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Why do Muslims care so much about Israel/Palestine?
The language of “humiliation” has been heard in Gaza this past week, with videos of defiant Palestinians chanting, “We prefer to die and not to be humiliated”.
Written by Noah Carl.
Last weekend saw massive pro-Palestine protests in the capital cities of most Western countries. Footage of the protests, as well as simple common sense, tells us that a disproportionate number of the participants were Muslims. Which makes sense given that Muslims comprise an increasing share of the population in most Western capitals. In London, they’re 15% of the total and a somewhat larger share of the age-groups most likely to turn out for protests.
Several things were notable about last weekend’s demonstrations. The first is that they were large: in London an estimated 50,000 people took to the streets. The second is that they came soon after a brutal attack on Israel in which hundreds of civilians were killed or taken hostage – an attack that some protestors characterised as a legitimate form of resistance (rather than a war crime). The third is that there have been no similar protests in support of the Uyghur or Rohingya Muslims, despite them facing what is arguably worse repression than the Palestinians.
It’s clear that Muslims living in Western countries care a lot about Israel/Palestine, as polls and surveys consistently show. In one 2016 poll of 150 “influential” British Muslims, 95% agreed with the statement, “Muslims consider Israel to be unjustly and illegally occupying Palestinian land”, and 98% agreed with the statement, “Justice and fairness must be restored in Palestine for the benefit of all peoples”.
Regarding the current war specifically, the left-wing journalist Aaron Bastani has reported “anecdotally” that he was “told all weekend of Muslim voters saying Starmer’s statement is a dealbreaker for them and party”. The relevant statement by Starmer (the leader of Britain’s Labour Party) was that Israel “has the right” to withhold water and power from Gaza.
So why do Muslims living in Western countries care so much about Israel/Palestine – particularly as compared to other cases of repression against Muslims?
Some reasons are obvious. Most Western countries are close allies of Israel but are not close allies of China or Myanmar. Hence Muslims living in Western countries may feel they have more responsibility to speak out over Israel. In fact, most Western governments are already on the same page as them when it comes to repression of the Uyghurs and Rohingyas. What’s more, practically all the Muslims living in Western countries are from the MENA region – so they’re naturally more concerned with problems in that part of the world than with problems in China or South East Asia.1
Another obvious reason is anti-Semitism. We know that a sizeable fraction of Muslims hold anti-Semitic views, and that Muslims are overrepresented among the perpetrators of anti-Semitic violence. But even though such anti-Semitism predates the establishment of Israel, I don’t think it’s sufficient to explain why Muslims living in Western countries care so much about the issue (although it’s certainly part of the explanation).
In 2017, Daniel Staetsky of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research carried out a detailed study of attitudes to Jews and Israel in Britain, which included an oversample of Muslims. Respondents were asked whether they agreed with eight anti-Semitic statements (e.g., “the holocaust is a myth”) and nine anti-Israel statements (e.g., “people should boycott Israeli goods and products”). Staetsky calculated the percentage of people in different groups who agreed with at least five anti-Semitic statements, along with the percentage who agreed with at least six anti-Israel statements.
As shown below, he found that (in terms of absolute differences) the disparity between Muslims and non-Muslims was much greater for anti-Israel attitudes than for anti-Semitic attitudes. About 13% of Muslims were “strongly” anti-Semitic, compared to about 3% of non-Muslims. By contrast, about 35% of Muslims were “strongly” anti-Israel, compared to less than 10% of non-Muslims.
He also found that while Muslims were about as likely to be “strongly” anti-Semitic as people on the far-right, they were much more likely to be “strongly” anti-Israel. They were also much more likely to be “strongly” anti-Israel than those on the far-left.
So what else might explain why Muslims living in Western countries care so much about Israel/Palestine?
An answer was stated recently by Twitter user Yeyo: Muslims see the foundation of Israel, the Nakba, and Israel’s multiple war victories as a humiliation of the Muslim nation. And since Islam (particularly the branch of Islam practiced in the MENA region) is an honour culture, that humiliation cannot be forgotten and must be avenged. Yeyo informed me that he was given this answer by an Arab gentleman with whom he’d discussed the conflict a few years ago.
The honour culture of Islam, which is evident in practices such as honour killings and blasphemy riots, likely has roots in the customs of pre-Islamic Arab tribes.2 What specific evidence is there that it shapes Muslims’ views of Israel/Palestine today?
In November of 2002, Osama bin Laden penned a “letter to America”, explaining his motives for the 9/11 attacks. It’s clear from reading the letter that his single biggest grievance is US support for Israel. He gives as point (1) a) “You attacked us in Palestine,” writing, “The British handed over Palestine, with your help and your support, to the Jews, who have occupied it for more than 50 years; years overflowing with oppression, tyranny, crimes, killing, expulsion, destruction and devastation”. And under point (1) g), he writes:
You have supported the Jews in their idea that Jerusalem is their eternal capital, and agreed to move your embassy there. With your help and under your protection, the Israelis are planning to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque. Under the protection of your weapons, Sharon entered the Al-Aqsa mosque, to pollute it as a preparation to capture and destroy it.
This passage highlights one of the key ways in which Israel/Palestine is a matter of “honour” for Muslims, namely that Israel maintains control over the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem – generally considered the third holiest site in Islam. Bin Laden proceeds to use the word “honour” five times in his letter, even referring to the “Nation of honour”. (Note: I’m not saying all pro-Palestinian Muslims agree with Osama bin Laden.)
Further evidence can be found in an academic article by Richard Landes, which argues that the Oslo peace process failed because the Palestinian side was motivated by the goal of restoring Muslim honour, rather than by their stated goal of exchanging peace for land. The article is written from a pro-Israeli perspective, but some of the evidence it cites is compelling regardless of whether one accepts the overall argument.
When Yasser Arafat attended Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in May of 1994, he was heavily criticised by the local Muslim community for having betrayed Islam. And upon arriving in Gaza in July of that year, he was similarly criticised by Hamas, who described his visit as “shameful and humiliating”. Even Edward Said characterised the Oslo Agreement as “degrading”. It was a “capitulation” that involved “submitting shamefully to Israel”.
On one occasion, Arafat himself compared the agreement to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah – a short-lived truce between Prophet Muhammad and the Quraish Tribe of Mecca whose signing in 628 AD preceded Muhammad’s ultimate conquest of Mecca.3
The language of “humiliation” has been heard again in Gaza this past week, with videos of defiant Palestinians chanting, “We prefer to die and not to be humiliated”. Evidently, notions of humiliation and restoration of honour loom large in Muslim attitudes to the conflict.
It should be noted that many Muslims living in Western countries care about Israel/Palestine for no other reason than they see an injustice that needs to be righted. This article has focussed on why they care more about the issue than non-Muslims, and why they show more concern for the plight of Palestinians than for the plight of Uyghurs or Rohingyas.
Several factors appear to be involved: Most Western countries are close allies of Israel but are not allies of China or Myanmar. Practically all the Muslims living in Western countries are from the MENA region. Levels of anti-Semitism are elevated among Muslims. And most significantly, the foundation of Israel and everything that has followed – particularly Israel’s continued control over the third holiest site in Islam – is seen as a humiliation that must be avenged.
Noah Carl is an Editor at Aporia Magazine.
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Bangladeshi-origin Muslims in the UK and Canada are a notable exception.
As Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser once said, “What was taken by force can only be retrieved by force.”
This suggests either one of two things: Arafat saw the peace agreement as a Trojan Horse, or he thought the only way to placate hardliners on his own side was to get them to see it as a Trojan Horse.