British Antiwar Activist Salma Yaqoob on Iraq, Muslim Discrimination and Being the First Hijab-Wearing Woman Elected to City Council in Birmingham

We speak with Salma Yaqoob, the first Muslim woman wearing a hijab elected to city council in Birmingham, England. She is the head of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition and a founder of the RESPECT party in Britain. [includes rush transcript]

Violence raged across Iraq this weekend with as many as 80 people killed on Sunday alone.
In Baghdad, officials discovered 22 bodies that had been burned, blindfolded, handcuffed and thrown into a river. In a small town north of the capital, masked gunmen assassinated 24 people–mostly teenage students–in broad daylight. In Basra, a suicide car bomber killed 32 people and wounded 77. On Monday, gunmen in police uniforms abducted up to 50 employees of various Baghdad transportation companies.
Meanwhile the Los Angeles Times reports that new Iraqi government documents show that more Baghdad residents died in shootings, stabbings and other violence in May than in any other month since the 2003 invasion.
The news comes a day after Iraqi political leaders failed to reach agreement on the two most important cabinet posts, further delaying the formation of a new government. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki planned to put candidates for the Defense and Interior Ministries before the Iraqi Parliament, but he ran into intense resistance from members of his own Shite party over the choice for defense minister.
Well this weekend in New York, the organization Independent Viewpoints sponsored a forum called, “A Dialogue on Shias, Sunnis and Politics in Iraq.” The event featured MIT Professor Noam Chomsky and a Shia-Sunni Speaker’s Panel to discuss the situation in Iraq, the role of the American-Muslim community in the country’s political system and to look at how Muslims and non-Muslims can come together to work for political change.
We are joined now in our firehouse studio by Salma Yaqoob, the head of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition and a founder and vice-chair of RESPECT The Unity Coalition in England. This year she won a seat on the city council in Birmingham and became the first elected hijab-wearing councilor in the city. She was a speaker at this weekend’s event.

Rush Transcript

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined now by one of those who participated in the panel. Her name is Salma Yaqoob, and she flew in from Britain, from Birmingham. She heads the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition and is founder and vice-chair of RESPECT the Unity Coalition in England. This year—last month, actually, she won a seat on the city council in Birmingham and became the first elected hijab-wearing councilor in the city. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
SALMA YAQOOB: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the latest in Iraq?
SALMA YAQOOB: Well, it’s almost predictable now. With this whole invasion, what’s happened is that sectarian violence is actually being fostered. The propaganda lie is that “Oh, these people, they’re sectarian—the Sunnis and Shias—and we need the army to now stay to keep these people apart or to bring about peace between them,” when the reality is that the invasion, which acted as a trigger to the sectarian violence, because when the occupiers went in, they fostered one group over another, and then we’re seeing retaliations going on.
And the latest controversy to do with the ministries is that what the people of Iraq want are people from all the different backgrounds to come together in these powerful positions, whereas if one group is elevated over another, you are really sowing the seeds for discord for generations to come, and that must be avoided at all costs.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you Shia or Sunni? And does that distinction have relevance in your life?
SALMA YAQOOB: It really has no distinction in my life. My husband’s father was Shia. I, myself—actually, I don’t even classify myself as a Sunni. I just say I’m a Muslim. And, again, these kind of questions almost become a distraction from what is really going on and the responsibility of British and American troops in the violence in Iraq today.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about dissent and what it means for you to be a Muslim woman leader of an antiwar organization in Birmingham in Britain, which certainly is an area that has come under intense scrutiny by the government with the Guantanamo detainees, Moazzam Begg and others, who have recently returned having been imprisoned for years in Guantanamo. Tell us about Birmingham.
SALMA YAQOOB: Well, Birmingham is a multicultural vibrant city. And since 9/11, the atmosphere definitely changed. British Muslims were being considered the fifth column within Britain. The actions of a few individuals tainted all of us as a community. We were all on the defensive. We were all having to constantly say how we condemned the attacks, which of course we do. At the same time, though, it’s as if we had personal responsibility, and that we have to divorce ourselves from it.
We have to say we are not terrorists, we do not support terrorism, because Islam and Muslims as a whole have been tarnished with these terrorist attacks in a way that other communities don’t get tarnished when individuals from those communities carry out atrocities in the same manner.
AMY GOODMAN: In Birmingham, how does the Muslim community—does it reflect divisions along the Sunni-Shia divide, if there is one?
SALMA YAQOOB: Well, 90% of Muslims would kind of come under what might be called Sunnis and 10% Shias. That’s just a historical fact, but in Birmingham, the issue isn’t about Sunnis or Shias. It’s about confidence. Since 9/11, many, many Muslims have lost confidence, lost a sense of belonging, because you’re constantly asked, “Are you British or are you Muslim?” as if the two things are mutually exclusive. It’s as ridiculous as saying, “Well, are you a woman or are you Muslim?” You know, it’s possible to be both, actually.
And what’s happened is that especially the old generation feel that it’s not our place to express any dissent, whilst we don’t like what’s happening in our name, because we are British citizens.
Maybe we’re not the kind of people who can speak up now, because we’ll be accused of being disloyal, and people like myself have been part of the struggle to challenge that and say, “When we speak up for the Iraqi people or for the Afghanistan people or for our soldiers who have been sent to Iraq on a lie, we’re not being disloyal to our country. We are being loyal committed citizens, saying what’s good for our country, as well as what’s good for people around the world.”
I think that’s a really important concept to hold onto, and actually it’s not as easy as it might sound, the irony being we talk a lot about democracy in the Middle East, but democracy in Western countries, in Britain and, I imagine, in America, too, is actually being tarnished and really eroded away with the actions of our governments.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk to you about Moazzam Begg, the British citizen who was imprisoned for more than three years without charge by the United States, both at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo in Cuba. In March, he spoke at an event in London to mark the publication of his book there called Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back.
The public conversation was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in central London. Democracy Now! was there to record it. Moazzam Begg talked about his imprisonment.

