Critics of Corbyn's Rabaa sign undermine victims of a massacre

Critics of Corbyn's Rabaa sign undermine victims of a massacre
Comment: Linking the Rabaa sign to extremism is a cheap take that is devoid of context and understanding, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
17 Aug, 2018
Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party in September 2015 [AFP]
There are many good reasons to criticise the political stances, postures and core ideological assumptions of Jeremy Corbyn and the movement he represents, and I have done precisely that on several occasions, mainly regarding his views on the Syrian revolution.  

But just because Corbyn says or does something, doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong.  

The latest controversy surrounding the Labour leader is that he was pictured doing the four-fingered Rabaa (or Rabia) sign during a visit to Finsbury Park mosque in London. 

When I first heard about this line of attack on Corbyn, it was, momentarily like reading an only slightly watered-down English version of the viciously pro-Sisi, and consistently absurd Egyptian media. The story was originally run by The Daily Telegraph, with a headline about Corbyn making a 'Muslim Brotherhood salute'.

The Daily Mail, Evening Standard and UKIP-supporting Daily Express followed suit with almost identical takes on the affair - the Rabaa 'salute' was 'Islamist' and linked to nefarious Islamic extremists. Every one of these articles had one thing in common, namely quotes by self-styled 'counter-extremism' activist, Maajid Nawaz. 

Nawaz told the Telegraph that the Brotherhood are "to Muslims what the BNP are to the English: Bigoted, identitarian and dangerous". He went on to say that "It should be as taboo for a left-wing politician to be associated with that group, as it is with the BNP."  

After the massacres, the symbol became a general sign of dissent, with no essential 'Islamist' meaning

So, according to Nawaz, the Muslim Brotherhood are Nazis. Or, you might even say, anyone who does the Rabaa sign is a Nazi, in the eyes Nawaz. To any Egyptian who opposed Sisi's mass murderous, ultra-brutal coup and supported the first ever democratically elected president in Egypt's 7,000 years of history, the news that one of the main symbols of resistance to this mass terror makes them a Nazi would no doubt be met with shock.  

It certainly did for me. But on matters concerning 'Islamic extremism', Nawaz doesn't do subtlety or nuance.

Speaking of groups that are 'bigoted, identitarian and dangerous', one of Nawaz's more despicably egregious moments was his joining forces with the allegedly 'rehabilitated' EDL-leader and Islamophobic pogromist Tommy Robinson. To most Muslims, he's a joke - the bulk of his supporters seem to be those who seek out a vaguely 'authentic' Muslim to confirm their prejudices against Islam.

But this isn't about Nawaz; indeed, it isn't even really about Jeremy Corbyn. It's about the Rabaa sign and almost the entire British media endorsing the idea that the sign denotes devotion to the Muslim Brotherhood and thus 'Islamic extremism'. 

It's about the way the mass terror-justifying narratives of the Sisi regime can be picked up so casually by the British media.It's about pro-democracy Egyptians, whether supporters of the Brotherhood or otherwise, being demonised and persecuted across the four corners of the earth.  

The roots of the four-finger sign lie in the massacre of protesters at both Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nadha squares, which occurred five years ago. Following the coup against the democratically elected Morsi by then General Sisi, a wide and diverse range of pro-democracy protesters had occupied the squares in the same way as Tahrir square during the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

But in Sisi's counter-revolutionary Egypt, the spirit of Tahrir had to be snuffed out with brutal force. In one single day, at least 817 souls, including women and teenagers, many of whom were hunted down like dogs - shot in the back, burned alive, crushed to death or picked off by snipers - were murdered by the Egyptian security forces.  

Rabaa al-Adawiya, which was the name of the mosque at the square and the square itself, was a much-revered 8th century female Sufi saint and poet. The name 'Rabaa' means 'fourth' in Arabic; hence the four-fingered symbol and salute. After the massacres, and during the immediate period of terror against all sources of opposition to the Sisi regime, the symbol became a general sign of dissent, with no essential 'Islamist' meaning.  

Nawaz and the British media are simply repeating the propaganda of the Sisi regime regarding the meaning of the sign.

In fact, the Sisi regime has completely 
banned it, arresting and prosecuting anyone caught with it, including school children. The death penalty can even be handed out for displaying the symbol, given that membership of the Brotherhood can be a capital crime in Egypt. Sisi's propaganda is the main source of the idea that Rabaa is synonymous with the Brotherhood, and that the Brotherhood iss synonymous with 'extremism' and 'terror'.

And this is why the idea - espoused by the British media and backed up by Nawaz - that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is an 'extremist' organisation akin to Nazis, is especially absurd and cruel, given the context in which anyone even remotely connected to that organisation in Egypt faces death.

Labour has reacted to the controversy by saying that Corbyn's use of the gesture was him "standing up for democracy" in Egypt and a "gesture of solidarity with the victims of the 2013 Rabaa massacre". Though Corbyn has not stood up to Assad, Iran and Russia, this is precisely what the symbol means.

Nawaz and the British media are simply repeating the propaganda of the Sisi regime regarding the meaning of the sign

In Egypt, the main crime of the Muslim Brotherhood was not their alleged 'Islamism' or 'extremism', but their tendency to win democratic elections.  

In the post-revolutionary period, their political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), had won a majority in the first ever democratic elections to Egypt's parliament, while the FJP's candidate for the presidency, Mohamed Morsi, had won Egypt's first democratic presidential election against the openly counter-revolutionary, Mubarak-supporting General Ahmed Shafik.  

Even the designation of the Morsi government in Egypt as 'Islamist' is quite absurd, given none of their policies were in any sense 'Islamist' - even Nawaz referring to "the fallen Muslim Brotherhood government" in Egypt makes little sense, given only five of the 36 cabinet posts of the government during Morsi's tenure as president, headed up by the non-MB and non-FJP prime minister Hisham Qandil, were members of the FJP.  

Far from being 'Islamists' or 'extremists' or 'theocrats', the Morsi government was technocratic and transitional. It could have, until its last days, been removed democratically, but those who wanted to oust it were far from democrats, they were the fascists, with their instant and relentless state terror.

In the original Telegraph article, a 2015 government report into the activities of the MB in the UK was cited, with the selective quote from then Prime Minister David Cameron that membership of the group was a "possible indicator of extremism". What they left out is that this report was undertaken by the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir John Jenkins at the behest of the Sisi-supporting governments of Saudi Arabia and UAE.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE loathe the MB, not because it poses a threat of 'extremism' to these barbaric states, but because it advocates a form of Islamic democracy at odds with these theocratic autocracies.  

Even with these factors of bias in mind, the report concluded that the group was not in any sense a 'terrorist organisation' and nor should it be considered as such.

One can only conclude that the British media is simply exploiting the victims of Sisi's terror and utilising Islamophobia to score cheap points against Jeremy Corbyn, while Nawaz is fulfilling his usual role as a performing monkey for the UK's Islamophobes.   

Perhaps the greatest irony is that Corbyn and his supporters have perpetuated similar claims about Syrian rebels as those accusations and slanders issued by British media and Nawaz about the Rabaa sign.  

If the Sisi regime wasn't supported by the US and didn't have a close relationship with Israel, Corbyn wouldn't care at all about Rabaa and solidarity with Egyptians facing state terror.

The true tragedy is that once again the lives of people in the Middle East facing great persecution are once again reduced to the increasingly grubby little industry of British politics.  


Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.