Get up, stand up

Thirty years ago, a violent clash with racists marked the beginning of a political and artistic aw

In April 1979, against a background of high unemployment and anti-immigrant sentiment, the National Front staged a rally in Southall, a suburb of west London where many Asians had settled. These immigrants, mainly Punjabis, worked at Heathrow Airport, keeping London connected with the world. They were making efforts to assimilate, listening to BBC radio programmes such as Apna hi Ghar Samajhiye (“Think of it as your home”) and watching Nayi Zindagi, Naya Jeevan (“New way, new life”).

Under the banner of the Anti-Nazi League, Londoners of all ethnicities turned out to challenge the NF and its racist message. The demonstration – or uprising, as many Asians prefer to call it – turned violent when police attacked protesters and a schoolteacher named Blair Peach was killed. That event spurred British Asians to find a political and artistic voice in the wider culture, creating a legacy that’s now being celebrated in the Southall Story, a series of concerts, exhibitions and talks taking place around London.

The artist and film-maker Shakila Taranum Maan, who grew up in Northolt, Middlesex, near Southall, recalls the late 1970s vividly. She remembers the terrifying experience of seeing her mother encircled by hate-filled white teenagers. “Our days were spent dodging Paki-bashers. The [Southall] riot came as no surprise, as people were very angry, and keen to shed their passive skins. I wanted to be in Southall the next day, but my dad didn’t want me to go. I had a huge argument with him, and I welcomed the uprising, and saw the strength in a group of people which had for too long been reduced to mere shadows.”

The Southall Monitoring Group emerged in the aftermath of 1979, initially to monitor racial abuse of Asians, but soon expanding its remit. (The group was at the forefront in supporting the families of the Chinese cockle-pickers swept away by the tide at Morecambe Bay in 2004.) Another organisation to emerge was Southall Black Sisters, campaigning against gender- and race-based discrimination. Its campaigns against religious fundamentalism in the Asian community, where patriarchs have a disproportionate role in determining how their sisters, daughters and wives should dress or behave, and its unstinting care for the victims of domestic violence, have helped build British opinion against forced marriages and honour killings. These women brought family secrets into the open and refused to let “multicultural” politics become an excuse to tolerate discrimination and violence.

Pragna Patel, a founding member of Southall Black Sisters, describes the Southall Story as a timely reminder of the need for a secular approach to fighting racism and oppression. “The state assumes that racism is no longer an issue, and that the real problem is the lack of cohesion brought about [by] the failure of migrant communities to integrate. Within our communities, anti-racist struggles have been reinvented as struggles for recognition of religious identity.”

In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks and the 7 July 2005 bombings, there has been a backlash against multiculturalism. Yet paradoxically, as Pragna Patel notes, the state, in the name of cohesion, has actually encouraged a “faith-based” approach to social relations. “We are fragmenting as a society into separate religious enclaves in which powerful and religious bodies hold sway. This is deeply anti-democratic, misogynistic and homophobic.”

Indeed, the thinking has become so warped that last year Southall Black Sisters almost ceased to exist when the local council, Ealing, decided to withdraw its funding. Ignoring language barriers and other cultural inhibitions that might prevent women of minority origin from seeking assistance from groups other than their own, Ealing claimed the group was discriminatory, in that it offered its services to black and Asian women only. A high court order kept SBS alive.

The political awakening of Southall was accompanied by an artistic outpouring, one that ultimately contributed to an environment in which everything from the films of the Bend It Like Beckham director, Gurinder Chadha, to the novels of Hanif Kureishi, to the hit sketch show Goodness Gracious Me could flourish. It mirrored the flowering of black culture in 1950s South Africa, recalled by Mike Nicol in his lively 1991 account A Good-Looking Corpse: the World of Drum – Jazz and Gangsters, Hope and Defiance in the Townships of South Africa. The Southall renaissance was different, yet equally sharp, according to the musician Kuljit Bhamra. “After those uprisings, there was a spirit of a bigger family; we felt we had arrived,” he says. “Old divisions reduced, some even dispersed. We felt we had conquered something.”

While groups such as the Progressive Writers Association explored expression in the Punjabi language, Bhamra himself experimented with music, expressing the community’s confidence through the folk beat of bhangra, blending this with rock, reggae and other forms to create a uniquely British hybrid. Other bands – Heera, Premi and Alaap – emerged; Indian Record House and ABC Music established their own labels, distributing home-grown rhythms that prefigured the work of 1990s pop acts such as Nitin Sawhney and Apache Indian.

In the art world, Shakila Taranum Maan’s performance piece The Bride attacked the way in which Asian women were often left at the mercy of husbands and in-laws. “The aim was to provoke,” she says. The piece brings a bloodied and bruised bride on stage, and many in the audience were appalled. Maan’s other projects have included stories about sex workers and interracial relationships. Over the years, she has perceived a softening of attitudes in the community, but, like Pragna Patel, Maan believes that splintering into religious groups has strengthened conservative elements. Indeed, since the violent protest by Sikhs in Birmingham that disrupted the opening night of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti (“Shame”) in 2004, Maan admits she has shied away from overtly political work.

