He is an Islamic “preacher of hate” whose views reflect “virulent anti-Semitism” and who has funded Hamas terror operations, according to much of the British media.
The furore last week over Sheikh Raed Salah, described by the Daily Mail newspaper as a “vile militant extremist”, goaded the British government into ordering his late-night arrest, pending a fast-track deportation. The raid on his hotel, from which he was taken handcuffed to a police cell, came shortly before he was due to address a meeting in the British parliament attended by several MPs.
The outcry in Britain against Sheikh Salah has shocked Israel’s 1.3-million Palestinian citizens. For them, he is a spiritual leader and head of a respected party, the Islamic Movement. He is also admired by the wider Palestinian public. The secular Fatah movement, including Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, were among those condemning his arrest.
Many Palestinians, like millions of Muslims in the Middle East, revere Sheikh Salah for his campaign to protect Muslim and Christian holy places from Israel’s neglectful, and more often abusive, policies. They struggle to recognise the British media’s characterisation of him as an Osama Bin Laden-like figure.
Most in Israel’s Jewish majority would not have been aware of Sheikh Salah’s supposed reputation as a Jew hater either, despite their hyper-vigilance for anything resembling anti-Semitism. True, he is generally loathed by Israeli Jews, but chiefly because they regard his brand of Islamic dogma as incompatible with the state ideology of Jewish supremacism. They fear him as the leader of a local Islam that refuses to be tamed. Those Israelis who conclude that this qualifies him as an anti-Semite do so only because they class all pious Muslims in the same category.
Israeli officials detest Sheikh Salah as well, but again not for any alleged racism. His long-running campaign to prevent what he regards as an attempted Israeli takeover of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound – part of a wider “Judaisation” programme in the occupied areas of the city – has made him a thorn in their side.
In other words, Israeli Jews view Sheikh Salah as an inveterate trouble-maker and provocateur, while the country’s Palestinian minority accuse Israel of persecuting him for his political and religious beliefs.
The British media and government, meanwhile, have stumbled cluelessly into this domestic Israeli feud and, in the name of Enlightenment values, revealed their own deep prejudices. The humiliation of Sheikh Salah at the hands of the British legal system – supposedly in the interests of promoting “decency and respect” – will serve only to remind Muslims of the hypocrisy so often evident in Western policy.
The double standards are especially glaring given the British government’s recent pledge to Israel to change its universal jurisdiction laws. That move will ensure Israel’s growing constituency of suspected war criminals avoid any future threat of prosecution in the UK, receiving a far warmer welcome than Sheikh Salah.
Perhaps not surprisingly, opposition in the UK to the sheikh’s presence stems from a campaign of character assassination led by pro-Israel groups.
They have accused him of a “blood libel” against Jews, based on information from dubious sources. When these claims were aired in Israel several years ago, Sheikh Salah was investigated and charged. However, the prosecution was dropped a short time later for lack of credible evidence.
The other allegation – that he funded Hamas terror operations – relies on claims orginally made by the Israeli government in 2003 during one of his many arrests. Although the state had reportedly accumulated 200,000 recordings of Islamic Movement phone calls, they never located in the conversations the smoking gun they expected to find.
Instead Sheikh Salah languished in jail for two years while his trial dragged on, the charges repeatedly reduced because promised evidence could not be produced. Eventually he agreed to a plea bargain in return for his release. He was convicted of funding Islamic charities for widows and orphans – loosely declared “support for terror” under Israel’s punitive crackdown on all Islamic networks, including welfare groups, in the occupied territories.
Israel’s legal system, despite its reputation for presuming that Palestinian citizens are habitual security offenders, has found Sheikh Salah guilty neither of anti-Semitism nor of directly helping terrorists.
So why is Britain being even “more Israeli rather than the Israelis”, as two Arab members of the Israeli parliament caustically observed?
One reason is that Britain appears to be increasingly vulnerable to the influence of the pro-Israel lobby. Unfounded claims against Sheikh Salah were first made by the Jewish media in Britain, which has become an uncritical cheerleader for Israel, and by the Board of Deputies, Britain’s representative body for Jews.
Another reason is that the pro-Israel lobby finds it all too easy to exploit Islamophobic tropes that have come to dominate the public discourse in many Western countries, including Britain. Fears of a clash of civilisations and of Muslim immigration mean every Islamic scholar and authority is automatically assumed to be another “mad mullah”.
This approach threatens the very values it claims to be protecting. It silences those who are best placed to critique Western policies – the victims of them; and it refuses to allow the West’s most cherished assumptions to be questioned, rightfully fearing that in some cases they will be exposed as nothing more than bigotry.
It is worth highlighting a point British commentators overlooked in their coverage of Sheikh Salah. He was coming to the parliament, the cradle of British democracy, to talk not about jihad or infidels but about “building peace and justice in Jerusalem”.
His message is one Western publics desperately need to hear but one that Israel and its supporters keenly want silenced. Thanks to the British media and government, for a while longer Britons will be shielded from a real discussion.
Jonathan Cook won this year’s Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.