The trials and tribulations of a Palestinian Mandela

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although I wish there were a Palestinian  Mandela, I suspect that Israel-Palestine is not ready for someone like him… not yet, at least.

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Thursday 12 December 2013

Since the passing away of Nelson Mandela, eulogies glorifying the great man have been circulating around the globe – some heartfelt, others opportunistic; some genuine, others hypocritical.

I will not bore the reader by adding my own longwinded homage to the cacophony of tributes already out there. Suffice it to say that, despite his imperfections, Nelson Mandela was one of the few leaders – perhaps the only – in the 20th century who succeeded both as a revolutionary and as a statesman.

My intention here is to examine Mandela’s legacy in the Israeli-Palestinian context and whether the South African model he helped pioneer could help lead Palestinians and Israelis to the Promised Land of peace.

We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world,” Mandela said on the 20th anniversary of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in 1997.

And from within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours,” Marwan Barghouthi, the imprisoned Palestinian leader who has often been described as the Palestinian Mandela”, wrote in a tribute, reflecting the deep sense of mourning many Palestinians feel.

The tiny cell and the hours of forced labour, the solitude and the darkness, did not prevent you from seeing the horizon and sharing your vision,” Barghouti wrote from his own cell in Israel’s Hadarim prison. “Your country has become a lighthouse and we, as Palestinians, are setting sails to reach its shores.”

But one reason the Palestinians have not reached this promised shore is because they have not had a leader of Madiba’s stature and vision, many argue. “The Palestinians needed a Mandela but they got Arafat,” reflected an Israeli I know, echoing a common sentiment in Israel.

While it is true that the Palestinian cause could have used someone of Nelson Mandela’s humanity and vision, what this view overlooks is that the Israelis have also been seriously short-changed by their leadership. Yes, the Palestinians have not had their Mandela but, likewise, an Israeli FW de Klerk has yet to emerge, with the nearest Israel has come to this being Yitzhak Rabin.

Although de Klerk is largely overlooked today, it is, in my view, no exaggeration to say that without his “verligte” (“enlightened”) contribution, Mandela, who nevertheless deserves the greater credit, may have failed in his mission to dismantle South African Apartheid.

After all, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool conservative for most of his political career, de Klerk called for a non-racist South Africa, lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), released Mandela from prison and managed a surprisingly smooth transition to democracy. This would have been unthinkable had his predecessor PW Botha, who campaigned for a “No” vote in de Klerk’s 1992 referendum on ending Apartheid, not been forced into retirement following a stroke.

But what if Mandela had been a Palestinian and what if he had found his Israeli de Klerk, could he and would he have succeeded where Arafat and Rabin, not to mention the rest of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, failed?

Although I would like to think so and it is tempting to believe that what Palestinians and Israelis lack is a saviour, there are certain structural problems in the Israeli-Palestinian context which could defeat any would-be Mandela, the foremost being the narrow ethno-religious character of the conflict.

Even though Palestinians generally regard Mandela as a kindred spirit and his largely non-violent tactics resonate deeply, if Mandela were actually a Palestinian leader, I fear that his philosophy would face a groundswell of opposition. Despite undoubted support amongst pragmatists, some would label him as a “traitor” for demanding no more than equal civil rights within the existing Israeli framework, while others would dismiss him as a “normaliser” for his inevitable collaboration with Israelis.

Interestingly, whites, usually leftists and communists, were involved with the ANC from its earliest days. For instance, the Freedom Charter was compiled, based on demands from across the country, by architect-turned-political-activist Lionel Bernstein. At the Rivonia trial, which led to Mandela’s long incarceration, there were five white co-defendants who, like Bernstein, were also Jewish.

On the Israeli side, Mandela’s vision and mission would also likely prove unpalatable. Although Jews make up a far larger percentage of the population of the Israeli-controlled territories (former mandate Palestine and the Golan Heights) than whites did in South Africa, there is a widespread obsession with the so-called demographic time bomb.

This would most probably lead many Israelis to condemn a Palestinian Mandela as plotting to “destroy Israel by other means”, to rob Jews of their right to self-determination and even to lead to civil war and massacres the “day after”. Even though they shared a similar angst, white South Africans managed to overcome this existential fear and survived – even thrived – to tell the tale.

Although secular Palestinian nationalism and secular Zionism have both traditionally striven for democratic societies which involved the other side as equals of sorts, this was always in a shell where the other would be a minority and willing to live under a clear, dominant nationalist framework.

One reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not pursued a South African solution – and is instead stuck in the unworkable doldrums of a two-state solution in a land that is under 27,000 km2 compared to South Africa’s massive 1.2 million km2 – is simply a question of time.

The European colonisation of South Africa started much earlier, and had already reached fever pitch by the early 19th century. In contrast, large-scale Jewish immigration and settlement did not take off until after the British mandate began in Palestine following World War I.

As the situation increasingly grows to resemble the segregation of Apartheid South Africa, many, especially among the Palestinians but also a growing number of Israeli Jews, are convinced that the only way forward is a single, binational state.

