Islam in Flux

The fear that the tremors that have shaken the Arab world will increase the power of Islam may turn out to have been unfounded.

Partners (photo credit: GPO)
(photo credit: GPO)
IN THE PERIOD IMMEDIATELY after the Six Day War in 1967, I had the opportunity of accompanying various cabinet ministers on their tours of the newly conquered West Bank and Gaza Strip. I was then a young reporter for “Davar” (the Histadrut labor federation’s mouthpiece).
Those were the days of Golda Meir’s’ government, and Moshe Dayan – the celebrated defense minister – devoted a large part of his time to familiarizing himself with the captured territories and the Palestinian population (who were generally referred to as Arabs at the time, not Palestinians).
I can easily recall not only Dayan’s trips to the territories, but also the tours of other ministers; Shimon Peres who was communications minister, Eliyahu Sasson, minister of police, and Yosef Sapir, minister of trade and commerce. The last two spoke fluent Arabic.
Foreign minister Abba Even delivered a speech in classical Arabic in the Hebron municipality, which left the listeners openmouthed, probably because most of them didn’t understand what he was saying.
Dayan’s rival, Yigal Allon also made sure to visit the territories, and one such visit is especially vivid in my mind. As the minister of education and deputy prime minister, he laid the cornerstone for the Islamic college of Hebron.
The founding of the college was initiated by the mayor of Hebron, Sheikh Muhammad Ali Ja’abari, an influential local leader and loyal supporter of King Hussein and the Hashemite kingdom in Jordan.
The Israeli government supported Ja’abari at the time mainly because he was a powerful and vocal opponent of the Palestine Liberation Organization and acted to prevent terror attacks against Israel. Ja’abari even facilitated, somewhat grudgingly, the establishment of Kiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement adjoining Hebron.
When he requested permission to set up a religious college (he himself was a graduate of Al- Azhar University in Cairo), he immediately received a positive Israeli response. Moreover, whoever checks the Israeli budget for those years will discover that the Israeli military authority donated funds to the Islamic College in Hebron for a period of seven years.
WHY WOULD THEY DO THAT? The reason was that Muslim activists in the West Bank and Gaza were engaged in a fierce conflict with left-wing and Marxist groups (organizations such as the Popular Front/PFLP, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Communist Party), who held sway over large parts of the Palestinian population. These left-wing organizations stood at the center of PLO activity, and pressed the Fatah movement into greater cooperation with countries from the Soviet bloc.
International underground left-wing groups supported the PLO with training, weapons and actions. Two memorable examples are: The Japanese Red Army (with Kozo Okamoto as a notable member), which murdered 26 people in the Lod Airport massacre (now Ben-Gurion Airport), or the German nationals who assisted the hijacking of an Air France plane to Entebbe in Uganda.
The eastern bloc (led by the Soviet Union) and radical left-wing groups stood at the time at the top of the list of Israel’s’ enemies. They were also the enemies of devout Muslims, who felt threatened by the ideas of the left.
It would be difficult to claim that the devout Muslims were collaborating with Israel (even though they were accused of doing just that by many). What was clear is that from an Israeli point of view, it was far more convenient to deal with people, such as the conservative Sheikh Ja’abari, than any other Palestinian national leader.
The Islam that was represented by Ja’abari was not extreme, and did not have a political aspect (this aspect would arrive later). I remember attending a conference of the Rakah Communist party that enjoyed the support of the majority of Israeli Arabs at the time.
During breaks in the deliberations, many observant Muslim delegates would line up, remove their shoes and bow down for prayer.
They saw no contradiction between the fact that they were both devout communists and religious Muslims.
FORTY YEARS HAVE PASSED since then, a brief zephyr in the relations between Muslims and Jews. These relations have had ups and downs ever since the spread of the message of the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, through “the Golden Period” in Muslim Iberia in the 14th century, up until the present when Islam is perceived as a terrible enemy of the West, the Jews and particularly Israel.
It was important to mention the episode with Yigal Allon (and many more similar ones) and the Islamic College of Hebron to be able to point out that there is no necessity that Islam – as portrayed by the Islamophobia that has conquered many in Israel and the West – will remain eternally in its current state. It was possible to discern a few signals of change in the recent upheavals taking place in the Arab world. But is the Arab attitude towards Islam changing? I base myself upon a number of images I have seen on the popular Al-Jazeera Arab TV network in the past few weeks, and on articles appearing in many newspapers (chief among them in the Egyptian weekly “Al- Ahram,” written by Hossam Tammam and Patrik Haenni).
