• Tuesday, April 16, 2024


Faith leaders say Britons should champion unity amid Middle East conflict

Community leaders encourage dialogue to prevent destabilising of relationships


RAISING THEIR VOICES: A pro-Palestine march in London last Saturday (21) (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Sarwar Alam

FAITH and community leaders, activists and MPs have urged Britons not to let their anger and frustrations over the Israel-Palestine conflict to spill over into violence on the streets of the UK.

On October 7, Hamas militants stormed into Israel from the Gaza Strip on killing at least 1,400 people and taking more than 220 hostages, according to Israeli officials.

More than 5,700 Palestinians have been killed across the Gaza Strip in retaliatory Israeli bombardments, the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry said.

The troubles in the Middle East have had repercussions around the world, including in the UK, where there has been a significant increase in hate crimes. Between the October 1 and 18, the Metropolitan Police recorded 218 antisemitic incidents, up from 15 across the same period last year.

The number of Islamophobic incidents has risen to 101, up from 42 last year.

Officers dedicated to community safety have so far visited 445 schools and 1,930 places of worship.

Zara Mohammed, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, told Eastern Eye Britain’s Muslim and Jewish communities should step away from blaming each other for the events in Israel and Palestine. “We want to send a clear message that we’re against any kind of hate crime and intolerance, whether that be Islamophobia or anti-Semitism,” Mohammed said.

Zara Mohammed

“It’s important that we know that what’s happening over there isn’t being committed by our neighbours and friends here. That is the Israeli state. We need to differentiate who is carrying this out.

“We have been living together as multi-faith communities for decades and we can’t lose sight of that. We should be champions of justice. We should be champions of unity.”

David Mason, executive director of The UK Jewish Voice on Refugees and Racial Justice, told Eastern Eye that while it can’t be denied that there is a religious element to the conflict – with the vast majority of Hamas’s victims being Jews and Israel retaliation seeing mainly Muslim deaths – he insisted that communities in the UK can show that these two faiths can live side by side.

“Jewish people feel very threatened at the moment – walking down the streets, there’s a sense of fear. And I am sure Muslims feel the same, with the rise of Islamophobia as well,” Mason said.

“We are geographically distanced from the conflict, which actually means we have the potential and maybe even a responsibility to try and say ‘we can work through this as humans’.

“We are Jews. We are Muslims. We can’t extricate from the identity. The Jewish identity and Israeliness at the core is something that does link together. People who are Muslim will feel a connection to their Muslim brethren in Palestine. But we need to see the human – redeeming (behaviour); the humanness in all of this.”

David Mason (Pic credit: Bill Swersey/HIAS)

During his time as a rabbi in Muswell Hill, north London, Mason spent 20 years doing interfaith community work.

He spoke of his pride when the London Islamic Cultural Society and Mosque, in Wood Green, reached out to the synagogue he used to lead, after Hamas’s attack on Israel.

“To be a Muslim leader, at this moment in time, wanting to reach out to the Jewish community is not simple. But this mosque did, at a time of difficulty, they reached out,” Mason said.

“There are other imams I’ve talked to and a number of them put a statement out condemning the Hamas attack and they will get kickback as well.”

In the letter, 15 imams and scholars said they “denounce Hamas’s killing and abduction of innocent people” and “unequivocally condemn the killing of civilians” in both Israel and Gaza.

Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra

Among those signing the letter was Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, a senior imam from Leicester and former assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain. “We felt that it was important to speak out against what we believe to be something that Islam does not permit, the killing of civilians and the taking of civilian hostages. And as believers in that, it was important for us to say exactly that,” Mogra told Eastern Eye.

Another imams who signed the letter condemning Hamas was Qari Asim, from the Makkah Masjid Mosque in Leeds who, until last year, was the deputy chair of the government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group.

Asim insisted it was important the group condemned the actions of Hamas in order to create a distinction between the terrorist organisation and Muslim communities.

“The Jewish community in this country does not represent the policies of the government of Israel. And similarly, all Muslims are not in support of the un-Islamic actions of Hamas,” Asim told Eastern Eye.

Qari Asim

“Therefore, it’s important that distinction is made – because when we conflate the Jewish community with the abhorrent actions of the government of Israel, it can lead to anti-semitism. Similarly, when the Jewish community conflates peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstrations with actions of Hamas, it can lead to anti-Muslim sentiments.”

Last week, Asim invited Lord John Mann, independent adviser to the government on antisemitism, to Makkah Mosque. “I wanted Muslims to hear about the anti-semitic experiences the Jewish community are going through. At the same time, Lord Mann listened to the experiences of the Muslim community and some of the anti-Muslim prejudice they are experiencing.

