I have never told this story publicly before – I am slightly ashamed of that. It is about events only a month or so after the 9/11 attack – the invasion of Afghanistan was planned but had not started.
I haven’t told the story partly because I didn’t want to make a union colleague vulnerable to a repeat of a physical threat that had been made to her – but time has passed and there is now no risk of that.
I am a bit ashamed because the other part of the reason I haven’t told it, is because I didn’t want to be give further ammunition to those who had started to call me an ‘Islamophobe’ – a term that was only starting to get widespread political usage.
At that time I was teaching and a union officer at an FE college. A colleague of mine, also a union member, was tutoring an activity where students had to simulate setting up their own business in a communication/ IT exercise. She was dark-haired and had a first name that might be interpreted as Jewish – although she wasn’t.
Two of the students who were being taught by her – decided they would call their business ‘The Taliban’ in this exercise. She advised them that in the circumstances of the time that may not be a good idea. They made a complaint against her that she was racist – she was actually a vehement and sensitive anti-racist. I was asked by her to defend her against this student complaint.
In the course of them making their complaint they revealed that they thought she was Jewish.
Although I never met those students face-to-face I met one of their advisers – who shared with me his belief that Israel (or as it was put ‘the Jews’) may well have been behind the 9/11 attack. This was an argument that was unfortunately already starting to gain currency amongst conspiracy theorists and apologists for Bin Laden.
The complaint that my colleague was a racist was easily rebutted. But this was not to the satisfaction of these students and some of their supporters. One of their supporters, who was older than them, came in to see the manager assigned the responsibility to investigate the charge of racism on my member. He told him that ‘there is only one way to deal with this woman’- my union member – he pulled his finger across his neck – indicating if not beheading at least execution. Meanwhile the 2 students were going round asking various teaching and admin personnel for the address of my alleged racist ‘Jewish’ member.
Because of the death threat the manager had alerted the police – her colleagues and I were already aware that the students were trying to track down her home address. She was a strong and brave woman by nature but she lived alone. It all felt quite crazy but a little terrifying – particularly for her. We couldn’t risk that there might be an attack on her in these circumstances. Her workmates – our union members – sorted out her staying with another union member and colleague until we could be sure she was safe.
To be honest though, in a matter of days we were soon laughing it off – these were mouthy and, to all accounts, not very bright students. I know though that they were certainly ‘connected’. In retrospect I would guess they were being ‘groomed’. I hope they extricated themselves from whatever network they were involved in – they were probably no older than 18 at the time – people of that age can think and say stupid things and grow out of it.
I tell this story now, but as I said have not told it before, because to argue that forces like these political Islamists were a threat would have been seen to be ‘Islamophobic’ by the SWP-dominated left. To tell this story would undoubtedly been called a ‘scare story to whip up anti-Muslim feelings’. Indeed if I had raised it then, as now, great care needs to have been taken to distinguish between the wider Muslim community and this far smaller group of anti-Jewish racists.
But simplistic and blanket accusations of Islamophobia have blighted the left from that time.
I and my AWL friends had started to be called ‘Islamophobic’ only days after the 9/11 attacks. Despite having been the first ones leafleting my town, Nottingham, along with Iranian and Iraqi comrades against the US’s war plans on Afghanistan . This was just 4 days after the attack on the World Trades Centre. Fury at the WTC attack was at its highest. Our leaflet called for opposition to any retaliatory war by the US, no matter how condemnable and horrific the attack on the WTC was.
Two weeks after 9/11 I had booked the room and called the first meeting of what was later become a branch of the Stop the War (STW) campaign. I had a bitter argument at that meeting with the SWP who came in force and who argued that we shouldn’t condemn the 9/11 attack – their proposal was that we should call it ‘very, very bad’ – but ‘condemn’ was too harsh a word apparently. Despite my profound concerns about the STW campaign I continued to work in against the wars on both Afghanistan and Iraq for at least 3 years.
The SWP was by far the largest group on the left at the time. It set up the Stop The War movement nationally and made an alliance with an organisation in the UK known as the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). This was the sister group of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – a group described by the SWP’s founder, Tony Cliff, some decades before as ‘clerical fascists’.
The SWP were fiercely defensive of their alliance with MAB – those of us who criticised it were accused of being ‘anti-Muslim’ or, as the term was starting to be used, ‘Islamophobic’.
From then up until now any political categorisation of Al Qaeda (or ISIS) is avoided by the SWP and the Stop the War movement. As the current controversy with CAGE shows their alliance requires them to avoid making clear condemnation of ISIS and Al Qaeda instead they attempt to shift the argument into yet another condemnation on the US and UK that is largely irrelevant.
At the time of the incident, before 7/7 and before the swelling ranks of foreign fighters in the ranks of ISIS, I glimpsed a network that was encouraging ‘kids’ to make preposterous claims and threats against supposed ‘Jewish’ workers. Today they are probably encouraging them to fight for Jihad in Iraq and Syria.
Those political organisations (Islamist, Jihadist whatever term is used to describe them) are the problem. They are trying and have been successful in maiming the minds of too many Muslim youth. They encourage murder of people, mostly Muslim, in Iraq and Syria. No-one should make excuses for them. No-one should be allowed to shift the argument away from the need to combat them onto the undoubted crimes of the US at Guantanamo or racist harassment by British security services.
This doesn’t mean making excuses for racist activities by either the police or racist arguments of certain political organisations. It means arguing against a fascistic ideology, and not shirking from that because that fascist organisation calls itself ‘Muslim’.
I remember a short argument with one of the advisers of the students making complaints against my ‘Jewish’ union colleague – he argued that there was a ‘war on Muslims’ – he was referring to Bosnia and Kosova – this was before the war on Afghanistan although that was being prepared. The argument that the wars in Bosnia, Kosova or in Afghanistan were ‘wars on Muslims’ is what probably motivated and justified to those students their intimidation of my supposed Jewish colleague.
But we should not take sides according to which religion, race or nationality we are. We should defend all Muslim, Jewish, Christian and atheist people from violence and intimidation. Any organisation organising such intimidation should be politically rooted out – by us – the people not the security services. If we had done that better – there might be less British kids recruited to IS/ISIS.