If criticising Israel makes me anti-Semitic, then, surely, criticising Saudi Arabia, or Iran, would make me Islamophobic. One can even argue, as some politically charged Indians do, that by the same logic, criticising the policies of the Indian government will make you Hindu-phobic.

No, thank you. I prefer to retain my human and citizen’s right to criticise any and all of these nations and their governments. Actually, I note that such criticism is essential for democracy to survive – or actually, revive – and only real or closet fascists would argue otherwise.

I was born in a Muslim family in India: both my parents were secular but believing and practicing Muslims. I grew up with an ingrained opposition to the use of religion in politics, and hence to all kinds of Islamism, partly because my parents believed that religion had to be left to the individual and their god. Faith was, for them, a matter of the human heart, which only god could read, and had no place either on the streets or in Parliaments.

When I passed my matriculation in the first division, and the usual sweets were being shared with family members and other visitors, an old and distant relative from my ancestral village said to me in Urdu: “Well done, son. Keep up your dutiful/righteous struggle.” The word this old gentleman, literate only in Urdu and Quranic Arabic, used for “dutiful/righteous struggle” was “jihad”. I was surprised. No one in my family, despite the fact that most of them were practicing Muslims, had ever used the word.
Soon, I realised why they did not use the word. It was not because they did not want me to struggle in a righteous manner. Actually, my parents always urged me to “do your duty towards others” and to struggle for the better in a truthful and upright manner. They knew – as did other members of my family – that the word for such a righteous struggle was “jihad”. But they never used that word, because they also knew that the word – despite its innocent origins – had since been contaminated by its use by some fundamentalist Muslims to espouse aggression against non-Muslims and Muslims who differed in their interpretations of Islam.

This, actually, is the reason why I have been and remain opposed to any form of political Islam – official, as in Shia Iran or Sunni-Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, or populist, as by Hamas or Hezbollah. Such political use of religion prevents other people from following the faith, or the version of the faith, that they consider true for themselves. Hence, as someone born a Muslim, I have in the past criticised all versions of political Islam, whether by populist parties (despite some of them also fighting against oppression) or by states like Iran or Saudi Arabia.

I want to retain that option for the future too.

Also, as an Indian, I want to retain the option of criticising or refusing to accept the position of any political party, regardless of whether it runs the government of my nation or not. This is essential for a democracy. I refuse to be called Islamophobic or Hinduphobic just because I peacefully but actively exercise my rights as a citizen and a human being.

So many in the West no longer seem to understand this. I am not sure if even Joe Biden, President of what is called “the greatest democracy in the World”, understands this. At least, I can say with certainty and a degree of pride, that my parents, despite not being politically active at all, were either more intelligent or more honest than Biden. Because when Biden claimed that he is a “Zionist”, the implication was that “Zion” simply refers to a state of peace and well-being, like what Ram-rajya is supposed to be in India. But this is just as true as the claim that “jihad” only refers to a dutiful or righteous struggle.

As my parents implicitly understood, the original or “real” meaning of jihad had been overlaid and contaminated by the violent actions of some Muslims and hence it could no longer be used “innocently”. Why is it that Biden, or people like him, fail to understand this about “Zion”? Because “Zionism” can no longer be used innocently either. It is a word that, like “Jihadism”, drips blood now: starting with tensions sowed by British colonial policies in the region that culminated in the Nakba of 1948, when almost a million Palestinians were driven from their homes by Zionists, through various conflicts and violence by Zionist settlers, to the current conflagration, when, as a Norwegian humanitarian doctor puts it, what is happening to children in Gaza would not have been allowed by the West if the children had been blonde and blue-eyed.

Because of that history, I retain the right – no, I exercise the duty – to criticise Israel’s Zionist policies. It does not make me anti-Semitic, just as my criticism of Iran, Saudi Arabia or Hamas does not make me Islamophobic. If anything, my criticism honours those who have been murdered by fascist forces in the past: not just Palestinian civilians being lightly killed in Israel’s war against Hamas today, but also the six million Jews murdered by Hitler. If you dub all criticism of Zionist Israel to be anti-Semitic, it is you who dishonors innocent Jews (and others) murdered in the past, because you are essentially trying to silence the voices of conscience and righteous protest. Such silencing was, and remains, a fascist trait.

Tabish Khair, the author of several books, is an associate professor in the Department of English, University of Aarhus, Denmark.