Should critics of political Islam be described as racist Islamophobes? It's a question that ought to garner serious discussion in light of the ongoing "anti-Semitism" row engulfing the Labour Party in Britain.
Zionism and Islamism have enough in common as political ideologies that if criticism of one is deemed "anti-Semitic", then criticism of the other should be regarded as Islamophobic. "Both," as the rising star within pro-Israeli groups, Ed Husain, once remarked, "are dangerous political ideologies posing as religious movements."
Decrying the fact that Zionists like Benjamin Netanyahu and right-wing American commentator Daniel Pipes "have made careers out of lambasting Islamists," Husain questioned whether "Islamists and Zionists are all that different, despite their blatant enmity."
"I think not," was his confident retort in an article that a decade after its publication shows the dangerous extent by which the space for free speech concerning Israel and Zionism has now shrunk.
Husain, the one-time Islamist who is now an advocate of Israel and described by the pro-Israeli Lobby as a staunch supporter of the Zionist state, once denounced Zionism is a "perversion of the ancient Abrahamic faith of Judaism." Reflecting on the history of Zionism, he wrote, "Prior to the Holocaust, Zionism was a pariah movement among Europe's Jewish communities. Rabbis chastised Zionists for abusing religion and religious identity."
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As far as Husain was concerned, the leaders of Zionism were men "who had no theological training" in the traditional understanding of Judaism. Some of the most ardent Zionists, he pointed out, are not Jews at all; George W Bush, for example, and droves of evangelical, "literalist Christians." Non-Jewish Zionists, in fact, make up the vast majority of the ideology's following around the world.
With remarks that would provoke outrage under the current climate, Husain said, "Disregard for the sanctity of human life is a hallmark of both Zionism and Islamism." He compared the "expansionist" ideology of Zionism with that of Muslims calling for a global caliphate (of which he was once one) and insisted that, "We would be ill-served if we forgot the Zionist terrorism of the notorious Stern Gang, assassination of British personnel, raids on Palestinian villages, and the blowing-up of the King David Hotel [in Jerusalem] in 1946."
Displaying a level of intellectual clarity that now seems to have been traded for self-interest, Husain having abandoned his past as a radical Muslim said: "Condemn[ing] Israeli excesses is not anti-Semitic; and to criticise Islamism is not to be Islamophobic." Zionism "masquerading" as Judaism, he added, is "misleading" and is "creating" conflicts and "corrupting" the religion.
Husain's denunciation of Zionism as a colonial, racist ideology that betrays Judaism was repeated by another critic of Islamism, the late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens. He walked a similar path as Husain in becoming a champion for western colonialism, and also harboured strong animosity towards Zionism, describing it as a "stupid idea".
Such honesty by both Husain and Hitchens serves to expose the extent to which the campaign by the Israeli right-wing and its supporters in the West to have the conflation of Zionism with anti-Semitism accepted has been successful.
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The propensity of the pro-Israel Lobby to trawl through past articles and speeches of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn suggests that if Hitchens were still alive, he would draw upon himself the ire of British Zionists. "I think Zionism, the idea of building a state of Jewish farmers on Arab land in the Middle East is a stupid idea to begin with," he once told US talk show host Charlie Rose. Hitchens once tried to talk his mother out of her support for Zionism because it's a "messianic idea"; a "superstitious idea".
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Would Hitchens have dared to make such comments now, I wonder? As a strong advocate of free speech and the right to insult religions, religious believers and everyone else, would he have been cowed by the likes of former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks? Would he duly "repent and recant", the demand made of Corbyn? I half suspect that he might have stepped back from such criticism of Zionism, but could easily have condemned Lord Sacks for his attack on free speech.
If critics of Zionism are so readily denounced as anti-Semites, it would be extremely hypocritical not to suggest that critics of political Islam are de facto Muslim haters. Such a conflation would result in a majority of our politicians, media commentators and the likes of Hitchens and Husain, who have made a career out of criticising political Islam, being discredited as racist, anti-Muslim bigots. Would the mainstream media and political circles in the West, especially in Britain, accept such a conclusion? I suspect not.
If the concept of self-identification is to be enjoyed by all minorities (and, indeed, the majority in any society), then we have to accept it when Muslims repeatedly say that terms like "Islamism" and "Islamist" are Islamophobic tropes deployed by the media, politicians and commentators to speak about Muslims in a manner that would be regarded as racist if directed at any other minority group. Current anti-Muslim bigotry has roots in so-called Orientalism, the cultural and historical lens through which the Western world perceived, defined, and "othered" the East, in particular, the Muslim Middle East. As the late Palestinian-American Professor, Edward Said described famously in his famous book; Orientalism can be said to have found a new home amongst the ranks of today's media commentators and politicians. They deploy many of the same stereotypes; sow the same seeds of fear and hatred, and use obscene caricatures to vilify Muslims under the guise of critical analysis of Islam.
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While there are many who would sympathise with any campaign by the Muslim community to conflate criticism of Islamism with Islamophobia, it would no doubt meet stiff opposition. We would also see a national outcry if British Muslims and community leaders conducted a witch-hunt against the elected leader of a major political party who was then demeaned, chastised and intimidated into "repentance" by an unelected man of religion.
If our elected leaders are not willing to clamp down on critics of Islamism, then they should not persist in aiding and abetting the hounding of critics of Zionism. A society that values free speech has a bright idea of where free speech ends and racism begins. Free speech exists to protect us from the excesses of power; no state, no government and certainly no political belief should be granted immunity from criticism, Israel included. The British Labour Party has a chance on Tuesday to set that boundary. Its members need to insist that while hatred for Jews for being Jews is anti-Semitic and entirely unacceptable, criticism of Israel and Zionism is a moral duty and responsibility on anyone concerned about the abuse of power by political regimes that make racist and exclusive claims about their right to Palestine, and commit war crimes and crimes against humanity in pursuing them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.