Jonathan Cook is The National's correspondent in Nazareth, Israel. He won this year's Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism
He is an Islamic "preacher of hate" whose views reflect "virulent anti-Semitism" and who has funded Hamas terror operations, according to much of the British media.
The furore last week over Sheikh Raed Salah, described by the Daily Mail newspaper as a "vile militant extremist", goaded the British government into ordering his late-night arrest and a fast-track deportation. The raid on his hotel, from which he was taken handcuffed to a police cell, came shortly before he was due to address a meeting in the British parliament building attended by several MPs.
The outcry in Britain against Sheikh Salah has shocked Israel's 1.3-million Palestinian citizens. For them, he is a spiritual leader and head of a respected party, the Islamic Movement. He is also admired by the wider Palestinian public. The secular Fatah movement, including Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority's prime minister, were among those condemning the arrest.
Many Palestinians, like millions of Muslims in the Middle East, revere Sheikh Salah for his campaign to protect Muslim and Christian holy places from Israel's neglectful, and more often abusive, policies. They struggle to recognise the British media's characterisation of him as an Osama bin Laden-like figure.
Most Jewish Israelis would not be aware of Sheikh Salah's supposed reputation as a Jew hater either, despite the hyper-vigilance about anything resembling anti-Semitism. True, he is generally hated by Israeli Jews, but chiefly because they regard his brand of Islamic dogma as incompatible with the state ideology of Jewish supremacism. They fear him as the leader of an Islamic movement that refuses to be tamed. Those Israelis who conclude that this qualifies him as an anti-Semite do so only because they class all pious Muslims in the same category.
Israeli officials detest Sheikh Salah as well, but again not for any alleged racism. His long-running campaign to prevent what he regards as an attempted Israeli takeover of Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque compound – part of a wider "Judaisation" programme in the occupied areas of the city – has made him a thorn in their side.
In other words, Israeli Jews view Sheikh Salah as an inveterate trouble-maker and provocateur, while the country's Palestinian minority accuse Israel of persecuting him for his political and religious beliefs.
The British media and government, meanwhile, have stumbled cluelessly into this domestic Israeli feud, and revealed their own deep prejudices. The humiliation of Sheikh Salah at the hands of the British legal system – supposedly in the interests of promoting "decency and respect" – will serve only to remind Muslims of the hypocrisy so often evident in Western policy.
The media opposition to the sheikh's presence in the UK stems from a campaign of character assassination led by pro-Israel groups. They have accused Sheikh Salah of a "blood libel" against Jews, based on information from dubious sources. When these claims were aired in the Israeli courts several years ago, the sheikh was investigated and charged. However, the prosecution was dropped a short time later for lack of credible evidence.
The other allegation – that he funded Hamas terror operations – relies on claims originally made by the Israeli government in 2003 during one of his many arrests. Although the state had reportedly accumulated 200,000 recordings of Islamic Movement phone calls, they never located in any conversation the smoking gun they expected to find.
Instead Sheikh Salah languished in jail for two years while his trial dragged on, the charges repeatedly reduced because evidence could not be produced. Eventually he agreed to a plea bargain in return for his release. He was convicted of funding Islamic charities for widows and orphans – loosely declared "support for terror" under Israel's punitive crackdown on all Islamic networks, including welfare groups, in the Occupied Territories.
So why is Britain being even "more Israeli than the Israelis", as two Arab members of the Israeli parliament observed?
One reason is that Britain appears to be increasingly vulnerable to the influence of the pro-Israel lobby. Unfounded claims against Sheikh Salah were first made by the Jewish media in Britain, which has become an uncritical cheerleader for Israel, and by the Board of Deputies, Britain's representative body for Jews.
Another reason is that the pro-Israel lobby finds it all too easy to exploit Islamophobic tropes that have come to dominate the public discourse in many western countries, including Britain. Fears of a clash of civilisations and of Muslim immigration mean every Islamic scholar and authority is automatically assumed to be another "mad mullah".
This approach threatens the very values it claims to be protecting. It silences those who are best placed to critique western policies – the victims of them; and it refuses to allow its assumptions to be questioned, rightfully fearing that in some cases they will be exposed as nothing more than bigotry.
It is worth highlighting a point British commentators overlooked in their coverage of Sheikh Salah. He was coming to the parliament, the cradle of British democracy, not to talk about jihad or infidels but about "building peace and justice in Jerusalem".
His message is one western publics desperately need to hear but one that Israel and its supporters keenly want silenced. Thanks to the British media and government, for a while longer Britons will be shielded from a real discussion.
Source: The National