March 5, 2019 | 9 minutes read

Exposing imperialist hypocrisy in the Shamima Begum case

Exposing imperialist hypocrisy in the Shamima Begum case


The latest episode of the government using populist racism to distract from the Brexit débâcle has been the decision of Sajid Javid, Home Secretary, to revoke citizenship from teenager Shamima Begum. Begum was 15 years old when she entered Syria, and recently gave birth to her third child, the first two having died.[1] Media sensationalism, mobilised around the threat of “radical Islam”, has masked British imperialism’s role in manufacturing this problem, while relying on Islamophobic discourses riddled with contradictions.

A recent Red Fightback article [2] analysed the role of racist anti-immigrant measures in strengthening both the economic and ideological bases of British imperialism. The increasing recourse to stripping citizenship over the last few years is a particularly worrisome development. It draws on the 2014 Immigration Act, an amendment allowing the Home Secretary to make naturalised Britons stateless if it is believed they can acquire citizenship elsewhere. Many Britons hold dual citizenship because their parents were born in countries colonised by Britain. This means the legal measure is inherently racialised. What the case of Begum revealed, ‘much in the way that the Windrush scandal did, is the tendency of the British state to turn citizens – and specifically black and minority ethnic citizens – into immigrants.’[3]

From 2011 to 2016, at least 30 people per year had their citizenship taken away. In 2017 it was over 100.[4] The increased use of executive Home Office power represents a dangerous lurch into what Nish Kapoor has termed ‘experimental authoritarianism’.[5] This state-sanctioned systematic racism has not and cannot be effectively challenged by Corbyn’s social democratic framework, which has only reinforced the anti-immigrant offensive.

Removing Begum’s citizenship has nothing to do with deterring terrorism. It is a nationalist bonding exercise in the form of a racialised, ritualistic punishment. This was rendered explicit in The Daily Telegraph: ‘this fanatically stupid young woman…[who] must not under any circumstances be allowed to return to Britain, is pretty much the only thing right now that unites this divided kingdom’.[6] The government is actively contravening its own “counter-terror” strategy, as laid out in a 2018 document, which called for managed return, criminal investigation and safeguarding action for the hypothetical woman’s child.[7] The revoking of citizenship precludes investigating how it was that 15-year-old Begum was able to enter Syria in the first place, in circumstances under which she was at serious risk of harm.

Imperialism-manufactured “radicalisation”

The government line, parroted by conservative commentator Douglas Murray in The Spectator, is that ‘Britain is not to blame for Shamima Begum’s radicalisation’.[8] Whether or not she has in fact been “radicalised”, the idea contemporary Islamic extremism is anything but a creation of imperialism is a shameless lie.

For over a century Britain has had its bloody hands in the Middle East fostering instability and religious reaction. This has been firstly in order to maintain its direct interests in controlling the region’s oil, one of the world’s most important commodities, and, since the Second World War, a product of Britain’s desire to maintain the ‘special relationship’ by bolstering American hegemony in the region. A well-known early example of this was the 1953 joint MI6-CIA coup in Iran (backed by the arch racist-imperialist Churchill) that installed a brutal régime of torture and executions, which survived for decades with the backing of conservative clerical leadership. The coup was staged in order to thwart the nationalisation of Iran’s oil by a democratically elected government.

It is a reliable rule that those governments in the region dependent on the West are the least secular. This has been the case with religious monarchies in Jordan, North Yemen, and Morocco; the “protector of the faith”, Saudi Arabia; Israel; as well as Egypt and Pakistan’s lurch towards theocracy in the 1970s and 1980s respectively.[9] The US has also directly sponsored religious terrorist groups, particularly since the late 1970s when it began funding jihadists in Afghanistan.[10]

Tailing US imperialism has served Britain’s massive defence industry well. Between 2008 and 2017 British arms deals worth an estimated £39bn in total were approved. Exports to the Middle East specifically have increased considerably over the past two years. In 2018 a single British deal for 48 Eurofighter Typhoons to Saudi Arabia was alone worth a gigantic £5bn.[11] As you read this Saudi Arabia is using its Western armaments to pursue a murderous campaign for dominance in Yemen, with the direct assistance of British military personnel.[12] Hopes that Corbyn would affect a turn away from militarism were quickly dashed when upon becoming Labour leader he affirmed the party’s commitment to NATO. The present Labour manifesto declares proudly ‘[t]he UK defence industry is world-leading, and Labour will continue to support development and innovation in this sector’.[13]