However, huge confusion and differences remain over what form this should take and how to get there. I urge people to take inspiration from Nelson Mandela and the ANC and launch a civil rights struggle for equality for all, while also protecting the rights of every ethnic, national and religious group. 

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 December 2013.

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The mythical European Umma

 
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Given that only about 4% of the EU’s population is Muslim, why is the fear of a coming Eurabia so strong in certain quarters?

25 August 2009

Muslims in Europe are secretly amassing an arsenal of the deadliest in biological weaponry: the demographic time bomb. The first phase of the Muslim invasion – or should I say reinvasion – of Europe has already begun with the deployment of an expeditionary force of womb-men: a fearsome army of mutant ninja warriors whose function is to go forth and multiply. Their turbo-charged and perhaps even genetically modified uteruses mass produce the deadly biological agent which is currently being stockpiled in Muslim homes across the continent.

And their mission: to create Eurabia – or, better said, since many European Muslims are not Arabs, to turn the EU into the European Umma. Having been driven out of Europe once and unable to reconquer it through force of arms, those crafty and cunning Muslims are back to do it through the Trojan horse of immigration and reproduction.

Some dismiss this demographic time bomb as being far-fetched and as fantastical as Saddam Hussein’s non-existent arsenal of WMD, but yet another smoking gun has been found in the Netherlands. Troubling evidence has emerged that Muhammad has become the most popular boy’s name in the country’s four biggest cities. And a similar situation is emerging in other European urban centres.

In fact, five centuries after the reconquest of Granada, that last Muslim stronghold, Eurabia has established its first de facto capital in Rotterdam.

And when the number of Muhammads and other assorted Mohammedans become a majority over the coming century – as the great Bernard Lewis warned – they will form an army of mujahideen of Talibanesque horror which will subjugate the natives and make them live as second-class dhimmis under sharia law.

As far-fetched conspiracy theories go, the Eurabia myth is one of the most persistent and dangerous of recent years – and the Daily Telegraph fanned the controversy this month with its claims that it had carried out an investigation which revealed that the EU’s Muslim population would jump from the current 4-5% to an improbable 20% by 2050.

The six-paragraph article gives no indication of how the projections were arrived at, nor the assumptions upon which they were based. In fact, as the BBC pointed out in a piece debunking a popular YouTube hit on ‘Muslim Demographics’, population projection is an inexact science. It cites, as an example, the projections made in the 1930s that the UK’s population would fall to 20 million by the end of the 20th century.

Most projections that foresee a massive increase in Europe’s Muslim population are based on certain assumptions which are hard to justify. They assume that recent immigration trends will continue indefinitely for decades to come, but this is unlikely as Europe continuously raises the immigration bar for non-EU citizens, and it is not far-fetched to expect that many European countries may call a halt to immigration or draw their future immigrants from certain more ‘desirable’ countries.

The projections also assume that European Muslims will continue to have a significantly higher fertility rate than the population at large. But evidence suggests that the fertility rates of Muslim women are gradually converging with those of the wider population. And there are signs that the fertility rate among the white population of some European countries, such as France, is recovering.

So, given that the only hard facts we can be sure of is that a small minority of about 4% of the EU’s population is Muslim, why is this fear of a coming Eurabia so strong in certain quarters? Many of the biggest proponents of the Muslim demographic time bomb myth are cheerleaders of and apologists for US imperialism in the Middle East, such as Bat Y’eor and Bernard Lewis.

Some Europeans, particularly from conservative and Christian circles and the intolerant wing of liberalism, have fallen for the myth for a variety of reasons. One is the relatively rapid shift in western Europe towards multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies in recent decades, which has caused a certain sense of alienation and insecurity, especially for those whose economic security has been undermined by neo-liberal economics and globalisation.

Other reasons are the massive lifestyle and social changes. These have caused distress for traditionalists and people who still identify themselves as Christian: they have seen their religion die a slow death, while Islam seems to go from strength to strength.

Then, there is the plain old fear stoked by the overexposure given to the most intolerant Islamic fringe groups and individuals. Certainly, there are some European Muslims who want to live according to sharia and there is even a lunatic fringe who would like to see Europe incorporated into some fantastical global caliphate.

But Muslims in Europe are not some unified, monolithic force. Not only are they ethnically diverse and from communities that are not the greatest fans of each other – consider the animosity between Moroccans and Algerians, for example – they are also as varied ideologically as the rest of the population.

Although Muslims tend to be more religious and conservative than the rest of society, there are also plenty of secular, non-practising, cultural and even non-believing Muslims. In addition, it is impossible to tell what kind of identities future European Muslims will have, but I suspect that the future cultural fault lines in Europe will not run along traditional religious lines, but will pit believers against non-believers, creating a kind unity of purpose between conservative Muslims and Christians intent on preserving faith in a ‘Godless Europe’.

While Eurabia is a fantasy, Europe is almost certainly going to become more diverse in the future, and so a debate is worth having about how to adapt to this reality and what constitutes citizenship in an increasingly mobile world.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 21 August 2009. Read the related discussion.

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