There was a family in Cricklewood that had a pair of Great Danes. However one day they seemed to have lost their bearings, and when I opened my front door to go to work, there were these two magnificent dogs waiting patiently on my doorstep. Fortunately some minutes later a breathless lady came up and gave them a good telling off. The great Danish cartoon controversy is a bit like this – an ostensibly well-groomed people fouling the atmosphere and now in need of sound admonishment.
On Saturday 11 February it was Londoners’ turn to give the Danes a piece of their mind. A rally organised by the Muslim Council of Britain was attended by over 10,000, mostly it seemed to me, Bangladeshis from East London. It was moving to see old men braving the cold, and standing for several hours listening to speeches. This was a real display of the Muslim man-in-the-street’s love for the Prophet.
When I arrived at around 2.30 pm the numbers were probably around their maximum. I walked up along the outside of Trafalgar Square towards the National Gallery, and then down again, entering via the Pall Mall side. The Square was packed but I could nudge my way towards the centre of the square to face the speakers’ podium. I was surprised by the uniformity of the banners – an indication of the tight control which the Muslim Council of Britain and its affiliates had exercised. The stewards and helpers were drawn from two of the MCB’s national affiliates MAB and IFE. They clearly did not want a repitition of the obnoxious slogans put up by the Ghoraba/Al Muhajiroon group a week earlier. A first reaction may have been to respond with a banner with words like ‘United against Extremism’. Quite rightly the MCB instead had ‘United against Incitement’. This was an astute move because it focussed on the really important issue of Danish racism and the way the caricatures create hatred for Muslims by casting them as a malovalent and destructive force. The word ‘Extremism’ is becoming a code word with which to bash Muslims – and features prominently in Government rhetoric e.g. its message to the Muslim community ‘get rid of the extremists in your midst’. In fact most of the extremists are likely to be useful idiots – ‘extremists by appointment’!
When I arrived Azam Tamimi was in full-swing. He seemed to have little to say about what positive actions should be taken by Muslims in Britain – it reminded me of Disraeli’s retort to Gladstone (or is it the other way round?): “Sir, your are carried away by the exhuberence of your own verbosity”. Anyway the crowd loved it, specially when Azam said, “Let it be understood – don’t mess with our Prophet”. The suggestions for positive actions were best made by the veteran Ikhwan leader Dr Kamal Helbawi, who called for pamphlets on the life of the Prophet to be made available on a large scale.
Baroness Kishwer Falkner followed Azam – it was a bit like Elgar after the Rolling Stones. A donnish Lib Dem peer, it was courageous of her to come even though she was booed by the crowd when suggesting that there was no benefit in Muslims insisting on further apologies from the Danes. She clearly was not in tune with the anger and outrage amongst Muslims.
There were fiery words from Ismail Patel of Friends of Al-Aqsa: “Europe you have a choice – either accept us or follow the path of Hitler”. Let us hope that there will be people around who will disagree with such simplistic binary choices and pursue a path of negotiation and engagement.
Yvonne Ridley is nowadays a star turn at mass Muslim events. Dressed up in black and white kefiya-chic, she had a few fine lines: “Islamophobia is the last refuge of the racist scoundrels” and “Don’t slam Islam”. A more interesting moment of her speech was when she named the MI6 agent alleged to have physically abused some Pakistanis held in Greece under dubious ‘terrorism’ charges. More needs to be known about that – assuming the press has its freedom!
There were several inspiring and moving messages of solidarity. Reverend Peter Sulston of Churches Together, pledging ‘we care as Christians about the name of Islam and will work with all our energy to dispel the stereotypes’; Kate Hudson of the CND declaring “we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim community….we stand together against incitement and Islamophobia…powerful nations first demonise the nations they wish to plunder”; Lindsey German, Convenor of Stop the War Coalition following on the political dimension “…when Tony Blair says he is against violent [language in] demonstrations so am I. But I don’t want a lecture from him on violence….not from someone responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people”. She added “When the Muslims are under attack, as they are in this moment, then we are all under attack”.
Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone’s representative Lee Jasper was welcomed with a roar of approval – the mayor was ” a friend of Muslims in good times as well as in their our of difficulty” – as eloquently by Anas Takriti from the podium. Ken called for “a unified campaign against the evils of Islamophobia”. What an excellent idea – now why didn’t the Government think of this.
The speaker from MPAC, Ashgar Bukhari, was to the point with two important messages – to the non-Muslims present: ‘don’t listen to the few, but judge [Muslims] by their many’; and to Muslims:’start thinking’.
George Galloway was warmly received, though his gravitas was a bit of a surprise. Clearly there was a recovery job needed after the The Big Brother experience. George has a facility of dropping into an Islamic vocabulary – the ‘Bismillah’ and ‘insha Allah’ are often there in his speeches. The bloke standing next to me asked “Is he sincere?”. “He is sympathetic”, I replied. George called on Muslims to work with friends and allies. The right-wing activities of Oswald Mosley in the 1930s were challenged by a coalition of “trade unionists, communists, socialists” who did battle in the streets of East London. Now a new generation of racists had come together and were making Muslims the whipping boy; “We will not leave the Muslims standing alone to fight the enemy and the Muslims should not allow themselves to be alone either”.
Maulana Shahid Raza, a respected scholar representing Muslims of the Barelwi school, is an impressive orator. His powerful voice echoed in Trafalgar Square “with this love and muhabba we are also required to follow the teachings of our Messenger and Nabi…our Prophet never supported violence and we [should] never support violence”. He added, “We are committed to a multicultural and multifaith society and we will enrich it with the mesage of love and mercy given to us by our Prophet”.
Dr Abdul Bari, Deputy Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain made an eloquent and heartfelt plea for respect and dignity of all persons – no one should be dehumanised because human beings are of one family.
Other speakers included Jamal Shayyal fromt the National Union of Students, Yusra Gennoushi from MAB Youth and Sulaiman Mulla of the Federation of Students Islamic Societies.
I was pleasantly surprised to spot some of the Hizb Tahrir leadership near the main podium. The HT has long regarded other Muslim organisations with an air of disdain, but now its insularity seems to be giving way. When the honour of the Prophet is at stake, no Muslim will stand back. Full credit to MCB, MAB and IFE and other groups for mobilising the community at short notice – the rally was conceived only a week ago. The podium announcers – Anas Takriti (MAB), Dr Daud Abdullah (MCB), Habib ur Rahman (IFE) established a rapport with all of us and are also to be commended for judging the mood just right.
On my way out I started chatting to some kids. “How many marches have you attended?”, I asked a twelve year-old. “This is my fourth” was the response. Our next generation is well-politicised! Another rally is planned next Saturday – the more signals across Europe the better.