Comment is Free carries an excellent piece by Sunny Hundal of Pickled Politics and Liberal Conspiracy. He went to Saturday’s London demo ‘to express solidarity with Palestinians and express my anger at Israel’s bombings’. He argues that British Muslim organisations let down the Palestinian cause ‘by constantly bringing religion into a dispute essentially about land.’
I didn’t come to express solidarity with Hamas, nor want to come to a religious march. If I wanted to hear ‘God is Great’ I could have gone to a mosque or a gurudwara. But I didn’t. People can say what they want – freedom of speech etc – but I think this encapsulates a broader problem.
British Muslim organisations have broadly failed to capitalise on the widespread support for Palestinians in the UK, compared to the United States, by constantly bringing religion into a dispute essentially about land.
Most non-Muslims who go to such marches don’t really have an interest in exploring Islam: they care about human rights. Religious chants merely end up alienating the very people Palestinians need the support of – a wide swathe of the population.
But many Britons, despite their sympathies, won’t I suspect because they feel such events are dominated by religious types who like to shout Allah hu Akbar, and rudeboys with kaffiyeh bandanas who like to prance around in front of the television. Let me tell it to you straight: it doesn’t help the cause.
The issue needs a certain amount of political maturity that neither the Socialist Workers Party nor the Muslim Association of Britain, the chief organisers, are able to muster. Arguably, this is done to the origin of these organisation themselves.
Either way, it also explains why, following the massive anti-war march of 2003, not much really followed through. Their focus was on creating a narrow Muslim/socialists alliance which ended up turning off most well-intentioned middle-of-the-road people not long after. The ‘We Are Hizbullah’ movement was especially ugly, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, as is the inclusion of extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Sunny’s point about bringing religion into a territorial dispute recalls a broader argument about the origins of the conflict, made by Christopher Hitchens in his book God is Not Great:
I once heard the late Abba Eban, one of Israel’s more polished and thoughtful diplomats and statesmen, give a talk in New York. The first thing to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he said, was the ease of its solubility. From this arresting start he went on to say, with the authority of a former foreign minister and UN representative, that the essential point was a simple one. Two peoples of roughly equivalent size have a claim to the same land. The solution was, obviously, to create two states side by side. Surely something so self-evident was within the wit of man to encompass? And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews) have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war. Religion poisons everything.
Update: There is further analysis from Edmund Standing.
Central to this problem is the involvement of far-left sects such as the Socialist Workers Party in the Palestinian rights campaign. The SWP, as Hundal notes, lacks ‘political maturity’. In seeking to show support for the Palestinian people, the SWP has indulged in a ridiculous pandering to Islamist groups and tends to simplistically assume that the religious rhetoric is simply an alternative cultural mode of expressing the same concerns it has.
At times, the level of pandering has been utterly bizarre. Take this Workers’ Liberty report of a 2002 picket of the Israeli embassy in London:
I had been there about half an hour when a woman from the SWP asked me if I would like to buy a scarf. I said simply, ‘no thank you’. I began looking around and saw that the majority of the women on the picket had their heads covered. I thought little of this as I expected there to be a lot of British and Palestinian muslim women on the picket. However, many other women who did not appear to be muslim and who appeared to be members of the SWP also had their heads covered, with the ‘intifada scarf’.
The SWP woman I had spoken to earlier then said to me, ‘Don’t you think you should at least cover your head as a mark of respect, this is a mainly Muslim protest?’. I was too shocked to give much of an intelligent reply, and it was only a little while later that I left.
Since when did supporting the rights of Palestinians and expressing solidarity with them involve something as silly as non-Muslims playing Muslim dress-up for the day?
The SWP has pretensions of being some kind of revolutionary vanguard in waiting, and presumably playing at being Islamists is a bit of fun to pass the boredom of being little more than a politically irrelevant cult. It also seems that for some people there’s something a bit ’sexy’ about treating a murderous Islamist group as ‘the resistance’ and donning an ‘intifada scarf’ in ’solidarity’.
But back in the real world, the consequences of an alliance of Islamists and SWP types are that protests organised in the name of peace in the Middle East will continue to attract chanting ‘rudeboys with kaffiyeh bandanas who like to prance around in front of the television’. And as Hundal rightly states, it doesn’t help the cause. Not one bit.
The world has changed since 2002, but the SWP have learned nothing.
Further update: also, see Darren Redstar.