A voice of moderation

Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, Palestinian academic and former Fatah fighter, is trying to buck a tide – but is he succeeding?

Mohammed Dajani Daoudi 521 (photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH 90)
Mohammed Dajani Daoudi 521
(photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH 90)
Mohammed Dajani Daoudi belongs to one of the Palestinians’ most important families – the Dajanis – a family that has been the custodian of King David’s Tomb on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem since the 14th century.
Once a student political leader and fighter for the militant Palestinian group Fatah, today a more mild-mannered Dajani Daoudi at 66 is a leading Palestinian moderate.
He seems alone, a voice crying in the wilderness, but Dajani Daoudi insists that the majority of Palestinians is moderate and wishes for peace as he does. He fights his “moderate” battle while helping to build a future Palestinian state. Since 1995, he has been training thousands of Palestinians on how to conduct the business of running a government.
We talk on the fourth floor of his home in Bet Hanina, an Arab suburb in East Jerusalem. On the walls of the stairway are photos of Nasser, Arafat, Obama, and the large Dajani family. Visible from Dajani Daoudi’s window to the north is the security wall Israel began building in 2002 to keep Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching Jerusalem. With his gray hair, receding hairline, blue tie and white dress shirt, the Jerusalem-born Dajani Daoudi looks more like a banker or accountant than a former Fatah fighter. Unlike other Palestinians, there is no anger in his voice, no hint of frustration, just seriousness and a calm demeanor.
Born in Jerusalem’s Baka section, now an upmarket Jewish neighborhood, his family moved to the Old City’s Muslim Quarter when he was two years old. He remembers attending kindergarten near the Al-Aqsa Mosque and being fascinated with his grandfather and uncles’ swords, which they displayed with pride. With the Old City getting overcrowded, when Mohammed was 15, the Dajani Daoudis moved outside the city walls to the prosperous East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat. Two years later, in 1962, along with his mother, father, two younger brothers and a sister, Dajani Daoudi moved to his current home in Beit Hanina.
In 1964, at age 18, he attended the American University in Beirut, studying engineering. It was there that he joined Fatah, the military wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Trained to fight, he also became a student leader but insists he was not taught to hate Israelis. “They taught us to distinguish between Jews and Zionists,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “Judaism is a religion. Zionism is political ideology. We should not mix them up. There wasn’t hate on our part as much as there was a fight for liberation.”
Ironically, his only participation in actual fighting was against the Lebanese Army in skirmishes that sometimes lasted weeks. He never fought against Israelis. The Lebanese Army hoped to weaken the “state within a state” that the PLO had created inside Lebanon.
Soon after the 1967 Six Day War, most Palestinians believed that before they could end the Israeli occupation of their lands, they had to unseat corrupt Arab regimes that had been indifferent to the Palestinian cause.
The Palestinians counted on the replacement regimes supporting the Palestinian cause.
Dajani Daoudi and his fellow Fatah members rejected that strategy, favoring the ending of Israeli occupation as their main priority.
From student politics and militancy, Dajani Daoudi switched to academic life in the early 1980s, earning three post-graduate degrees: a master’s and two doctorates in political science, all from American universities.
For a decade – 1985 to 1995 – he lived in Jordan, working first in his family’s radiator manufacturing business, and then teaching political science at a private university.
Back in the West Bank by the late 1990s, he became a Palestinian nation-builder. As Chief Technical Adviser to the Palestinian Authority and then founder of a public administration institute, he trained civil servants in the art of government. “We were basically creating a state,” he said. When charges of nepotism were leveled at him, he insisted that nepotism was good. “I don’t mind you hiring your daughter,” he told one minister, “but give her to me first to train her. So if you leave the ministry, she will remain as part of our progress.”
Though he acknowledged a certain degree of corruption within the PA, Dajani Daoudi suggested that he was able to curb such behavior: “Even if there was some, we did not allow it to get out of hand. At the time, people were moving idealistically to build a state. Corruption came later when money poured in from all walks of life.”
One example arose in the late 1990s, when Japan donated cars to the PA ministers, but the cars wound up being driven by ministers’ wives or their children. The PA then passed a law allowing its officials to check who was driving PA-owned cars, which halted the practice. Though the Israeli media ran articles suggesting that the late PA President Yasser Arafat was corrupt, Dajani Daoudi defended him, describing Arafat as a “politician who used money to get support, not for his personal gain. He lived very humbly.”
Switching back to academic life in 2002, Dajani Daoudi founded the American Studies program at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. Teaching such courses as Comparative Politics and American Government to his students, he downplayed the importance of democracy, urging instead that pluralism should become the main political goal. “In democracy you have the majority ruling the minority, a win-lose situation, while in pluralism you have a consensus of the majority and the minority to reach a win-win situation.”
