Saturday, February 11, 2006
Unity Protest posted by Richard SeymourIt was easily much larger than the four thousand being claimed by the media, but probably not the forty thousand claimed by the organisers. At a pinch, and based on previous demonstrations in the same location, I would guess it was around 10-15,000 at its peak. That's a large turnout by anyone's standards. And the square was packed, and overflowing, and loud. And what is more, I've noticed the coverage of the protest on teevee appears to be speaking of the putatively low turnout ("only a few thousand") in connection with the organisers' aims of expressing anger about the cartoons in a peaceful manner that represents mainstream Muslims. Well, excuse me, but how many turned out for the Danish Embassy protest in Knightsbridge last week? The one that caused all the offense and got acres of newsprint and hours of television coverage? A hundred? If that. A small protest organised by a phone-box organisation, and probably half of those were intelligence assets. That's worth media alarm. Thousands of British Muslims denouncing Islamophobia in a dignified and impassioned way and all it's worth is a few seconds, some unflattering footage and a mournful sigh from the journalist. Okay, I get it: if it isn't panto Evil Doers, it isn't news.
The main thing that stood out was that there were hardly any white people there. Oh, plenty on the platform, but little in the crowd. That is because the British left - with the exception of the SWP, the Cuban solidarity campaign and Respect - totally neglected this protest (and, er, the Cuban solidarity folks spent the whole time ranting into a megaphone about the sanctions on Cuba rather than talking about the issues that people were there to protest about). One wouldn't expect the Alliance for White Liberty or any of their racist confederates to show up (imagine a Harry's Place contributor having to be surrounded by a large crowd of brown-skinned people). But this is only a major attempt by British Muslims to create anti-racist unity with non-Muslims and the British left misses the show! It isn't as if the audience would not have been receptive: some of the biggest cheers of the day went to Lindsey German. (Oh, and by the way, the BBC's reporter is lying when s/he says that Galloway was booed and cat-called with "Big Brother" chants - I was right up at the front when his name was announced, and the reaction was a large cheer. His performance was nothing short of solid and polished). Anyway, here's your first picture. By the way, you will notice that my pictures are somewhat better than the BBC's. That is because I wasn't concentrating on not looking terrified the whole time.
I got there at about 1.20pm, before it filled up properly. The pre-rally hype had been couched very much in placatory BBC terms about "striking the right balance between free speech and respect for others", so I was anticipating a lot of point-missing liberal babble. There was some boring music playing and the placards were in the colours of Israel's flag. It did not look good. However, for the most part it was surprisingly sharp. Sarah Teather had to waffle a bit on account of having voted against the Incitement to Religious Hatred bill, but she did one very important thing, and that was to be very clear that this was not an issue of free speech, it was about racism. That was very clear cut and direct. She did not go as far as some of the other speakers in recognising the connection between racist images and violence. In the latter respect, Bruce Kent of the CND, Salma Yaqoob and Yvonne Ridley all made the perfectly excellent point that if you want to bomb a Muslim country it usually helps to have created an atmosphere of fear and hysteria about Muslims. And that takes it one step further: it was not merely racist, it was a racist provocation. Here's Salma talking on the video screen.
Of all the speakers, the most adept rhetorician and clearly the most popular was Azzam Tamimi. It was a positively Shakespearean performance. From the second he opened his mouth with a precisely enunciated "The idiots who published these cartoons...", it was clear he had connected. He ranged over the religious and the political, cheerfully mocking the Islamophobes with Hamas' victory in Palestine, talking about the love Muslims have for the Prophet Muhammad, satirising the claim that this is about free speech in much the same way as others had. For some reason, his performance was so effective as to induce some awful shag-sack of a human being, some upper class Baroness (it must have been Baroness Uddin, but it didn't look like her) following him to issue a stern rebuke and spend the next five minutes condescending to the audience in rich Oxonian tones. I have no idea why, as Tamimi didn't say anything at all that could be called offensive. But anyway, she was booed, and deservedly so. The last time I saw anyone treat their audience with this much contempt, it was a bearded fat-arsed ex-leftie pretending to be contrarian. Perhaps there's something about the Balliol pedigree and the fearlessness, the class-confidence that is strengthened and instilled at such institutions, that allows people to behave in this way without the intrusion of embarrassment. Anyway, here's Azzam slicing the air while saying something about "You say we have a free media? Don't talk such bullshit!".
