Fighting hatred together or setting communities apart
15 Apr 2015 by Dave Rich
CST’s work combating antisemitism is widely recognised as a model for others to follow and we are proud to help other communities combat bigotry, prejudice and hatred. We do this directly, such as by advising the Muslim organisation Tell MAMA, or via networks like Facing Facts! We do so because we believe our shared experiences can help to bring communities together.
The opposite approach is typified by MEND, a Muslim advocacy group that used to be called iEngage. iEngage often referred to “Zionist” or “pro-Israel” groups in conspiratorial terms and portrayed them as hostile to Muslims. This led CST to express our concern that iEngage had “a troubling attitude to antisemitism." Sadly it appears that its rebranding into MEND has not changed this. In a talk at Cheadle Mosque in Greater Manchester last November, MEND Chief Executive Sufyan Gulam Ismail criticised the relationship between Tell MAMA and CST in these terms [24:54]:
We don’t want the Government to fob us off with some phony thing called Tell MAMA, which has got a made pro-Zionist pretty much heading it or in a very senior capacity and is making all sorts of comments we might not agree with when it comes to homosexuality, to be recording Islamophobia.
Ismail is presumably referring to former CST Chief Executive Richard Benson who is now a co-Chair of Tell MAMA (alongside former MP and Minister Shahid Malik). Ismail’s attitude is deeply troubling and his comments are irresponsible, given the proximity in Manchester of large Muslim, Jewish and LGBT communities. The full talk can be listened to here:
iEngage was removed from the secretariat of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia due to concern over its Islamist sympathies. Using its new name of MEND it appears to have had more success building links with Police & Crime Commissioners, working with the Crown Prosecution Service and holding fringe events at Party conferences. It is currently holding hustings for General Election candidates to meet primarily Muslim audiences.
In his talk in Cheadle, and a similar talk at a mosque in Bolton the month before, MEND CEO Sufyan Ismail consistently used “Israeli lobby” as a synonym for British Jews, which he presented as a political adversary for British Muslims. In both talks, Ismail described MEND’s lobbying efforts in support of a Parliamentary vote on Palestinian statehood in October 2014 that was overwhelmingly passed by MPs. Ismail put it in these terms, first in Bolton [1:54]:
The other night in Parliament, for the first time in British history, first time in 300 years of the Israeli lobby’s presence in the United Kingdom, first time in British history they lost a vote in Parliament. Do you know this? And the Muslim community didn’t just beat the Israeli lobby, we battered them.
Then in Cheadle, he described it like this [14:54]:
Have a look at this, in 300 years the Israeli lobby has not lost a vote in Parliament, for 300 years since it’s been in any serious organised fashion it has not lost any serious vote. A few weeks ago a vote was carried out on recognising Palestine... The Israeli lobby wasn’t just beaten, they were battered, absolutely battered. It shows you, when we’re organised we can achieve results. All they’ve had for these years, and I mean ‘they’ in a collective sense of the word, and we haven’t, is a game plan and a strategy.
To talk of an “Israeli lobby” being present and organised in Britain for 300 years is nonsensical. It only makes sense as a synonym for British Jews, which Ismail then counterposes with “the Muslim community.” This risks increasing hostility and suspicion between the two communities, rather than building trust and empathy as CST tries to do via our work with Tell MAMA and other Muslim organisations and individuals.
Throughout his talk in Bolton, Ismail repeatedly compared Muslim experiences to Jewish ones in a way that risked encouraging a sense of grievance towards Jews amongst his Muslim audience. There are too many examples to list in this blog post, but this segment, discussing the 2013 arson attack on a Somali community centre in Muswell Hill, north London, is typical [7:38]:
This is Muswell Hill masjid, burnt to the ground completely. When’s the last time you saw a church burnt to the ground or a synagogue burnt to the ground or a gurdwara? I bet you can’t think of one. But mosques are now being burnt to the ground completely. Nobody was in the mosque at the time. Did you hear one politician condemn it? Did you even hear one politician condemn it? You have a bit of graffiti on the back of a synagogue or a gurdwara or whatever, and – oh by the way, in case you didn’t know, as taxpayers in the UK you pay for security outside synagogues. Were you aware of this? You actually pay for security guards outside synagogues. The government pays for synagogues to be protected. Certainly doesn’t pay for mosques to be protected.
As others have pointed out, Ismail is wrong to say that no politicians condemned the arson. Several did so and some also visited the Somali community in Muswell Hill to show their support. Ismail was also wrong to claim, in October 2014, that the government paid for security guards at synagogues, although they have since pledged to do so following jihadist terrorist attacks on Jewish communities in Paris and Copenhagen.
Much more concerning is Ismail’s use of the Muswell Hill arson to sow division by telling his Muslim audience that they get a raw deal compared to British Jews. In fact, immediately after the arson the local Jewish community in north London gave more practical support and emotional solidarity to the Somali community than any other ethnic or religious sector of the local population. This included provision of space in Jewish buildings and a solidarity march, organised by the local Rabbi, which was reported on national news. The Islamic Society of Britain gave Muswell Hill synagogue an award for their work with the Somali community as a result.
If British Jews are at all relevant to the story of the Muswell Hill arson, it should be to show that our communities can work together for the greater good and that we should not seek to gain advantage at the expense of other communities. Instead, MEND’s Chief Executive chooses to push the opposite message to British Muslims. It is a disappointing approach that is more likely to increase prejudice than to reduce it, and that suggests MEND remains as problematic an organisation as its predecessor, iEngage.