By Juveriah Alam, a political activist with a focus on Islamophobia in Britain. She is a regular contributor to 5Pillars.
Israel’s war on Gaza has received wide support from British politicians and public figures, often rationalised by citing Israel’s right to self-defence. But there appears to be another element at play which motivates this support - an aspect that frequently rears its ugly head: Islamophobia. The link between Islamophobia and the actions of Israel in Gaza is rarely addressed and it is worth considering how Islamophobia has shaped British attitudes towards the war.
The APPG definition of Islamophobia refers to it as being “rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” While Islam is not a race, and while Muslims are from a vast array of different ethnicities, the racial element to Islamophobia cannot be denied. Where hatred of Muslims appears, extreme anti-immigrant sentiment is also found. Muslims are otherised as a separate racial group by racist people who identify them using anything they perceive to be Islamic.
The Relevance of Islamophobia in the War on Gaza
Victims of anti-Muslim racism include the Tatars in Russia, Moroccan and Algerian minorities in France and the Uyghurs in China. In Israel, Islamophobia takes the form of anti-Palestinian racism. It is a deep-rooted prejudice within Israeli society. A document entitled “Calls for Ethnic, Genocide and the Dehumanisation of Palestinians” proves beyond reasonable doubt that the problem of Islamophobia in Israel is a systemic and structural one. It is an issue that exists across the ultra-right-wing Israeli government as well as within a large segment of the general population.
The document, which continues to be updated, currently lists almost two hundred examples of racist and dehumanising speech from Israeli officials, commentators, the general Israeli population as well as Israel’s supporters from all over the world. One example of this is when Yoav Gallant MK, Israeli Defence Minister stated on October 9th 2023: “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals, and we act accordingly”. It is reasonable to consider that this statement refers to the people of Gaza, rather than just Hamas, since the siege on Gaza was applied onto the entire population.
Another example is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speech where he stated on October 28th 2023: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you”. By comparing Palestinians to Amalekites, Netanyahu evokes the final command by God regarding the Amalekites in the First Book of Samuel is: “Now go, attack the Amalekites, and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels, and donkeys”. This comparison has been made repeatedly by Netanyahu and can be seen as an implicit call to genocide.
More crudely, in Israel, there has been a popular trend on social media of IDF soldiers making videos mocking the suffering of Palestinians. The videos show IDF soldiers dancing to music, dressed up as Palestinians with the use of blackface and Muslim headscarves. On December 1st 2023 an IDF soldier posted a video captioned “POV: Ur Freeing Palestine” showing him defecating in a bathroom belonging to a now displaced family in Gaza, with an Islamic prayer mat placed in the bathroom floor.
These are just a few of the vast number of examples collected in the document showing the depth of dehumanisation of Palestinian Muslim identity. The theme is consistent throughout: Muslims are the enemy. The idea that Palestinian lives are lesser in worth has been manufactured through a long campaign of dehumanisation that finds its roots right at the inception of the State of Israel. The famous quote from Golda Meir, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us” embodies the false stereotypes Israelis hold of Palestinians, that they are missing the core human characteristic maternal love, placing Palestinian mothers lower than animals. And like a stray dog is uncared for and mistreated, the “unloved” Palestinian child becomes acceptable collateral damage.
Islamophobia in Britain
The dehumanisation of Muslims in Israeli society shares notable similarities with the anti-Muslim sentiment prevalent in Britain. Islamophobic offences in London alone rose by 140% at the start of November 2023 - yet statistics do not paint a full picture. Street-level hate crime is often addressed without consideration for the root causes of this form of hatred. The reality is, there has been a long-standing, rampant disinformation campaign against Muslims across the British media which has become increasingly mainstream. There has also been an increased securitisation of Muslims through the Prevent strategy as well as a targeting of Muslim charities.
