Why just Gaza? What about the Uighurs and Syrian Muslims?

As the by-election in Batley and Spen shows this week, very few people are prepared to ask the difficult question: why do so many Muslims focus their anger on Palestine?


Supporters of Palestine wave flags as they hold a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on May 29, 2021. - More than 1,000 rallied Saturday in Washington in support of Palestinians and calling for an end to US aid to Israel. The demonstration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial came as a ceasefire that ended 11 days of intense fighting between Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip has so far held. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

June 24, 2021 11:34

The other day, the prime minister of Pakistan, the former cricketer and socialite Imran Khan, was interviewed by the American-based TV journalist, Jonathan Swan. Swan did something that is rarely done by Western journalists and taxed Khan with his absence of concern for the Uighurs of Xinjiang (Kahn refused to condemn China’s genocidal treatment of the Muslim minority) and his simultaneous anger about Islamophobia in the West. “I concentrate on what is happening on my border”, retorted Khan. “This is on your border,” replied Swan. And so it is.

In Khan’s case you might excuse his hypocrisy on the cynical grounds of geopolitics. China is his local superpower and Chinese money washes around his area. But his capacity to shut one eye while opening the other as widely as possible is far from unique to him.

Last week, in a rather desultory fashion, I asked a few people on social media who understand the politics to explain to me why it was that recent events in Gaza were now being touted as a major explanation for Labour’s apparent difficulties in the forthcoming Batley and Spen by-election. The claims that George Galloway’s candidature was, though doomed, siphoning off enough local Muslim votes from Labour to deny it victory made no obvious sense to me. One famously vocal, former Labour MP for a seat in the area simply would not engage with the question of why Gaza would make a difference to the way ordinary voters cast their ballots in Yorkshire.

Voters in the constituency have the usual array of concerns, plus a few: education loss during the pandemic, the bulging waiting lists for NHS treatment, uncertainty about post-pandemic recovery, more local issues. If minorities were concerned about their position, you might expect them to take to the Labour candidate, who is not only a local woman but the sister of the late MP for the area Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far right racist almost five years ago. In other words, Kim Leadbeater is from a family that has suffered directly and tragically for its opposition to prejudice.

Yet Sir Keir Starmer was the recipient of an open letter recently from five local Muslim organisations expressing discomfort at Labour’s stance on two questions: Islamophobia and… Gaza. Pointing out that Muslims had, by and large, supported the party for 40 years, the letter talked about “issues facing Muslims (that) are specific to our community and area”. The concerns named were Islamophobia, the Prevent programme, “as well as ongoing international crises in Palestine, Kashmir, Xinjiang and beyond”.

Kashmir is to be expected: many in the community come from that region and have relatives there still. But though it and Xinjiang got a mention in the letter, an entire paragraph concerns Palestine, about which the authors write, “the ongoing occupation, violence and oppression taking place in Palestine is an issue almost inseparable from the hearts of thousands in Batley and Spen, including its Muslim constituents”. The letter condemns Labour for not having taken a harder position towards Israel and demands that Labour support a boycott policy.

There is no such demand in the latter concerning China, India (over Kashmir) or any other foreign state. Nothing about Myanmar and the Rohingya, about Assad. Gaza alone appears to be on Batley’s borders. To some on the Labour far left, it is simply a matter of welcome solidarity for a noble cause. The author Paul Mason, something of a connoisseur of street protest, wrote in the Guardian that Labour was facing “a perfect storm far beyond West Yorkshire. All over Britain, the anger of young Muslims has triggered a wider radicalisation of young people of colour around the #FreePalestine slogan.”

This week, an unnamed Labour official was accused of racism for having suggested that part of the party’s problem with Muslim voters in Batley and Spen had been Starmer’s stance against antisemitism. Many readers of the JC, by contrast, may feel that there was a grain of truth here; that the vigorous and necessary distancing of the party from the days of the wreath-laying Jeremy Corbyn was indeed interpreted somehow as the party taking sides in the Middle East.

Even so, why Gaza? Why just Palestine? Why are the only Muslims that some other Muslims seem to really care about — to get “widely radicalised” about — the relatively small number over there? This is the question neither Mason nor my former MP will deal with.

It is easy at this point just to reach for the anti-semitism explanation. Maybe there is an element of that. Perhaps it is more religiously based and has something to do with the status of Jerusalem. Conceivably, there is an almost unconscious identification with people seen as the victims of “white colonialism”. It occurs to me that as for Arab countries in the past, Palestine makes a wonderfully convenient rallying point which creates no internal difficulties for Muslim leaders.

But here’s the thing for readers of this paper: what should Jews make of it all? Everyone can sit and kvetch and worry about it, but fundamentally what we have here is a terrible lack of dialogue going on.

What is happening is a sign that the discussion has stopped. How do we get it going again?

June 24, 2021 11:34

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