A visiting British speaker says he is out to build understanding and dispel misconceptions.
In many ways Kasim Hafeez strikes me as a typical British Muslim lad: he’s football mad, to the extent that his email address carries the year in which Chelsea Football Club was founded. He wears Muppet socks and Converse shoes, but is most comfortable barefoot. And his mother loves him to bits, but would love him even more if he found himself a wife.
But unlike any other British Muslim I have ever met (having once lived in the United Kingdom), he’s also a self-proclaimed Zionist who acts as an adviser to Stand With Us, an Israeli advocacy group.
Hafeez recently visited the country on a speaking tour as a guest of the South African Zionist Federation. The email I received from the tour publicist ahead of our interview described him as an “ardent and proud Zionist”. And, “being a Muslim Zionist, he has some interesting views on the current peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine.” It also stated that Hafeez was “brought up in a radical Muslim home with a violent jihad ideology”.
I meet Hafeez in the sunken coffee lounge of the Elangeni Hotel on Durban’s beachfront. He responds to my salaam as any fellow Muslim would, before we order our (non-alcoholic) drinks and chat.
According to him, his upbringing and family didn’t really have much to do with him becoming a Zionist. “My family was not classically or radically extreme. Yes, there was anti-Semitic talk in our home. My dad had it in for the Jews and would say they controlled the world and the wealth of the world. He’d say Hitler was a great man, but as a six- or seven-year-old living in Leicester, where there’s no interaction between the Muslim and Jewish communities, this is not something you think about regularly,” he says.
Although Hafeez is in his mid-20s and I’m 37, we find that there was a period – the few years leading up to September 11 2001 – when we both embarked on a similar ideological path.
We’d both grown up in homes where our parents prayed five times a day, fasted during the month of Ramadan and sent us to madrasa after school, where we learned the basics of the Islamic faith.
But as he approached his teens and me my late 20s, we became exposed to a movement that encouraged young men from around the world to go and fight in Chechnya. Websites like azzam.com and qoqaz.net told moving stories of young men who had died for Islam with smiles on their faces in Afghanistan and Bosnia and videos chronicling their lives were widely available, as were booklets and tapes that spoke of the virtues of martyrdom and jihad. These were posted to me by UK friends that I had made in internet chat rooms.
Hafeez had a similar experience. “I started to become exposed to graphic imagery of what had happened in Bosnia and what was happening in Chechnya and Kashmir. This was always from people outside the community. Within the community it was the same – we were told to go to mosque and read the Qur’an, but then external voices starting coming in and pushing a more aggressive agenda, telling us that we needed to be out there, physically fighting. It was a very energetic movement, very masculine in many ways.”
Hafeez joined this movement at university. “We held this view that everyone was wrong except us.”
And then of course, 9/11 happened and the world changed overnight – not just for the thousands of Americans who lost their loved ones on that fateful day, but also for millions of Muslims around the world.
Websites were shut down, homes were raided for incriminating books and video tapes and thousands of Muslims were imprisoned, many on charges of “inciting terrorism”.
In our respective countries, Hafeez and I both became involved in the anti-war movement, protesting against the United State’s decision to invade Afghanistan. And that’s where the similarities in our backgrounds end.
I became involved in various Palestinian solidarity activities and movements, all of which differentiated between Zionism and Judaism and none of which advocated violence as a solution. There were marches, talks, dinners and email groups with diverse membership, comprising Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and atheists.
But Hafeez says that in the circles in which he hung out post-9/11, Israel became highlighted in a manner that frustrated him. “Instead of supporting Palestinian rights, they were unleashing anti-Israel sentiment – I’d be handing out leaflets stating that Israel was raping and murdering people. At university, irrespective of which class I was in, politics or not, if I knew there were Jewish students present, I’d find a way of starting a conversation about how bad Israel was.”
He says he reached a point where he thought that if he really cared about the Palestinian people, instead of shouting out slogans and handing out flyers, he’d go for jihad training and go and “fight in Palestine like a true mujahid”.
An encounter in a bookshop with Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel in 2005 changed all that. “I bought it so I could disprove it. I disagreed with many of the points he makes, but some of it confused me. So I started researching and what I thought would be two weeks turned into a few months and then into two years, during which I started reading books which were neutral and books which were pro- and anti-Israel.”
Hafeez says, by the end, he experienced a patch of severe depression. “Here I was, ready to go blow myself up, being confronted by reading material which made me doubt the basis of my long-held beliefs.”
He is now pro-Israel as well as pro-Palestine, he says. “I believe Palestinians have the right to live with freedom and dignity, but I also support Israel’s right to exist.”
At the end of his period of research Hafeez visited Israel and, based on his observations that “there are Arab members of Parliament, no Arab-only buses and voting for everyone”, he believes terming the Israeli state an apartheid one amounts to “anti-Semitism”.
He seems to have a ready answer for any argument to the contrary. Hafeez claims that “even the pro-Palestinian movement in the UK has nothing to do with Ilan Pappé” (who is part of a group of Israeli historians that is re-examining the history of Israel and Zionism). “He spews out anti-Semitism a lot of the time.” This assessment is surprising, considering that Pappé directs the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter in the UK.
What about the right to return of some five million (according to the United Nations) Palestinian refugees displaced from their homes? “When refugee populations occur anywhere else in the world, there’s never been a right to return – the host countries integrate them, give them citizenship,” he says. “Also, at the time of the partition there weren’t five million in the total population – how can there now be five million people who need to go back?”
So was John Dugard, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestine territories (OPT) from 2005 to 2007, lying when he recently told the Mail & Guardian: “The subjection of Palestinians to a separate and unequal judicial/legal system, separate roads, separate schools, separate hospitals and, more recently, separate buses has inevitably given rise to accusations that Israel applies a form of apartheid in the OPT. In 2012 a study conducted by the South African Human Sciences Research Council found conclusively that Israel practises apartheid in the OPT.”
Hazeez retorts: “I’ve never said it’s perfect; I’ve never said there’s a utopia. I spent a few days in Ramallah. It’s not perfect by a long shot – there are restrictions, there are differences – but at the same time there are very positive things. I spoke to young Palestinians filled with hope; some were anti-Israel, but many were talking about a shared future.”
Strangely enough, although Hafeez has been marketed as a “Muslim Zionist” to the media, his speaking engagements in the country – by his own admission – have been with people who from his perspective are in no need of conversion. Shouldn’t the Zionist Federation have organised some engagements with the Muslim community and the pro-Palestinian movement? “You’ve got to ask them that question. For them it’s very unusual because they’ve got into the mind-set that most Muslims are anti-Zionist, so this is something very different for them.”
Could it be that he’s being used as a poster boy by pro-Israeli groups? He’s heard that before, he says. “But I campaign for Rohingis in Burma, the Christian community in Pakistan. This is just a small aspect of what I do. My main campaign is to build understanding. People have so many misconceptions about Islam – there’s a growing anti-Islamic movement which brands Islam as being evil. We are normal people; we are your neighbours, your friends.”
Sure, I get that, but do we have to be Zionists in order to promote peace and understanding? His friend Hassen agrees with me, he says. But for now he’s content with the “Muslim Zionist” tag. “It isn’t that I’m Zionist and nothing else matters. I’m Zionist and I care about Palestinians deeply.”