Al Quds Day Dilemmas

Al Quds Day was proposed by the late Imam Khomeini of Iran as an expression of solidarity with the Palestinian people and of opposition to the Israeli control of Jerusalem, as well as more widely “a day for the oppressed to rise and stand up against the arrogant.”  He established it as the last Friday of Ramadan, and its celebration has become something of a controversy particularly in the last few years in London.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

The annual Al Quds Day march here takes place on the Sunday before the end of Ramadan, and is organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission, a body which receives funding from Iran. Although a wide range of pro-Palestinian groups give the event their support, few of the larger groups take an active part in the march, although speakers from some of them have appeared at the rally which follows this.

Although many of us support the Palestinians in their demands for a just settlement and an independent state and oppose the long-standing occupation and oppression by Israel (and most including myself also recognise the right of Israel to exist in peace in the area) few of us are supporters of the Islamic regime that currently oppresses the people of Iran – or indeed of the dictatorship by the Shah that preceded it.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

As the march assembled, a small group of protesters gathered across the road, protesting against the march and for freedom in Iran. Many if not most of those marching in support of freedom for Palestine would have shared their hopes for an end to the current Iranian regime.

One affect of the counter-demonstrations by this group and others this year and in previous years has been to make the march organisers very sensitive to the way that the press covers the event.  There are often also frictions between some of the stewards at largely Muslim protests and the press, particularly male photographers, about the photographing of Muslim women in the protest.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

Few of these problems seem to arise from the women themselves, and certainly those from many Muslim countries – for example Palestine, the focus of this protest – seem seldom to have any problem with being photographed. As one Palestinian photographer friend told me when I asked, “you can do anything with them!”

At this event I did have some problems with some of the stewards, one of whom attempted to remove me completely from the protest, but I refused to go, moving instead to the front of the demonstration when I had finished taking a few pictures. Fortunately one of the people covering the event for the organisers knew me and the work I had published on previous demonstrations and told them that I should be allowed to stay and take photographs – and I was able to do so.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

The rest of the photographers covering the event had been moved across the road, and I felt a little upset by this. But I’d been allowed to stay because I’d argued and stood my ground,  and because some people there accepted my integrity as a photographer, and I felt I had to make the most of it.

Once the march started, I think all the photographers were able to work without problems, which hadn’t always been true in previous years. One previous year I had to appeal to Yvonne Ridley who in the march to prevent the stewards from forcing me out; fortunately she remembered I had talked to an photographed her on several previous occasions and vouched for me.

As the march reached the bottom of Haymarket, not far from Trafalgar Square, I noticed three men who I knew from English Defence League protests watching it come down the street. I’m sure they recognised me too, as I’ve been pointed out in right wing web pages and at one right wing protest as a left-wing photographer. Some who know me better on the right also recognise that although I disagree with many of their views I do try to present them accurately – and I’ve actually been invited to cover several right-wing events because of this.  If any of my reports show them in a poor light it is because of what they do. Accurate reporting is I think vital.

So I knew that there would be another protest against the march, and the police had confined most of the EDL to a pen on the corner of Cockspur St and Spring Gardens, which seemed rather distant from the march, although within view as it turned onto Trafalgar Square. Probably most of the marchers didn’t even notice them, though I did see a few pointing at them and laughing and others making less polite gestures.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

But as the march came down the side of the square I saw a small group I recognised from EDL events on the side of the road, and followed two women as the walked in front of the march, one stopping to give them the finger. Police soon took them to the side of the road.

I went to photograph the EDL and then walked back into the square to see what was happening, following a group of four or five others I recognised who were walking around the square. I missed a small incident where one man who police had apparently removed from the square once had returned and was arrested, then walked back to photograph those in the pen again.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

A few minutes later I saw an EDL flag being waved on the North Terrace overlooking the square and hurried across to find a small group of protesters surrounded by police, who began to escort them out back to the distant pen. I managed to get to photograph them (one held up his hand to cover my lens) and then walked down talking to one of them who complained to me that they were not being allowed to protest in the square before taking a few more pictures.

© 2011, Peter Marshall

I think that I wrote an accurate report of the events, including some of what the EDL had to say, which to me contradicted their claims not to be Islamophobic. But so long as they remain within the law – and on this occasion I think they did so – they have a right to protest and I think they were perhaps unduly restricted in this by the police actions.

The EDL accuse the press of not reporting them and of concentrating on the excesses of a few violent individuals when they do cover their activities. Of course in general that is true about all demonstrations, with peaceful protests seldom making the news, even if large in size.

Many more pictures in Al-Quds Day Protests on My London Diary.

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