MOAZZAM BEGG: It was probably one of the hardest periods of the whole of the incarceration. One particular month, in May, I was subjected to some extremely harsh interrogation techniques, which included being—well, having my hands tied behind my back to my legs like an animal, as they call in America, “hog-tied” with a hood placed over my head so I was in a suffocating position, kicked and beaten and sworn at and spat at, left to rot in this position for hours and hours on end and taken again into interrogation, and this lasted over a period of over a month.

That wasn’t the worst of it, of course. The worst of it, for me, was the psychological part, because all of this time I had no communication with my family at all. I didn’t know what happened to my wife and my children. For all I knew, they could have done terrible things to them, and that was the biggest fear.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg, speaking just a month ago in Britain. Salma Yaqoob, head of the Birmingham antiwar [Stop the War] Coalition, you knew Moazzam, you knew his family before the detention, certainly through it and after. Talk about the effect of his imprisonment.
SALMA YAQOOB: Well, when he was imprisoned, it did send the whole community in a spiral of fear. So whilst many people were upset and concerned, they were more scared to speak out.
It was only when we organized the big demonstrations, linked it to the antiwar argument, as well, that people started to have the confidence to even speak his name. I mean, this is—it’s hard to explain in a Western democratic country where there’d be such fear.
We’re used to seeing the huge demonstrations, but it’s actually—we started with very small ones, and we had to build up confidence within our own community, as well. And ironically it was because the Muslims saw so many non-Muslims coming out side by side with them on this issue that they too began to have confidence.
And it’s a terrible story. It shows that anybody can be picked up, can be taken to Guantanamo Bay—you don’t even know what you’re being charged with—and left to rot. And I think it was only because of the huge pressure that came about through the demonstrations that even Tony Blair was forced to have to bring him back.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to Moazzam’s family during that time?
SALMA YAQOOB: Well, they were very, very isolated. Nobody knew what was going on, and the fact is Moazzam himself has never been told what exactly he’s been charged with. So just the unknown, and all we hear about and all we knew about Guantanamo was that there was no real trial system.
There’s no way for anyone to say what they did or didn’t do. There’s no way to prove your innocence, and to this day, there are hundreds of men still left to rot there.
Moazzam is actually one of the few that’s managed to come back, and actually it shows the power of people power, really, protest, and that when people show they care, that that person then becomes somebody important to the administration. It’s out of embarrassment, not out of principle, that in the end, the British government was forced to bring him back.
AMY GOODMAN: Salma Yaqoob, you ran for the British Parliament, or what do you say, stood for it?
AMY GOODMAN: You lost that?
SALMA YAQOOB: Yes, it was very close, so I lost by—we just needed 1,600 more votes from the rival, but it was unprecedented that to run for the first time and really dent them in a very, very safe Labour constituency. And for me, it was saying, “Well, can we do this?” For me, it was more important to get out there, put forward an alternative political program.
We have no real political debate or discussion left. We’d marched, we’d been ignored, and for me it showed the democratic deficit in our own house of Parliament that a majority of the MPs voted for the war when the majority of people in Britain were against it, even prior to it.
It was a bit different from America. In Britain, it was very clear that the majority of people did not agree that the war should have even begun.
AMY GOODMAN: How many people came out for your protests?
SALMA YAQOOB: Two million people, and that’s the largest in two thousand years of British history. It was absolutely phenomenal, and when that happened and then we had elections that same year, I remember going to the ballot booth thinking, “Who do I vote for when all of the mainstream parties have colluded with this?”
You know, and I was getting fed up with having to vote for the least worst and thought, “Well, why can’t we vote for a party that we actually believe in?” And so it sounded crazy, but I thought we should have a new national party built on a consensus in the antiwar movement. A whole diverse range of people had come together on a single issue, and I was wondering: can this diversity be reflected in other issues as well?
And I actually found, yes, on pensions, on university fees—we’re against them—on privatization. On all of these issues, a lot of people actually agree on a common platform, and that’s where RESPECT was born.
AMY GOODMAN: George Galloway, who was Labour, thrown out, also ran on the RESPECT Party ticket and won.
SALMA YAQOOB: Yes, he won. So we have an MP. We have a Member of Parliament, and we have twenty councilors, and that’s incredible given that we’re only two years old. So it shows there’s a real desire for change, there’s a real desire for real political discussion in our country.
AMY GOODMAN: So while you lost that seat, you did win the seat for city council. What are you doing in the city council? How significant is that? Also that you are the first hijab-wearing member of the Birmingham City Council?
SALMA YAQOOB: Well, of course, there’s an element of pride, just from the community point of view, but to be honest, it’s almost irrelevant, as well. I’m not running as a Muslim candidate. I’m running as a RESPECT candidate, which is a platform to do with anti-privatization on the domestic front and an ethical and fair foreign policy on the international front, and I think it’s important that people see somebody who represents their views in a real way, and I think that’s what’s been exciting about RESPECT.
I was actually offered a platform with the other mainstream parties, and if I had wanted to be an MP, you know, through a mainstream party, I could have won it.
AMY GOODMAN: You mean, like through Labour.
SALMA YAQOOB: Yeah, well, or through the Liberal Democrats. And, you know, I was offered by them all, you know, to come and join them, but for me, their policies did not reflect what I believe, and I think the principle is more important.
And I thought, it’s a harder path, but if—the symbolism of a hijab-wearing Muslim woman was not enough for me. It was about the policies that we are going to be standing up for, and that’s why I’m proud to be a RESPECT councilor.
AMY GOODMAN: Was your family concerned about you putting yourself out there like this?
SALMA YAQOOB: Very much so. I’m a mom myself. I have three young children, and my parents live next door to me, and I tell you, I mean, my family was saying, “Don’t do this.” I have received death threats. You know, we have put ourselves on the line literally with the things that we do. But I think when you look at what’s happening in the world and you look at—in a way we are the most powerful citizens living in western democracies. We have a responsibility with that, and we have to have courage at this time and we have to have compassion, and we have to have consistency, because sometimes we get emotional and we get upset with what we’re seeing on TV and we get down. But I think just as people like Bush and Blair are very consistent and dedicated in their cause, we have to be even more so in our cause.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about, Salma, you being a woman in the Muslim community who is speaking out?
SALMA YAQOOB: Well, it again was something quite new. There aren’t many precedents for it. I’m fighting kind of two battles. There’s one of challenging the stereotypes that people have about Muslim women, that we’re all oppressed and quiet and, you know, we haven’t got anything to say for ourselves and no contribution to make to society.
At the same time they—and as a Muslim woman, I can sit here and say, well, Islam gives me—I feel empowered by it. I feel very—you know, I’m an equal to a man, you know, this is not in our faith the kind of cultural baggage that many Muslim communities have been laded with. And so at the same time, I was fighting traditional conservative viewpoints from within the community, who were not used to seeing Muslim women stand up in public and be very vocal and strong in what they had to say.
AMY GOODMAN: The whole issue of separation of church and state, mosque and state, or synagogue and state?
SALMA YAQOOB: Yeah, well, again, I’m coming from an ethical moral framework with a passion for my political standpoints. And, yes, I wear a hijab, but this is my spiritual personal choice. So I don’t think the issue of the mosque and the state comes into this. I’m not advocating Sharia law in Britain or in America. So I think we have to be very careful to distinguish between these things.
I’m here saying that we have more in common, whether as Muslims or non-Muslims, with each other in our quest for justice and peace and equality, than any differences. And my line isn’t, “Are you Muslim or not?” or “Are you a man or a woman?” or “Are you black or white?”
It’s “Are you on the side of the oppressed or the oppressor?’ And if you’re on the side of the oppressed, whatever your community, I’m on your side, and If you’re on the side of the oppressor, whatever your background, Muslim, man, whatever, I’m going to be against you.
AMY GOODMAN: Salma Yaqoob, I want to thank you for being with us, head of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition, founder and vice-chair of RESPECT the Unity Coalition in Britain, won a seat on the Birmingham City Council.

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