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Mute Virtue: Avoiding Conversations About Zionism and Islam

In an era of abundance, content is packaged for easy digestion and hyperactivity. Virality on social media relies on composite subjects being compressed down to bullet points. The quick and intuitive engagement this elicits has therefore devalued scrutiny, which is concerning especially for sociopolitical matters because it makes bravery convenient.

The high market value of being on the right side of history has even the most forward-thinking individuals playing it safe since no one wants to go viral for the wrong reasons. The tension in the Middle East epitomizes this phenomenon. The reluctance to denounce Israel’s military presence in Palestine is rooted in the fear of it being adjudged a vilification of the Jewish community. Likewise, finding fault with elements of Islam is considered discriminatory due to the widespread prejudice against Muslims. When self-identified progressives fail to speak up on these issues, they allow their conservative counterparts to take the lead on the conversation.

The Holocaust is among the ghastliest atrocities within living memory. Whereas the Zionist movement began much before that, the horrors of the Second World War brought attention to the Jewish need for a safe settlement. Thus, it only seemed fair when the United Nations carved out land in the Middle East for said community as part of their Partition Plan. The issue was that the land designated for Jewish migrants was already occupied. The unrest between Israel and Palestine stems from each side disputing the other's claims of a rightful presence in the area. Palestine has become gradually smaller over the 70-plus years since the declaration of Israel’s independence, resulting in a refugee crisis that has displaced millions. This bolsters the argument that denouncing Israel’s occupation of Palestine is not anti-Semitic.

It is of paramount importance to recognize that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, especially in its current state, transcends religion. Whereas the holy significance of Jerusalem continues to play a pivotal role in marking the region as a frictional hotspot, secular nationalism remains the driving force behind the ordeal. It was only with the formation of groups like Hamas, which do in fact espouse Jihad, that the shortsighted narrative centered on congenital Islamic terrorism was magnified. Since the Hamas government came into power in the Gaza Strip in 2005, the clash has been deemed a fight against religious fundamentalism. This undermines the predicament of the Palestinians who’ve been pushed further and further away from their homes to accommodate Zionism and the denial of their return to the properties that were seized from them. Ever since the mass exodus of 1948, which saw nearly half of Palestine’s population expelled from their settlements, to the current occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Israeli forces have continued to impose limitations on the liberties of Palestinian civilians. The residents and refugees in (what remains of) Palestine have been forced to comply with the military, which has control over the airspace, land crossings and the supply of utilities in the Gaza Strip as well as majority of the land in the West Bank.

Today, the conflict is portrayed as a defensive retaliation from Israel intended to protect its people. Their ongoing encroachment has been supplanted with the notion that the Palestinians have remained truculent on peace agreements. The callous nature of Israel's defensive tactics has resulted in civilian casualties vastly disproportionate to their own, a detail that is constantly ignored. This raises questions about the rigidity of their military’s efforts in extinguishing terrorist threats and the ease with which the violation of human rights becomes the cost of national security. As late as November of 2020, Israeli forces carried out what the United Nations called the “biggest demolition of Palestinian homes” in the West Bank since its decade-long occupation — a “grave breach” of international law.

So how come the people who were so vocal in criticizing the United States’ war on terror are still hesitant to speak up for the victims in modern-day Palestine? It might be because poking holes in the Zionist movement comes with the risk of being labeled an apologist. Whereas it is natural to be sensitive to the struggle against anti-Semitism, the profligacy with which that label has been used to silence critics is concerning. An example of this is English musician Roger Waters, the co-founder of Pink Floyd. A self-described "radical atheist," Waters has been an outspoken supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and has made numerous political statements in its favor. He faced accusations of anti-Semitism when he imprinted the Star of David on his trademark pig balloon as an act of protest during a live performance. It is important to note that Waters has used the imagery of the pig since the release of Pink Floyd’s 1977 concept album, “Animals,” alluding to those in power atop the social ladder. The Star of David, in this case, represented Israel, not the Jewish people as a whole.

Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people and Israel is the region from which they originate. These are separate entities and making this distinction is necessary — not every Jewish person practices Judaism nor do they all support Israeli policies or the Zionist movement. Till this is established, the misuse of the anti-Semite label will continue to derail efforts that seek to combat actual discrimination against the Jewish community.

The conflict in the Middle East is tricky because it involves a community with a deep history of persecution versus one that currently occupies the hot seat. This has made Islam difficult to construct a dialogue around — people are anxious about having their solidarity doubted by those claiming to have a monopoly on compassion. The guilt from evaluating the ethics of the Quran has made the mainstream political left's rhetoric incomprehensible. Defending the religion has become a familiar overcompensation for the unfair treatment of people with a Muslim identity. Conflating the two ignores a weighty detail: not every person named Muhammad or Fatima is a follower of Islam just as every Palestinian is not an Islamist. The problem lies in the assumptions that group a name or particular set of features with values that an individual may or may not possess. Hence, it is safe to say that challenging the doctrine of Islam is not Islamophobic.

The circumspect diplomats of the world will have you believe that a dangerous interpretation of a doctrine is to be blamed on the individual, which in essence is no different than saying, “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Taking away guns certainly won’t stop violence because the same person who would have shot at a crowd might still go and stab someone. Comparably, an individual killing in Allah’s name might kill regardless of Allah. Any number of reasons can motivate violence — love, hunger, rejection — but with fewer stimulants, the probability of erratic decisions decreases. The availability of weapons designed to kill from a distance within seconds energizes capricious behavior. Using a scripture to justify crime does the same in that it is inspired by an external force, which then allows individuals to shift the blame away from themselves. The Quran, among other things, advocates violence against women [4:34] as well as the killing of pagans and idolaters [9:5]. Dogmatism, in such cases, slips through the cracks because interpretation is cited as a key factor in determining the spirit of a doctrine. A dangerous interpretation, however, doesn’t make it wrong. Though it might be incompatible with modern standards, the reading could very well be correct. Wisdom proves to be quite resourceful in these situations because any interpretation, no matter how horrific, can be validated if enough people are convinced of its wisdom.

If human rights are indeed the focal point of the leftist movement, cultural relativism shouldn’t have a reach beyond the universal standard for well-being. If a doctrine can be interpreted in a way that violates that standard, it must be subject to censure. There’s nothing progressive about defending a person's right to be oppressed because no one chooses to be oppressed — they’re manipulated into believing it’s in their best interest by the corrupting influences that descend upon them under the guise of a guiding light. Turning a blind eye to the maltreatment of fellow human beings as a sign of respect toward their culture is deeply patronizing. Whereas banning the Burqa is inconsiderate of an individual's conditioning and the consequences of abandoning it, the concept is still fundamentally flawed. When the followers of a religion are also its victims, defending it becomes tough.

There’s no difference between “god loving” and “god fearing” when love entails acting in fear of the penalty for not doing so. This is as true in Christianity as it is in Islam, but the silent progressives has failed us because he will not condemn the shortcomings of every religion equally. He effortlessly reprimands Christianity because the Church remains as powerful as ever but remains quiet on Islam to absolve himself of whatever second-hand guilt he might feel from the cold-shouldering of Muslims.

Most people get to establish whether or not their beliefs correspond with the religion from which their names are derived, but the September 11 terrorist attacks led to a one-dimensional synthesis of the Muslim identity. This is the gist of Islamophobia — it mustn’t be confused with the non-partisan critique of archaic values, which just happens to cover the teachings of the Quran.

Getting behind a cause is easier than coming to the forefront and speaking in its defense. Saying that you support women's rights is a safe position to take but fighting for it requires consistency, even if that means faulting another marginalized group you sympathize with. It takes precision to find the exact point where you can condemn the Quran in defending women’s rights but also stand up for Muslims who are wrongly accused of misogyny and extremism. Similarly, being sensitive to the plight of the Jewish people shouldn't obscure the crimes of the Israeli Defense Forces. The brittle state of progressive humanitarianism comes from the inability to find this balance.

Submitting to a school of thought over which you don’t have full creative control clouds rational thought. “Collective wisdom,” said Bertrand Russell, “is no substitute for the intelligence of the individual.”


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