Concerns of the ummah

Some faiths are global. Nation states must come to terms with this.

In the first part of Peter Taylor's fascinating new BBC 2 series, Generation Jihad, we heard, time and again, young British Muslims voicing their concern and outrage over attacks on Palestine and the military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I'm sure that at least some viewers were thinking: why should Britons, UK passport-holders, people born and brought up here, feel quite so strongly about what happens in countries thousands of miles away?

Why should they feel that the death and destruction visited upon Palestinians, Afghans and Iraqis are also attacks on them? Shouldn't they be British, and espouse "British" values, first and foremost?

I can quite see why this is hard to understand for secularists, used to -- and insistent upon -- the church-state divide that characterises most European nations, and which continues in the supranational institution of the EU. I can also see why it is hard to understand for many Protestants, especially those belonging to churches that specifically describe themselves as being national sects -- the Church of England, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, etc.

What they fail to see, because it is not emphasised with the same force in their belief systems, whether religious or not, is the truly universal nature of other faiths, membership of which binds their adherents from different countries and continents together in a way that secular nationalism and Protestantism do not.

As the Islamic scholar and former Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi put it in a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies in 2004:

What the west needs to learn about the Muslim world . . . is that Muslims see themselves as a collective ummah. Unlike [with] western individualism, Muslims have a strong sense of fraternity as a community of believers.

This means empathy. This is why Muslims who are not affected by poverty or who have nothing to do with Palestine feel so strongly about this issue. This is why without addressing and identifying the root causes of terrorism the war against terror will not succeed.

You can find the full text here (and I would advise anyone interested in learning about a less confrontational view of Islam to do so. Badawi was a weak and ineffectual PM, but very wise when it came to how religion and modernity can coexist).

It could also be added that awareness of the ummah has been enormously heightened in the past few decades, not least by the mass spread of all forms of communication.

This is why, for instance, as the US senator Christopher Bond points out in his new book, The Next Front: South-east Asia and the Road to Global Peace with Islam, Muslims in the southern Philippines can watch Israel's attacks on Gaza and Lebanon and feel affected, and angered, in a way they did not in the years before even the poorest households had access to a television set. And there, this knowledge of the suffering of fellow Muslims has had the unfortunate consequence of allowing some to turn a long and legitimate struggle for autonomy within, if not outright independence from, a Philippine nation, into part of a wider religious war.

It is no use railing against this sense of connectedness. It is simply there. For me, brought up in one of the other global faiths, Roman Catholicism, it is far from alien.

Even though I lapsed a long time ago, I still feel a connection with Catholics around the world, and have always known that I could walk into a Catholic cathedral in any country and feel at home. Culturally, it is part of my DNA. It is also why, when politicians such as Ruth Kelly are criticised essentially for being religious -- her links to Opus Dei were regarded as being particularly suspect -- I can't help feeling at least a twinge of sympathy.

For those who demand that UK-born Muslims, or Catholic ministers like Kelly, sign up to a secular interpretation of Britishness and consign their embarrassing beliefs to some hidden place where they need not intrude into the political sphere are asking the impossible.

Nearly everyone agrees that human rights are universal. Well, some faiths are truly global, too, and have existed and will continue to exist while nations and empires rise and fall. Denying this is useless. Understanding this, and allowing for this, would be better.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser