- guardian.co.uk, Friday 23 January 2009 10.00 GMT
The government is always looking for some Islamic organisation to proscribe or some Muslim cleric – preferably with a steel claw – to ban. All in the name of community cohesion and preventing violent extremism. But how many Muslims does the government think have been radicalised by the horrific scenes coming out of Gaza and the complacent hypocrisy of the British foreign office?
The appeal for a policy that breaks with slavish support for Israel’s actions operates on a number of different levels. I’ve long since stopped addressing the great lacuna which passes for an ethical sense at King Charles Street. An argument based on naked self-interest stands a better chance. And from that point of view the efforts by various branches of government not only to justify the unjustifiable in Palestine, but to delegitimise protests over it are extremely difficult to fathom.
Take the official policy of systematically undercounting the number of people who take part in protests. Among other things, that tells those who take part in the hope of making a difference that peaceful, democratic protest will not even be registered properly, let alone make a difference to political outcomes. Then there are the extraordinary attempts to clamp down on protest. In Birmingham, for example, the council, the largest local authority in Europe, withdrew permission for a demonstration over Gaza just days before it was due to take place. It went ahead, without incident, thanks to the leadership of my friend Councillor Salma Yaqoob, who marshalled a cross-section of politicians behind it.
In Tower Hamlets young people organised a 100-strong car cavalcade in protest at the massacres in Gaza and advertising a national demonstration in central London. The following day the police were handing out fliers at Brick Lane mosque telling people that such activities were illegal. Of all the problems we face in Tower Hamlets – including illegal activities – not one of them is young men cooperating with one another and using their cars to form peaceful convoys with a socially engaged message. I’m sure the same is true elsewhere in the capital.
If the authorities in London and across Britain thought this through they would welcome this efflorescence of political protests over Gaza. How better to marginalise the violent extremists than by creating the space for radical but democratic political engagement?
And that space is burgeoning, whether the government likes it or not. The upsurge in solidarity and political engagement over Palestine is astonishing – and almost wholly outwith the political mainstream. The kinds of meetings I and others in the anti-war movement have been addressing across Britain are reminiscent of 2002 and the build-up to the Iraq war. This time, however, people want to do much more than march and rally. There is a groundswell of solidarity.
That’s why I’ve taken the initiative to launch a solidarity convoy from Britain to Gaza, through north Africa, headed by firefighting equipment donated by the Fire Brigades Union. The convoy will contain trucks and vans from towns and cities across the country containing medicines and other necessities the Palestinians of Gaza desperately need.
This is not an alternative, of course, to the vast amounts of aid that ought to be airlifted now to Gaza. The purpose of the convoy, however, is not simply to bring aid. It is to provide a focus for solidarity and actions such as those in Birmingham city council, which has taken a big step towards boycotting Israel. I think the time is ripe to push these issues into London councils and the London Assembly. The mayor of London’s silence over Gaza is out of step with the feeling of most Londoners. That gap is going to be keenly felt in the coming months.
The convoy’s route through north Africa is deliberately chosen. It will take it through big Arab centres and into Egypt, which holds the key to the liberation of Gaza and Palestine. The response to the call for the convoy has been overwhelming. Mosques, community groups, trade unions and other organisations are busy organising to get a truck on the road and to fill it with useful things.
In my experience it is tapping something wider than a basic humanitarian response to the suffering in Gaza. I cannot think of anything better to forge the bonds of social solidarity the government says it wants to see. In the 1930s ordinary people across Europe rallied to aid the people of Republican Spain, who faced the bombing of towns and the massacres of civilians by the jackbooted General Franco. The cry was “Aidez L’Espagne!” – today the call should be “Viva Palestina!”