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An Interview with Gita Sahgal on Racism, Change, and Actual Violence (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/06/22


Gita Sahgal is the Executive Director of the Centre for Secular Space. She discusses: those forced into change; racism, a collective history; and oppression.

Keywords: actual violence, Centre for Secular Space, change, Gita Sahgal, racism.

An Interview with Gita Sahgal on Racism, Change, and Actual Violence: Executive Director, Centre for Secular Space (Part Two)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

*This interview edited for clarity and readability. Some information may be incorrect based on audio quality.*

*This interview was conducted November 13, 2016.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Are there other groups that are Right or far-Right that are forced to change? Not just a PR campaign by putting a smiley face on it but effectuating proper change.

Gita Sahgal: I do not think they change. What I think what happens with white fascist groups, they do not get the time of day. This is where these issues of no-platforming because difficult to discuss. Or, rather, we need to discuss them.

There is a free speech lobby, which is fine. It says, “Talk to anybody and put anybody on a platform,” but the way people like fascists were marginalized was by not putting on platforms. There was a red line across which we were not really prepared to go.

What has happened now with safe space policies, and no-platforming is that if you’re a white fascist or far-Right as a movement like the English Defense League, that claims it is not fascist and does not Muslims or Islamists very much.

They do not make much of a discussion between Muslims and Islamism, though. They would never, in a British university, think of bringing them to a meeting to hold a meeting. Even the free speech lobbyists would not do it; while, the Islamists are in there all the time [Laughing].

They are connected to movements. That commit mass murder abroad. That is much stronger and more dangerous. I am not saying the EDL is not dangerous. It is dangerous. However, there are other things going on.

Near where I live, there was an Islamic center, which is like an afterschool Mosque type place. It was burned to the ground.

Jacobsen: Ugh.

Sahgal: There was a lot of interreligious violence with shootings in the street. They were very serious levels of violence going on – discrimination and actual violence, and fire bombings of mosques and places of worship and so on.

However, the Islamists are involved with massive hate campaigns. Tonight, I couldn’t make it because there was a huge transport disruption. There is a meeting of Bangladeshis who are highlighting minorities and Buddhists being driven from their homes and attacked.

They are being thrown into the streets with the onset of Winter. This is happening again, and again, and again, and happening more and more. What is supposed to be a secular government, they often standby or do nothing; this is a serious problem.

They connect it here, but they treat it as respectable people to be given platforms. However, it is the no-platforming that helped to make fascism not respectable in places like football clubs, who come down very heavily and fine clubs where people are doing racist chants.

It was one time when racism in a football field against black footballers, and on the terraces, was standard. Black footballers had to play against a barrage of racist insults and things being hurled at them.

It was only by fans of the opposing side, or even by their own side, who did something. They had to work through horrific abuse, but that has been ruled out of order by the football authorities. Also, young people who are football fans themselves went down and protested the racist violence.

The regulatory bodies worked against it because these activists were working against it all the time. We changed these ideas to racism. So, with state attitudes to racism, and so on, there has been progressing.

However, with the Islamists, it is largely ignored because the Islamists are seen as almost analogous to rebellious black youth and, therefore, had a democratic point because, of course, the young black youth kept getting arrested, stopped and search, chucked in jail, beaten up, and so on.

There were police who belonged to fascist groups. It was only when Britain began to crack down on it. The main police are backing down from all that because they think they are moving into Muslim communities.

It is a different picture. So, we cannot do what we did before. But what is interesting now is that the people who did it before, they do not have to go through racist violence. They do not understand what happened. They do not think there is any problem with what happened because of mostly the PC Left.

For those who did fight racism and did fight it back, we always know it is right there around the corner. For the political atmosphere created, and formed on the streets, it is reminiscent to us of the worst days of the 60s and 70s.

I hear young people sneer, “They are going on about it. What do they know?” Because we told them that the 70s were bad. They didn’t know how bad the things were. They do not see the difference. They do not understand white people are being assaulted with Brexit as well.

I have many people who speak various German languages. The Italians speak Italian. It is not simply those of us who speak Hindi or something who bring suspicion. I have been in London for 30 years.

I do not feel treated with suspicion. I dress very conservatively, mostly with Asian clothes – quite often not but mostly. I often have my head covered in a wrap [Laughing] and so on. I do not expect to meet racism.

I don’t on a normal day. I do not expect it. Now, you do wonder. You hear people talking loudly about immigrants sitting next to you, wondering when they are going to leave and things like that. It is not a pleasant atmosphere.

So, we drove it back, but it is back in some ways. However, we got the opposite problem when we succeeded with the state. Obviously, not getting rid of all forms of racism, it was getting them as considering racism as a crime, recognizing hate crimes.

The police are better on homophobia than they used to be. I know friends who have been subject to repeated and recurring homophobic attacks and serious attacks by organized gangs and things of these things.

The police collect evidence and bring them to court. We have had huge changes. But the government acts differently and people act differently. Also because of the challenge to fundamentalism, it is seen as part of a government agenda.

The Left, in general, is not on board with it. Even with the people who are leftist-Islamists, some are not, but they are also anti-government in general. There is a difficulty there in taking a stand. It is difficult.

