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The Mavi Marmara Metaphor

The working alliance between Islamists and leftists in Britain emerged out of anti-Israel demonstrations after the start of the second Intifada in October 2000, which preceded 9/11 and the protests against the war in Iraq. A decade on, anti-Zionism and the Israel/Palestine conflict remain its energizing core. There is no other conflict in the world which would have motivated Islamist and leftist campaigners to cooperate for a flotilla similar to that which approached Gaza at the end of May, with consequences which are still reverberating around the Middle East and beyond.

The Mavi Marmara, which held the bulk of the ‘flotillistas’, is a metaphor for so much of the left-Islamist alliance. There were two main types of people on board: Islamists, mainly from Muslim countries and aligned with, or members of, the Muslim Brotherhood; and European and north American leftists, from a variety of pro-Palestinian campaigns and direct action groups. What is striking is that despite sharing the same political and physical space, they had completely different narratives about why they were there, how they intended to meet their aims and even who organised the whole flotilla in the first place.

The Islamist version, as expressed in several interviews by participants and organisers in the Arab and Turkish media, presents the flotilla as an initiative of Hamas and its supporters — mainly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood — in various countries. The main organiser was Turkey’s IHH, which has long-standing links with Hamas; the European end, according to IHH head Bulent Yildirim, was coordinated by the London-based Hamas activist Mohammed Sawalha. Its political roots lie, most probably, in the Istanbul Declaration of February 2009. This Declaration, famously signed by the MCB’s Daud Abdullah and also by Sawalha himself, came from a conference held to form an international strategy for supporting Hamas after the war in Gaza the previous month. The Palestinian end of the flotilla was handled exclusively by Hamas in Gaza, as was the case with previous land-based convoys. This is not challenged in any of the Islamist accounts of the episode. Yemeni MP Muhammad al-Hazmi, from the Brotherhood-aligned al-Islah party and photographed on board the Mavi Marmara brandishing a ceremonial Yemeni dagger, has described how participants met Sawalha and Yildirim on arriving in Istanbul, before attending the 25th anniversary event of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe — a Europe-wide network of Muslim Brotherhood groups which met in Istanbul the week before the flotilla set sail.

A dominant theme emerged from numerous interviews given by Islamist flotillistas before, during and after their time at sea: this was a quest for jihad or martyrdom (or, in the more specific terms used, to reach Gaza or die trying). In December last year, when this particular flotilla was first announced, Sawalha told Hizbollah’s al-Intiqad newspaper that “the next time the confrontation will be directly with the Zionist enemy itself on the high seas.” His words were eerily prescient. The Algerian Islamist party the Movement of Society for Peace, whose deputy leader was on board, published photos from the flotilla with the caption, “Photos of Algerian Mujahideen.” According to one Arab journalist on board the Mavi Marmara, “Religious fervour was very much present throughout the voyage…There were cries of ‘Allah Akbar’ and people reciting the Koran. It made you feel as if you were going on an Islamic conquest or raid.” A Jordanian delegation member said afterwards, “We hoped to return in shrouds and to give our lives for the sake of Allah.” Furkan Dogan, the Turkish-American who was killed during the raid, wrote in his diary shortly beforehand: “I think there is not much time left for that moment of martyrdom. Is there anything more honourable? If there is, it should be my mother. I am not sure of that either. Which one’s better? My mother’s compassion or dying for a noble cause?”

Dying for a noble cause was not on the agenda of the European and North American leftists on board. For them, this was a Peace Boat taking humanitarian supplies to suffering Palestinians. It also had the political purpose of lifting the Israeli blockade to allow free passage of goods and people in and out of Gaza. This is the narrative that sees Gaza as akin to the Warsaw Ghetto, and the flotilla as a modern-day Berlin Airlift. That their goods may be handed over to the Hamas government in Gaza for distribution is just a fact of circumstance with no deeper ideological meaning. (Contrast this with the words of Mehmet Kaya, who runs the IHH office in Gaza: “We only work through Hamas, although we don’t limit our aid to its followers. We consider Israel and the United Nations to be the terrorists, not Hamas.”) Although they must have considered the possibility of danger, there are no videos of western leftists welcoming the prospect of martyrdom. Few appear to have expected those resisting the Israeli boarding party to have used the level of violence they did. Previous seaborne efforts to reach Gaza have either been allowed through unmolested, or were apprehended at sea without violence, and they were not aware of any reason to imagine this time would be different.

