Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Mirror images

(November 2005)

From Socialist Review, No.301, November 2005.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The idea of “community” can be dangerous

‘The Muslim community must deal with the extremist elements within it.’ Such has been the message of the media and mainstream politicians since the London bombings in July. It amounts to putting some responsibility for the bombings onto the million and a half people in Britain who happen to accept versions of Islam. As some left liberal commentators have pointed out, it is like blaming all Christians for the Nazi Holocaust or all atheists for Stalin’s gulags.

Muslims are not a homogenous group of people, all sharing the same interests and values, any more than Christians or atheists are. Those living in Britain originated in many different countries. They speak dozens of different languages, have very different traditional ways of dressing, cook their food in very different ways, have different customs, and even have many very different religious practices – the popular Sunni Islam of the Indian subcontinent involves worshipping at the graves of ‘saints’ (sometimes shared by Hindus), a practice regarded as the worst form of heretical idolatry by the Salafist Islam of Saudi Arabia and the Taliban.

Above all, there are enormous class differences. The life of a multimillionaire Muslim businessman is not the same as that of those who work in his sweatshops, or the successful lawyer or accountant as that of the bus driver or office cleaner, let alone the unemployed in the former textile towns. The only thing they have in common is the religious belief that there is one god and that Mohammed was his prophet. Tariq Ramadan has pointed out that in western Europe as a whole ‘at least 80 percent of Muslims do not practise their religion regularly. Less than 40 percent attend Friday gatherings at the mosque. About 70 percent fast during Ramadan.’ In Britain most young women who regard themselves as Muslims do not wear the hijab. Yet all Muslims are presumed to share a common responsibility for policing ‘their own community’.

The word ‘community’ is being used insidiously in this case. Its original meaning referred to groups of people in traditional societies who lived and worked in close proximity to each other, doing similar jobs, sharing similar lifestyles and providing mutual support.

Such groups are few and far between in modern capitalist society. They may persist in industrial villages round coal mines or factories, or where people from the rural area have settled close to each other in the world’s burgeoning cities. But even these communities are continually being torn apart as their members move away in the search for work. That is why the German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies was able to make a name for himself a century ago by distinguishing the ‘community’ (Gemeinschaft) of traditional society from the ‘society’ (Gesellschaft) of the capitalist era.

But in recent times the term ‘community’ has been extended to very loose networks of people who certainly do not live in traditional tight-knit communities. In doing so it often serves a clear ideological purpose – to provide an aura of harmony and common purpose to people whose real interests are opposed to each other and to other people’s in an atomised society (’the business community’ for thieving capitalists, ‘the intelligence community’ for spies and torturers, ‘the international community’ for the imperialist great powers).

‘Community’ is a favourite New Labour word. People are encouraged to police each other and to blame the very poor for the disruption caused by the atomisation of the market. When social tensions cause self-policing to fail, the ‘community police’ are at hand to impose Anti-Social Behaviour Orders.

Applied to the ethnic and religious minorities, such insistence that ‘communities’ should police themselves easily becomes a coded form of racism. The ‘black community’ is blamed for the violence to which dispossession drives some teenagers and young adults. The ‘Muslim community’ is blamed for the attempts of handfuls of individuals to exact a crude revenge for massive indiscriminate violence of the imperialist powers with a mini-version of their own.

The use of such language relies on scapegoating just as old fashioned racism does. And it makes the disparate members of the minority feel they all have something very important in common. They are all on the receiving end of the victimisation, even if the effect on the life of the millionaire will be much less than that of the sweatshop worker. Overall it gives a boost to all those who want to cover up the difference of interests between the classes. One group who seek to gain from this are the assorted millionaires, members of the House of Lords, well to do professionals and political careerists who join government committees to fight ‘extremism’ in the ‘community’.

The other group are zealots like the Hizb ut Tahir who also insist that membership of the ‘community’ overrides differences between rich and poor. They identify with the ‘umma’ (Arabic for ‘community’) which supposedly stretched from the time of the prophet Mohammed in the early 7th century, and look to re-establish the Caliphate that ruled the Middle East and North Africa until modern times. They refuse to see that the social conciliation preached by the prophet hardly survived his death. The immense class differences within the rapidly expanding empires of the caliphs gave rise very early to bitter social conflicts wrapped up in a religious guise, with rival Islamic armies engaged in bloody battles with each other.

Such groups claim to be the authentic representatives of all Muslims. It is not a claim that anyone should accept. In the countries from which most Muslims in Britain come, Pakistan and Bangladesh, parties whose only politics is supposedly religious, like the Jamat-e-Islami, have only ever gained minority support – their maximum vote in Pakistan has been about 20 percent.

Most Muslims in Britain see no contradiction between their religious beliefs and living as part of the wider secular society. They have multiple identities, of which being a Muslim is only one – hence the way most, being working class, join trade unions where they exist, go on strike alongside Christians, atheists, Hindus and Sikhs, and until recently voted Labour.

Groups like Hizb ut Tahir, like the Islamophobes, see religious identity as drowning the others, including those based on class or opposition to imperialism. Hence their denunciation of the anti-war movement and their attempt to break up Respect election meetings. The left opposes any attempt to ban such groups. But we cannot see as allies those who try to disrupt the unity in struggle against imperialism embraced by organisations like the Muslim Association of Britain.

Last updated on 27 December 2009