Elizabeth Arif-Fear, a trustee of Muslims Against Antisemitism (MAAS), talks to Daniel Ben-Ami about the organisation’s goals and the reactions to its work

Q) Could you start by saying a bit about yourself and in particular how you got involved in MAAS?

I’m a convert to Islam. My activism background was always human rights. And then when I changed my faith and came back to the UK after a spell in Spain I started to get involved in inter-faith work; particularly in London given its diversity. Then I became especially interested in Jewish-Muslim relations and got involved in projects through that.

I met Fiyaz Mughal who set up Faith Matters (an organisation that enables faith communities to reduce conflict) and Tel Mama (an organisation that supports Muslim victims of hate) in that inter-faith cohesion circle. Then MAAS was introduced as a sub-project of Faith Matters. In 2020 Fiyaz made MAAS an independent entity, which helped give it more of a focus.

Q) What’s the goal of MAAS?

It’s the only project that I know of that is specifically for Muslims against anti-Semitism in the UK. There is a problem in the Muslim community as you know. And as Muslims we have a duty to speak out about it. They invited me to be a trustee. The chair is a long-term friend of Fiyaz, Ghanem Nuseibeh, a Palestinian Muslim from an old Jerusalem family.

Our goal is to promote a positive allyship, to stand up against hate and to show there are Muslims out there who appreciate the Jewish community and want to tackle anti-Semitism. That’s quite a big challenge.

Q) What do you mean by Muslims in this context? Do you have to be a devout believer or could you just come from a Muslim background?

We pride ourselves as revelling in diversity. So anyone who identifies as a Muslim really. We are not here to gatekeep their beliefs. We are all Muslims on the trustee board and we have different cultural backgrounds.

Q) So your first public campaign in 2018 – with an advert featuring the striking line “We Muslims have one word for Jews – Shalom!” (see image above) – ran before MAAS was a standalone organisation?

Yes, that was the first big press campaign was when MAAS was still part of Faith Matters.

Q) Is the focus mainly on campaigning within the Muslim community or campaigning as Muslims in society more broadly?

It’s a mixture of solidarity, allyship, and building those networks and learning from the Jewish community. And also that kind of research, and calling out people in our community. Mobilising people in our community to stand as patrons, to stand as allies. So it’s a combination of both.

More widely it strives to promote the idea that Jews and Muslims do get on and there are people who stand up against anti-Semitism.

Q) What kind of things do you do as an organisation?

We’ve organised high profile public relations campaigns. We’ve had the two in the national press [in 2018 and 2020]. They both got really great coverage.

We’ve also pulled together educational leaflets on anti-Semitism and looking at how language is used. All of us are volunteers although we are looking to expand and to get a project manager.

Q) What kind of reception have you had?

It’s a mixture as you might expect. We have a great network of patrons who have promoted allyship so it’s been good in that sense. Obviously we’ve drawn some criticism. For example, trustees have been criticised on social media. The critics ask would we stand up against hate against another community rather than focus on our own. But if the criticism wasn’t there it would that mean we weren’t doing our job properly.

We’ve also seen widespread support from inside the Jewish community and more broadly. We’re building up network of solidarity.

Q) Presumably there are some in the Muslim community who are opposed to what you are doing?

Yes. There is a section that is hostile to inter-faith and to Jewish-Muslim cooperation as a whole. And they are well-known.

Q) What about those who would accuse you of supporting Israel against the Palestinians?

We’re a non-political organisation. We’re non-partisan. Our remit is anti-Semitism. From the beginning we were very clear we needed to promote and uphold the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. I think we need to be clear what guidelines we’re following.

Obviously within that remit we’re not going to stand for genocidal calls against Israel but our role is not to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to be supportive or not supportive. We support the Jewish community, obviously Israel plays a part in that, in their beliefs, and we’re here to promote wider cohesion. We don’t get involved in the ins and outs but as we know there is overlap between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism but politics isn’t our remit as such.

Q) So the IHRA definition, as I understand it, means you support Israel’s right to exist?

Of course.

Q) But it doesn’t mean you’re opposed to Palestinian rights?

No. I think it’s quite clear that we endorse the IHRA definition, so we support Israel’s right to exist. We support peace solutions for both Israelis and Palestinians. We don’t expect Muslims who get involved not to have any kind of sympathy for Palestinians. We’re here just to say where the red lines are and where people cross the line when it comes to the conflict.

Q) So, just to be clear, you see no conflict between having sympathy for the Palestinians and opposing anti-Semitism?

No. There’s absolutely no contradiction at all. The problem would be the way people are doing that. Disregarding IHRA or just not looking at the issue of anti-Semitism as a whole. We’re not here to express how people may want to do that.

Q) You are a charity. That means of course, according to the rules, you must be non-political. But isn’t that problematic because anti-Semitism is a political question?

It’s non-political in the sense that we can’t promote any particular political party or any particular peace solution. The baseline is that Israel exists and you can’t go around advocating that you should destroy it. I think that’s a pretty low bar. We see that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism so we’re clear on that.

Q) Do you have a view on free speech? For example, should people be able to make anti-Semitic remarks on social media?

No. Hate speech is hate speech. Free speech is a fundamental human right. We are very clear on that. We’re very firm that free speech is critical but where the line is drawn is hate speech. So we wouldn’t agree that Holocaust denial should be allowed on social media, for example.

Q) Do you as MAAS have a view on Islamism as a political movement?

We clearly acknowledge Islamism exists. It’s a problem for both Muslims and the Jewish community. As Muslims we are proud to be Muslims but firm that we have to fight Islamism for what it is – an extremist ideology based on a narrow interpretation of faith. So obviously there’s a distinction between Islam and Islamism.

For more information on Muslims Against Antisemitism see its website here

Photo: Advert from 2018 MAAS media campaign.

For a related Radicalism of fools article on a webinar involving MAAS on how to challenge anti-Semitism see here

Note: The views of MAAS do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools.