This article is one of a series on Muslim civil society in Britain.
As well as being the single biggest mobilisation of Muslims ever seen in Britain, the 2003 anti-war protests were illustrative of a shift in British Muslim civil society, away from methods of protest imported from the Indian subcontinent and toward methods of dissent that were more in tune with British political culture. This shift has continued since, and today a broad range of campaigning groups have emerged that lobby and protest on issues ranging from political engagement to global poverty.
Ten years have now passed since the biggest political mobilisation of Muslims in Britain on 15th February 2003 to oppose the invasion of Iraq. With this milestone having recently passed, it is worth reflecting on the historical importance of the moment. What, if any, long-lasting effect did the anti-war movement have on Muslim civil society? And what happened to the main individuals involved?
The anti-war movement mobilised British Muslims in a way that had never been seen before. The biggest demonstrations prior to this were those organised against the publication of the Satanic Verses, when, on 27th May 1989, an estimated 70,000 protestors descended on London to demand the banning of Salman Rushdie’s novel. The methods of political protest were directly imported from the Indian sub-continent and demonstrated the importance of first generation migrants in their organisation. The images of burning British flags and effigies of Salman Rushdie did irreparable damage to the perception of British Muslims in the eyes of the wider public. In the case of the demonstrations against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that started 12 years later, it was Muslims raised in the UK who were taking the leading roles in the protests who were more in tune with British political culture.
“The anti-war movement mobilised British Muslims in a way that had never been seen before.”
Muslims who wished to protest against the invasion of Afghanistan, and subsequently of Iraq, were part of a much wider movement that was co-ordinated by the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) which was set up on 21st September 2001. At one of the first organisational meetings, various sub-groups were set up, including one for Muslims.This was the start of Just Peace, a group that aimed to promote Muslim participation in movements that campaign for freedom from oppression and injustice. It recruited most of its members from the City Circle, a network set up in 1999 for young Muslim professionals in London. Just Peace had 11 core activists and was led by Shahed Saleem and Shahedah Vawda (the two would later marry). The group regularly met up in order to mobilise the Muslim community for the anti-war movement.
Shahed and Shahedah became part of the steering committee of the StWC, with the Muslim activist Salma Yaqoob becoming the chair of the StWC in Birmingham. It was these three campaigners that initially rallied Muslims into joining protest marches and ensured that Muslim speakers such as Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the (now defunct) Muslim Parliament were present at StWC rallies. Two slogans were adopted for the protest marches which aimed to show support with the Muslim community – ‘Defend civil liberties’ (against anti-terrorism legislation) and ‘Resist the racist backlash’ (against the targeting of Muslims for reprisals). A particularly symbolic moment came on 18th November 2001, when an anti-war demonstration organised by the StWC in London during Ramadan came to a halt so Muslim protestors could break their fast. Other protestors joined in with the iftar as the call for prayer rang out across Trafalgar square.
“Despite the efforts to halt the war eventually being in vain, this mobilisation did propel a number of individuals to the forefront of what we might term ‘Muslim civil society’.”
As the anti-war movement grew, the leadership of the StWC began to look for an organisation that could mobilise even larger numbers of Muslims on a nationwide scale for their protest marches. The Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) had organised successful demonstrations for the Palestinian cause which convinced the StWC that they could help do the same for the anti-war movement. An agreement was reached between the two parties for them to co-organise the demonstrations and Anas Altikriti, one of the MAB’s most prominent members at the time, took on a leading role in the movement. From September 2002 onwards, the role of Just Peace was largely superseded by the MAB in organising Muslim involvement in the protests.
The demonstration on February 15th 2003 against the invasion of Iraq in London was the largest political demonstration ever in Britain with an estimated 2 million people on the streets, among them thousands of Muslims. Protests were also held in other cities up and down the country. Despite the efforts to halt the war eventually being in vain, this mobilisation did propel a number of individuals to the forefront of what we might term ‘Muslim civil society’. The most prominent example is Salma Yaqoob who went on to found ‘Respect: The Unity Coalition’ in early 2004. She served as a Respect local councillor in Birmingham from 2006-2011 and narrowly missed out on becoming a Respect MP in 2005 and 2010. Having quit the party last year, many expect her to stand as a Labour candidate in 2015. Anas Altikriti, the driving force behind the involvement of MAB in the StWC, was also briefly involved in Respect. He stood as a candidate in the 2004 European elections but then left to found the British Muslim Initiative and then the Cordoba Foundation. The path of Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui is symbolic of the changes in Muslim Civil Society since the Rushdie affair. In 1989 he was part of British Muslim delegation in Iran that had asked Mohammad Khatami to act on Rushdie, which led to the fatwa pronounced by Ayatollah Khomeini. He is now a trustee of British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD) and campaigns against forced marriage, domestic violence and murder in the name of honour. The Muslim Institute, which he helped to form back in 1973, and at one time acted as a front for the Iranian Embassy in London, was re-founded in 2010 and now has a more progressive outlook publishing the quarterly magazine Critical Muslim.
The Rushdie affair led to the development of a number of organisations such as the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs (whose leaders eventually set up the Muslim Council of Britain), the Islamic Society of Britain and the Muslim Parliament. The anti-war movement can be seen as yet another watershed moment in the development of Muslim Civil Society in Britain but with more of a focus on wider society. In the last decade, new groups have emerged that campaign on everything from political engagement to fighting global poverty. This trend is likely to continue and demonstrates the diversity of these groups but also how they change over time.
Timothy Peace is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Alwaleed Centre. His research investigates the relationship between religion and politics, with a particular focus on Muslims in Europe. He is currently editing a book entitled Muslims and Political Participation in Britain to be published by Routledge in 2014.
 For details see Kevin Gillan, Jenny Pickerill, and Frank Webster, Anti-War Activism: New Media and Protest in the Information Age (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
 Aida Edemariam, ‘Respect’s Salma Yaqoob: “Why I Quit”’, The Guardian, 22 September 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2012/sep/22/salma-yaqoob-respect-george-galloway.
The image of Salma Yaqoob is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The image of the 2003 anti-war protest in London is included courtesy of Simon Rutherford and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.