I was born in Uganda in 1971 at a time of incredible turbulence. General Idi Amin had taken over the country and was running Uganda like a private fiefdom. His politburo of a government introduced policies which openly stated ‘Africa for Africans’. Asians who had settled in the country were, in effect, isolated for not being ‘African’ – even though many had lived for decades in the country.
The primary pull for Asians who had left India had been the colonial link with the Empire, which was still in control of countries like Uganda and Kenya at the turn of the century. Asians formed the second strata of colonialisation, which was made up of administrators and small business owners. The colonial project across the globe was pretty much based along racial lines and in East Africa it meant that at the top were white British decision makers, followed by Asians and then the local black Ugandan communities at the bottom. In earnest, therefore, Amin was playing to long-felt feelings of disenfranchisement and poverty felt within large parts of Uganda at the time.
Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 was primarily aimed at the Windrush generation and the immigration that took place from Commonwealth countries. Many of the individuals were from Caribbean islands, yet his speech also re-ignited xenophobia and racism towards those Asians from Uganda who were effectively left stateless by Amin’s purge. Many forget, but Ugandan Asians had British Overseas Citizen status. Powell’s speech, though, was constantly referred to at community levels as a way of stopping Ugandan Asians getting refuge. This at a time when their lives were at risk from Amin’s brutal regime. In the cold light of day, Powell was trying to keep people like my family – highly educated, able and stateless – out of the country as Amin stripped all Asians of their assets.
Over the last 35 years, Ugandan Asians have become some of the most successful and well-integrated communities in the UK. Hard working and well-educated when they landed in the UK, many have taken a progressive and liberal approach to social values in this country. They have regenerated areas in key towns like Leicester and in boroughs in London, and over the last three decades they have also been integrated into the social fabric of this country.
All of the Ugandan Asians spoke English, dressed in western attire, mixed with different communities in Africa and therefore were not insular or inward-looking by nature when they landed. They were confident, innovative and able to get on where they arrived, having learned to be a minority in Africa. They also brought with them a pluralism within their faiths and within Muslim communities, which traditionally were Ismaili and Sufi influenced. They were therefore a highly mobile and skilled workforce, yet the racism that they and many black and minority groups faced at the time was crude and racially driven. Today, that has changed into (so-called) ’cultural wars’, where certain minority groups supposedly simply cannot ‘fit’ into the life of our country and therefore should be expelled. Enoch Powell’s and Idi Amin’s vision of monoracial and monocultural communities are therefore the benchmark for these new form of haters.
As a Muslim who has played a role in progressive social change in this country, I have seen first-hand – through the work that I have done on countering extremism and hate crimes – how racism has morphed. Islamist terrorist attacks in the US, UK and Europe have rebooted and supercharged the extremism of the far right into anti-Muslim hatred. The British National Party (BNP) under Nick Griffin was one of the first groups to realise that anti-Muslim hatred, on the back of prejudice as well as fear generated by terrorist attacks, was a vote winner for this openly racist group.
Over the last decade, with the introduction of social media, the rise of anti-Muslim hate and the emergence of newer, tech-savvy far-right groups like the Alt-Right in the US and ‘Generation Identity’ in Europe, have all played on the ‘cultural differences’ narrative, promoting the notion that Muslims are unable to co-exist with people of others faiths. The future, for them, is one of perpetual conflict with Muslims, including the very community that I came to the UK with and which has given so much to this country. It seems that Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ today are cultural and ideational barriers that are dressed up more subtly and more covertly by his admirers, and wrapped up in the language of fear and separatism.
Liberal progressive Muslims, where I class myself, are now becoming the minority in the cultural and ideational battles that are taking place. As more young Muslims see the rise in anti-Muslim hate and young white men and women come across the Islamophobic ‘Pied Pipers’ on social media who claim to speak for them, liberal values will come under increasing pressure. Liberals within Muslim communities are already embattled and those like me are rarer, even though you would expect that younger generations to become more liberal. The reverse is taking place within Muslim communities, which are feeling a sense of trepidation with what they see in the press and online. It is this polarisation that should worry us all. Powell may be gone, but his words echo through the decades as a rallying point for division.
Fiyaz Mughal is Director of Faith Matters and founder of Tell MAMA, the anti-Muslim hatred monitoring project