What should one think about a Muslim Imam who encourages Israeli settlers to go on building? A leader of Italian Muslims who doubts the Palestinians’ right to any part of Israel? A pupil of the Grand Mufti of Cairo who declares that the Qur’an itself grants the whole Land of Israel to the Jews, so that any opposition to the Jewish state is an offense against Allah? Surprisingly, Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi, 49, is not on any Islamist hit list.

He speaks to Fatah officials and is invited by scholars in the moderate Muslim world. He is convinced that as long as Muslims do not accept Israel, Islam will grow increasingly fundamentalist. Only a correctly interpreteted Qur’an can ensure peace for Israel, and only a peaceful Israel can salvage Islam.

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Sheikh Palazzi was brought up as a secular Muslim in Italy. His Christian father converted to Islam, but lived a liberal Muslim life. His Syrian mother was a born Muslim. Palazzi went to study philosophy at La Sapienza University in Rome; religion was not a big issue for him then. He was interested in Plato and Aristotle, the philosophers who laid the foundations of a liberal and tolerant society. Palazzi went on to ask himself: What does my religion say about political ethics? He moved to Cairo and became a pupil of Muhammad al-Mutawali as- Sha’rawi, then the Mufti of Egypt, who advised president Anwar al-Sadat to start peace negotiations with Israel.

Sadat in Palazzi’s eyes is a martyr, a hero in the fight for a moderate and peaceful Islam.

Palazzi decided he wanted to change things. He started by changing his name.

Massimo became Abdul Hadi Palazzi. It stands for democratic rights and the peaceful blessings of the Qur’an.

This was a time of religious change.

Islam, according to Palazzi, had been taken over by the Wahabi, the fundamentalist Muslim brotherhoods that were (and still are) supported by the Saudi princes. “Every year,” says Palazzi, “the Saudis put millions of dollars in the pockets of those radical brotherhoods for an extremist struggle in the guise of Islam. The influence of Wahabism on the contemporary Arab world is such that many Arab Muslims are wrongly convinced that in order to be a good Muslim one must hate Israel.”

But this, according to Palazzi, is a new phenomenon. “When you look at when Israel was forming, the process was not considered contrary to Islam.

Originally there was a secular opposition. It turned into a religious conflict because those opposing a state of Israel knew their position was stronger when fortified with religion.”

During his research on the origins of Islamic extremism he found that “those who oppose Wahabism are actually in favor of Israel.”

This was the insight that triggered his mission: Promote Israel in order to promote true Islam.

Sheikh Palazzi refers to himself as a “Muslim Zionist.” Zionism to him means “any contribution to support the state of Israel.” He says Israel should exert sovereignity over the whole land of Palestine, including the West Bank.

He explains that this position, which meets opposition from all Arab countries, the United Nations and even the majority of Israelis, is clearly supported in the Qur’an.

In Sura 5:21 Moses, who is also a Muslim prophet, invites the children of Israel: “My people! Enter the Holy Land which Allah has ordained for you.

Do not turn back in your tracks and so become transformed into losers.’” In Sura 2, Allah affirms the Jews’ right to rule over the place, and in the same Sura, according to a Zionist reading, Allah even grants them the right to fight for their state with physical force. “Might it be that if fighting is prescribed for you [the children of Israel], you will not fight?” Muhammad Abu-Laylah, co-editor of the London Journal of Qur’anic Studies and professor of Islamic Studies in Al- Azhar University in Cairo, gets upset when he hears about Muslim Zionists.

He gets even more upset when considering those passages being used to promote a favorable view of Israel.

“What kind of people are these? How can they be Muslims, betraying their brothers and sisters in Palestine?” The Qur’an, says Abu-Laylah, does not support Jews fighting Muslims.

Allah granted Jews the right to live in the Holy Land, he concedes, but not to suppress the Palestinian people. “This is ridiculous,” he concludes.

Notwithstanding such accusations, Palazzi insists the Qur’an calls on Jews to struggle against their enemies, even if they’re Muslims. With regards to them he adds: “In opposing the will of God and making war on Israel, Arabs are in effect making war on Allah Himself.”

Arabs in Palestine, Palazzi says, must not only understand this, but must also acknowledge that they are a minority.

He gives an example of his own country. “In the northern part of Italy we have a minority, the South- Tyrolians. They speak a German dialect and keep up their culture, yet are granted full Italian citizenship and share the same rights and duties as anyone else in the country. If they do not agree with Italian legislation, they are free to leave and go anywhere they like.”

A case even more similar to Israel, he says, was Spain. “Spain was once controlled by Muslims. Now we have a secular government there that grants Spanish Muslims a good life. “Why shouldn’t this work in Israel, a democratic country?” Palazzi is not the only Islamic scholar who openly speaks of Israel’s right to exist, and condemns Islamic extremists.

Not only has he followers among his Italian community, but many moderate Muslims share his goal of liberating Islam from the Wahabis by promoting Israel. They are important moderators in the intricate peace process, but do not go as far as to deny the Palesinians a right to their land. They do not, as Palazzi does, encourage Hebron settlers, many of whom openly advocate the expulsion of all Arabs from Palestine.

