The dilution of humanity

Ahmed Mustafa
Tuesday 16 May 2023

What is behind today’s apparent indifference to the conflict in Palestine and the failure of the international community to stand up for the rights of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation, asks Ahmed Mustafa


In decades gone by, clashes in Palestine would often instigate demonstrations in Arab capitals calling for an end to the conflict. Protesters and activists would be vocal in their support of the Palestinians under occupation and facing the brunt of the oppression by the Israeli military occupation and armed settlers.

Today, however, the present conflict in Palestine has been raging for days, but the reaction to the news of the Israeli air raids on Gaza or the rockets sent from Gaza towards Israeli settlements has been subdued. What has contributed to such indifference? 

Some might argue that the Palestinian issue is no longer a prominent “cause” in the Middle East. The situation in other countries has dominated the news, whether in Syria, Libya, Yemen, or Sudan. 

The subdued reaction could also be the result of growing apathy about matters beyond people’s daily concerns in their own countries and communities. Since the wave of demonstrations and protests across the region in 2011 left many countries in a state approaching a sort of civil war, the public might also have found itself in a state of despair.

All these factors may be relevant, but the present apparent public indifference to an issue that has dominated the region for decades likely goes beyond them. It could be the result of an isolationist trend sweeping the world, some might call it chauvinism, that justifies a sort of blank reaction to bloody conflicts nearby. This global factor may well be the root cause of what appears to be a paradigm shift in attitudes. 

I would call it a “dilution of basic human principles.” While not directly correlated, this apparent lack of empathy on a world scale has also in some respects coincided with the rise of far-right groups elsewhere. Some of these have garnered huge followings, despite holding extreme views that often disregard basic human rights.

Political commentators may find it easier to blame this party or that for the apparent public indifference to the Palestinian issue. Yet, I think all the parties are accountable, as their political manoeuvring ends up shifting the blame onto the Palestinians and their resistance to the Israeli occupation for the conflict. There are also many who support the Palestinian resistance on politically opportunistic grounds that do not benefit the Palestinians in their day-to-day affairs.

The dilution of the human aspect of the conflict has also come as a result of the growing influence of religion in the conflict. In the early 20th century, the British occupation of Palestine facilitated the immigration of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe to the country with the aim of establishing a homeland there at the expense of the indigenous population. This was not like the immigration of Europeans to the “new world” of North America, Australia and New Zealand, however, as it was a type of settler occupation based on religious purity that was exploited for political gain.

By the turn of the century, the rise of Islamist militancy in Palestine had helped to dilute the Palestinian cause. It could be argued that this did a great deal of harm to the rightful struggle of the Palestinian people against the Israeli occupation of their land.

Many people across the region are now realising that religion in politics can complicate matters in unfortunate directions. This is contrary to the perception of the region that came about in the 1970s, when many academics and intellectuals in the West propagated the notion that so-called “moderate Islamism” was a rising political power that needed to be considered as such.

Some of these Western commentators, from Frenchman François Burgat to the American John Esposito and the Lebanese-American Fawaz Gerges, differentiated between moderate Islamism (the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates) and militant Islamism (Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State group IS and so on), but today we are discovering that this distinction is a false one. A large of swath of the militant Islamist groups are in fact offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

There is no legally binding international definition of terrorism in the same way that there is no legally binding definition of anti-Semitism. However, there are working definitions that many countries have incorporated into their criminal law. Anti-Semitism is behaviour that is hostile towards Jews because they are Jews, and the laws against it conform to basic human rights principles that seek to stop discrimination against people of different religions, ethnicities, or creeds.

However, some nations extend the definition of anti-Semitism to refer to any action against the state of Israel as a “Jewish collective.” This is a case where the line between religion and politics is muddied.

Any action against a Jew, or a person of any other faith for that matter, based on prejudice is a matter that can be dealt with by law in most countries, including almost all the Arab countries. But the assumption that a state or its politicians are exclusively representative of a religion (or even a race) is a notion that comes close to discrimination in itself.

Standing up against so-called “ultra-orthodox” Israeli settlers burning Palestinian homes in the West Bank is not anti-Semitism. It can be framed as such, but this would be inaccurate as a distinction has to be made between the policies of a state and the expression of a faith. Not doing so would be like refusing to criticise Al-Qaeda or IS on the grounds that this could be deemed “Islamophobic.” This is why distinctions and definitions are vital in order to create sound dialogue.

Diluting the seriousness of the anti-Semitism that could rightly be identified in the case of an attack on a rabbi, for example, owing to his Jewish identity or attire, is dangerous. It fuels the dangerous perception, encouraged by the Political Islamists, that all Muslims are to be branded as “terrorists.” Some extremist groups in the West such as white supremacists and ultra-nationalists do exactly this, but the law and the state should not do so and should insist upon proper definitions and distinctions. 

The wide usage of accusations of “anti-Semitism” to silence any criticism of Israel or its policies dilutes the working definition it adopted throughout the world. It feeds the perception that Israel has a privileged status that allows it to ignore the rules and norms followed by other countries because people are afraid to condemn it lest they face the accusation of “anti-Semitism.” In fact, of course, supporting Israel is a political decision that has nothing to do with being pro-Semitic. Not supporting it is also a political decision that has nothing to do with religion. 

The same thing applies to the Palestinians who are resisting the Israeli occupation. Branding them as “Islamists” dilutes the human rights violations suffered by an occupied people and their right to resist and fight for their independence and freedom. Ultimately, the introduction of religion into this conflict is contributing now more than ever to the apparent indifference and apathy towards it that we are now witnessing.

* The writer is a London-based seasoned journalist.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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