Respect's Salma Yaqoob: 'Determined campaigning and a radical agenda'
Andy Newman, an editor of British blog Socialistunity.com, spoke to Salma Yaqoob for Green Left Weekly. Yaqoob is the national vice-chair of anti-war coalition Respect — the Unity Coalition, as well as a leader of Birmingham's Stop the War Coalition and a Birmingham city councillor.
Can you briefly explain how you came into politics?
Like many others my life was turned upside down by the events of 9/11. I found myself increasingly pulled into the public spotlight through my involvement in the anti-war movement. A number of things struck me about the experience.
It was the first time I felt real solidarity — the majority of these protesting had nothing in common with the people of Iraq or Afghanistan except their humanity — and that left a lasting impression.
It was the first time I experienced the power of social movements — it was extraparliamentary pressure that gradually shaped an anti-war culture that has come to dominate debate around Iraq.
But I was also struck by our weaknesses. In particular, the gap between politicians and the electorate was striking. And not just on the war. From privatisation, pensioner poverty, student tuition fees, climate change to a host of other issues, significant sections of the public were way to the left of the politicians. But their views were largely absent from mainstream political discourse. It was out of a frustration with that situation I got involved in the establishment of Respect.
The original impetus that led to Respect came from you and radical journalist George Monbiot, do you think the reality has lived up to your original vision?
I think Respect has made remarkable progress, primarily in the two largest cities in the country — London and Birmingham — but also in Preston, Bristol and Sheffield. This is a very significant development for the left in Britain, especially as the first-past-the-post electoral system makes it very difficult for smaller parties to make inroads. We have also made advances among some of the most deprived and oppressed sections of the working class. Indeed that is where our strongest support lies. I think this is unique for the British left. So, in one sense, Respect has lived up to my original vision.
My vision of Respect was always of an organisation anchored in opposition to imperialism and neoliberalism. I had envisaged a coalition in which sections of the broader labour, social justice and environmental movements would get involved. By and large this has not happened to the extent I would have liked. I now think we need to renew this vision, and adopt strategies and tactics that are seen to be strengthening the broad progressive constituency as a whole. It is essential that our internal culture is genuinely pluralistic and inclusive if we are to deliver on this vision. There is considerable work to be done to build on our undoubted successes. The current debates inside Respect are premised around these concerns.
You are a councillor in Birmingham, how did you manage to make that electoral breakthrough?
Through hard work! A lot of voters were aware that I was an anti-war campaigner. Many would not have been aware of my equal commitment to progressive stances on a range of other issues. I had to convince them that I also understood and cared about the day to day issues that had the most impact on them.
The area I represent is very deprived, with high levels of overcrowded housing, unemployment, poverty, a lack of youth facilities, etc. Most of my election publicity focused on these issues and was successful in convincing the electorate that I was not a single-issue politician or somebody just interested in Muslim concerns. I am proud of the fact that I was elected with nearly 50% of the vote.
Much of Respect's electoral success has been in areas where there is a higher concentration of Muslim voters. How do you respond to the criticism that it is a "communalist" vote.
There is a huge amount of ignorance, lack of precision and deliberate malice in the way this term gets used and abused.
Firstly, the idea of a monolithitic Muslim voting bloc is a myth. Like any other community, the Muslim community contains a wide variety of political viewpoints. When I stood in the local elections there was a Labour Muslim candidate and Liberal Democrat Muslim candidate who were fighting tooth and nail within the Muslim community against me.
In addition, as a relatively new immigrant community, there is a natural inclination to think that acceptance and integration will be made easier by coming under the umbrella of a large mainstream party. The Labour Party had built up loyalty over many years. The Liberal Democrats have been breaking off some of that support since 2003, and even the Conservatives which did not previously enjoy support from minority ethnic communities have been increasing their appeal as a vehicle that some Muslims could participate in and "influence the mainstream". The only way a fringe party like Respect could get any votes, Muslim or non-Muslim, was by conviction. We had a very consistent anti-war stance. We made a clear pitch to left social democratic sympathaties with basic socialist policies. We were strong on anti-racism, and not just Islamophobia.
If we mean "communalism" in the sense of deliberately pitting communities against each other, it is complete nonsense to use this term in relation to Respect. The fault line of "communalist politics" in Birmingham has most recently been between African-Caribbean and Asian communities that often feel in competition with each other over council funding. There is no political figure in Birmingham more closely associated with trying to address these tensions than myself.
That is why I initiated the women and children's Peace March in the aftermath of the Lozells riots [in October 2005], which cost the lives of two young black men. Respect supporters took great risks, behind the scenes, to ensure there was no retaliation from Pakistani gangs in the aftermath of the desecration of Muslim graves. When I spoke from the platform of the recent Jesse Jackson rally to a 600-strong (and overwhelmingly African-Caribbean) audience, I used my time to call for Black and Asian unity. Furthermore, both in my newsletters and within the council chamber I have specifically championed the issue of poor educational attainment of white working-class boys from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The accusation of "communalism" is also used by some as code for Respect's elected representatives who are Muslim, and the supposed manner in which they pander to reactionary views supposedly more prevalent among Muslims. This is equally dangerous in the way that it "racialises" debates that run throughout every section of society. The chauvinist identification of Muslims as a threat to "our" values undermines the very significant advances we have made on spreading a progressive and unifying message.
In fact, I think Respect has been unique in generating a public debate inside Muslim communities on contentious social issues. We have, with some success, argued that if we are to be consistent in demanding that our lifestyle and culture is respected, we also have to respect the choices of others. We are winning people to a consistent approach to equality and personal freedom.
However, there are particular electoral pressures in areas where significant sections of the community are closely bound by family or village ties, for example in Birmingham many Muslims have their origins in Pakistan and Kashmir where such links are significant. Over decades the Labour Party have been the beneficiaries of a system where they negotiate for block votes by privileging a layer of community leaders, using petty patronage who have these extensive tribal and blood ties.
This is one of the reasons that Muslim communities have suffered from very poor quality of political representation, because those representatives are often selected for their connections and not their ability. Traditionally, the use of postal voting has acted to reinforce these community fixers and their Labour masters. When postal votes are filled out at home, away from the secrecy of the ballot box, many Muslims find the pressures of family elders, candidates or supporters impossible to resist as they literally can be standing over your shoulder, watching and influencing which way you vote.
In this way it is not uncommon for such individuals to be able to control dozens, if not hundreds of votes. Our experience, however, is that determined campaigning and a radical agenda can and does undermine those who seek to abuse family or village loyalties. More and more of the younger generation and women are in open rebellion against this kind of politics and it is not accidential that within the Muslim community this is where our strongest support lies.
Sadly, accusation of "communalism" has been bandied about in Respect. I have to say I think it is really a factional device to pillory internal critics.
You are one of the best known Muslim women in Britain, what response is there to your political activity from other Muslims?
In the early days I was told I was endangering the community by speaking out, that it was improper that as a woman I should address congregations in the mosque or engage in political life. My husband was criticised by some men for "allowing" me to speak in public and the media, and I even received threatening phone calls, including a death threat. This kind of reaction has not completely gone away but I get much less of it these days.
Indeed, in the context of the constant barrage of insults and attacks on the Muslim community, I think there is a genuine sense of pride that a Muslim woman has emerged as a strong and effective community representative. I find now that, with very few exceptions, I am not only accepted but positively welcomed, and other women have been encouraged to come forward.
Muslim women in particular are aware that what I am doing is unprecedented. I am always struck when campaigning how often the male head of the household will have put up a Labour poster on the window and the women will say: "Ignore the poster. That's just to keep a relative happy. We're voting for Respect!"