The first picture I saw was in Tunisia, after a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the main synagogue of Tunis. The protesters who crowded the street were quick to express their aversion to the attempt to damage the synagogue, and they waved a sign, which read “Muslim, Christian, Jew – We are all Tunisia.”
Even though the deposed and corrupt president of Tunisia Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had persecuted the fanatic Muslims in his country – the protesters did not set out as an act of religious protest. They did not march in the name of the persecuted Muslim extremists – but in the name of integrity and democracy.
In Egypt, the phenomenon was even more prevalent. In the first days of the demonstrations, the powerful, organized opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, didn’t call on its members to join the demonstrations.
In fact, its leaders had many reservations about participating in the demos, due to their fear of being accused of subversive actions. The leaders of the religious establishment, both Muslim and Christian (Copts), took similar cautionary steps and released an announcement in support of the regime. When the demonstrations started to gain momentum and became a threat to the establishment, there were Muslim sheikhs who published a fatwa edict from the Middle Ages, which stated that: “70 years of iniquitous rule are preferable to one day without any rule at all.”
During the first days of the demonstrations in Egypt, many world leaders expressed their solidarity with president Hosni Mubarak, including King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of course) and the sheikhs who support the Saudi regime.
There were some among them who claimed the demos were “a Western, Zionist provocation against Islam.” Asimilar opinion could be heard emanating from President Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, who in a public address criticized the demonstrators in his country, and claimed that the headquarters that was planning the demonstrations was in Tel Aviv. Although he apologized for these statements two days later – in the meantime I had heard on broadcasts, primarily on Al-Jazeera, people saying that Israel and the Zionists are indeed very bad – but they are not responsible for the fact that corrupt Arab kings and presidents, such as in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya stole from their people and filled their pockets with silver and gold.
In other words, every time someone tried to blame the West, the Jews and the Zionists for organizing demonstrations against Islam, they were silenced by the demonstrators themselves, who would have no more of that familiar calumny.
Arab journalists and commentators wrote, concerning Egypt, that the Muslim Brotherhood only joined the ranks of the demonstrators when they understood that if they did not do so, they would be eliminated.
With the Brotherhood jumping on the demo bandwagon, the stage was set for the return to Egypt of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who was in exile in Qatar. Al-Qaradawi hosted a religious, virulently anti-Western and anti-Israel TV show on Al-Jazeera (called “Shari’a and Life”). Soon after his arrival in Egypt, he could be found standing among the protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, reiterating his usual hogwash against Israel. (Later he also issued a fatwa, on the air, calling for the murder of Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi). There were other manifestations similar to that of the octogenarian sheikh. But the general sentiment was clear: the Muslim Brotherhood was dragged into the demonstrations due to public pressure, and not the other way around.
On one of the Fridays after the Muslim Brotherhood had joined the demos, all the people in Tahrir Square readied themselves for prayer. It was very crowded. Men and women stood together, and it was not possible to carry out the Islamic rules that state that you must remove your shoes and separate between men and women during prayer.
Journalists reported that Muslim Brotherhood activists started to shout at the demonstrators that they were blaspheming – praying when they were unclean and in the company of women. Young demonstrators approached them and silenced them. One of the demonstrators said, “This isn’t your revolution.”
It is, of course, difficult to determine, based on the events recounted here, whether the general trend toward the strengthening of extremist Islam (or political Islam, as it is called by experts) is about to change. But there is definitely a glimmer of hope. Islam is not a single set of beliefs and is affected by the changing political and social mood. There were days when devout Muslims like Sheikh Ja’abari were partners with Israel in their joint hostility toward Marxists and their left-wing ideologies – just as there were days when Muslim Turkey was Israel’s’ partner in opposing the regimes in Iran and Syria. Now we find at the vanguard of Israel’s’ enemies the Islam of Iran, Hizballah and Hamas. This glimmer of hope may disappear if, in the democratic elections that may occur in Egypt and other Arab countries, the Muslim Brotherhood – which is far better organized than any other group – would prevail.
But other scenarios are also possible. For example, the integration of the Muslim Brotherhood into the new regime in Cairo. The new regime is likely to be more hostile to Israel – but there is no chance, say the experts, that this future regime will declare the [Israel- Egypt] peace treaty null and void. This scenario would lead the Muslim Brotherhood to tone down its anti-Israel sentiment. This will have an important effect on Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Brotherhood.
It is very likely that the fears articulated by Israel and the West, that the tremors that have shaken the Arab world will increase the power of Islam, will turn out to have been unfounded.
I hope that this is not just wishful thinking.