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Sentencing of protesters against war in Gaza: community concerns should not be ignored

By Dr. Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Dr. Robert Lambert

Stiff prison sentences[1] being handed down to Muslim protesters who took part in London demonstrations during Israel’s military operation in Gaza last year contribute to an atmosphere that is having an adverse impact on the Government’s strategy to bring alienated young Muslims into the political mainstream. Last Friday seven young Muslims were sentenced to imprisonment for up to two and a half years; this coming week more will be sentenced at Isleworth Crown Court.[2] In all over seventy demonstrators and their families and friends have been directly affected and the knock on effect throughout their communities is considerable. Instead of encouraging young and angry Muslims to deal with their legitimate political grievances through democratic protest concerns about harsh sentencing, unfair trials and overzealous public order policing are having a negative impact amongst Muslim political activists.

In addition, as our recent research report[3] highlights politically active Muslim Londoners face a significant risk of hate crime attacks because of a widely held and erroneous public perception that their campaigns for justice for Palestinians, Iraqis and many other fellow Muslims around the globe are part and parcel of the serious terrorist threat Londoners have faced since 9/11. This misperception is often fuelled by politicians who follow Bush and Blair in conflating the terrorist threat to Israel with the terrorist threat to the UK.


We drew attention to this problem when we highlighted the negative impact of former CLG secretary Hazel Blear’s policy of demonising mainstream Muslim activists such as Daud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Britain in the aftermath of Israel’s military operation in Gaza.[4]

We would also cite Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, Conservative shadow spokesperson on security, whose response to Israel’s military operation in Gaza was not to question its legitimacy but instead to note that it was likely to “encourage Islamism and Islamic terrorism”.[5] Neville-Jones makes the same conflation in a recent interview in the Jerusalem Post in which she suggests ways in which a future Conservative government might tackle the problem of Islamist “extremism” in the UK.[6]

Not content with opposing the building of a local mosque,[7] shadow cabinet colleague, Michael Gove, an advisor to the anti-Islamist Quilliam Foundation, endorses constant vilification of mainstream Muslim activist organisers and supporters of the Gaza demonstrations as both subversive and sectarian. Exactly the same sentiment is expressed by the British National Party and the English Defence League who seek to counter Muslim led pro-Palestinian demonstrations with their own pro-Israeli ones.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum dangerous siren voices in the extremist fringes of Muslim politics can be heard highlighting the futility of democratic protest to young Muslims. That way lies recruitment to the cause of al-Qaida. 

In making these observations we do not seek to pass comment on the facts in any individual case either recently or still to be brought before the courts in relation to the Gaza demonstrations in London. Rather we seek to draw attention to an issue that has important implications for government and police and which has been largely ignored by the mainstream media. Whereas there has been extensive reporting on demonstrators’ perceptions of inadequacies of public order policing in relation to G20 and related protests both in and outside London there has been negligible coverage of the concerns raised in a report by the Islamic Human Rights Commission that presents Muslim demonstrators’ perspectives.[8]

Exactly as Lord Scarman concluded after the Brixton riots, it remains crucial that government and police engage closely with their sternest critics in minority communities after serious public disorder if they are to establish the kind of trust that is necessary to build effective partnerships that will improve social cohesion and public safety. That means sitting round the table with angry community activists and working out solutions. This is the kind of police work that bears the hallmark of John Grieve who led the Met’s positive response to Lord Macpherson’s damming verdict of institutional racism. It is the same kind of thinking that informs the suggestion by Denis O’Connor, Chief Inspector of the Constabulary, that the Met needs to reflect on its public order policing operations so as to revive a style of policing ‘… based on minimal force and anchored in public consent’.[9]

Experienced police officers and experienced protest stewards generally agree that violence can flare up during angry demonstrations that will lead to criminal convictions for political activists who would not otherwise break the law. That is perfectly correct, but it is vital that political activists are perceived to be treated justly by the communities they represent. At present there is a widespread perception that Muslim demonstrators are not being treated fairly by police and courts. Whether or not that perception proves to be well grounded it should be the basis for urgent discussions between groups who organised the Gaza demonstrations, police and government. There is too much at stake to leave the debate to extremists on all sides.

Dr. Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Dr. Robert Lambert MBE, Co-Directors, European Muslim Research Centre (EMRC), University of Exeter. For further details please go to our University webpage: http://centres.exeter.ac.uk/emrc/

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[1] link to Gaza protesters to be sentenced despite allegations of police brutality, Wednesday, 10 February 2010 15:55 Dr. Hanan Chehata. http://www.middleeastmonitor.org.uk/articles/62-europe/661-gaza-protesters-to-be-sentenced-despite-allegations-of-police-brutality
[2] Link to http://stopwar.org.uk/content/view/1740/27/
[3] link to http://centres.exeter.ac.uk/emrc/publications/Islamophobia_and_Anti-Muslim_Hate_Crime.pdf
[4] link to Githens-Mazer and lambert cif
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/mar/31/religion-islam
[5] link to http://www.middleeastmonitor.org.uk/resources/commentary-and-analysis/647-camerons-conservatives-already-dancing-to-israels-tune
[6] as per 3.
[7] link to http://www.islamophobia-watch.com/islamophobia-watch/2010/2/14/michael-gove-opposes-mosque-at-centre-of-inflammatory-campai.html
[8] link to Policing, protest and conflict: A report into the policing of the London Gaza demonstrations in 2008-2009 produced this month by the Islamic Human Rights Commission http://www.ihrc.org.uk/attachments/9213_Gaza%20Demo-FV-LR-v2.pdf
[9] link to http://www.hmic.gov.uk/Inspections/SpecialistInspections/PPR/Pages/home.aspx

 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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