Whenever there is conflict in the Middle East, there is a spike in antisemitism from small but vocal sections of British Muslim communities. There is no way of getting round this fact.
Antisemitism took root many decades ago in some parts of Muslim communities. It goes back to the mid-1980s and is partly fuelled by the rise of Islamism, or political Islam.
The vast majority of British Muslims are not Islamists. Islamism is a politicised version of the faith of Islam, where the state and its structures merge with Shariah Law, meaning that faith and politics meld into one. Within this melting pot, those who want to see the destruction of the State of Israel and the erasure of Jewish self-determination have become the most vocal and influential of my co-religionists.
This was fuelled by the Iranian revolution, the Islamist take-over of Pakistan by General Zia-Ul-Haq in the 1970s, and the conflict in Afghanistan against the Russians. We should not underestimate how these three geopolitical events influenced British Muslim communities from the 1980s onwards.
Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in mainly Arab-majority countries have been active in co-opting the Israel and Palestine conflict into their narratives. They alone can find a solution to the conflict, they claim. Be it political or military, this solution involves the takeover of the whole of the region and the de-facto annihilation of Israel.
Their influence has been wider than just on Arabic-speaking Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa. Central to their rhetoric has been the “liberation of Jerusalem”, otherwise known as the complete destruction of Israel. Like many groups, the Muslim Brotherhood has historically suggested simplistic solutions to complex problems, with the concept of the victimisation of Muslims at the core of its campaigning. What better focus than the Israel and Palestine conflict to hang this on, in order to try and gain more followers and expand their networks?
The Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan Al-Banna, was an admirer of Hitler and the Nazis. During the 1930s and 40s, the Brotherhood became far more political in nature and developed networks that targeted Coptic Christians and government officials.
It started to implement a policy of targeting minorities and affirming violent jihad as a means of asserting its domination. One of its supporters was Sayyid Qutb, who developed a violent political theology from what he had experienced in his travels in the United States.
Qutb saw civilisation emanating from the dawn of Islam. Periods before that were termed as “barbarous” or “jahiliyya”. Qutb’s diatribe was focused on Christians and the impact of the Crusades on the one hand, and Jews in the Middle East on the other, who were viewed as attempting to undermine Islam and side with its enemies. In other words, writers like Qutb purposefully placed a target on the backs of Christians and Jews in the region.
We should not underestimate the impact of Qutb’s thinking and writings on the Arab World and in places like Pakistan. His virulent antisemitism once again fused political Islam with a desire to subjugate Jews, to intimidate, harass and threaten them. Central to this hate was the “liberation of Jerusalem” and the annihilation of Israel.
Qutb started by associating the State of Israel with Jewish power, which he then linked to those Jews who had resisted Islam at its earliest formation. This link, made to re-enforce and normalise antisemitism, ushering it into the core of Islamist thinking, came secondary to his principal aim of toppling Socialist Arab regimes at the time.
Linked into the antisemitism of Qutb were subtle narratives that form core tropes that we see time and time again: that Jews were the epitome of evil, working against God’s word in Islam, who also spread atheism and instigated revolutions.
Qutb wrote: “One single line inexorably connects the battles and the fighting of the Prophet against the Arab idolators and Jews of the seventh century Arabia, the crusades of later medieval times, modern western colonialism, and the current day conflict between Zionism and the Arab Islamic world. In fact, both sides do not have any choice but to participate in this inevitable and eternal struggle between good and evil.”
Within this statement, Qutb also sweeps up European antisemitism and places it into Islamist discourse. In Qutb’s view, the “Jewish campaign against Islam was being conducted from two sides, the physical and the spiritual”. The former was a “bodily and material struggle against Islam’s society, polity and civilisation”. Worse was Qutb’s belief that “Jews had infiltrated Muslim societies”. He went on to write : “they carry Muslim names, but actually they are Jews in disguise who fulfil the ancient role of the Jews as the Muslims’ worst enemy; they conspire against Islam from within.”
Islamist ideologies therefore portrayed Jews as essentially evil and divided the world into good and bad, with the enemy personifying all that is reviled, a form of the ‘Satanic Jew’.
So, what happened here in the UK? British Muslim communities started to arrive because of Commonwealth links and in larger numbers in the 1960s and 1970s. Many arrived because of work, poverty, familial bonds and seeking asylum because of persecution. My family and I, for example, arrived as refugees, having been thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin. But the groups of Muslims who arrived in the UK were not animated over the Israel and Palestine issue. They came from villages that were influenced by Sufi practices, such as the veneration of saints, and they came from mainstream Sunni Muslim populations. They believed in Sharia but they were not politicised, and believed in a spiritual and familial connection to religion.
Yet today, many of the children of these migrants and refugees can be found in demonstrations about the Israel and Palestine conflict, with some of them involved in chants of “from the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free”.
What has led to the hyper-polarisation of many of these individuals?
During the 1980s and 1990s, major military and intelligence drives against Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist networks took place in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Libya and other Arab countries, which had strongly Socialist-leaning leaders. The persecution that took place meant that many were imprisoned, killed or tortured, and others fled and sought asylum in Europe and the UK. Some of these were involved in Islamist networks and groups, and ensconced themselves in mosques and local communities. Highly active, politicised and fluent Arabic speakers, they passed off their activism as Islamic text and scripture, with many unable to know the difference because of a lack of religious literacy. Language difficulties and a lack of access to good scholarly sources and religious leaders meant that the influence of such individuals within sections of Muslim communities became amplified.
Anti-Israel and antisemitic leaflets, cartoons, books and materials that were sourced, published and circulated by these Islamist self-declared leaders brought a new influence into local Muslim communities. Some young people within these communities were experiencing a clash of cultures, growing up in the West yet feeling discriminated and marginalised.
Seeking a sense of belonging, they were drawn to the rhetoric of Islamist leaders who talked about gaining power and control through a more aggressive and violent interpretation of Islam, something that the parents of these young people would not have associated with the Islam that they followed.
The Lebanese civil war and wars with Israel, the Intifadas and the coverage of Israel in news sources meant that the Jewish State became front-and-centre in campaigns by Islamist groups now established by the 1990s.
Islamist discourse relentlessly revised past Jewish-Muslim relations to prove the Jews’ “inherent vices”, projecting the past onto today’s Jews, their characters and ways of thinking, and predicting their inevitable demise.
In short, Islamist discourse was the scaffolding for the dehumanisation of Britain’s Jews.