The problem of Islamophobia in Britain has become like a pressure cooker, getting steadily worse over the past decade. No real initiatives have been taken by the British government to address the problem and as a result, anti-Muslim sentiment has been permitted to thrive. Every December the accusation that Muslims want to ban Christmas gets rolled out – just worded slightly differently each time. This year as a timely variation, Muslims got accused of wanting to ban Hanukkah. During Covid lockdown, Muslims were blamed for breaking rules and spreading the disease with an elected member of parliament Craig Whittaker expressing the same view. Many news websites chose to use photographs of Muslims when reporting about Covid. As such, there has long been uneasiness amongst Muslims about how this campaign of dehumanisation from the British media would manifest at its peak.
This peak, it appears, has finally been reached. British Muslims have witnessed Britain’s almost blanket support for Israel’s war on Gaza across the media and political classes. This stance is testament to the sheer depths of anti-Muslim racism that has been allowed to flourish unrestrained. Public figures, politicians and media pundits with no connection to Israel are supporting a brutal siege on Muslims in Palestine and the only motivation they have to do so is their deep-seated, sometimes unconscious, prejudice against Muslims. Indeed, the long campaign of Islamophobic rhetoric to date has laid the groundwork for this support.
The Conservative government has not only refused to adopt a definition of Islamophobia, it has also failed to work towards creating any sort of definition that they would be agreeable to. This puts Muslims at a great disadvantage, unable to define our own terms and unable to have any sense of reassurance that the government understands what constitutes as anti-Muslim discrimination. The British government’s unwavering support for the far-right government of Israel will be interpreted by many as proof that Muslim lives do not matter.
While the Labour Party has adopted the APPG definition of Islamophobia, there has been no condemnation or even acknowledgement of the dehumanisation of Palestinians by Israel. The Labour Party claims to stand for equality and inclusivity yet ignores the sentiments of British Muslims who are witnessing in real time the mass killing of Palestinians, motivated by hatred.
Both main parties have shown a flagrant disregard of the role of racism in a war in which a powerful, exceptionally well-equipped army continues to kill thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians. Without studying the racist rhetoric coming from Israel, there is a dangerous risk of misunderstanding Israel’s motivations for the war. Israeli spokespeople have repeatedly reassured the media that they are taking care to minimise civilian casualties. However, a reasonable person equipped with the knowledge of the dehumanising language from Israel, would have serious doubts about this. It seems far more likely, with the data available, that Israel is in fact intentionally targeting the civilian population.
Both main parties must be aware that is not sufficient to make generic statements condemning Islamophobia while ignoring the racism of a close ally. It is not enough to keep repeating the desire to see a secure Israel next to a viable Palestinian state without acknowledging the often-repeated desire from Israel to “finish” Palestine. It is also not enough to keep reminding Israel to minimise civilian casualties when it is evidently doing the opposite. For too long, Israel has been viewed as a reasonable actor by British politicians. It is time to finally admit that Israel is a deeply racist, expansionist state with no regard for international law.
Failure to acknowledge this renders both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party as guilty of Islamophobia perpetuated through inaction, indifference and tacit endorsement of discriminatory practices. It is the failure to recognise and condemn Israel’s extremist motives which contributes to the marginalisation and disenfranchisement felt by British Muslims. The message sent to wider society is that Israel’s words and actions are acceptable, fostering a climate where racism is tolerated or even endorsed. Therefore, it can be said with certainty that the Labour Party has breached the definition of Islamophobia it adopted. Similarly, the Conservative Party has breached the Equality Act 2010 which protects against racial discrimination.
There is an indisputable link between Islamophobia and Israel’s war on Gaza and it is time to finally address it. The alienation of British Muslims will not be alleviated with tougher policing and counter-terror legislation. Throwing money at Prevent and giving extra powers to an already over-worked police force, while failing to address Islamophobia, is a waste of money and resources. It is time for both our government and the opposition to directly condemn Israel’s deadly siege on Gaza as well as the racism which motivates it.
Photo by Rami Gzon on Unsplash