However, we have built up a voice. Even though, it is difficult. There is an alternate voice out there. It is different than the voice in the States. It is not far-Right. It is Liberal to Left. It is not for any racism or fundamentalism, but it is a small voice.

Of course, those are the people who criticize Islam as such or Islamism, but they are doing it from the point of view that Muslim immigration has to be stopped and the country is unsafe because of Muslims.

We do not buy into any of that. Southall Black Sisters or I, those similar organizations; there is a huge movement in the Kurdish movements connected to the activism going on in Rajavah.

The Sunnis are there, but also the progressives are there. They are still raising the issues of the Bangladeshis, Kurds, Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis [Laughing], and so on. We work together. That is good. All those things are good.

2. Jacobsen: If we take into account the difficulties in conveyance of the emotional problems that are felt when having racist slurs thrown at one being a footballer or when witnessing it in sympathy for the person that is a victim of it, in addition to seeing the change over time and then having young people saying, “It doesn’t really happen.”

The youth tend to be the ones that have more energy, more time, and, therefore, more influence in terms of making effective change in socio-cultural contexts in this particular case, the United Kingdom.

How can we convey to the youth the difficulties of the very real racism? That you witnessed and, possibly, felt yourself in the 70s to the youth now.

Sahgal: There are two different sets of people. There are some people who are completely buried in the racist argument. People think that Britain is a slave country or something. It is a [Laughing] mad argument.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Sahgal: They will talk about slavery and imperialism. Not that these aren’t issues. I am not with the people who say, “This is a load of bullocks. Do not talk about it.” If you look at the slaveholders in Britain, I did not know this, but the government compensated them at the end of slavery.

They have lots of records. They weren’t all super-rich people. They were quite ordinary people many of them. They had this huge project that looked into where they were, where they’d been, and what they were compensated with.

Slavery is embedded in Britain. Not as much as America where the entire economy was run on it, Britain exported it. The British wealth, the Tate is a great museum. It is also the sugar manufacturer, the Tate.

Now, the manufacturer, what does that mean? They, at some stage, must have been involved in the slave trade in the West Indies or something like that. The sugar plantations in the West Indies. You still can’t point fingers.

They will go heavy on trying to talk about it. They do not have the same resonance as the States. It was the form of racial segregation in the same way. The working-class communities have intermarried for a very long time.

My old Caribbean boss said, “You cannot compare it to the American racism because we have always worked in these communities, particularly working-class communities. People who settled here then intermarried here.”

What is happening now, it might be more segregated than people when they first came in large numbers. How do we convey that history? We need to have that cross-conversation. Some people only need to talk about racism.

Some people think talking about racism is a form of racism. Some people who talk about fundamentalism and, therefore, think any talk about racism is changing the subject and is total nonsense, when, in fact, they are on to the worst form of oppression there is.

To me, it is about similar kinds of harms and similar forms of persecution. One based on religious origin. One based on skin and racial origin. We need to be simultaneously opposing both. We worked to do this with a book that we wrote.

Not as a policy paper with recommendations to MPs or anything like that, but more for an intelligence 17, 18, 19, or 20-year-old. A high schooler or a university student, it is called Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights.

That is how you can oppose the war on Terror without being pro-fundamentalist. It looks at the issue of amnesty in this specific organization called GAGE, and now called GAGE. It is a public relations front for Al Qaeda and so on.

Now, they have portrayed themselves as an organization for counter-extremism. They are working with the S. They have a distribution problem. There is a problem of getting it out there.

It is still very relevant. We need that material. I take it to meetings and things like that. There is a problem of getting it out there. We need more of that material, which is written by Meredith Tax. She is American. She lives in New York.

She has been an activist for many years. She is an older woman. She is older than I am. She was there at the start of Second Wave Feminism. She was a Bernie Sanders supporter. She is brilliant at the political writing, which, without dumbing down a subject, can explain the subject without jargon. She explains the mess the left gets into.

I enjoyed it. It is from the left-liberal perspective. She wrote a history on the Kurds. Not many people in North America know about them. The book is called A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State.

It looks at how feminism became central to this. The struggle for Rajah and the enclaves carved out of Syria and so on, which have been done by Kurdish groups. So, she has written a book to cover this complex history.

It is about how to make a new society from where we are, which is quite an amazing idea. So, she is doing that work. So, we go on doing our work. We have not won the argument. But we are providing a space for people to speak up.

For instance, campaigning against Sharia, Maryam Namazie founded the One Law for All campaign. She was quite isolated then. There were women against fundamentalism. I went to one of Maryam’s meetings. I thought she was great.

But much later, there is a coalition for the One Law for All banner with people have and groups have specific expertise. We have all done a huge amount of work as feminists and human rights activists. We come together to work on terrorism and sharing our common understanding of the things with Sharia councils, put different testimonies online, and even carrying an inquiry, recently.

There was a secret inquiry, which we boycotted because it seemed like a theological inquiry. The Home Select Committees across parliamentary groups. I do not know how it works in Canada. You look at certain issues.

