x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Thatcher politicised British Muslims into 'them and us'

One little-commented aspect of Margaret Thatcher's legacy was the emergence of a British Muslim community conscious of itself as such. Analysis by Omar Karmi in London

Pallbearers carry the coffin of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to the Crypt Chapel of St Mary Undercoft in the Houses of Parliament in London on the eve of her ceremonial funeral.
Pallbearers carry the coffin of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to the Crypt Chapel of St Mary Undercoft in the Houses of Parliament in London on the eve of her ceremonial funeral.

LONDON // With London geared up for an expensive funeral for Margaret Thatcher today, Britain's first female prime minister's legacy continues to divide and inflame.

One little commented upon aspect of that legacy, however, was the emergence of a British Muslim community conscious of itself as such.

That community, which now numbers 2.7 million in England and Wales, began to emerge in the waning years of Thatcher's time in power and was later irritated by her for berating it for not speaking out against the September 11 attacks.

It started with growing awareness of world events as they affected Muslims elsewhere - Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the US bombardment of Libya in 1986 where the Royal Air Force played an important support mission.

It culminated in the Salman Rushdie affair in 1988, when the Indian-born British author, a fierce critic of Thatcher, ended up having to receive British state protection after an Iranian fatwa was issued against him for penning The Satanic Verses, which was labelled blasphemous by some.

In the period between, no one in the country - including Muslims - was unaffected by the effects of Thatcherism, a free market ideology that resulted in much of Britain's manufacturing basebeing closed down, state enterprises and utilities privatised and millions unemployed.

British Muslims, excepting a small number for whom Thatcher's policies proved financially beneficial, were "largely detached" from Thatcher's Conservative Party, said Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters, an interfaith non-governmental organisation that works on conflict resolution among religious communities in the UK, Pakistan and the Middle East.

"The Conservative Party didn't reflect the life they had in the streets of Britain in the late 1970s and '80s," Mr Mughal said.

It was during a time when far right racist groups, such as the National Front, were at their peak, race riots broke out around the country, and Muslims were part of immigrant communities largely marginalised by mainstream society.

Yet events abroad were more likely to frame Muslims' political views on Thatcher, especially among a more politically aware generation coming through higher education, said Muhammad Abdul Bari, chairman of the East London Mosque and a former secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain.

As a PhD student in London in the 1980s, Mr Abdul Bari remembered his own political awareness being awakened by South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, then at its peak. Thatcher's opposition to sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime, and her designation of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress as a terrorist movement, made her one of the most hated politicians of the day on university campuses across the country.

"I followed and supported the anti-apartheid movement. And it really hurt that someone like her was not supporting this movement."

A burgeoning Muslim identity was stirring throughout her premiership, said Mr Mughal, starting with opposition to Israel's invasion of Lebanon that grew in animosity in 1986, when US war planes left British air bases to bomb Tripoli to avenge a night club bombing in Germany that the US had pinned on Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi.

But it was the Rushdie saga that marked the birth of a community, said Mr Mughal, as "Muslims started saying, 'OK we are Muslims'".

That, in turn, set in motion a process that politicised British Muslims, Mr Mughal argued.

"The Rushdie affair not only gave rise to some kind of identity, it also created a mindset that started to formulate a whole range of politics. So when you go into the '91 Gulf War, you have young people who say 'we are Muslims and the Middle East is important to us'."

It was that community that fought back when Thatcher accused it of not speaking out against extremists in its midst after September 11, saying she had not "heard enough condemnation from Muslim priests".

By then Mr Abdul Bari was involved with Muslim communities across England and shared in their outrage at her remarks.

"I think by then she was probably out of touch. Muslims had been doing whatever they could in their communities. But those voices were not heard in the mainstream media."

In 2002, and before Thatcher suffered several minor strokes that ended her public appearances, she also penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times that compared "Islamic extremism" to Bolshevism.

"It is an aggressive ideology promoted by fanatical, well-armed devotees," she wrote, in a piece that warned of a decades-long clash of civilisations, which, "requires an all-embracing long-term strategy to defeat it".

It was a "them and us" perspective, said Mr Mughal that he said was always evident in her earlier policies. "There was always an issue of 'we' and 'our values' versus the rest of the world."

And it is one that arguably made the British Muslim community define itself as such.

okarmi@thenational.ae

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