Packed into the protesters’ pen and surrounded by police, a Muslim woman shouts: “In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians.” She is with a hotchpotch of generations and ethnicities, impervious to freezing temperatures, hurling slogans at the Israeli embassy in Kensington, west London. The chants become more provocative as the evening draws on, when younger people arrive, some of them of school age. Soon the takbirs are heard above the traffic: “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar” – “God is great, God is great.”
In a week when the head of MI5 and government advisers have warned that anger over the Gaza conflict could have repercussions for national security, British Muslims are demonstrating across the country, their fury and activism undiminished. Events in Gaza have rocked and unified them.
Eschewing the traditional networks of mosques and community centres, Muslims are using emails, text messages and social networking sites to urge each other to boycott household names, give their savings to charity, protest and pray that God alleviates Palestinian suffering. All this, despite the majority of British Muslims coming from the Indian subcontinent and having little or no connection to the occupied territories.
One of the Kensington protesters is Nargees Choudhury, a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “I’ve seen lots of Soas students at the demonstrations. I am not Palestinian. But I have a sense of duty, not just as a Muslim, but as a human being. For me, silence equals complicity. You are not going to find any Muslim who hasn’t reacted strongly to this.”
Her friend Myriam Francois Cerrah has protested outside the Israeli embassy every day. In the hallway of her home a placard reads: “4 wrongs don’t make 500 rights” – referring to the skewed civilian casualty numbers. She says: “I wear a Palestinian scarf as a symbol of remembrance and solidarity. Ultimately, many people feel powerless – my family and I watch the news with eyes streaming. I’ve not eaten properly since this started. My son is angry – he is only eight but he doesn’t understand why he’s seeing dead babies on the news. It is hard to give him an answer I’m myself convinced by.”
The harshest critics are found in the frontline of demonstrations. Unlike previous politically charged events – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – there are fewer condemnations from the mosques. Imams, burned by accusations of inciting violence, have remained low-key, encouraging their congregations to return to the teachings of the Qur’an and Hadith, and seek spiritual comfort.
Ghulam Hussain Patel, from Walthamstow mosque, said he avoided politics in his sermons. “The sin of the people of Gaza is small, but their punishment is heavy. We accept that Hamas fired rockets but there must be a ceasefire.”