There was inevitably a sense in which some speakers felt they had to apologise for the morons who attended the al-Ghurabaa-MI5 protest and waved idiotic placards. A female spokesperson for the Islamic Society of Britain attacked them most eloquently, calling out to the audience "Do those people represent you?" The reply: "NO!" "Do those placards represent you?" "NO!" And the routine went on like that for a bit. Sadiq Khan MP did some of the same. I have to say, I feel this was a totally unnecessary sop to the media, which had already decided that Muslims were guilty as charged and that the 'moderates' had to prove themselves in the court of media-manufactured public opinion. It isn't as if anyone there had anything to do with either the Knightsbridge protest or any of the more violent scenes across the world. In fact, most of the speakers were extremely politically correct, taking time to accentuate the bond between Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. In a way, this was reciprocating the solidarity shown by some Christian speakers (including a guy from the CofE, which has recently decided to try and divest its funds from Israel, a rare instance of secular wisdom on their part). In another way entirely, it was a concession to the fact that it was necessary to break through a dense layer of encrusted racist fantasies and images of Muslims as slayers of infidels and so on. Surprise hit of the day was Lindsey German, who scored repeatedly with the audience and got larger cheers than anyone else except for Mr Tamimi. Bruce Kent also did very well. It's amazing how much a statement of solidarity underpinned by socialist principles is appreciated these days.
Here's another picture, illustrating the presence of Respect. I only show it because that branch used to be my local.
The point about the protest that I would like most forcefully to impart to you was that it did not chiefly concern itself simply with caricatures. That was the incident, the moment, which pulled a whole range of issues into focus. Example upon example of anti-Muslim hysteria and racism could be cited, and indeed was cited. Almost all the speakers understood that this was not an isolated issue - rather, it was the straw that broke the camel's back, one too many provocations in a background of increasing anti-Muslim violence across Europe, and aggressive foreign policies against Muslim countries. The other thing is that it showed that the issues around this are not simply being 'manipulated' by a tiny fringe of extremists, contrary to the impression given by Doug Ireland which he used as justification for republishing the pictures on his blog (and shame on him for doing so - is this really the same man who denounced The Nation so vigorously for carrying a homophobic depiction of Abraham Lincoln and in fact led a campaign to get it retracted and an apology issued? This very same man is now demanding freedom for racist newspaper editors to smack the dark-skinned Mussies around?). There is widespread anger at the Islamophobia that this incident instantiates: as several people pointed out, a number of these cartoons mimic in their structure and references the antisemitic cartoons that were used in Nazi Germany as a prelude to the judeocide. There is also anger at what is perceived (rightly in my view) to be an attempt to manufacture a 'clash of civilisations', to provoke Muslims and to generate a backlash. The actions of the European newspapers cannot be sensibly understood in any other way. If you thought it was about brave journalists and editors standing up for free speech (as opposed to the freedom to express their proprietors' prejudices as far as the advertisers will tolerate), then you might ask why - as Yvonne Ridley did - the press repeatedly connives with the government, as when it refused to name Nicholas Langman as the MI6 agent in charge of the kidnapping and torturing of Pakistani 'terror suspects'. The point is that this 'clash of civilisations' was rejected at all levels by the protest - that's why it was a Unity demonstration. It was demanding that Muslims be accorded the same respect and dignity that anyone else would be. And that Muslims be considered at the heart of Europe, not as marginal outsiders.
Finally, some more pictures.