Begum had entered ISIS-controlled territory in Syria, and the recent media and government responses have both sought to divert attention away from Britain’s role (and that of Western imperialism generally) in creating and maintaining the crisis in that country, which began in 2011. The Bush-Blair imperialist invasion of Iraq in 2003 predictably exacerbated sectarian polarisation in the region and encouraged the development of armed religious extremist groups. ISIS’s direct predecessor, an anti-Shia group created by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was formed shortly after the invasion. The rise of ISIS was not an endogenous development in Sunni communities. It was rather a product of large amounts of capital and support from the US and Britain, both directly and via Saudi Arabia. This tactic of sponsoring jihadists first began in Afghanistan as a means of attacking the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and the Soviet union who we’re their allies. In 2012 the US enabled the funnelling of arms from Benghazi, Libya to anti-government insurgents in Syria. ISIS specifically has been financed by the main regional allies of the US and Britain, with the latter’s knowledge.[14]

Britain has played a direct role in the campaign to destabilise Syria since late 2015, when Corbyn enabled Labour MPs to vote in favour of bombing the country. Britain launched another major air assault in cooperation with the US and France in April last year, to reverse the gains of the Syrian government against the insurgents and terrorists. The lines between the NATO-backed groups under the banner of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ and ISIS have frequently blurred. This does not matter to the imperialist countries which only want to crush any resistance to their hegemony.

Britain’s domestic neo-colonialism

While the West’s long-term approach of diverting anti-imperialist energies in the Middle East into reactionary religious movements is widely understood among British leftists, less acknowledged is how this colonial tactic has been adopted domestically against ethnic minority communities in Britain.

The main problem with the alternating victim/villain framing of the Begum case is that it renders invisible the historical struggle of British South Asians themselves against both state racism and reactionary religious ideologies. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s Black and Asian youths in Britain organised politically against police brutality, racist immigration laws and unjust deportations. This activity culminated in the ‘Asian Youth Movements’ (AYMs) that emerged in Bradford, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, London and elsewhere.

The AYMs had a radical anti-imperialist politics at odds with the British state, which began to implement a policy known as ‘multiculturalism’ in the 1980s. The approach of a supposedly left-wing Labour ultimately reinforced that of Thatcher’s neoliberalism. The “municipal socialism” spearheaded by Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council blunted the radical edge of Black and Asian political movements, instead fostering moderate leaderships and exacerbating ethnic and religious divisions via a zero-sum funding bonanza.[15] In the words of Mukhtar Dar ‘the AYM’s symbolic black secular clenched fist split open into a submissive ethnic hand with its divided religious fingers holding up the begging bowl for the race relations crumbs.’[16]

The divide-and-rule strategy was reinvigorated by Blair under the rubric of “counter-terrorism”. ‘Prevent’, launched in 2007, has exacerbated the demonization of South Asian communities. It was reported in 2012 that people of Asian origin are 42 times more likely to be stopped by the police.[17] Prevent has played into gendered forms of Islamophobia by portraying Muslim mothers as both the sole source and potential solution to religious extremism.

Gendered Islamophobia is well highlighted in the Begum case, with press attitudes utilising ‘alternating tropes of victimhood and a barbarous ideological zealotry’.[18] These discourses have their roots in colonialist ideologies and are perpetuated by imperialism today. The notion of helpless victims of Islam has long been used to justify violence against Muslim-majority countries. For instance, the US-led war on Afghanistan launched in 2001 was justified with the claim it was ‘liberating’ Muslim women.[19]

The other side of the victim narrative is the portrayal of Muslim women as having too much agency. When Muslim women are not passive victims, they are the primary threat: ‘jihadi brides’ whose sole purpose is to “populate the Caliphate”. Hence we get such absurd sensationalisms as The Sun’s claim that Begum ‘would eradicate our way of life if she could’.[20] Gendered Islamophobia is given ruling-class legitimacy by the actions of the Home Office, and by the racist rhetoric of politicians like Boris Johnson against veiled women.

Community organisations that try to oppose Islamophobia and religious extremism simultaneously, including feminist groups like the Southall Black Sisters, constantly run the risk of playing into the hands of the far right. As Anandi Ramamurthy points out the term ‘secular Muslim’, first used by some South Asians to reject being defined by their faith, has been co-opted into the Islamophobic “good Muslims”/“bad Muslims” dichotomy.[21] The danger is reinforced by agencies like the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group, set up by the government in 2008, which have served to spread distrust of Muslim women as ‘spies’ within the community. Therefor, it is unsurprisingly that identification with religious political organisations might be perceived by some South Asians as the only way to resist the racist denigration of their culture.

