Israel lies at the heart
of poor Jewish-Muslim relations
Recently I attended an inter-faith meeting at a London University which was intended to foster better relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities in the UK.
The speakers were all very distinguished in their areas, experts on Islamic law, Jewish rabbis, and foreign office mandarins. They were ably assisted by the great and the good from establishment institutions up and down the land.
Every speaker called for the diplomatic impasse in Palestine not to damage Jewish-Muslim relations in this country. The Jewish speakers lauded Islam as a peaceful religion that had always shown Jews hospitality. It was Islamic states, after all, that welcomed Jews with open arms after they were expelled from Spain by the Inquisition.
And the Muslim speakers reminded the audience that the prophets of Judaism are revered in the Quran, and that Jewish learning and expertise elevated Muslim societies during many periods of Islamic rule.
It was a very edifying evening that was going perfectly to plan, well at least until an hour into proceedings when the sizeable audience of Jewish and Muslim students, many of them Palestinians, demanded the right to be included in the debate .
The first question came from a Palestinian student sporting a substantial beard and Islamic headband. He asked the speakers why, given that the Zionists had stolen Palestinian land, Muslims shouldn't just drive them all into the sea .
When he got a predictably dismissive response he preceded to make a speech - listing all the Israeli crimes against humanity he could think of and concluding that all Jews should be forcibly deported to America.
In equal measure, his speech provoked mutterings of disapproval, howls of support, and angry insults.
A Jewish student then got up and berated the first speaker calling him a fanatic who wasn't open to reasonable debate - just like all Muslims who are in reality would-be “suicide bombers”. Israel had no alternative but to imprison such barbarians in the West Bank and Gaza and defeat them by force without making any compromises whatsoever.
Then it really started to get out of hand. People started shouting at each other, pushing and shoving each other, and ignoring any attempt by the speakers to restore order. The meeting was promptly abandoned while security threw half the audience out of the auditorium only for the arguments to spill over onto the street.
The consensus among the speakers was that their well-intentioned meeting had been hijacked by a minority of fanatics who always punch above their weight. People like this have to be sidelined because they are unwilling to listen to reasonable dialogue. Next time we hold a meeting, they said, it'll have to be invitation-only.
On the other hand, the Muslim students told me that the meeting was a farce and the speakers were irrelevant academics in their ivory towers who were out of touch with public opinion. They said that this elite wanted to exclude grass-roots opinion from the debate because they reflected what people were actually thinking and saying on the ground.
Language of compromise
And I have to say, from the streets of London to all over the Arab world, this is what people have been telling me. Millions of ordinary people feel excluded from a debate about an issue about which they are passionate, and in the case of the Palestinians, affects their lives directly.
|Palestinian representatives rarely get the |
chance to say how their people see things
Hamas, for example, reflect the views of at least 40 percent of Palestinians and has supporters among Muslims all over the world. But when did you ever see a Hamas spokesman on the BBC or an Islamist academic on CNN?
Instead you get a polished Arab who probably lives a life of luxury in the West. Typically, he is a great TV performer who speaks excellent English and speaks the language of compromise. Unfortunately, he represents nobody except a narrow constituency of like-minded journalists, politicians and academics.
The feeling here in London is that the voices of reason, of elites who have no constituency, have been running the Middle East for a century, and have made it the mess it is now.
The fact is that Jewish-Muslim relations have been severely damaged around the world because of the Palestinian-Israeli issue and it won't get any better until a solution is found.
And the voices of reason aren’t going to solve the problem by holding farcical meetings and conferences which exclude the views of ordinary people.