Dissent is necessary in a democracy
2017-11-15 15:20:00 -

Mohammed Samaana

Recently I was in a taxi travelling to the British Embassy in Dublin, and the driver asked me why I was going there. I told him that it was to mark the first centenary of the Balfour Declaration, a term he wasn’t familiar with. I explained that it was the declaration by which the British government announced its intention to create the state of Israel on Palestinian land. The Balfour Declaration’s promise materialised 31 years later, after the ethnic cleansing of most Palestinians and the subjugation of those who remained on their land.


I could see on the driver’s face that he wasn’t happy. He said to me: “So, you are happy to live in Britain, and still blame the British for your problems?” I smiled and replied: “A Dublin man is happy to consider Belfast a British city?” He smiled with a hint of embarrassment and added: “Well it is in the UK now.


I explained that while is true I do have a British passport, in a democratic society I do not have to agree with my government on everything. Indeed, opposing UK government policy is becoming a typically British trait. I gave him an example of how the majority of British people opposed the invasion of Iraq, and I was one of that majority. 


On closer examination, my political views are typically British. For example, austerity and tuition fees are Westminster policies opposed by the vast majority of the British people. So my opposition to those does not make me any less British than anyone else. Besides, in a democratic society, freedom of expression is guaranteed as long as legal means are used to express a legitimate point of view (though xenophobes have abused this right).


As I spoke, I remembered when I was accosted in the street by complete strangers in England and Belfast alike, demanding that I leave Britain and go back to my ‘own country’. My usual answer was and will continue to be that the main reason why I’m here is the Balfour Declaration and its consequences, which have inflicted misery on the entire Middle East and caused endless wars and the suffering for millions of its inhabitants.


I wonder if the taxi driver was aware that another man called Charles Tegart, who was born in Ireland before partition, was instrumental in implementing British colonial policy in Palestine. Tegart, the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, was notorious for torturing detainees and even purchased barbed wire from Mussolini’s fascist Italy to build a line of fortresses to prevent weapons being smuggled into Palestine from Syria and Lebanon. This wall was named after Tegart, and parts of it still in existence.


Anyway, this taxi driver’s attitude was problematic in the sense that it is usually assumed ethnic minorities are ‘not British enough’, or ‘not Irish enough’ or ‘not French enough’, unless they prove they are obedient to whatever decision their government makes, even when it is wrong. This is especially after the British Prime Minister Theresa May said she was proud of the Balfour Declaration when the appropriate thing would be to apologise for it.  


The same also implies that African Americans can’t question slavery, or that Vietnamese can’t question the American invasion, or Algerians in France can’t question 132 years of French occupation and the death of one million compatriots. It contradicts any notion of equality, fairness and logic.


Mohammed Samaana is a freelance writer based in Belfast.




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