“We must continue to maintain dialogue and not let relationships between Muslim and Jewish communities be destabilised in this country.”

Lord John Mann (Centre)

Afzal Khan, MP for Manchester Gorton, has been telling his Muslim and Jewish constituents to remember their shared history.

“Our message to Britain’s Muslims and Jews – our friends, our neighbours – is simple: despite our emotional turmoil, we cannot and should not hold each other responsible for the events in the Middle East,” said Khan.

“Just as the Jewish communities in Prestwich or Alwoodley are not responsible for the actions of Netanyahu’s government, neither are Muslims in Longsight or Harehills responsible for the actions of Hamas. “All over the world, we have lived together for more than a thousand years. And today, we find Muslim and Jewish communities living harmoniously side by side in Manchester, Leeds and right across the UK.”

Afzal Khan

Last Saturday (21), more than 100,000 demonstrators turned out in central London to show their support for Palestine and demand an end to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

A total of 10 arrests were made linked to the protests in London and five police officers sustained minor injuries, the Metropolitan police said.

The next day, on Sunday (22), around 20,000 people rallied in London’s Trafalgar Square to demand the release of more than 200 hostages taken by Hamas.

The Met Police said two people had been arrested for shouting abuse towards those taking part in the pro-Israel rally. One for a racially aggravated public order offence after a man drove past shouting anti-Semitic abuse.

Zaki Cooper

Zaki Cooper, who is co-chair of the British Indian Jewish Association, was at the rally in Trafalgar Square and he said he has noticed rising tensions at rallies.

“Some of the demonstrators in central London and elsewhere have shown support for Hamas and behaved in a menacing and threatening way,” said Cooper.

“This is despicable and shocking in equal measure. With good reason, the Jewish community is feeling anxious and vulnerable at this time.

“Alongside a sharp rise in antisemitism, there has also been a spike in Islamophobia, and we should be alive to that too. Whenever there is any activity which incites racial or religious hated, the police should make arrests and prosecutions should follow. We need a zero-tolerance approach to such behaviour.”

Mogra urged the Muslim community to respect all Britons’ democratic right to demonstrate. “It’s very important that if we see people who are supporting Israel, we understand they have the same rights as we have when protest in favour of a free Palestine,” said Mogra.

“We should not become confrontational. We should be respectful and not add fuel to the fire and bring conflict here in Britain and into our neighbourhoods.”

Mogra added: “By targeting Jewish people in this country, we are not serving the cause of liberating Palestine. There are many Jews who are against what Israel has been doing over the decades. There are many Jews who want to see a free, independent, viable Palestinian state. They are our allies, who we should not lose them by resorting to violent or criminal behaviour.”

In the pro-Palestine protest, some of the protesters chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, despite a controversy around the slogan’s meaning. The home secretary, Suella Braverman, has previously labelled the slogan anti-semitic and claimed that it is “widely understood” to call for the destruction of Israel.

Supporters of The Neturei Karta take part in a March For Palestine (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

Jewish groups have asked prosecutors to clarify whether chanting the slogan is a criminal offence.

However, the slogan’s defenders describe it as a “longstanding protest chant” that calls for a homeland for the Palestinian people.

Braverman also said waving a Palestinian flag on British streets “may not be legitimate” if it is done to show support for acts of terrorism.

Mason admitted that it was good to see that the government was supporting the Jewish community, but he believed Braverman was in danger if creating a “culture war” with her language.

“This will become a ‘are you with us or against us?’” said Mason.

“This will look good with the Jewish community early on, but we need to be careful because this will have long term implications in terms of Jewish-Muslim relations and community cohesion here.

“The vast majority of Muslims are not wanting to go out and harm Jews. What we don’t want to do is create more of a sense of division.

“We need to create a space where we can be pro-Palestinian and Pro-Israel. I believe in the rights of Palestinians to self-identity and a right to their own state. But I’m also very supportive of the right of Israel to exist.”

Asim warned that the “dominant, one-sided” narrative in favour of Israel, which he said was apparently adopted by the UK press and government, had the potential to escalate instability between communities with people looking to cause division taking advantage of other people’s sense of injustice. “For those Muslims who have solidarity with the people of Palestine, the media and government narrative suggest the blood of one community is superior, is more precious than the blood of another community,” said Asim.

“As faith leaders, we have been urging our communities, who feel like they’re not being heard, to remain calm and channel their frustration, anger and pain into something positive.”

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