Kasims for Qassams: Interview with Kasim Hafeez
“In hindsight, I never actually gave a real damn about Palestine, I was just obsessed with hating Israel.” – Kasim Hafeez
When he’s not contributing articles to The Jerusalem Post or The Wall Street Journal, Danny Ayalon is tweeting updates like “just met with Kasim Hafeez, a great friend of Israel.” The Deputy Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beitenu MK isn’t flattering a zealous UJA-Federation of New York fundraising director, but praising a former Muslim radical from England – an apostate and unapologetic Zionist. You can read about Kasim Hafeez and his personal journey on his blog, or perhaps you caught his lecture over the summer during his tour of the Holy Land, ‘The Day I Stopped Hating Israel – Confessions of an ex-Radical.’
As the narrative goes, his worldviews were first challenged when he read The Case for Israel, and this mental reset eventually compelled him to reach out to Israeli advocacy groups. Where his Pakistani father laments Hitler for failing to exterminate enough Jews, Hafeez has come to appreciate Israel and other historical trivia that seem to escape the cognizance of his community – tidbits, like the revelation that Palestine never was a state or a nation, among other things.
In the Jerusalem offices of Stand With Us, an organization which makes a cause of “supporting people around the world who want to educate their own local campuses and communities about Israel,” I had the opportunity to sit down and field some questions to Hafeez; it was a real treat to hear what insights this individual had gleaned from his circumstances.
He looks young, though not entirely youthful per se, and an inquiry was made as to his age. It took him more than a moment to remember, or decide, and even then he wasn’t so sure. But then he was. I recognized the therapeutic ambivalence that a man of 28 resigns himself, and extended the secret handshake of those in league with liminality Herself.
The first question mentions The Quilliam Foundation, a London and Islamabad-based organization, named after a Liverpool solicitor who embraced Islam and founded the first native community in that part of the Isles. It is the world’s most senior counter-extremism think tank founded to address issues of identity and belonging, in a democratizing and globalizing world.
Our chat is reproduced below.
What do you think of the work of the Quilliam Foundation?
I don’t know too much about them in all honesty. They are the only foundation of its kind that does counter-extremism work. They do the job that needs to be done, and they need to be supported in their work countering radicalization in the Muslim community.
What is your view of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’? Do you see this as an organic movement for real change, or do you see other factors present?
I think that we in Europe are way too enthusiastic about it. I think it may have started organic and indigenous, but there are definitely outside influences. There are proxy wars going on, with Saudi Arabia and Iran both pushing their ideologies. It has become prevalent in the Arab Spring that Islamists in Saudi Arabia and Iran are using this opportunity to force themselves to power. The movement itself has been hijacked and there are mainly two protagonists.
Only two protagonists involved?
It’s very complicated – indigenous groups play a part and there is definitely outside influence while also internal Islamist movements are gaining a strong foothold.
In your view, how can Israel best tackle discrimination? How necessary are some discriminatory methods like ‘profiling’?
Unfortunately, it’s going to happen, and when I first visited Israel I was in security for a long time, almost eight hours – a huge inconvenience. But looking back I understand. You know, the situation is not good, not great, and Israel is doing a balancing act. I would rather the checks be done than someone blow up on Jaffa street. As long as there is no disrespect, it’s fine. The security check was quite pleasant, they were happy, and I didn’t walk out angry and annoyed – the guy was just doing his job. There are certain demagogues that pose problems. It’s impossible to determine who may pose a threat.
[Regarding social discrimination] It is difficult for me to comment because I live in Europe. Concerning discrimination, we are having issues in Europe with immigration, and it is a positive reflection on Israel that they have the same issues that we are having in North America and Europe. But it’s difficult for me to pass judgment as I don’t live here and don’t have a well-balanced answer on that.
[I thought it awfully gracious that a fellow as brown as any son of Pakistan would appreciate necessity as per our nation’s airports]
Why is Israel special?