Yet politics still matters. The Southall Story celebrates a community’s struggle and search for identity, asserting its complexities and challenging the idea that minorities must remain a city-within-the-city: what Salman Rushdie described in The Satanic Verses as “the city visible but unseen”. As Maan says, “Our aim was to transcend race – but on our own terms.”

“The Southall Story” is being launched on 24 April at the Dominion Centre, Southall, Middlesex. For more details about the season, log on to:

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek

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The spread of Wahhabism, and the West’s responsibility to the world

In 2013, the European Union declared Wahhabism the main source of global terrorism. But it's not just a “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too.

François Hollande’s declaration of war against Isis (also known as Islamic State) was, perhaps, a natural reaction to the carnage in Paris but the situation is now so grave that we cannot merely react; we also need sustained, informed and objective reflection. The French president has unwittingly played into the hands of Isis leaders, who have long claimed to be at war with the West and can now present themselves as noble ­resistance fighters. Instead of bombing Isis targets and, in the process, killing hapless civilians, western forces could more profitably strengthen the Turkish borders with Syria, since Turkey has become by far the most important strategic base of Isis jihadis.

We cannot afford to allow our grief and outrage to segue into self-righteousness. This is not just the “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too. Our colonial arrangements, the inherent instability of the states we created and our support of authoritarian leaders have all contributed to the terrifying disintegration of social order in the region today. Many of the western leaders (including our own Prime Minister) who marched for liberté in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre were heads of countries that, for decades, have backed regimes in Muslim-majority countries that denied their subjects any freedom of expression – often with disastrous results.

One of these regimes is Saudi Arabia. Despite its dismal human rights record, the kingdom has been central to western foreign policy in the Middle East since the 1970s and western governments have therefore tacitly condoned its “Wahhabisation” of the Muslim world. Wahhabism originated in the Arabian peninsula during the 18th century as an attempt to return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, Wahhabis came to denounce all later developments – such as Sufism and Shia Islam – as heretical innovations.

Yet this represented a radical departure from the Quran, which insists emphatically that there must be “no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256) and that religious pluralism is God’s will (5:48). After the Iranian Revolution, the Saudis used their immense wealth to counter the power of Shia Islam by funding the building of mosques with Wahhabi preachers and establishing madrasas that provided free education to the poor. Thus, to the intense dismay of many in the Muslim world, an entire generation has grown up with this maverick form of Islam – in Europe and the US, as well as in Pakistan, Jordan and Malaysia.

In 2013, the European Union declared that Wahhabism was the main source of global terrorism. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that the narrowness of the Wahhabi vision is a fertile soil in which extremism can flourish. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wahhabi chieftains did indeed conduct violent military expeditions against the Shia but, during the 1930s, the Saudi kingdom abandoned military jihad and Wahhabism became a religiously conservative movement. Today, some members of the Saudi ruling class support Isis but the Grand Mufti has condemned it in the strongest terms. Like Osama Bin Laden, Isis leaders aim to overthrow the Saudi regime and see their movement as a rebellion against modern Wahhabism.

Military action in Syria will not extirpate Islamist extremism elsewhere. In order to be fully successful, President Hollande’s campaign must also include a review of domestic policy. France has signally failed to integrate its Muslim population. Most of the terrorists responsible for the atrocities of 13 November appear to have been disaffected French nationals. So, too, were the Kouachi brothers, who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Amedy Coulibaly, who hijacked the Jewish supermarket in January. All three lived in notoriously deprived suburbs of Paris and – evoking France’s colonial past – were of Algerian and Malian descent. Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning. 

As they debate the feasibility of British air strikes in Syria, some MPs have insisted that they must be accompanied by negotiation and diplomacy. Again, these cannot be conducted in a spirit of superior righteousness. There must be a recognition that the West is not the only victim of Muslim extremism. We seem curiously blind to this. Far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by Isis, yet this is rarely mentioned. Two weeks before the Charlie Hebdo atrocities in January, the Taliban murdered 145 Pakistanis, most of them children; two days after it, Boko Haram slaughtered as many as 2,000 villagers in Nigeria. Yet, compared with the Paris attack, the media coverage in the West was perfunctory. There has been little acknowledgment that the refugees whom many would seek to exclude from Europe have experienced the horrors we saw in Paris on a regular basis in Syria or Iraq. Already we seem to have forgotten that more than 40 people in Beirut were killed by two Isis suicide bombers on 12 November.

This heedlessness – a form, perhaps, of denial – does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world. The Iraq War showed that a military campaign cannot succeed if it fails to respect the sensibilities of the local people. Western governments must understand that their ­nations bear considerable responsibility for the present crisis – Isis is, after all, the product of the ill-considered Iraq War. And, as long as we mourn only our own dead, we cannot escape the accusation – frequently heard in the developing world – that the West has created a global hierarchy in which some lives are more valuable than others.

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State