Everything that you do then goes on the parliamentary record as part of the parliamentary inquiry. It is an important venue. We have produced a lot of material of thinking that through. For me, it is not so much about winning.

The process is as important as anything else. The tide is still running very strongly against us. But what we have done is built a movement, which is where we trust each other and share a common platform, it is about secularism and opposing all forms of religious fundamentalism as well as racial bigotry.

We trust each other to share information. The thing in the Mail on Sunday is about trying to get out voices out there by being on news interviews. Maryam is the main spokeswoman for the whole thing, but all of us have been trying to help.

She has been amazing in trying to promote our work, even though the media will go to her because she is personable. It is a situation where money is short, and organizations are campaigning for the same small pots of money and trying to put in grant applications.

There is a lot of backbiting and nastiness and things among women’s groups, the Left, among progressive groups, and a lot of different places. To help build that up, it is really important. It is really sad because we cannot relate too much to this huge movement in the Labour Party.

It is now the largest political party in Europe. It has something like half of a million members. The Labour Party is so large, but it is controlled by people who are in bed with Islamists. So, we cannot expect any support from them.

Even though, many of us have known many of the leaders for many years. Jeremy Corbyn has been supportive of the Kurdish issue The Kurdish activists do not talk to him anymore, the Kurdish rebels.

It is sad. This moment when there should be this wonderful alignment with feminists fighting for secular values and particularly those from minority backgrounds. Those who have been labeled and have been supported by the Labour Party.

The Right has this narrative. Because we talked about how we were let down by the Labour Party by these multicultural parties. The Right has this narrative about how the Labour party harms women. But it is a more complicated story.

The Right when they came to power were trying to cut our parties down. We had a difficult relationship with the Labour Party before, but they were the ones who founded and supported us.

When it came to the Hindu Right and the Muslim Right, and the women’s groups, there is a broad umbrella. We have been struggling women being helped. But the Right does not tell that story. It only tells the story of the labor Party being horrible to poor brown women such as myself.

That is not the story that I want to be told. It is hard with the Labour Party because there is such vicious and organized attack on many of us. It is coming specifically within the Labour Party including Muslim Labour MPs.

It is not a good situation at all. So, it is a constant struggle. How do you get to youth? Many of the youth are in the movement. This side movement that has energized the Labour Party and led to Jeremy Corbyn not once but twice in the recent past.

I feel despair the way the Labour Party has gone because the parliamentary Labour Party did not understand the power of this outside movement. They have tried to unseat Corbyn. There are a lot of reasons for them to be pissed off with him, but they also behaved very badly.

A lot of people got fed up with them for that because they were constantly writing in student papers. They thought that they could stage some unseating. But they did not have the strength. It is quite clear. Nobody heard; nobody really wanted to stand against Corbyn.

A lot of precious time when they should have been opposing conservatives was wasted on that. Meanwhile, Corbyn seems not interested in parliament, but in forming a huge movement. It is fine. But why is he the head of the Labour Party? He should be leading some extra-parliamentary party and stomp the country making speeches

It is perfectly okay. He is not forming in parliament. He is all over the place. Those of us who want to see a revival of popular movements in the country – because there are many things to oppose – do not see – and here is where we differ from the counter-extremism people – cuts to welfare, cuts in medical and health services, cuts in services for women as absolutely central to our fight.

Because if you do not have a society, which does this work on the ground, you cannot fight extremism. Our secular services and still have, most have been decimated except for the Southall Black Sisters and the Kurdish Women’s Rights Organizations, which we work within the One Law for All movement.

These are very strongly secular somehow managed to survive all these massive cuts. But many of the groups have gone to the wall. We see our fight as being to defend this kind of work, which the counter-extremism experts have not written one single report about.

They are not even very interested in it. The government is interested in women’s rights. But to criminalize violations of women’s rights, where is the money for it? You can stop it. You could get the campaigners and others excited with the governmental support.

However, if you do not have the other structures and the policies and all of the other boring stuff and actually people doing the work, then having the government does not help. Because having the air of the government, it does not help in these ways without the support structure.

When the Sharia councils were saying that you have to restore legal aid because they cut legal aid for family matters, women are struggling in family courts by themselves. Britain had the gold standard legal aid services. Canada is different. The US, historically, has had it.

In Britain, we had these things. This is a country. We had a free health service, which had some problems. But it was a good service. It is being eroded from within. The government didn’t dare bring in fees.

They had fees for lots of it. But they could not bring fees for use. So, they marketed the services within it. It cost more. It forced closings. What they have done is a disaster, it has made things worse, but what has happened is that most people fighting that stuff think the fundamentalism is irrelevant.

We are saying, “It is absolutely relevant.” You see this in America. The religious groups will provide care homes, hospitals, legal services for marriage, and so on. The Sharia issue is not an issue on its own.

It is intrinsically linked to control of the state through social services. That is what is being pushed. Those are the two things that are going together. It is shrinking the state. It means they seek not just welfare services but the means for people to have lifelines.

They are being smashed. Religious organizations are encouraged to step in when the secularism isn’t supportive. It is terrifying, few people make the connections.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Executive Director, Centre for Secular Space.

[2] Individual Publication Date: June 22, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2019:


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