By Sita Balani / @sitainshort
In 1982, 12 young Asian men from Bradford took the stand in court on charges of making explosive devices with the intent to cause damage to property and persons, facing penalties of up to life imprisonment. The previous year they had devised makeshift petrol bombs out of milk bottles in preparation for anticipated attacks by skinhead gangs. The men pleaded “Not Guilty” on the grounds of necessity, under the rallying cry that ‘Self-Defence is No Offense’. With characteristically brilliant legal representation from Gareth Peirce and Ruth Bundey, the Bradford 12 won their case: a jury acquitted them of all charges.
Yesterday, 6 young Asian men from Birmingham pleaded guilty to engaging in preparation for acts of terrorism. They were arrested in June last year after being stopped for a driving offense travelling from their homes in Birmingham to Dewsbury, where they intended to intercept a demonstration of English Defence League supporters using guns, knives and homemade bombs. The men will be sentenced on the 6th June and face lengthy prison terms.
Beyond their outcomes, there are many, significant differences between these two cases. They both, however, reveal something about the times in which they occurred. Both groups saw their targets as lying beyond the Far Right’s street level boot boys. Found alongside the weapons, in the car on its way to Dewsbury, was a letter damning the EDL, David Cameron and the Queen: a triumvirate we might consider to represent popular racism, neo-liberalism and neo-colonial wars, and British imperialism. The Bradford 12, though secular in their critique, also acted against institutional racism as well as to the racist violence, which one of the 12 described as ‘a way of life’ that went unchallenged by the police, the courts and the government.
Nick Lowles of anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate condemns both the EDL and the Muslims who set out to attack the rally, suggesting that the only possible response is ‘A Plague on Both Their Houses’. However, this liberal line fails to engage with the enormous difference between these groups. According to campaigner Aviva Stahl from Cageprisoners,
‘Treating the EDL and “Islamic extremists” as moral equivalents is wrong… one is embedded in the structure of white supremacy and one isn’t. We also can’t pretend that we can deal with white racism and “extremism” in the same ways without feeding into Islamophobia. Lowles seems to be suggesting that white people have the right and the ability to decide what constitutes “good” Islam and “extremism/Jihadism,” instead of asking the more pressing question: why are some British Muslims so alienated?’
Notably, Lowles does nothing to position himself within the debate, rather he steps outside of it to take a paternal, ‘expert’ role, describing both groups as ‘extremists’ caught in a vicious cycle of attack and retaliation, with no acknowledgement of the wider context of Islamophobia.
Lowles’ analysis highlights one of the key issues with anti-fascist organisations: they are often national organisations, with shallow – if any – roots in local Muslim communities. They take enormous pride in their heritage in the big battles on Cable Street or at Lewisham, but with little emphasis on the daily realities of institutional Islamophobia. They rarely discuss autonomous, black community responses to the Far Right, so stories such as the surprising and heartening victory of the Bradford 12 get lost, discarded from the ‘official’ whitened-up histories of British anti-fascism. National anti-fascist organisations suggest that we must fight fascism or we face a future that would resemble the Third Reich, yet many in Britain – especially undocumented migrants and Muslims regardless of immigration status – already experience dawn raids, indefinite detention and deportation or extradition. It is easy to hide behind the uncontroversial slogan of anti-fascism, with all of the despicable connotations the F word evokes, but neither Hope Not Hate nor Unite Against Fascism appear to be campaigning against endemic racism.
In contrast, the young men of the Bradford 12 were part of wider anti-racist struggles, cutting their teeth in the Asian Youth movements that rose up to challenge immigration controls, racist policing and the also the ‘solid wall of Asian organisations which maintained the status quo,’ according to an excellent report by The Race Today Collective. While, for many of us, the political affiliations of the men who intended to intervene in the EDL rally are less immediately intelligible or attractive than those of the Bradford 12, we must find a response that goes beyond the Hope Not Hate’s simplistic derision. This response will come more easily if we are open to the critique that motivated these so-called ‘extremists’ just as it motivated the Bradford 12 and the Asian Youth Movements – the critique of the government, imperialism and street violence. If we were all driven by these concerns – not to violence, but to solidarity based on mutual respect – we could begin to challenge the systemic racism that forms the unspoken basis of British society.
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