Saturday, March 25, 2006
I was disappointed, I tells you. You want to know how pathetic the turnout was? The BBC had to illustrate their coverage with a picture of the 20,000 strong rally against anti-Muslim racism last month. 300 people - this is the might of the petit-bourgeoisie when organised. As you can see, it's overwhelmingly white and very very ugly.
The BBC misreports a little, by the way. It says: "Initial plans to print the controversial cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad onto banners as a way of expressing support for the Danish cartoonists were shelved." Not quite. Although organiser Peter Risdon backed down from begging people to bring samples of the racist pictures to the protest, they certainly appeared. Take a look to your right. The person holding up that placard with the Danish cartoons on them is an associate of the hysterical Islamophobe, Maryam Namazie, who has described the Muslim hijab as "comparable to the Star of David pinned on Jews by the Nazis to segregate, control, repress and to commit genocide". There was a bit of a frisson when it turned out that someone (possibly one of the Nazis present) had complained about his conduct and he'd been taken aside for a word with the filth. Namazie loudly exclaimed into the mic that it was because of his placard, and so they insisted on holding it up for photos and urging people to pass it around. The police scowled. I overheard a couple of them gossiping: "it's got fuck all to do with that". Anyway, this martyr for free speech was soon back in the crowd, possibly hugging his home-made placard.
Aside from the obvious knuckle-draggers from the Master Race, who are somehow quite conspicuous even without their Blood and Honour badges and various marks of rank, the bulk of those present appeared to be right-wing libertarians and ageing middle class 'secularists' who are perpetually re-fighting the battles of 19th Century Liberalism. Trouble was, the right-wing element was certainly the bulk of the crowd. Tatchell paid a heavy guilt tax - having insisted that he would be present alongside the far-right Freedom Association, the BNP front-group 'Civil Liberty' and the right-wing Liberty Alliance while at the same time demanding that the Muslim Council of Britain be banned from the Unite Against Fascism conference, he tried putting a nice left-wing gloss on it, saying he supported the right to incite hatred of the monarchy and the Church of England, and even hatred against racists, at which point he started to get heckles from people demanding that he stick to free speech, not go on about racism.
Tatchell yielded little applause for his remarks on Guantanamo, and there were a lot of stern, offended faces and stiff, unclapping hands when he referred to gay rights. The only thing he was roundly welcomed for was his denunciations of Islam, in particular his claims that "Muslim leaders" had issued death threats to the family of a liberal imam in order to prevent him from attending the Peter Tatchell Human Rights Fund. Evidence for which came there none - Tatchell has made this claim a couple of times before. He never specifies who these "Muslim leaders" are, although he has implied that they are "members of so called moderate, mainstream Muslim organisations". This anecdote helpfully dramatised the resentment of the protesters, who were certain that Islam was cracking down on free speech. And of course, it was all about Islam. Tatchell averred that he was really trying to protect all humans, and that "this is the difference between them and us".
Evan Harris MP made an incoherent and very tenuous speech along the lines that he is not a free speech absolutist and that certain kinds of speech should be prohibited if it calls for violence or if it demonises on group unfairly, er, or, er... He hinted darkly that there was a very large and efficacious "lobby" trying to clamp down on free speech and that the threat was bigger than it had been since the 1930s. As proof of this, he complained bitterly about the alleged threat to close the Birmingham Repertory Theatre which had featured the play Behzti which was met with protests by some local Sikhs, suggesting that the Home Office was backing the closure. In fact, the Home Office's line was exactly the same as his: that the play had a right to proceed as did the protests against it. He knows this, because the Home Office explained this view in response to his parliamentary question about it. So, what's with the big conspiracy theory about a sinister lobby of brown people taking over Whitehall?
Maryam Namazie (in menacing black and white, above) did her usual hectoring routine about Political Islam being the new Fascism (brown is the new black-shirt), and I'm not going to waste any time deconstructing her ridiculous pontifications. I did, however, want to take a step back in a future post and revisit what led to this. Before I do, though, can someone tell me if that pudgy, boyishly handsome chap with the notebook to the right is actually Johann Hari? It is, isn't it? And I wasn't even trying to take a picture of him either - it's just that his face sticks out like a very big, red, sore thumb.
Update: the BBC has obligingly edited out its own reporters' estimate of the crowd strength (about 300) and highlighted the organisers' estimate (of 600), even at the expense of the police estimate (of 190). Now, why doesn't the Stop the War Coalition get service like that?