The working alliance between Islamists and leftists in Britain emerged out of anti-Israel demonstrations after the start of the second Intifada in October 2000, which preceded 9/11 and the protests against the war in Iraq. A decade on, anti-Zionism and the Israel/Palestine conflict remain its energizing core. There is no other conflict in the world which would have motivated Islamist and leftist campaigners to cooperate for a flotilla similar to that which approached Gaza at the end of May, with consequences which are still reverberating around the Middle East and beyond.
The Mavi Marmara, which held the bulk of the ‘flotillistas', is a metaphor for so much of the left-Islamist alliance. There were two main types of people on board: Islamists, mainly from Muslim countries and aligned with, or members of, the Muslim Brotherhood; and European and north American leftists, from a variety of pro-Palestinian campaigns and direct action groups. What is striking is that despite sharing the same political and physical space, they had completely different narratives about why they were there, how they intended to meet their aims and even who organised the whole flotilla in the first place.
The Islamist version, as expressed in several interviews by participants and organisers in the Arab and Turkish media, presents the flotilla as an initiative of Hamas and its supporters — mainly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood — in various countries. The main organiser was Turkey's IHH, which has long-standing links with Hamas; the European end, according to IHH head Bulent Yildirim, was coordinated by the London-based Hamas activist Mohammed Sawalha. Its political roots lie, most probably, in the Istanbul Declaration of February 2009. This Declaration, famously signed by the MCB's Daud Abdullah and also by Sawalha himself, came from a conference held to form an international strategy for supporting Hamas after the war in Gaza the previous month. The Palestinian end of the flotilla was handled exclusively by Hamas in Gaza, as was the case with previous land-based convoys. This is not challenged in any of the Islamist accounts of the episode. Yemeni MP Muhammad al-Hazmi, from the Brotherhood-aligned al-Islah party and photographed on board the Mavi Marmara brandishing a ceremonial Yemeni dagger, has described how participants met Sawalha and Yildirim on arriving in Istanbul, before attending the 25th anniversary event of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe — a Europe-wide network of Muslim Brotherhood groups which met in Istanbul the week before the flotilla set sail.
A dominant theme emerged from numerous interviews given by Islamist flotillistas before, during and after their time at sea: this was a quest for jihad or martyrdom (or, in the more specific terms used, to reach Gaza or die trying). In December last year, when this particular flotilla was first announced, Sawalha told Hizbollah's al-Intiqad newspaper that "the next time the confrontation will be directly with the Zionist enemy itself on the high seas." His words were eerily prescient. The Algerian Islamist party the Movement of Society for Peace, whose deputy leader was on board, published photos from the flotilla with the caption, "Photos of Algerian Mujahideen." According to one Arab journalist on board the Mavi Marmara, "Religious fervour was very much present throughout the voyage...There were cries of 'Allah Akbar' and people reciting the Koran. It made you feel as if you were going on an Islamic conquest or raid." A Jordanian delegation member said afterwards, "We hoped to return in shrouds and to give our lives for the sake of Allah." Furkan Dogan, the Turkish-American who was killed during the raid, wrote in his diary shortly beforehand: "I think there is not much time left for that moment of martyrdom. Is there anything more honourable? If there is, it should be my mother. I am not sure of that either. Which one's better? My mother's compassion or dying for a noble cause?"
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