Saturday 15 August 2009

Gentleman Jim and the Politics of Segregation

Other bloggers including Jim Jepps and Charlie Pottins have already asked the pertinent questions about one of my local MPs, Jim Fitzpatrick (left), and his ill-mannered decision to walk out of a Muslim wedding in Tower Hamlets. Why did he feel the need to embarrass the bride and groom by contacting the press to bang on about "social cohesion" and what motivation could he possibly have had for playing the race card?

To be fair to Fitzpatrick (which, I know, he doesn’t really deserve considering his subsequent behaviour), it is certainly true that many Muslim Asians, probably the most diverse minority population in Britain, do not support and demand the prohibition on ‘free mixing between sexes’. The Muslim weddings I have attended have not imposed segregation on guests and as Fitzpatrick did not know the couple personally but was invited by the bride’s father, he may not have known beforehand that the wedding would be segregated. This aspect of the bookings policy of the London Muslim Centre (LMC) applies only to weddings, not to other events he may have attended at the venue.
Nevertheless, the way Fitzpatrick has reacted has been particularly boorish and insulting. This was a private function; the bride and groom, Bodrul Islam and Mahbuba Kamali, chose how they wanted their ceremony conducted and as a guest, Fitzpatrick should have either accepted this out of courtesy, even if he didn’t agree with it, or left discreetly and without fuss. What he most certainly shouldn’t have done is use the ceremony’s rituals to launch into an attack in the East London Advertiser on the Jamaatis that run the LMC and the newly-married couple caught up in this are quite right to feel aggrieved that their wedding day has been “hijacked for political gain”.

As one comment on The Daily (Maybe) said, it would have been different if the event had been a political meeting. The social conservatism that lies behind customs such as gender segregation is undoubtedly shared by a number orthodox religious traditions and this often throws up some important dilemmas for those on the Left who campaign in areas where religious belief is strong. How far should courtesy extend towards individual religious and cultural practices, or to religious-based organisations for that matter, before this starts to clash with our own values?

I have two personal experiences of this and the first example concerns segregation. In August 2005, activists involved in Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) were invited to hold a training session on the implications of anti-terrorism laws at the Minhaj al-Quran mosque in Forest Gate. We were assured that this event would not be segregated, but on the evening of the training, members of the mosque committee changed their minds and demanded that a screen be erected to separate women from men who came to listen to a talk by a solicitor from Birnberg Peirce. I was at this event and I remember the option was there to refuse to go ahead, but we decided to reluctantly proceed because members of the public had made the effort to attend and because we were the committee’s guests.

However, we learnt from the experience and subsequent training events have been held in community centres rather than mosques, a situation that is unlikely to change without overwhelming assurances that there will be no gender segregation. Put simply, hosting or speaking at an event that is segregated is always a step too far for a secular organisation.

But although sometimes decisions are this clear-cut, others can be more difficult to make. In March 2008, NMP was invited to speak at a meeting on the Counter-Terrorism Bill organised by the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities and held at the London Muslim Centre. Other speakers included the human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, Statewatch, the Centre for the Study of Terrorism – and the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), the same group that Fitzpatrick lambasted under the cover of a constituent’s wedding.

Even leaving aside its Islamist politics, one of IFE’s founders is Chowdury Mueenuddin, against whom there is evidence of involvement in atrocities during the independence of Bangladesh, in particular the killings of Bengali intellectuals by the Al-Badr, the paramilitary wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, toward the end of the war. As a result of accepting an invitation to speak, NMP was accused of making alliances with the Jamaatis. Should we have therefore refused to attend, when the principal organiser was an ally and the subject matter one that had a particular resonance with our work?

We decided to accept out of courtesy, even though we fundamentally disagreed with the politics of other speakers. Had IFE themselves arranged the event, the decision would have been different and had we been choosing whom to share a platform with, the speakers would have been very different too. I doubt some of our critics would agree, but sometimes activists are forced to either opt to remain ‘pure’ or engage with local communities where they are, not where you might like them to be.

My point is that facing these dilemmas takes careful thought, the exact opposite of the level of consideration shown by Jim Fitzpatrick. Sometimes we get it wrong, but hopefully we learn something in the process. And what lessons should Fitzpatrick learn? Perhaps that an ill-mannered outburst undermines the credibility of any serious issues you might have hoped to raise. And ideally, that there are electoral consequences for an MP who appears to know neither when to shut up, or when to apologise.


HarpyMarx said...

Excellent post. Pretty much agree with your take on this.

Indeed, why did Fitzpatrick agree to attend and if he was so offended why didn't he leave quietly. He should apologise profusely for his appalling behaviour.

It reflects badly on him and frankly I hope it does have electroal consequences for him, and his many crimes including warmongering!

Kevin said...

I'd like to believe too that there will be some electoral consequences for Fitzpatrick, but the comment on Jim Jepp's blog by someone called 'Strategist', saying that the MP is "obviously starting to get panicked and confused about the thrashing he's going to be handed by G Galloway in Poplar & Limehouse" seems wildly optimistic.

Who honestly believes that Galloway has any chance of winning?

HarpyMarx said...

I agree, I am not sure what Galloway's chances are and he seems to have gone a bit quiet, off the political radar. Think it is all wild optimism.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that behind Fitzpatrick's actions are a desire to have a go at the grouping who have just taken over the Labour Group in Tower Hamlets, ousting the previous group who where particularly loyal to him.

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