Salma Yaqoob's resignation from the Respect Party last night brought much nashing of the teeth.
It was genuinely painful for some, especially for a certain type of white male leftie who had given her unconditional support over the years. If a hijab could have icon status, hers would be in the corner of many a middle class living room, placed somewhat strategically above Sunday's Observer and those fading anti-war posters. To see where I am coming from on this, do look at the pained tweets last night from Eddie Truman, Tom Griffin, Dr Tad or the blogpost of Dr Eoin Clarke.
If you want to understand the dynamics of a political party or movement, studying its literature at times of crisis or split is indicative. When the Respect Party split between supporters of George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party in 2007-8, it was noticeable that every external criticism of Respect that had been made, was seemingly adopted by one of the two wings in the split.
Suddenly Galloway-ites noticed the sinister Leninist practices of the SWP. The SWP discovered the communal tendencies of Respect - in Tower Hamlets where Chris Harman dished the dirt on the curry millionaires and Islamic Forum of Europe figures who actually ran the party, and Birmingham, where a white female SWP'er, Helen Salmon, was blocked from a council candidacy in favour of a slate of men of Pakistani heritage. One of these, Harman noted, had been in the Conservative Party just three months before.
Ultimately for all the talk of how refreshing and revolutionary Yaqoob was - here after all was a woman wearing a hijab who's party supported abortion rights (even if its MP never did) - Yaqoob was at one level a deeply Conservative figure. On the 'community leaders' critics saw as delivering block votes for Respect's Muslim candidates, she wrote:
"The single biggest reason such individuals acquire weight and influence is not wealth, it is reputation". So that's OK then. This 'revolutionary' figure took umbrage on behalf of all those maligned "It is insulting to our voters and supporters to reduce the prestige which certain individuals have, to some form of patronage or favour they dispense".
Salma Yaqoob was also quick to do that most conservative of acts - to play the race card. Helen Salmon was accused of "having a problem with Asian candidates" - the type of accusation that could be made in seconds, but that could destroy Salmon on the left. When Harman alleged businessmen in Tower Hamlets were using the practice of pocket members (men who are paid to join a party just before selection meetings, in order to vote for a particular candidate) Yaqoob responded with this extraordinary retort:
"Bangladeshi members in Tower Hamlets have already had plenty of experience of condescending white members demanding ID from them as though they were having to pass an immigration entry test".
I don't share the view that a politics minus the above is diminished or deficient.
If this is what Clarke, Griffin and Truman consider 'progressive' politics - I am glad I am on the outside looking in. More seriously, their response is an increasingly common one to Muslim political or politico-religious actors. On the one hand they receive racist abuse and threats from the likes of the English Defence League, on the other they receive its mirror opposite. The submissive, supine, uncritical support of the last century left. The pro-Livingstone wing of the Labour Party was salivating last night at the prospect that Saint Salma may be persuaded to join the Labour Party. And so it continues.
In this world, nuanced, critical responses appear impossible. I almost feel sorry for Salma Yaqoob this morning. On balance though, our politics are healthier without Respect, and they are probably healthier without her.
(The quotes in this article all came from the 2008 Socialist Resistance "Respect: Documents of the Crisis". Biased as it is towards the Galloway faction, it is essential reading.)