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Britain's untouchables

In the week that the British government announced its latest Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, events in the occupied Palestinian territories took yet another sinister turn; illegal Israeli settlers heightened their campaign of terror against Islamic sites. First, they burned Al-Mughir village mosque in the occupied West Bank and within hours they desecrated Al Aqsa Mosque with a toast of champagne and wine. To end the week, Tel Aviv announced that plans to build the "Museum of Tolerance" in the largest Islamic cemetery in historic Palestine will go ahead. For obvious reasons, these depraved incidents had a disturbing resonance throughout Britain's Muslim communities.

To his credit, Britain's Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt, roundly condemned the burning of Al Mughir mosque as a 'provocative crime'. And yet his call to the Israeli authorities to investigate the incident fully will, almost inevitably and predictably, lead nowhere apart from a symbolic slap on the wrist, if that. Having taken this first step of condemnation, however, the government should now investigate thoroughly the reported links between Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law, and British organisations. If links are confirmed, the government must take appropriate action against those who support settlements, financially or otherwise.

News of the attacks on the mosques was the last thing the government could have wished for at the time when it was announcing its decision to increase the pressure on British Muslims to collaborate in the so-called campaign against "Islamic extremism and terror".

Earlier this year, Prime Minister David Cameron set down the markers for engagement with British Muslim groups in a speech delivered in Munich. The speech was, presumably, an attempt to unify European efforts against Islamic extremism.  "We should properly judge these organisations," Cameron said. "Do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government?"

Should any organisation fail these tests, Mr Cameron declared, they would not be engaged with; they will have no public money and will not share public platforms with ministers. So far, so good; it all sounds reasonable and fair, but democracy is not a one-way street. It never was and never will be. The electorate has a right to hold their leaders to account and judge them against the same values that they preach day in, day out, as Cameron did in Munich.

One of the groups fingered in the latest government strategy is the Federation of Students Islamic Societies (FOSIS). This is not the least bit surprising, because the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute identified FOSIS in its report titled "Building a Political Firewall against the Assault on Israel's Legitimacy – London as a Case Study." It criticised the students' organisation for its involvement in pro-Palestinian activities on campuses and support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

Whether the government acknowledges and accepts it or not, there is a widespread perception on British campuses that support for Palestinian rights is somehow equated by the authorities with extremism. A recent attempt to secure a vote within the National Union of Students was rejected as flawed, because the Islamic University in Gaza is funded by Hamas.

Of course this creeping approach towards censorship and intellectual terror on campuses is not unrelated to similar tendencies in wider society. Following the successful conference launch of More Bad News from Israel, by Professor Gregg Philo of the University of Glasgow, the coordinator of the Jewish Division in the notoriously racist English Defence League, Roberta Moore, commented on Richard Millet's blog: "This conference should have been cancelled. There are ways to force people to cancel such conferences. Threaten to bring the EDL. It works. For those that do not work, we infiltrate and disrupt. (Like I did with the One Society many cultures.) Our passive protests are NOT working guys! We need to change tactics. I know and I have just the thing to disrupt such conferences and ensure everyone gets out of the room. Your browser may not support display of this image. Your browser may not support display of this image. No one gets hurt. We must use a new approach. Let's stop discussing and start acting. We do not have much time now. I will suggest once again (since I got no response the first time) a meeting between those who live in London and are active activists. Let's get the damn job done!!"

Even if the Home Office decides not to regard this as incitement to violence, it certainly does represent a call to public disorder. All of this suggests uncomfortable indicators. First, there are, lurking in our midst, extremist elements who are deemed to be untouchable by the police and government. On what basis they are allowed to operate unchallenged by the authorities is anyone's guess.

Secondly, there is a toxic contradiction between the spoken words of some politicians and their actual policies. Surely, if the coalition government is committed fully to universal values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, as Mr Cameron claimed in Munich, then he cannot afford to be seen as selective in his approach to extremism. Given all the comparisons that are made between himself and the former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, David Cameron must avoid, at all costs, giving any impression that he is using the bogey of Islamic extremism to bury bad news.

The government's timing of its recycled Labour anti-terror policies will not divert attention from this summer's imminent confrontation with trade unions over jobs, pensions, health, employment, workers' rights, education and pensions.

Furthermore, any attempt to shut down debate on Israel's appalling human rights record will fail. Attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque are not attacks on Palestinian rights; they are a violation of the rights of Muslims worldwide, including Britain. Muslims will continue to discuss and oppose these outrages until justice is done and seen to be done. Take note, Mr Cameron, the perpetrators of these crimes and their supporters in Britain also need a lesson on the meaning and value of tolerance.

Commentary & AnalysisEurope & RussiaIsraelMiddle EastPalestineUK
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