Gaza, Solidarity and the Right to Protest Blog Series, Guest Edited by Alana Lentin and colleagues
Blog post by Shereen Fernandez and Waqas Tufail
Shereen Fernandez is an LSE Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Waqas Tufail is a Reader in Criminology in the School of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett University.
The current wave of international solidarity with Palestine has faced significant backlash in Western nations primarily from politicians and media outlets, but also from within institutions. In the United States, for instance, there are countless reports of individuals being fired from their jobs for publicly expressing sentiments of solidarity with Palestinians and particularly those under siege in Gaza. On US college campuses, doxxing of students expressing sympathy towards Palestinians using billboards attached to trucks has been employed as a technique to publicly name and shame individuals. One purpose of such tactics is to inform future employers not to hire these students but more chillingly it is a strategy used to dissuade and silence others from taking such principled action. This silencing can often be violent, as demonstrated by the recent shooting of three Palestinian male students in Vermont, who were allegedly targeted for wearing keffiyehs.
For many Muslims and Arabs, this overpolicing of resistance and solidarity efforts is reminiscent of the aftermath of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror, in which new legislation was urgently drafted to thwart activities deemed to be ‘extremist’ in nature, such as the Prevent Duty in the UK. We argue that at its core, there are several overlaps between the War on Terror and the current criminalization of pro-Palestinian activists, primarily through their Islamophobic infrastructures. We see Islamophobia as an extension of racism, which is both structural and institutional in its reach and its implications. We see how media reports of Gaza and Palestinians, for example, have contributed to their inhumanity, with refusals, for example, to acknowledge that thousands of Palestinians have been murdered, but rather, have just ‘died’. Our focus is on the way in which counter-terror legislation in the UK, primarily the Prevent Duty, has been used to securitize and silence activists in recent weeks, and permitted the spread of Islamophobia. As we seek to show, the selective usage of counter-terror legislation on pro-Palestinian protestors and activists is part of a much wider trend of criminalizing dissent, felt significantly by racialized Muslims and Arabs in the post-9/11 era.
The rampant usage of counter-terrorism legislation can be traced to the beginnings of the so-called War on Terror, instituted in 2001 by the US and enthusiastically backed by the UK and other Western governments. The War on Terror set in motion an array of new ‘anti-terrorism’ measures and powers with the supposed aim of preventing extremism and radicalization. The power to legislate and designate groups as terrorists has historical precedence, with colonial administrations often doing so to squash revolutions and hinder any attempt of resistance. As these powers intensified, they have led to numerous human rights abuses in the forms of overpolicing, abuse of police power, entrapment, racial profiling and community surveillance. Whilst most of these abuses have attracted little attention (in our view, due to prevailing racism and Islamophobia), even less attention has been paid to the effects these developments have had on political dissent and other forms of political protest, particularly on Muslim individuals and communities. The US and UK security states have long associated pro-Palestinian protest with extremism and a justification for surveillance and police harassment – numerous case studies over the past two decades have confirmed this approach. The current widespread attacks on pro-Palestinian solidarity therefore have a wider historical context that needs to be considered – whilst this certainly escalated with the onset of the ‘War on Terror’, the repression has long roots which also predate this period. Modern counter terrorism, in both its ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ iterations - has been directly informed by the techniques honed during the colonial period by the empires of the 20th century.
In the UK, much (though certainly not all) of the institutional ire has been directed at students and staff at schools, colleges and universities. This has seen students targeted through disciplinary procedures and referrals to Prevent, the government’s counter-terrorism scheme, simply for displaying badges or symbols depicting the Palestinian flag or for uttering the universally recognized liberation slogan, ‘Free Palestine’. It is crucial here to highlight the role of Prevent in the disciplining of pro-Palestine solidarity and protest. Since the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015, public institutions and their staff have had a mandated responsibility to actively engage in Prevent, often relying on ‘gut instincts’ on who and what constitutes extremism. Teachers too, who are among the implementers of Prevent, have expressed how unevenly concern for Palestine is applied, with many schools taking a ‘neutral’ stance to quash any resistance they may encounter. The escalating use of Prevent in disciplining pro-Palestinian activism is especially worrying, given how it allows for Islamophobia to remain acceptable in society. In 2021, when protests against the demolition of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah were widespread, there were concerning reports of how such activism was treated in schools. A headteacher in Leeds for example was reprimanded in this time for calling the Palestinian flag a ‘call to arms’ and a symbol of antisemitism. The targeting of pro-Palestinian activism and symbolism is not limited to schools or Prevent per se, with academics finding themselves also censored for expressions of solidarity and targeted by right-wing outlets in attempts to silence them through denunciation. Such acts have rightfully been criticised by academics given the rhetoric behind ‘decolonizing’ initiatives in universities in the aftermath of George Floyd’s racist murder by US police in 2020. A prime example of the performative nature of decolonization is the recent distancing of Columbia University from esteemed Palestinian academic and their former employee, Edward Said. The cancelling of an event relating to Said’s work as well as their refusal to denounce Islamophobia, whilst maintaining an academic position in Said’s honour, highlights how Palestine and Palestinian activism is a risk that institutions do not want to take. To speak of Palestine or Palestinians in this very time is to speak with bravery.