Rather than seeing this as a Muslim Brotherhood-organised operation, the leftist flotillistas present an action with a much more varied and diffuse background. Some held positions in formal groups such as the Free Gaza Movement, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign or Viva Palestina; others are individuals who have spent time with the International Solidarity Movement or campaigned for the Palestinians in their local towns and cities. This reflects the decentralised, network-based campaigning which has come to typify the left in many Western countries. It is also, importantly, how the flotilla is perceived and reported in Western media. Even foreign minister William Hague described it as “collections of individuals from different countries [coming] together to try to force Governments to change course and reach a global audience in doing so.” The idea that this was a Hamas-inspired project, organised via Muslim Brotherhood networks as part of its asymmetric warfare against Israel, is not just absent from most Western interpretations of what happened: it is actively and defiantly scorned. The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard, for example, had little time for the idea that “the debacle was in fact a work of supreme cunning on the part of Hamas, deliberately engineered in order to discredit Israel in the eyes of the world.” His implication was that this allegation is an invention of pro-Israeli propaganda, despite the evidence of Hamas figures claiming exactly the same to be true. Lezard then went on: “I and the blameless Review section of this newspaper will be denounced as either Hamas stooges, antisemites, or both. It would appear that unimpeachably impartial reporting from this miserable part of the world is a categorical impossibility.” The point is not that the Islamist narrative of who organised the flotilla, and why, is right, and the leftist one is wrong, much less that Lezard and the Guardian are Hamas stooges or antisemites. Rather, it is that the Islamist and leftist versions of what happened to do not enter the thinking of the other. Lezard is correct to say that impartial reporting on this subject is extremely rare, but not for the reasons that he seems to think.

Once on board, there is little doubt which of these groupings were dominant. IHH members appear to have had an authority over the ship that was unmatched even by its captain and crew, declaring parts of the ship out-of-bounds to all but themselves. Videos show passengers chanting the anti-Jewish battle-cry, “Khybar Khybar Ya Yahood!” (which evokes the military defeat and subjugation of a Jewish tribe by the Prophet Muhammad in 629 C.E.). There do not appear to be comparable videos of flotillistas strumming guitars and singing Imagine or The Internationale. This follows the general trend of left-Islamist cooperation, which usually results in an Islamisation of leftist discourse, rather than a secularisation of Islamist language. After the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara which left nine flotillistas dead, Islamists and leftists alike spoke in a language of martyrs and sacrifice.

It is unfair, and inaccurate, to label the leftist participants as useful idiots. Their reasons for action are genuine and their humanitarian efforts at least have political coherence. It is simply that, while leftists were involved in the flotilla in large numbers and presumably contributed a great deal to the collection of funds and goods, this contribution did not secure any political benefit for Palestinian leftists. One thing that the Islamist and leftist flotillistas agree on is that their project had the twin tracks of humanitarian goals and political goals. However, while the flotilla goods that eventually reached Gaza via the Israeli port of Ashdod presumably helped ordinary Palestinians — thus fulfilling the humanitarian goal — there was no political benefit for Palestinian leftists from the operation, nor does there seem to have been a plan to divert some of the glory their way.

This is the wider point about the alliance in Europe of leftists and Islamists. Islamism, globally, is a movement with energy, resources, self-belief and, in some countries, real power. Socialism is anything but. It has failed in power and lost its ideological certitude a long time ago, to be replaced by a vague and, at times, contradictory, set of ideas: anti-globalisation, environmentalism, anti-imperialism and so on. This is not an alliance of equals. European leftists, so used to being the junior partner in their cooperation with Islamists at home, have given up any pretence that their support for Hamas and other Islamist movements is one of critical engagement, or that they would rather work with secular, liberal forces in Palestinian society (or even their own). In this respect, the flotilla is a metaphor for the whole left-Islamist alliance. A journey over which leftists have a semblance of influence but little real control, into a confrontation not of their own making, from which they derive no political benefit.