The way that Islamophobic rhetoric dovetails with structural anti-Muslim discrimination within Britain is also seldom noted. British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis earn a staggering two-thirds less than white people. From 2010 to 2015 the number of British Muslims serving prison sentences doubled due to racist profiling. British Muslims also constitute 20 percent of young offenders, while comprising just 4 percent of the population.[22]

Islamophobia is part of the general war on immigrants and migrants in Britain. As Ambalavaner Sivanandan explained, the government’s dual war on “terror” and migrants over the past two decades has

converged to produce a racism which cannot tell a settler from an immigrant, an immigrant from an asylum seeker, an asylum seeker from a Muslim, a Muslim from a terrorist. We are, all of us Blacks and Asians, at first sight, terrorists or illegals. We wear our passports on our faces or, lacking them, we are faceless.[23]

This dualistic racism was evidenced in the Brexit-related spike in racist violence, with Muslims alongside Eastern Europeans being the main victims. The specific targeting of Muslim women has also been noted.[24] That all ethnic minorities are increasingly cast as potential terrorists was also highlighted with the 2005 murder of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes by London Met police who wrongly deemed him to have been involved in a terror incident.

Solutions

There are still important lessons to be learned from the AYMs, namely the need for political independence from the state (and the Labour Party) in order to carry out effective anti-racist, anti-imperialist struggle. Notably, for the AYMs anti-imperialism and Marxist-inspired politics were not perceived to be in necessary contradiction with an Islamic faith; challenging the racist idea that Islam is static and uniform.

Whether or not May gets a Brexit deal, the state’s ‘experimental authoritarianism’ is likely to intensify in the following months, and now more than ever socialists need to place anti-racism at the centre of the class struggle. We must be especially careful to avoid the errors of the anti-racist movement during the 1970s-80s, epitomised by the notorious instance in September 1978 when the Anti-Nazi League (formed by the Socialist Workers’ Party) was too interested in its glamorous London carnival event to combat a fascist march through East London, leaving Asian self-defence groups isolated.[25] This played into the ruling class strategy of marginalising ethnic minority political organising. To combat this trend, the anti-racist movement today must unite with and learn from ethnic minority community organisations – particularly feminist groups.

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Endnotes:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/…/sajid-javid-pander-rightwing-…

[2] https://www.facebook.com/redfightback/posts/932054077184864?__tn__=K‑R

[3] https://www.vice.com/…/stripping-shamima-begum-of-her-citiz…

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.versobooks.com/…/4250-citizenship-deprivation‑a…

[6] Quoted in https://www.theguardian.com/…/sajid-javid-pander-rightwing-…

[7] https://www.vice.com/…/stripping-shamima-begum-of-her-citiz…

[8] https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/…/britain-is-not-at-blame-fo…/

[9] Timothy Mitchell, ‘McJihad: Islam in the U.S. Global Order’, Social Text, 20:4 (2002), p. 1.

[10] Ibid., p. 14.

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/…/one-third-of-uk-arms-sales-go…

[12] British military personnel are in the control centres for Saudi airstrikes supposedly offering “training and advice”. https://www.theguardian.com/…/british-us-military-in-comman…. Yemen is not listed anywhere as an area where the British military are active, but a number of British soldiers have died in the conflict. https://www.uprising.today/nine-more-british-sas-troops‑k…/…
[13] https://labour.org.uk/…/u…/2017/10/labour-manifesto-2017.pdf (p. 120).

[14] Tim Anderson, ‘The Dirty War on Syria: Washington Supports the Islamic State (ISIS)’, Global Research (December 2015). https://www.globalresearch.ca/the-dirty-war-on-syri…/5494957

[15] Anandi Ramamurthy, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (Pluto Press, 2013), p. 176.

[16] Quoted in ibid, p. 184.

[17] Ibid, p. 198.

[18] https://www.versobooks.com/…/4250-citizenship-deprivation‑a…

[19] Fauzia Ahmad ‘Do Young British Muslim Women Need Rescuing?’ in Sadek Hamid (ed.), Young British Muslims: Between Rhetoric and Realities (Routledge, 2017), p. 41.

[20] Quoted in https://www.theguardian.com/…/sajid-javid-pander-rightwing-…

[21] Ramamurthy, Black Star, p. 201.

[22] https://www.independent.co.uk/…/britains-muslim-population-…

[23] Ambalavaner Sivanandan, ‘Race, Terror and Civil Society’, Race & Class, 47:3 (2006), p. 2.

[24] Jon Burnett, ‘Racial Violence and the Brexit State’, Race & Class 58:4 (2017), pp. 87–88.

[25] Ramamurthy, Black Star, p. 50.