Sometimes Channel Four does something brilliant that recalls its trouble-making days from the 1980s, and this documentary about a pair of activists from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee was such an occasion. MPAC, from all indications, is a youthful upstart, seeking to undercut the hegemony of the entrenched leadership in what I hesitate to call 'the Muslim community'. Its politics appear to be oriented around a progressive interpretation of Islam (see, for example, this article on the Islamic justification for the welfare state, which involves the usual references to the zakat, but more besides).
A number of things became glaringly apparent throughout: the two activists had a level of commitment, passion and clarity that I have rarely seen in mainstream politics; they never stood a chance against the unofficial Labourist hierarchy among Muslim leaders in places like Blackburn; and their strategy is totally inadequate.
The first point became obvious when they opened their mouths to speak, and when they stood up against some quite aggressive people outside Lord Patel's mosque, where they were intimidated and beaten. The second point was obvious when they emerged from the houses of some rich middle-class Muslims who wouldn't donate anything to help: "If you want to put a brilliant new chandelier in a mosque, these people will give you half a million quid. If you want to stop the man who's sending troops to kill and rape Iraqis, suddenly you're asking for too much! What kind of bullshit Islam are they following?" Well, the version that's compatible with being rich and reactionary, dummy! The last point was obvious from the start. Mobilising the Muslim vote is necessary, but insufficient. One thing that became apparent to me from my brief spell in the East End was that what is unctuously referred to as 'the Muslim community' is just as divided as 'the white community', 'the Jewish community' or any other imagined community you can think of. You have to expand your purview and your aim well beyond your particular ethnic group. Of course Muslims should oppose the massacres in Iraq and Palestine - but should not atheists, liberals, Christians, socialists and Jews also do the same? Can they not, and do they not? This weakness was crystallised when they allowed themselves to commend and distribute leaflets published by some local activists in Rochdale without checking the contents - the leaflet, they later discovered to their cost, contained the assertion that Lorna Fitzsimmons was Jewish, which was both wrong and totally irrelevant. Their response was to apologise profusely and reject the Islamophobic response that assumed that Muslims would vote against someone because of their race.
There was an awful lot of shit talked about the MPAC campaign by Jack Straw and others - this 'egregious' organisation that was so "well-funded". The camera showed how well-funded they were: toothbrush and towels for two activists with a bunch of leaflets. Yeah, they were flipping loaded. Straw also claimed that they had bussed in loads of people to campaign against him - again, not quite right. Two activists had come in their own vehicle, which isn't all that awe-inspiring when you think about it.
Anyway, I think the Respect strategy did a better job of mobilising Muslim and non-Muslim voters. I don't just think that - it's obvious. Where MPAC did contribute to getting a Lib Dem elected in Rochdale, they need to think seriously about what that amounts to. The Lib Dems were extremely unprincipled in their opposition to the war, temporising at times, suspending their opposition while the bloodshed was actually happening, and have hardly been principled or consistent opponents of Israeli aggression - it seems to me that we would be better off building a broad, progressive left-wing alliance, including Respect and the Greens, with electoral agreements, and using the marvellous election results as the basis for launching a sustained battery attack on Labour's biggest battalions.