There are attempts to show too, how solidarity with Palestine is increasingly described as the antithesis to so-called British values and how such solidarities are cynically alleged to perpetuate antisemitism, with those at the very top of power, such as Rishi Sunak, bolstering such claims, as seen with his tweet on the recent March Against Antisemitism in London. By positioning the March Against Antisemitism in this way and in contrast to the pro-Palestinian marches, we see how the construction of the latter as a ‘hate march’ permits the excessive usage of counter-terror policies. By framing Islamophobia as a form of systemic racism, we seek to go beyond facile claims that understand Islamophobia only as ‘hate crime’ – one of the many ways in which Islamophobia is both minimized and denied. The overwhelming presence of police at recent pro-Palestine marches and their overzealous use of social media to publicly appeal for people they want to speak to, whether it was clothes they were wearing, slogans they were chanting or placards they held up, also confirms how securitized Muslims and the Palestinian cause are. This overt securitization does not begin or end at the protest site itself, but certainly contributes to the War on Terror narrative which sees any divergence from the status quo as a threat. In one such case, a protester carrying a placard depicting Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman as coconuts was deemed to be a ‘hate crime’ on the grounds of race. The policing of such free expression is not only chilling in its own right, but highlights the limitations of those who call for more laws, more policing and more criminalization to tackle ‘hate crime’. In other words, the liberal tendency to call for greater punishment ostensibly for the protection of racialized minorities, has in fact led to the intensified policing of racialized minorities. The policing of the recent and ongoing pro-Palestine demonstrations has seen action and arrests take place for slogans and placards including footage of police rifling through the literature of a stall of a political group and subsequently arresting an NHS doctor. The Metropolitan Police took the unprecedented step of handing out leaflets at a recent London demonstration for Palestine, warning attendees that their slogans and placards will be monitored for potential violations of the law. The contrast to the treatment of those who routinely issue genocidal statements such as calling for Gaza to be flattened could not be clearer.
It is imperative to state that the sites of criminalization we have discussed here are also inspirational sites of resistance. School children across the country have led mass walkouts, refusing to be cowed by institutional pressure and a wider anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim political culture. Teachers and lecturers are reaching out to students and to one another to form new networks of solidarity, organizing teach-ins, seminars and avenues of discussion for further forms of pro-Palestine action. The millions of people who have turned out across the country opposing genocide and in support of Palestinian rights and lives are channelling their rightful anger through protest. We must be attuned to the reality that in the current moment, the right to protest is being eroded. The policing of Palestinian solidarity in the UK and across Western nations has been exceptionally authoritarian, with regular right-wing calls for more suppression. Whilst ultimately this affects the civil rights of every citizen, the extant patterns of anti-Palestinian racism and institutional Islamophobia mark Palestinians and Muslims as specific targets of the state.
In myriad ways the past two months have laid bare the hypocrisy of the values the West enjoys associating itself with – democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech. For many (including the present authors), this hypocrisy was made clear through the decades’ long abuses of the ‘War on Terror’ – a war that proved in fact to be a war of terror, both at home and abroad. As history has shown us, there is a constant repackaging of measures seeking to marginalize, criminalize and punish dissent, as seen historically via colonial laws and contemporarily with Prevent. The past two months have (re)awakened our consciousness to push back against Islamophobic narratives that see expressions of freedom by Muslims and Arabs as dangerous. Equally, many are choosing to speak out against the constant calls to condemn (experienced most frequently by Palestinians and Muslims), often used as a racialized qualifier to determine whether your opinion and position should be accepted. A particularly illustrative example concerned Husam Zomlot, the Palestine ambassador to the UK who during an interview with BBC Newsnight where he had just announced the killing of six of his family members in Gaza by Israel, was asked by the host if he condones the killing of Israeli civilians. The importance of the current political moment demonstrates that refusal is a political option which must be sought to avoid falling into such stark binary depictions that seek to reinforce Islamophobia and securitization whilst simultaneously marginalizing expressions of solidarity with Palestinians.
 See Joseph McQuade (2020) ‘A Genealogy of Terrorism: Colonial Law and the Origins of an Idea’. Cambridge University Press
 Tufail, W. and Poynting, S., (2023). ‘Policing Muslims: Counter Terrorism Policing in the UK and Australia’, The Routledge International Handbook on Decolonizing Justice.
 Poynting, S. and Whyte, D. eds., (2012). Counter-terrorism and state political violence: the 'war on terror' as terror. Routledge
Read further in the Gaza, Solidarity and the Right to Protest Blog Series:
Genocide is not a metaphor: reflections on Gaza and genocide denial
Defending the indefensible
Regarding “human animals” and settler colonialism
The views and opinions expressed on the Identities Blog are solely those of the original blog post authors, and not of the journal, Taylor & Francis Group or the University of Glasgow.