You have Bamba. (Israel’s answer to Cheeto’s, though not a public health hazard.)
There is no other state in the world like it. Some are similar, what Israel has achieved in a short time, as an innovator in technology and as a humanitarian nation, in the big role Israel plays in the world. Israel really manages to keep the democratic values it was founded with and it truly does try to be a light among the nations. I’m not going to go down that route that, well – there are issues. There is no perfect nation, doesn’t exist. But Israel is really special, in what it represents to the Jewish people, as an ideal, it’s something very admirable. It’s a homeland, this idea that it represents – that the Jewish people won’t be defenseless.
A similar idea was behind the creation of Pakistan, where the Muslim minority in India won’t be defenseless once the British leave. The Jewish people go back thousands of years and still they’re here, and democracy, in a region where democracy and these values is rare. I would say without any doubt that Muslims have more rights in Israel than anywhere else in the Middle-East.
The plight of the Palestinian people – do you sympathize?
Yes, of course. There is always this issue that people think zero-sum game, and that’s how I saw things. But it’s not like that, and the saddest thing is, their biggest enemies are their own leadership. They openly propel the message to children that they can’t be doctors and teachers, but they must go fight and die. That there are no representatives looking out for the people only ensure decades of animosity and hatred. I hope and sincerely wish that the leadership does change, where they can get what they want – peace.
Do they have a right to a Palestinian state?
I don’t know. Difficult to answer. They have the right to self-determination but again, I don’t live in the region, so it’s difficult to say what the best way forward is. As accepted by all Israeli governments in the last decade, the two-state solution is the best solution. But it has to be two states living and working with each other, working for mutual benefit. But now, they are content trying to drive Israel into the sea.
On your website you write, “Israel isn’t just a Jewish issue, it’s about freedom and democracy, Male or Female, Gay or Straight, Christian, Muslim or Jewish, supporting Israel is about freedom and standing by a democracy under siege.” Are gay rights a legitimate issue when arguing for Israel? Will this make us more friends or enemies?
I can only see it making Israel more friends. It’s something that you can use because it is a part of Israel. In keeping with Israel as a liberal democracy, it’s important. Democracy works. The Chief Rabbi said recently that democracy may not be perfect, but it’s a system that works. Israel is a liberal democracy. It’s so important to have this idea of sheer values.
Is it a good idea to require the Arab citizens of Israel to serve in the IDF?
I think it’s good if they did, but it’s problematic if they have no choice, but there are other ways of national service. If they can feel a part of the country it can only help. If it’s your home you want to feel ownership for it. If they don’t feel comfortable, there are alternatives. They should, out of choice, for their own benefit, really try to be part of the country that they really live in.
It’s very problematic to say compulsory. It can be used by people who have nefarious aims. If more Arabs get involved, over time more people will want to get part of it, and in time you can look to compulsory [service], but now it’s natural to push against it when there are historical issues in terms of loyalty, etc.
Is Islam compatible with modern Western civilization without being considerably ‘reformed’?
I believe so. I don’t see the problem. Without a doubt, there are streams that are not compatible with civilization. They are as dangerous to themselves as to anyone else. In general, Islam is compatible. It depends on what aspect people take it. The problem is with interpretation, where certain people interpret text literally in a black and white sense. In religion, it’s not that simple sometimes.
Should indoctrinating one’s children with anti-Semitic views be considered child abuse? Should parents be held legally accountable?
Yes. Any sort of intolerance via indoctrination, via racism, homophobia – you violate the rights of innocent children and it’s abhorrent. How you would police that, I don’t know, but its something that they should be held accountable for.
I imagine that you have been brought up studying the Koran to some depth. Is the Koran fertile soil for anti-Israel or anti-Semitic worldviews?
