By any measure, the Gaza crisis is a human tragedy of biblical proportions. At first glance, the slew of protests that had mushroomed across major European cities since late December when Israel launched its military offensive would suggest many saw it as such.
But a closer look at the footage and images of these protests will reveal a most disturbing fact: most participants are of Middle Eastern descent. For the white man in the street, it seems Gaza is still largely perceived as a preoccupation for that “other” community – the Muslims.
There were of course exceptions, notably here in Edinburgh. A small-scale student protest on 15 January proved to be a multiracial gathering, while another one held a week later on Barack Obama’s inauguration day saw non-Muslims make up roughly 60 per cent of the participants. Yet this was not the norm.
In Istanbul, I witnessed first-hand an overwhelming Muslim presence at a Gaza protest in the early days of Israel's Operation Cast Lead – not surprising, given Turkey's demographic. But I observed it too in London a week later as a participant of what had been described as the United Kingdom's largest protest march on Gaza to date. To be fair, its organisers, Stop the War Coalition had tried including non-Muslim voices through the likes of celebrities Annie Lennox and human rights activist Bianca Jagger, who both spoke prior to the march.
When people started walking, I also noticed pockets of non-Muslims in the crowd that day – members of political parties, and even Jews who were against the oppression. There was a further spattering of non-Arab faces that looked like they did not belong to either group. But in a city of some 7.5 million residents (of which nearly 70 per cent are people of white descent according to the 2005 census), a spattering among an estimated 20,000 that had marched from the Speaker's Corner to the Israeli embassy at Kensington Park that snowy afternoon is not encouraging.
But perhaps part of the reason why many in the UK did not decide to turn up, or perhaps did not even identify with the Gaza crisis, can be surmised from the conduct of those among the crowds who keep dragging the protest back to a parochial turn. Their chants kept reminding the marchers that Gaza is a Muslim issue.
Despite the organisers' best effort to couch Gaza as a human tragedy, Stop the War Coalition could have done more to minimise the brooding sense of exclusivism that had blanketed the march. For one thing, they could have at least had official crowd rousers leading chants that were along the inclusive position that they wished to take.
But not everyone sees this as a problem. If Palestinians are Muslims, then why is it an issue if Muslims take to the streets? After all, the long-held Western tradition of freedom of speech guarantees their right to speak their minds, even if it led to bouts of violence like it did that day when masked protestors burned firecrackers, threw missiles at riot police and even attacked a Starbucks shop near the Israeli embassy.
On the disturbances, author Tariq Ali told The Guardian: "You always have on any demonstration a group of people who get very angry and sometimes that comes out in violence, but for me the most appalling violence is happening in Gaza. A few punch-ups outside the Israeli embassy is neither here nor there."
While there is no denying emotions could run high on an inflammatory issue such as Gaza, the only good prevailing from fired-up cheerleaders screaming at the top of their lungs “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is Great!”) and “Burn, burn, Israel” back to back is getting the crowd's adrenaline pumping against the cold weather.
In fact, exclusivist chants and violent tendencies can only serve to alienate non-Muslims (some of whom had participated in the protest) and above all, cheat the Palestinians of world sympathy. Far from helping those in Gaza suffering the effects of Israel's military incursion, such behaviour reflected nothing more than a desire to quench individual anger. It was selfish.