In one speech he states it is a divine sign of Israel’s superiority that the tiny country won every war against its enemies while they, though larger in size and population, were completely defeated. Above all, he is in favor of erecting the Third Temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

As someone who wants to deliver a message of peace, why does he risk closed doors even on the moderate Muslim-Arab side by flirting with fundamentalist Jewish groups and ideas that in many Israelis’ eyes do not serve the interests of the nation? Palazzi is unwilling to concede that he is a political radical. But “if you want to make your views popular, you also have to exaggerate.” As to his talks with militant settlers, he explains that “my first visit to Israel was due to my interest in the country and its people; I didn’t come to speak to anyone. But once I was there and got invited by Jewish groups and individuals, of course I didn’t say no.” He said he also spoke with Palestinian imams. “In the past I was invited by a number of sheikhs to Palestine. They agreed with me on many issues and told me: “We count on you to deliver our common message abroad. The majority of people in East Jerusalem and the territories are not permitted to speak overtly. Others claim to speak in their name.’” And how did they respond to his pro- Zionist interpretation of the Qur’an? “They were interested in my interpretation and listened.”

So what do Palestinian theologians say? I asked Mustafa Abu-Sway, professor of Islamic theology at Al Quds-University in Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem. Abu-Sway, like Palazzi, studied philosophy, but at Boston University, where he also taught for many years. Sway is an observant Muslim, but has been influenced by Western liberalism. His wife is a professor of Islamic law. He was a member of the Muslim-Christian Council in Jerusalem, and is a frequent guest at international conferences on inter-religious dialogue.

Sway has met Palazzi on several occasions, both in Italy and Israel. He says Palazzi is a nice chap. Very educated. But completely wrong.

I met Abu-Sway in the lobby of the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem – a place that refers to itself as “an oasis where Jews and Arabs comfortably meet.” Seated on an oriental-style divan, Sway talked about his opinion of Zionism.

Zionism, he says, is “an aggressive political agenda aimed at suppressing the Palestinian people.” He is quick to add: “We understand very well that there is a difference between Judaism and Zionism.

This is not about Jewish presence. It’s about an ideology of DNA-based superiority. Zionism knows two categories – inferior humans, Palestinians, and superior humans, Jews, that rule the first.

This is unacceptable according to both Islam and international human rights.”

Sway explains that every Muslim is free to interpret the Qur’an in the way he thinks is correct. “Everybody can do it – Palazzi, me, even a child.” Yet in order to be taken seriously among scholars one has to obey some rules of interpretation.

One of them is coherence, another is not to apply contemporary concepts. Palazzi does both.

“Therefore,” Sway says, “Palazzi’s reputation as a scholar is close to zero.”

His main mistake, continues Sway, is to attempt to legitimize Israel with passages from the Qur’an. Not because it’s Israel, but because “the very concept of a state is a brainchild of the 19th century. How can anyone find proof in the Qur’an for something that at the time of prophet Muhammed did not exist?” Sway goes on: “Palazzi does exactly the same thing he blames Islamic extremists for – mingling religion with politics.”

It is as irresponsible to find religious arguments for Israeli policies of suppression as it is to use them to legitimize terror by radical Arabs. Sway concludes that “any justification of politics by means of either the Qur’an or the Bible is complete nonsense.”

Asked what he thinks are the reasons for Palazzi’s mission, Sway shrugs. “I don’t know. But it seems he got on a track of self-hating Muslims, as did Salman Rushdie or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is affiliated with the most dubitable conservative interest groups in the US.”

Hirsi Ali, a women-rights activist from Somalia who fled to the United States after she was threatened for her comments about Islam in the Dutch Parliament, said about Muhammed that “by Western standards, he was a pervert. Atyrant.”

Yet Palazzi does not speak against Islam. On the contrary, he never tires of repeating its good message. This makes little difference to Sway, however.

“Anyway, he is not part of the official discourse,” he says.

The thing about official discourse on the interpretation of the Qur’an is that this too is determined by a political agenda, notes Dina Lisnyansky, an expert on Islamic extremism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

At a coffee shop in a suburb of Tel Aviv, she argues that there is no such thing as an apolitical reading of the Qur’an.

“When Sway says he doesn’t mix politics with religion, he is wrong – even if he may be not aware of it,” she says. “Muftis and professors who define the mainstream interpetation were appointed by politicians – and surely the politicians wouldn’t appoint anyone who is not in line with them.”

Perhaps Palazzi’s rather peculiar interpretation is explainable partly by his very biography. Lisnyansky is writing her PhD-thesis on immigrants in Europe who became extremists. In contrast to many Imams in France or Great Britain, who were radicalized as a result of their failure to integrate in a different country, Palazzi “created his own niche. Being born into an immigrant family, he combined the democratic rights of western Europe with a love for Islam,” but added his Zionist mission. As a result, “he is a radical too, but not on the radicals’ side. He is fighting everything that political Islam promotes.”

As such, Lisnyansky says, Palazzi remains a valuable player in the process of understanding between Jews and Muslims, Arabs and Israelis. “One of the reasons why he is not on some black list in Iran is the fact that he, unlike Rushdie, has never said a negative word about Islam. To extremist interpreters of the Qur’an he doesn’t say ‘you are wrong.’ He would only say: ‘You got something wrong.’ His mission, therefore, is clearly not about reinventing Islam; it is about correcting the perspective.”

This article appeared in the July Christian edition of The Jerusalem Post.
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