Here is my interview with Hasan Afzal, the director of a new organization whose voice desperately needs to be heard, British Muslims for Israel.
AL: You note at your site (British Muslims for Israel) that:
“[We] do not believe the Arab-Israeli conflict is a war over land or religion, but it is a clash of ideas. Israel, as a Western liberal democracy, extends equal rights to all of its citizens, regardless of religion or race. Muslims have more rights in Israel than in any other country in the Middle East.”
Can you please elaborate on your background, what motivated you to become involved with BMI, and whether you think there are more Muslims in the UK who share your views on Israel than many might believe.
HA: I’m a practising Muslim and I come from a secular background. Politics and religion was never really mixed together in my household, issues like Islamism, the burqa, the effects of Wahabism were a whole world away. In fact, I first found out what a burqa was when the issue was raised on the news; before then it wasn’t even a discussion point on the dinner-table.
I became interested in Middle East politics because I was curious about the whole situation. Who we’re these ‘Palestinians’ and ‘Israelis’, I was hearing so much about? why did the conflict even exist? and why did people blame terrorism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
What motivates me and other members of British Muslims for Israel is just how dangerous the debate has become. No longer are Muslims in Britain talking about Middle East peace between two states but it’s considered fair-game to ask ‘Should Israel even exist?’. This is dangerous, not only because to even consider the question is an act of delusion but, because I consider it a trojan-horse to more violent aspects of Islamism.
Yes, I believe more Muslims in the UK share my beliefs on Israel. We know they do. There wouldn’t be a British Muslims for Israel if it wasn’t for a coalition of Muslims who believe in Israel’s moral right to existence. The atmosphere in Britain is toxic enough if you happen to be a friend of Israel, you can imagine the challenges Muslim friends of Israel face. However, we don’t intend to be disheartened by this. We can’t afford to be.
AL: What do you think fuels the animosity by many Muslims in the UK towards Jews and Israel? And, other than the work your group is doing, what more can be done to counter the hateful ideologies which give rise to such bigotry?
HA: There are a number of reasons. Regarding the animosity by Muslims, I think it’s because the boundaries of the debate of the Middle East have dramatically changed. The conflict is now sold to Muslims as if it is their religious duty to do something about it. I’ve observed this trend personally. I’ve heard speakers at Palestinian Solidarity talks refer to the Palestinians as their ‘Muslim brothers and sisters’. This religious rhetoric widens the goal-posts when it comes to Palestinian and anti-Israeli activism. Beforehand, you needed to know at least the basics behind the conflict, such as key actors involved, key historical events etc. Now, your only qualification is if you’re a Muslim, and if you are then ‘why aren’t you helping your Palestinian brothers?’.
Regarding animosity in the UK, the media plays a huge role. It’s no understatement to suggest that both sides of the conflict aren’t reported. In fact, I wonder if news editors even think there is another side to the conflict. News on the Middle East conflict is usually in two flavours. The first is usually seen if Hamas, or another terrorist group, launch an attack on Israel. Western media outlets will report of the attack, but will always go out of their way to add a caveat. Take, for example, the recent rocket attacks that hit Southern Israel. One news outlet described them as ‘Palestinian strikes’ as to suggest this was a legitimate, clinical hit on an enemy. Another described the rockets as ‘so-called rockets’. What is ‘so-called’ about a Qassam rocket? We’re made to think that the most these weapons can do is leave a bruise on you.
The second is Israel’s, eventual, retaliation to these attacks. Rarely are we told that these strikes are a reaction to the actions of Hamas and that they are specifically targeted [at specific terrorists or their weaponry]. You would think that every now and then, Israeli commanders are struck with a need for blood and just ‘fire at will’ at anyone in Gaza. This lack of reporting plays right into the hands Islamists who can victimise themselves and make themselves look like the victims in the conflict.
Things haven’t got this bad simply because the Palestinian leadership know how to play the media. They also know that going to war with Israel would be disastrous for them. What the Israeli government has failed to understand is that the conflict has moved into the 21st century. What a bullet can’t do, a carefully chosen story, with the relevant quotes and a snuff-picture will do your cause wonders. In other words, the other side realises that though they can never defeat Israel militarily, if they can define the conflict, re-write its history and put up a convincing narrative then although Israel may have won their battles, they will win the war of ideas.
Israeli policymakers need to understand, as a matter of urgency, that the next phase of the conflict will be fought, not only in the Gaza strip, but in the seats of television studios, radio stations, blogs, social media outlets and so on. There needs to be a sophisticated push-back from our side.
AL. You note on your site that groups such as Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, Viva Palestina, Stop the War don’t speak for you. You also note that:
“Recent events have shown that groups such as Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade are determined to kill indiscriminately and use ordinary Palestinians as hostages to their cause. We urge all British Muslims to condemn these senseless attacks which block any attempts for peace and ruin the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians”.
Why does the mainstream media (including the Guardian) in your view give such radical groups so much prominence, and inversely why do you think they rarely give license to more moderate voices within the UK Muslim community who condemn terrorism committed by Hamas and other extremist groups?
HA: The reason why movements like PSC and VP get the coverage they get is because, for a long time, they’ve been the only game in town. My answer to this question is linked to my answer above. The debate has been allowed to become so polarised and the groups you’ve mentioned have hijacked the human rights agenda to the extent that anyone coming forward as an advocate for Israel has to first redefine the human rights aspect of the conflict and then talk loud and clear enough to withstand the heat you get from anti-Israel lobby.
By moderate, do you mean liberal and free-thinking? If so, they are the minority in the Muslim community. So behind are moderate Muslims that I would argue that traditional Muslims (the vast majority) are slowly being swayed to the right of the community. Groups like British Muslims for Israel, and others, have to push-back and create some ‘breathing-space’ where it’s perfectly okay to call yourself a British Muslim and a friend of Israel.
AL: Finally, how can people in the UK who support your views become involved with BMI and its initiatives?
HA: British Muslims for Israel was set up in early 2011, and we have a number of strategies for re-taking the dialogue back from the extreme left and promoting a more friendly atmosphere for pro-Israeli advocacy. We are an organisation in its infancy. We’re part of the umbrella group The Institute for Middle East Democracy.
People who wish to become involved can email us at BritishMuslimsForIsrael@gmail.com.
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