Over the last two weeks, the Somali madrasa across the road that was destroyed by arson became, for me, a focal point for connecting various thoughts. First, of course, was the envious amazement of an eternal third-worlder as all the different agencies swung into action on the first day itself. Then came three days when the road was blocked and the place cordoned off with tape while the police did what looked like an extremely thorough check of the burnt-out shell. During this time, a huge crane sat in place lifting things in and out of the site. If anybody from our block had to go out or come back home, we would be escorted by a cop; they didn’t want further mischief or any accidents. Then, the news told us two other places at other ends of London, a mosque and an Islamic boarding school, had also suffered arson attacks. Instead of being dismantled, the cordon was solidified with boards and more police came in to sift through the mess; it was impossible to tell whether the ramping up was connected to clues found elsewhere. Then the police presence decreased somewhat but the crane returned, along with people in different coloured safety suits — asbestos had been found in the ruins and had to be got rid of — it was a public health issue. Finally, the crane, the boards, the sleeping cabins, the portable toilets and the police left, leaving behind a civilian construction crew to dismantle the remains of the remains.
There was a kind of modern Italian minimalist theatre in the mix between the purposeful and directionless meandering of the various costumes, something I might almost miss. But with the slow circus departed, my thoughts went back to the man with the meat cleaver, standing on the street in Woolwich, in south London. This was a man covered with blood. The blood came from the unarmed, unsuspecting victim he and his partner had just killed. The dead man, the soldier Lee Rigby, was returning to his barracks in civilian clothes when the two men drove a car into him, after which they jumped out and butchered him, hacking away at his limbs after he was dead. Then, instead of running away, the two men stood around talking to shocked passers-by, posed for phone-cameras, and waited for the police to arrive. When the police came, one of the men pulled out a gun. Both men were shot by armed police, neither of them fatally, and taken to hospital and custody. As they were waiting, the man with the cleaver, Michael Adebolajo (picture), spoke to a passer-by’s phone camera, not in any accent of Nigeria from where his family comes but in the classic south London drawl of the place where he grew up. Adebolajo apologized that women had to see this terrible act, but justified it by saying this is what women in ‘our lands’ have to witness — presumably the women in Iraq and in Afghanistan where Lee Rigby had served.
Even as white supremacist fascists began attacking mosques and Muslim community centres in retaliation, a British mullah called Anjem Choudary went on camera calling Adebolajo “a nice man”. He added that he had no sympathy for the murdered Rigby, who was surely already burning in hell as all unbelievers are fated to do.
Let us go back further in time but closer to home. The recent trials in Bangladesh of Jamaat razakars and the Shahbag protests that followed against the Jamaat reminded us that this brand of religious fascism has been with us for a long time. Though I’ve written about it in this column a few times, a brief reminder might be useful: during its barbaric clamp down on East Pakistan in 1971, the Pakistani army got its killing lists from men belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami. These collaborators in mass rape and murder operated in two groups, Al-Badr and Al-Shams, that were formed for the purpose of targeting and killing anyone who wanted independence from Pakistan. For these men, who claimed they were defending not just Pakistan but Islam itself, a picture of Rabindranath Tagore hanging in your house could be reason enough for a death warrant — the writings of Tagore were banned by the martial administration, and at least one survivor of a death camp heard a college professor being taunted about Tagore. One of the most infamous of these men, Chowdhury Mueenuddin, is accused of being in charge of Al-Badr. Mueenuddin is accused of conducting one last orgy of murder even as the Indian army was approaching Dhaka. The accusation is that between 10 and 15 December, he rounded up and killed eighteen well-known intellectuals, men and women, who could lead the thinking and teaching in the now inevitable Bangladesh. Apparently, after this last bloody service to his idea of Pakistan and his brand of fanaticism, Mueenuddin escaped and made his way to Britain.
Seventeen years later, this same Mueenuddin came to prominence as one of the chief instigators of the protests against Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. In 1995, through evidence and witness statements meticulously gathered in Bangladesh and in Britain, an accurate map of Mueenuddin’s genocidal crimes was put together in an investigative film made by a British TV channel. The evidence was then handed to Scotland Yard which, under British law, has a duty to investigate and prosecute any citizen or resident of Britain who might have committed war crimes, no matter where or when the crimes were committed. Despite the evidence, the British police did nothing — clearly there were different rules for ageing Nazis and fugitive Serbian mass-murderers than there were for us brownies. A war crimes court in Bangladesh has indicted Mueenuddin for his crimes. But Britain cannot allow anyone to be extradited to a place where he faces the death penalty. Does this mean that British authorities will themselves now open an investigation into Mueenuddin’s past? No chance. Mueenuddin, the former chairman of Muslim Aid and the director of Muslim Spiritual Care for the National Health Service, has been seen by both the Labour and Tory governments as a ‘moderate religious leader’.
Now, as the Americans keep asking the ‘moderate’ Taliban to dance with them, as David Cameron opens his arms wide to hug Narendra Modi, we see an old calculation raising its ugly head. It is, fundamentally, an equation born of deep-seated racism and it can be defined as follows. We Ameri-Anglo-Europeans will preserve our human rights, our gender freedoms, our right to free expression for ourselves and only for ourselves. We will manipulate all you others in whatever way we need to, in order to preserve our Enlightenment, but more so our economic superiority and our control of resources. If this means we have to crush democracy (as in South America and Iran, to mention just two examples), no problem. If this means we have to prop up a religio-reactionary fiefdom (as in Saudi Arabia) or let loose religious fascists upon a population (Afghanistan and, potentially, India) then that’s fine. You swarthy animals can live in your ‘own’ mess and do what you want to ‘your’ women, just give us our stuff cheaply and try not to fly any more planes into our shiny buildings.
The British government, full of revulsion at Rigby’s murder, might come down hard on a salafi-jihadi mullah or two, might eject one or two people it can deport, might finally get rid of the human poison that lurks within in the shape of Abu Qatada. But this same government will go along with whatever deal the Americans offer the Taliban. In Britain itself, they will continue to treat religious leaders as the only portals to different minority communities, while refusing to understand that the far more difficult, potentially vote-losing, but far more morally correct choice is to ensure that the rights promised by British law are delivered to all, regardless of race or ethnic origin.
The English Defence League has a fantasy that it can yank Britain back to being a whites-first-and-last society. The jihadis have a fantasy that they will, one day, turn Britain into a sharia-following state. There is no chance of either fantasy coming true. The point is, both Tory and Labour are all too willing to make bad compromises with fundamentalists. Their homework is absent, their imagination can only stretch to dealing with people like Mueenuddin as representatives of British Muslims. Dovetailed into this is the delusion of the mainstream British and American Left — including the big human rights organizations — that the War against the War on Terror is the only good fight to be fought, that the systematic erosion by the jihadis of any human rights that can be connected with ‘Western Ideas’ is, actually, okay, negligible, ignorable. As I look at the various agencies pulling away from the Somali centre, I can’t help thinking that despite all the circus-forensics, this is the old, untreated asbestos in the system that continues to poison us all.