Zionism and Islamophobia
17 February 2011
Anti-racism has to be consistent. It must apply consistent standards and attitudes, and defend all minorities. An opposition to racism which demonises one group in society in an effort to protect another, is no form of anti-racism at all.
Islamophobic hate crimes and the frequency of mainstream media reporting of Muslims in a negative light, have rightly caused a range of people to seek ways to define, explain and combat Islamophobia. This task is made all the more urgent by the appearance on British streets of the English Defence League, an Islamophobic street gang that carries the threat of violence and disorder wherever it marches.
A worrying trend within these efforts to tackle Islamophobia, are the attempts by some people to associate Zionism with Islamophobia, and to blame rising Islamophobia on 'Zionists', however this is defined. This is a conspiracy theory which originates with Islamist groups, but is no longer limited to those circles. It refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of any concerns about political Islamism, which it conflates with Islam and Muslims in general. It has nothing to do with fighting Islamophobia, but repeatedly shouts down any other voices in that debate.
The most blatant examples of this come from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), whose election campaigning last year comprised of little more than identifying MPs who they considered to be 'Zionist', and then blaming them for various ills suffered by Muslims both in the UK and abroad. A very brief perusal of their website finds an article describing Denis MacShane MP as a "Nutty Zionist"; another article describing the Daily Telegraph as part of the "Zio-Press" which targets "Muslim Groups"; and a rant about Israel's support for President Mubarak which includes:
Israel and its Zionist lobbies and politicians are mobilising to suppress democracy and impose Western backed dictatorship on the populations of the Middle East.
The conclusion that we can draw here is that there are dark forces on the global stage that want Muslims disenfranchised, oppressed, unemployed, hated, apolitical, poor, uneducated, abused, tortured and murdered in Muslim countries and in the West.
This is a struggle for Muslims against the ZioFascist and American efforts to undermine every prospect of advancement, freedom and progress for Muslims.
Others pursue this theme in a less egregious manner. iEngage, for example, often insinuate 'Zionists' or 'pro-Israel' groups into stories which portray them as seeking to undermine or damage Muslim interests. For example, these stories about Egypt, or UK counter-radicalisation policy, or the Iraq Inquiry, or the EDL. In each case, 'Zionist' is left undefined, but becomes a defining characteristic of the Islamists' target; and it is taken for granted that somebody who is a 'Zionist' is ipso facto anti-Muslim. This is fundamentally a conspiracy theory, in which Zionism and Zionist agitation are presented as explanatory factors for Islamophobia.
A second sophistry is often found at this point: the conflation of the political aims of Islamist groups with the wider interests of Muslims in general. It is entirely legitimate for anyone to be concerned about Islamist political activity and rhetoric, and to campaign against it in normal political ways. To take this from a Jewish perspective, the list of Islamist people and organisations who have expressed antisemitic views is extremely long: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Riyadh ul-Haq, Zakir Naik, the Hamas Charter, Press TV, Saudi-run weekend schools in the UK, numerous preachers filmed both secretly and openly in UK mosques, and so on. Women, homosexuals, Hindus and many other groups within society, including many Muslims, will readily appreciate why the promotion of antisemitic ideas by Islamist groups in the UK is a legitimate concern for British Jews.
Far too often, however, sincere expressions of concern are rejected by Islamists as examples of 'Zionists' unjustifiably attacking Muslims in general. The necessary work to protect Muslims from Islamophobia must not provide an excuse to shield Islamists who promote antisemitism. This does nothing to combat either form of prejudice, and will only increase tension and suspicion between the two communities.
It also leaves no room for others to express their concerns about Islamism. Those Islamists who see 'Zionists' as their primary adversary apply that label to anyone who opposes them, whether it is justified or not. Inayat Bunglawala claims that "a shrill and orchestrated campaign from pro-Israel elements" - and nobody else, it seems - is campaigning against iEngage, and demands "an independent, credible and effective APPG on Islamophobia and not one that is subservient to pro-Israeli interests" - as if the two things are diametrically opposed. Yet if you think about it for just a second, there is no reason why someone cannot support Israel in the Middle East and also oppose hate crimes against Muslims in Britain, unless you accept the idea that people simply pick sides according to who is Muslim, or who is not.
Regrettably, this muddying of the water on Islamophobia is not limited to Islamists. Common sense liberal opinion often views Israel and Zionism as embodying an anachronistic and brutal ethno-politics which is an affront to modern human rights. Given this, the Islamist association of Zionism with Islamophobia can resonate in wider circles.
One example is a recent BBC documentary about Dutch Islamophobic politician Geert Wilders, which spent a disproportionate amount of time examining his connections to extreme right-wing Jews, and the time he spent in Israel as a young man. As one review put it:
The whole thesis of the film seemed to be that Zionism, Israel and Jews are the inspiration for Wilders alleged incitement to race hate.
Then there was Roy Greenslade, writing for the Guardian's media blog about the Daily Star's support for the EDL. He raised the fact that the Star's owner, Richard Desmond, is Jewish, with the observation that "As a Jew, he may well have negative views of Muslims." The Guardian quickly removed this line and Greenslade readily apologised, having recognised that he was peddling a perjorative stereotype about Jews. But would he and the Guardian have been so quick to recognise the problem if he had originally written that "As a Zionist, he may well have negative views of Muslims"?
There are lots of reasons why this growing theme of Zionist Islamophobia is a problem. One is simply that most Jews, in Britain and around the world, consider themselves to be Zionists, in that they support the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. Last year's JPR Israel Survey (pdf) found that 72% of British Jews self-define as Zionists. Demonising the term 'Zionist' means, in practical terms, demonising most Jews. You only have to read Monday's Independentcolumn by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, which ascribes all manner of racist hatreds to 'Zionists' - as ever, the word is not defined further - before alighting on UK Jewish faith schools as the locus of this incitement, to see how this demonisation takes place.
To promote a view that implies that 72% of British Jews are inveterate Islamophobes is obviously dangerous, in its potential to encourage antisemitism. Yet the way Jews define Zionism, and the way the likes of MPAC or iEngage do, is radically different: the JPR survey also found that most British Jews who self-define as Zionists support freezing West Bank settlement building and giving up land for piece. The Zionism/Islamophobia narrative presents a monolithic, wholly negative view of Zionism, that is really just another stereotype.
Another reason why this is a dangerous development is that it does nothing to combat Islamophobia. Jews understand racism and prejudice all too well, and most serious efforts to combat racism over the past 40 years have had Jewish community involvement at some point along the way. There is no widespread phenomenon of Jews carrying out hate crimes against other minorities. Nevertheless, Islamists and others, perhaps distracted and encouraged by the sight of EDL supporters waving Israeli flags, think that by tilting at Zionism they are combating Islamophobia. They are doing nothing of the kind.
It has often been said that antisemitism is not only damaging for Jews, it also damages antisemites. It renders them stupid and ineffective, good only for promoting futile anger and hatred. There are important and real distinctions to be made between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, but this is one example of something they have in common. This latest anti-Zionist trope is bad for its victims and it is bad for its proponents and those who stand with them. Worse still, it is very damaging indeed for the struggle against Islamophobia. By picking upon an imaginary target that is so closely associated with another British minority, it not only deepens mistrust between communities; it leaves the real (and far more complex) causes of Islamophobia free to keep on wreaking havoc.