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Why Haroon Moghul is wrong about BDS, Mandela and the end of apartheid

American writer and academic Haroon Moghul thinks boycott, divestment and sanctions won’t help Palestine because Palestinians don’t have a Mandela-figure to negotiate with Israel. But Daily Vox executive editor AZAD ESSA says this emphasis on iconic leaders is an American fallacy.

American writer Haroon Moghul displayed a curious grasp of the expanding Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories recently when he dismissed the role sanctions played in defeating Apartheid in South Africa. On Sunday, he tweeted: “South Africa worked because of Mandela. Who is the Mandela here? Who would Israeli Jews trust with their lives?”

The tweet came mid-conversation with activists over the purported failure of the BDS movement to stop the expansion of the Israeli occupation. The success of boycotts in international solidarity against the Apartheid regime in South Africa is frequently used by activists as a model for the BDS movement, but Moghul uses South Africa to argue that the current Palestinian struggle for self-determination lacks its own Mandela figure. Moghul however demonstrates a deeply flawed knowledge of South African history.

Very rarely is South Africa – and Mandela – used to promote a politics of moderation and appeasement (except of course by the official opposition in South Africa, aka the Democratic Alliance, who also have quite an ambiguous position on Palestine).

The South African struggle against Apartheid, of which Mandela was just one leader among many, required armed struggle, international solidarity and an alliance of liberation movements to pressure the Apartheid government to relent to negotiations. South Africans did not win their freedom because white South Africans woke up one morning and decided that Mandela the so-called terrorist would ensure their survival.

Yet, this use of Mandela as the poster boy of appeasement is just one example of the simplistic, historically inaccurate arguments informing the work of Moghul and an emerging American Muslim leadership.

The backstory Moghul, who is a PhD candidate at Columbia University’s Department of Middle East, South Asian and African Studies and an Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches, has been criticised by BDS supporters over his decision to travel to Israel with the Muslim Leadership Initiative in 2013.

The MLI program is funded by a pro-Zionist organization that aims to teach American Muslims about Zionism and hear from Israeli Jews under the banner of ‘interfaith’ dialogue.  

Because of  their participation in the program, MLI participants have little credibility among BDS supporters because it explicitly undermines a Palestinian call to comprehensively boycott Israel. The MLI programme is seen as a deliberate attempt to reframe the Palestinian issue from a struggle against colonialism to a trifling disagreement over religion; a misguided belief that pervades Moghul’s thinking and writing about Palestine.

And while the debate over the participation of notable American Muslim figures like Rabia Chaudry, Wajahat Ali and Haroon Moghul has been relentless – I do not seek to reopen that particular debate here.

Reclaiming the idea of Mandela

Here, Moghul brings in the example of South Africa and Nelson Mandela as proof of Israelis and Palestinians requiring “more dialogue”, “understanding” and “diplomacy” in discussions over the leadership and the corresponding viability of a boycott movement against Israel. He suggests that peace and justice can only be brought through the carefully chaperoned hands of “moderate” and “rational” Americans.

As per this logic, the Palestinian people need to be spoken for by those American Muslims who have had the luxury of earning a superior understanding of this conflict through their proximity to power.

Never mind that the Americans have been brokering negotiations for the past two decades to no avail; there seems to be yet more to understand.

If Moghul is to be believed, the Palestinians, those most affected by the Israeli occupation, are simply too emotional and irrational to understand the nuances of modern-day diplomacy.

He contends the South African struggle against Apartheid did not suffer these apparent failures. He argues it was Mandela that gave white South Africans the confidence they wouldn’t be butchered under majority rule and it was Mandela alone that assured white South Africans that they would survive.

Such a Mandela figure, who is sensitive to the feelings of the oppressors is what Moghul has prescribed for Palestinians if they are ever to be free. 

That is nonsense.

Apartheid did not end because white South Africans suddenly found a “rational” man “they could talk to” in Mandela.

In 1949, senior ANC leaders adopted the plan of its Youth League, to “achieve full citizenship for all South Africans through boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and other nonviolent methods” .

Later, Mandela wrote that the “struggle needs many tactics”.

