Thursday, August 17, 2006

Same Questions, Different Answers

What's often forgotten is that there was a time, and not long ago, when the European left loved Israel.

Until the 1960s European socialists championed the cause of the Jews and Israel. Mid-century socialists saw anti-Semitism and fascism as products of the right, so they became instinctively pro-Israel. In the 1950s it was left-wing French governments that provided Israel with nuclear power and a modern air force.

This changed with the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel launched a preemptive strike to defeat the Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian forces that seemed about to invade. It was a stunning victory, but it led to the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai.

To European socialists, who had rallied to the underdog Israel in 1967, the Palestinians were now the oppressed and displaced. Israel came to be seen as a neo-colonial regional superpower, not the plucky survivor of the Holocaust keeping powerful neighbors at bay.

Back at the beginning, between 1945 and 1952, when the new world was new and unsettled, the Soviet Union was Israel's friend and the Americans were allied with the aspirations of the Arabs and opposed to the fading colonial power of Britain.

Hard to believe, eh? European leftists and socialist Israel on one side, Arabs and Americans on the other, Britain harrassed by both.

And more recently, all the ingredients of Islamist terrorism existed -- the poverty of once-proud Islam, the humiliation at the hands of the Jews, the frustration over being pawns in a Western power game. But there was no Islamist movement except in the fringes.

Instead, the Arabs turned to nationalism and socialism -- including the unassimilated Muslim populations of Western Europe, the source of so many terrorist plots today.

Delwar Hussain remembers:

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, Bangladeshis in London used secular, socialist ideology to combat injustice – a system of thinking that could then still lay plausible claim to the future. There also remained at that time the option of return which sustains many migrants, who promise themselves they will go "home" when they have made enough money.

Today, most of those born in London still refer to Bangladesh as "home", but in practice Bengal is distant from their daily lives and probable futures. Within the community, Bengali secularists appear today as archaic as the political left. Islamic brotherhood is a more potent tool in the fight against discrimination. Claire Alexander, author of The Asian Gang: contesting Britishness, writes: "Islam stands as a psychological barricade behind which…Bangladeshi young people (usually men) can hide their lack of self-esteem and proclaim a functional strength through the imagination of the umma".

He concludes:

The fight of secularists against racism and poverty appears bland compared to the ardent certainties of religion. In Bangladesh, secularists and the left have been marginalised and suppressed by the post-2001 ruling coalition. While the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – and George Galloway in London – seek to ride the Jamaat-e-Islami tiger for political gain, the prospects of this strategy for resolving the enduring questions of social justice, equality and diversity are dim. Jamaat and other fundamentalist groups are sowing the seeds of future conflict, as well as obscuring more hopeful and humane pathways to equity and harmony for Bengalis, in both Britain and Bangladesh.