Monday, June 23, 2008

The diaspora effect
by Shiraz Maher

With half of British Muslims describing their background as Pakistani, events on the subcontinent resonate here [the UK]

It was only a matter of time before British Islamists began celebrating the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. “Allah Akbar! Best news I’ve heard in a long time! May Allah destroy all the agents of the [infidels]. What a beautiful day!” wrote “Abu Junayd” from Slough on a forum that hosts mainly British members of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) and the now defunct al-Muhajiroun. With contributors from Australia, Indonesia and the middle east, the site provides a valuable barometer for a strain of global Islamist thinking.

Another comment came from long-standing HT member Showkat Ali, who had previously issued veiled threats against Ed Husain, author of The Islamist, and celebrated the stabbing of former jihadist Hassan Butt. “We shouldn’t grieve for Benazir,” declared the trainee teacher from Milton Keynes. “Muslims should not shed any tears for the tyrants and oppressors who have spent their lives looting and pillaging the wealth of the ummah whilst serving the interests of the [infidel] colonialists in the west.”

Sustained unrest in Pakistan, and its strategic importance to the west, has ensured it remains the single most important country in the war on terror, eclipsing Iraq and Afghanistan. And with nearly half of British Muslims describing their ethnic background as Pakistani, turbulence in the subcontinent resonates here.

The situation was complicated by the launch in Britain of digital television in 1997, which swelled the number of foreign language broadcasters. Around 50 specialist channels now offer alternatives to the BBC and CNN, creating “digital ghettos” which ensure that diaspora communities are never too far removed from events “back home.”

Bhutto told the BBC shortly before her return to Pakistan that despite spending seven years in self-imposed exile – much of it in London – her physical absence from the subcontinent was largely immaterial. Asian broadcasters, the internet and the low cost of international phone calls rates ensured she was always abreast of developments.

The importance of diaspora media was made starkly clear when General Musharraf imposed martial law in November. Along with his curbs on domestic press freedom, he moved against the Dubai-based Pakistani broadcasters GEO and ARY by pressuring the Emirate to close their offices. His message was clear: stifling criticism among the Pakistani community abroad was as important as silencing domestic dissent.

The resonance of events in the subcontinent among Britain’s Islamists is indicative of shifts in the composition of its leadership that occurred in the late 1990s. The Arabs who had first exported radical Islam to Britain slowly found themselves being disenfranchised once their message took root among predominantly south Asian Muslims. Lacking a following, they paled into the background, leaving their successors to further the movements.

This new leadership, indigenously British but of south Asian origin, has found itself at the heart of political Islam’s struggle against the west since 9/11. Whereas previous conflicts have centred around almost exclusively Arab concerns, most notably in Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, since 9/11 Pakistan has been the single most important country in the war on terror, ensuring centre stage for Britain’s young Islamists.

Of course, the overwhelming response within the Pakistani diaspora has been shock and outrage at the assassination of the Muslim world’s first female leader. During Friday prayers, special supplications were offered for her at mosques around the country, while the chairman of Birmingham’s Central Mosque said Bhutto’s death should not be allowed to “destroy democracy.” Outside, radicals continued to cheer her death and insist democracy is incompatible with Islam.

London is not an unnatural stage for any of this. When the outlines of the future state of Pakistan emerged in the 1940s, its vision was influenced more by the experience of its leaders in Oxbridge and the Inns of Court than by contemporaries in Deoband or Lucknow. The name “Pakistan” was itself conjured up by Chaudhry Rahmat Ali from his student address at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

That tradition looks set to continue, with the People’s party’s declaration that Benazir’s son, Bilawal, a 19-year-old undergraduate at Oxford, will succeed her as party chairman. Pakistan’s heir apparent has already vowed to steer his party through its next, almost certainly tempestuous, chapter.

But a website run by members of the old al-Muhajiroun, who now gather under the vague title “Muslims in the UK,” has already warned Bilawal to “take heed from the recent wave of attacks.” By not succumbing to militant Islam, they suggest more politicians will “be subject to violent terrorist attacks.” With a number of those threats now originating from Britain, perhaps we should also, as its proponents suggest, take heed.

Shiraz Maher is a writer and broadcaster

Prospect Magazine
Issue 142 , January 2008

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