“In point of fact, total and uncompromising opposition to racial discrimination in all its ramifications, and refusal to co-operate with the Government in the implementation of its reactionary policies, are matters of principle in regard to which there can be no compromise.”

It was in 1961 that the ANC, of which Mandela had become an influential member, launched an armed resistance campaign against the Apartheid regime. White South Africans did not trust Mandela with their lives. And after he was a founder and commander of the ANC’s military wing, Mandela was vilified by the regime and its international backers as a terrorist and was imprisoned for 27 years.

Boycotts, divestments, sanctions – the South African edition

Not only is Moghul reading South African history wrong, he’s chiding BDS supporters who have it right.

It was the global isolation of South Africa as a result of sanctions, turmoil in the streets of the townships and the South African Defense Force’s defeat in Angola that together convinced the Apartheid government that the regime was unsustainable.

In the west, the process of translating solidarity for the struggle against Apartheid into official policy was slow, if not, entirely resistant. With the paths to peaceful protest obstructed in South Africa, the call was made for an economic boycott of South African products.

In 1958 the ANC’s Economic Boycott Committee said, “When our local purchasing power is combined with that of sympathetic organisations overseas we wield a devastating weapon”.

White South Africans saw the slow acceptance of sanctions as a type of veiled support for their system. Had sanctions been imposed by the US after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 or the Soweto riots of 1976, apartheid might have ended earlier.

Sanctions against South Africa were first proposed at the UN in 1962 but it took more than twenty years before most of the western world decided to come on board.

Even after he was released, Mandela was adamant that international sanctions against South Africa -on which the Palestinian BDS movement is modeled- “must continue to be maintained and applied” until the Apartheid regime was dismantled

Moghul says he is not against an economic boycott of Israel. Instead, he questions the utility of a cultural and educational boycott and claims, that his trip with MLI, gives him political capital to “influence” American foreign policy.

But this is not his call to make.

Activists understood that no cultural exchange could take place under such duress; it was simply impossible to separate sports, music or even academia from the politics. The sports boycott in particular hurt white South Africans; proud of the prowess in rugby and cricket, the isolation hit them hard. In contrast, Israelis get to take part in the Olympics, kick a football around in the UEFA leagues. It is simply impossible to rule out the psychological effect of international abandonment in so-called lighter matters.

The defeat to the Cuban-backed Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) also had a huge psychological effect: it told the apartheid government that they were not fit enough for a civil war back home. For an army used to bullying and starting fires in the neighborhood (in quite the same way Israel does), this defeat in the face of sanctions from the rest of the world, including the US, paved the way for the political transformation that soon followed. The Moderate Can Win the Day Moghul argues that BDS is “not very helpful” in solving the dilemma in Palestine, while still claiming a loyalty to the one state solution.

His fixation on moderation and dialogue also falls apart when we look at South Africa.

The regime back then spent millions trying to coax African Americans into ‘understanding’ apartheid better. It’s not different to what MLI is doing with Muslim Americans and Zionism, and it failed spectacularly.

The emphasis on iconic leaders is an American fallacy. It would be worthwhile remembering that for all those years the US refused to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa, it wasn’t because of a lack of diplomacy, or a gross misunderstanding of the mechanics of apartheid and the fears held by whites. The decision to veto sanctions was based primarily on American interests. Moghul places too much importance on his own capacity to influence change.

The lesser facts were always likely to be overshadowed by the six-foot Mandela because at the stroke of a pen, he morphed from ‘terrorist’ to ‘messiah’ for the white minority.

The agency of the South African public, the sanctions from outside, the psychological impact of not being able to participate in sports and culture, all that conspired to force the South African government to its knees – these are all brushed aside because the apartheid regime purportedly found a man they could work with; a magician called Madiba.

Apartheid South Africa had options to end the madness, and Palestinians have yet to present their case, is what Mughal seems to say.

In this he makes the most pitiful of colonial blunders: blaming the victim for their oppression.

Featured image via Twitter

1 Comment
  1. Moosa says

    Mughul is known to say absurd things. Why the focus on him or on BDS? Is this a BDS channel? Mughal is no longer important or relevant to the Palestine discussion.

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