I think certain verses. The big problem is that many Muslims don’t speak Arabic. I can read it, but don’t understand it. So you’re relying on translations that are dependent on other translations. I have two Korans that when translated refer to two different things. One refers to spiritual murder, the lessening of a spiritual state as punishment, and the other translation, the popular translation, refers to physical murder.
Things are taken out of context, certain verses taken in isolation without context, it all comes down to interpretation, and this is the issue especially with many Muslims who can’t speak Arabic.
In your community back home in England, do people differentiate between settlers and citizens in ‘Israel Proper’? Does the difference matter?
People have started to. There has been a real highlighting between the links of anti-Israel and anti-Semitism. People talking about Israel not existing, that’s seen as a huge generalization. Now a clever tactic is employed to just target settlements, and the boycotts are aimed at that. But settlers are representative of Israel [when slandered or criticized].
Rehabilitating a Fevered Mind
In an effort to understand a phenomenon like Hafeez to a greater depth, I turned to Ghaffar Hussain, Head of Quilliam Outreach and Training Unit (QOTU) at The Quilliam Foundation. Does he often encounter young men whose convictions were shattered by mere books, and are there any books in particular?
He obliges, “E.H.Carr’s What is History has been cited by some as a life changer but people often like to say these things because it sounds more dramatic and makes it easier for an audience to digest. Usually, it’s cumulative.”
He informs me that the percentage of former extremists whom he works with who actually become Zionists is minuscule. Because he explains, the default position for members of these communities is anti-Israel (which is not considered extreme in this environment), the very fact that a moderating Muslim would take a balanced approach to the Mid-East conflict is groundbreaking in and of itself.
What is the most common catalyst for reform that you have noticed in these young men’s backgrounds? Is there a more or less common pivotal experience?
“Often, a certain point or fact that contradicts the extremist narrative sticks with them and that initiates a process in which the whole narrative begins to unravel. At other times they have a bad experience with their fellow extremists or develop a strong relationship with someone who helps them to change their mind.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if that someone with whom strong relationships are forged might be, at least in many instances, Christ arisen. The idea isn’t entirely out of left field. The fact of the matter is that the only other reformed Muslim extremists, terrorists, and jihadis I have come across previously have all been converts to Christianity, e.g. Walid Shoebat, Ibrahim Abdullah, Nonie Darwish, Kamal Saleem, Mosab Hassan Yousef, Taysir Abu Saada…Chamillionaire. The last one, it is tacitly understood, waged a cultural jihad on America’s airwaves in the first decade of this century.
That Christians of the born-again genus make good Zionists is a reliable heuristic, though there is no greater surety than direct interrogation. Still, it would be too indelicate to ask a foundling Zionist his religious affiliation; I would no sooner make inquiries into one’s sexual orientation.
Hussain indulges, “Very rarely do Muslim extremists de-radicalize as a result of encountering Christianity or any other faith.”
One reckons then that Shoebat et al are more or less exceptions, benefactors of an enhanced visibility thanks to the evangelical circuit.
It surely is a rarity when an extremist reforms himself through the revolutionary act of reading – and more so when that text is rather not the Scriptures. But can worldviews be shaken complete by a humble book, and a very manageable one at that? And why was this book particularly effective?
I put the question to the author of The Case for Israel, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz.
In Mr. Dershowitz’s own words: “Over the years I’ve gotten several calls and emails from anti-Israel zealots who have told me that my books have led them to question their strong opposition to Israel. Normally it takes a combination of reading and experiencing. In the case of Kasim Hafeez, my book stimulated him to make a visit to Israel, and it was his visit to Israel that really changed his mind. There is no substitute for experiencing Israel in person. My goal in writing about Israel is simply to ‘whet the appetite’ so that people can decide for themselves.”
Speaking of appetites, there was only one question left for Hafeez. The final question, notoriously, is reserved for curveballs, attempting to force a moment of truth.
Hamburger or shawarma?
“Shawarma – I’m going to put it out there.”
I do think the chap’s gone native.