Protest, the Intifada and anti-Semitism: the confusions of moralism

Omar al-Qattan
19 September 2002

An extraordinarily misguided and confused rant by Douglas Murray made its appearance in openDemocracy last week. The article was a passionate attack on what Murray terms the ‘unholy alliance’, which brought together the ‘Stop the War Coalition’ and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), who co-organised the huge anti-war demonstration in London on 28 September.

Murray’s main point is surprisingly correct; but it is his argument, and the generalisations to which he so readily jumps, which struck me as both confused and specious. The Stop the War Coalition and MAB are indeed strange bedfellows: one is a pacifist organisation, the other a religious network of groups with various, and often contradictory, beliefs, some of which are far from pacifist. Yet in his article, Murray’s principal objection is to the anti-Israeli elements in the march, which he groups together, without a hint of nuance or doubt, as necessarily anti-Semitic and violent.

The Palestine factor

In the last year, as Israel’s brutal penetration and destruction of Palestinian towns and villages has intensified, public opinion in the UK has grown increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinians. There have been several very successful marches in the capital, two of which I attended. It is true that, as in every march of this nature, there is a considerable variety in the groups and individuals who attend them. This was very visible in the pro-Palestinian marches, where left-wing parties, secular pacifists and Muslim groups were united in their wish to protest against the Israeli incursions.

Indeed, on both occasions, many of my own Palestinian and Arab friends – secularists mostly, or liberal Muslims – were dismayed to find such a large turnout of organised Muslim groups who were often chanting strongly religious slogans which clearly sympathised with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two Palestinian factions with openly religious ideologies. Many of us worried that these elements would put off many sympathetic members of the British public, who would inevitably see them as alien and menacing, particularly after 11 September 2001.

In this sense, Murray is right to criticise the careless associations into which the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) allowed themselves to be drawn, since walking side-by-side with a group of excitable youths dressed up as suicide-bombers not only harms the anti-war movement but the pro-Palestinian camp as well, which has gained tremendously by its non-sectarian character.

At the same time, my own feeling was that the large turnout of members of the British Muslim community was a cause not for concern but for celebration (why, after all, should they not feel outrage at the situation in Palestine?). I also think that there is much work to be done in lobbying these groups to better understand the situation in Palestine and, particularly, the disastrous consequences of the strategies of violent resistance of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigade.

In particular, I feel a growing need to constantly disentangle the conflict from its mythological and religious roots; that this is not a war between Jews and Muslims, not an argument over God, but a situation in which one people have been dispossessed, then occupied and finally humiliated by another, far more powerful colonial enterprise disguised by a hotchpotch of biblical discourses.

On the level of public representation, it is also clear that MAB and other religiously-inspired groupings must be made to understand the damage they do to the anti-war and pro-Palestinian cause by allowing their members to incite violence – whether by dressing up as suicide-bombers or by chanting hysterical slogans.

Morality, yes – but politics too

But Douglas Murray chooses to group every single pro-Palestinian demonstrator as ‘supporting…incitement to war and blessing of terrorism against the Jewish State.’ Then, he adds his most specious and ignorant statement: ‘Just in case you don’t know what this means, the Intifada is the name of the process in which young Palestinian men and (now) women, pack explosives around their waists, walk into busy shopping areas and restaurants and kill Jews.’

What can one say in response to such mendacity (or is it ignorance)? Murray makes it sound like some kind of pastime in which Palestinians engage out of inherent bloody-mindedness. But before we tackle this issue, a word on the suicide-bombings. Throughout this year, both in the Western and, more particularly, in the Palestinian and Israeli media, the issue of these suicide-bombings has always cropped up in debates about the situation in the Middle East. I have personally been involved in several public discussions on the issue, often finding myself in a minority who thought (and still think) that the strategy of violence is not only dangerous and counter-productive, but also unethical. It was, for me and many others, the process by which the victims of Israel’s occupation were beginning to imitate their oppressor, blemishing the justice of their cause and making it very difficult for people all over the world, including those inside Israel, to sympathise with their suffering. This debate is a lively one inside Palestine and, during my last two visits there over the late summer, it has become clear to me that many people – for different reasons – have begun to oppose these acts.

The problem is that Murray – like many others – chooses to scramble, in a fit of ludicrous outrage, to the moral high ground, perhaps because he has neither the knowledge nor the courage nor the humanity to deal with a situation as complex as that in Palestine. This makes it easy for him to treat the issue as a moral abstraction – but morality alone is never adequate to understand or judge a situation.

Yes, the killing of innocent people, whoever they may be, is abhorrent, but so is turning away from the suffering of others. The Intifada – with all its errors and many of the ethically unacceptable methods employed by some of its leaders – has not been a war against Jews, but rather an outburst of revolt against a situation of intolerable and humiliating military occupation. And if it produces some hot-headed responses and misguided slogans among its supporters in the UK and elsewhere, this in no way undermines the entirely justifiable and legally-enshrined premise upon which it was launched: the right of an occupied people to resist their occupier.

Finally, Murray claims that ‘some of us have never understood why you can say what you like about Israel and it’s not about Jews, while the Muslim lobby thinks an attack on an Islamic country is automatically a war on Islam.’ Well, perhaps he would like to put the first part of the question to some eminent anti-Zionist thinkers, such as Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm or Jacques Derrida, who happen to have been born into Jewish families (just as I happen to have been born into a Muslim one). As regards the second part, he is absolutely right; the continuing occupation and humiliation of the Palestinians and their consequent revolt is not a war against Muslims or Jews, nor the forthcoming war on Iraq a war against Islam.

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