwing groups will want to jump on this bandwagon. It is important that the government does not give intellectual succour to these groups by its own paradoxical approach to policy making in this area: one the one hand, a tendency to conflate all Muslims with Islamism through its anti-terror programme; and on the other hand, to mollify Muslim opinion by giving free rein to so-called moderate Muslim groups that are anything but.

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