Dajani Daoudi’s march toward moderation began in 2006 as he watched the Islamist Hamas party practice a benign sort of politics but then morph into a party engaging in armed struggle against Israel. “When Hamas ran in the January 2006 elections, it raised three slogans: change, reform, accountability,” Dajani Daoudi noted, implying that the slogans augured a peaceoriented, efficient Hamas leadership. “It didn’t talk about armed struggle.
But after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007 in a military coup, it raised the idea of non-negotiation, no peace, armed struggle, the repudiation of Oslo, and so we felt cheated.” With Hamas bent on creating a radical Islamic state on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, Dajani Daoudi wondered whether that kind of state was what most or all Palestinians wanted. “Hamas acted as if they represented the Muslims in Palestine but I wasn’t clear that they actually did.”
It took one poignant incident on a Friday morning in November 2006 a few steps from his home, which led Mohammed Dajani Daoudi to become a “peace activist” (his phrase). Prayer day in Jerusalem’s Old City brought 400 Palestinians to the Israeli checkpoint outside his home, pushing and shoving, trying to get past the soldiers to Jerusalem. When the soldiers fired tear gas grenades at the crowd, Dajani Daoudi, observing the scene from his window, felt his eyes begin to burn. Soon, he was convinced, the media would show up and shots would be fired. “There will be martyrs,” he told himself.
But suddenly things calmed down. A deal had been struck between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinians. Israeli buses would soon arrive to take the crowd to prayers while soldiers held on to their identity cards until they returned to the checkpoint. “I thought this was a win-win situation and I teach win-win situations,” Dajani Daoudi explained.
What had prompted the deal, he wondered? Concluding that the Palestinian crowd was willing to negotiate, Dajani Daoudi saw a sliver of hope for all Palestinians. “These were not Hamas or other radical Muslims They were not carrying bombs. They were not terrorists.” The key was their willingness to be conciliatory. “They simply wanted to pray.”
Convinced that these moderates represented a majority of the Palestinians, Dajani decided in January 2007 to found not one more political party filled with surly bureaucrats and greedy hacks, but a political movement that was centrist and moderate.
He called it Wasatia, Arabic for “centrist.” For his inspiration he pointed to the 143rd verse of the Sura Al-Baqara in the Koran, “And thus we have created you a centrist nation.” In his 2009 book, “Wasatia: The Spirit of Islam,” Dajani Daoudi wrote, “Moderation is an old yet neglected virtue.
Wasatia is an essential yet ignored Islamic doctrine.” He has published numerous articles and 10 books explaining what Palestinian moderation is all about.
Not surprisingly, more extreme Palestinians – and there are many – accused Dajani Daoudi of trying to undermine the Palestinians, arguing that, in pushing moderation, he was in fact promoting Western and thus unwanted ideas. Rivals placed an “X” on his photo on his Facebook page. In 2009, a few days before he was due to lecture at Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Convent, he received an email that said, “If you walk in, you will not walk out.”
But nothing happened. Then his Facebook page was closed and his email shut down. He battled his critics by changing passwords and his email address.
The personal attacks had no impact on him. “They never made me think twice. On the contrary, it emboldened me. Actually it made me feel that I was doing the right thing.” Dismissing the threats to his life, Dajani Daoudi says he is not afraid, noting, “I never cared about my life. We were taught that we will be martyrs and dying would not be something we would have to worry about. Dying is a reward, a beginning.”
Apart from his writings and his lectures, Dajani Daoudi meets regularly with sheikhs, imams, university professors, and others to persuade them to adopt moderate views.
When he meets intransigence, he asks very simply, “What is more important, your big dream or a small hope?” The big dream for an Israeli, he suggests, is to wake up one morning and find that there are no Palestinians. The big dream for a Palestinian is to wake up one morning and find that there are no Israelis.
“But,” he asks, “what would be a small hope? It is for both the Palestinian and the Israeli to wake up one morning with people living happily in two states next to each other with cooperation and co-existence. To achieve that “small dream,” suggests Dajani Daoudi, Israelis and Palestinians must learn about one another. “They would see that we complement each other. We don’t clash with each other. There must be people to people contact as well.” Here he sounded despondent.
“Between 1990 and 2000, no more than $30 million was spent on ‘People to People’ projects while over a billion dollars was spent on building the ‘separation wall.’” For Israeli moderates the existence of a Palestinian moderate movement is most welcome. “It is important for Mohammed Dajani Daoudi’s voice to be heard here and abroad,” says Ron Kronish, director of the Jerusalem-based Inter-religious Coordinating Council, who works closely with the Palestinians. “People should know that someone like Mohammed Dajani Daoudi is trying to spread ideas of moderation based on Islamic sources in his community. There should only be more like him.”
Part of the reason Israeli moderate political parties resonated within Israel in the 1970s and 1980s was the conviction of their leaders that a counterpart group of Palestinian moderates existed. But with the advent of a militant Hamas, any hope of Israelis and Palestinian moderates winning over their constituencies has seemed unlikely.
But Dajani Daoudi has not given up hope.
“We are planting seeds that we hope will one day bear fruit.”