Israeli Muslims grow extreme as others secularize

Following the recent arrests of two clerics, experts debate Israeli policy towards its Arab minority.

Muslim Prayer 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Muslim Prayer 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
The arrests of two Israeli Muslim clerics in the last five weeks indicates a widening rift in the country’s Arab minority, as growing secularism pushes the religious into adopting more extreme philosophies and practices, analysts said.
Sheikh Nazem Abu-Salim, head of the Shihab A-Din mosque in Nazareth, was indicted last week on charges of inciting violence and support of a terrorist organization. Four weeks earlier, police arrested Muhammad Ayyash, an imam at the Al-Bahr mosque in Jaffa, on unspecified "security offenses.” Ayyash's home was searched and his computer confiscated, before Petah Tikvah's Magistrates Court extended his remand by eight days.
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"On the one hand you have radicalization, and on the other, abandonment of religion," Mordechai Kedar, an expert on Islam at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) at Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line. "The more young Muslims drink wine and behave immodestly with women, the more radicalized others become."
Arabs, who comprise about a fifth of Israel's population, with Muslims accounting for 80% of that number, were once politically quiescent. But in the last decade, as peace prospects have unraveled and Israel engaged in deadly fighting with Palestinians, Israeli Arabs have come to indentify increasingly with their Palestinian brothers in the West Bank and Gaza, and demanded recognition as a distinct community inside Israel.
The campaign was mainly nationalistic, led by politicians like Azmi Bishara and Ahmad Tibi and by groups that stressed issues like civil rights and discrimination. Now, some experts say, Israeli Arabs are turning more toward religion as a way of asserting their identity.
In a fiery Friday sermon in 2009, Abu-Salim warned visiting Pope Benedict XVI to stay away from Nazareth, a town important to Christians as the place where Jesus spent his boyhood. In the indictment filed last week, prosecutors called the sermon "an ideological world view identical to that of global jihad," his indictment read.
Israeli authorities contend that Abu-Salim's worldview has inspired violent acts against Jews, citing the suspected killer of taxi driver Yafim Weinstein, who admitted to frequenting his sermons. Abu-Salim is also believed to have inspired the kidnapping of a Jewish pizza deliverer in Upper Nazareth and the burning of a Christian tour bus in Nazareth.
The proportion of Israeli Arabs accepting the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state has declined in the past seven years, according to Professor Sami Smoha of Haifa University, who surveys attitudes of the community. In 2003, 75.5% of Israeli Arabs believed Jews had the right to a state of their own. By 2009 this number dropped to 60.5%. In 2003, 81.1% said Israel had the right to exist as a state; in 2009, only 59.4% agreed with the statement.
Growing radicalism and religiosity aren’t unique to Israel or to Muslims, said Nohad Ali, a sociologist from Haifa University. Both Israeli Jews and Israeli Muslims are becoming more religious, with their clerical leaders often pacing the evolution to extremist views.
In the Galilee town of Safed, Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu recently issued a religious edict forbidding the rental of apartments in his city to Arab students. In 2008, Eliyahu called for "state-sanctioned revenge" against Arabs in order to restore Israel's deterrence following a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. Eliyahu's controversial statements caused Minorities Minister Avishai Braverman to call for his immediate suspension.  
The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has warned of increased attempts by Hizbullah, Lebanon's armed Shi'ite group, to recruit Israeli Arabs for intelligence purposes.  Some 60 Israeli Arabs have been arrested for security offenses so far in 2006, the largest number since 2002, according to Israel’s Center for Intelligence and terrorism Information Center.
Following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hizbullah began focusing its recruiting efforts on Israel, the Shin Bet report read, utilizing cross-border family ties and online social networks such as Facebook. The Shin Ben has identified some 20 such recruitment attempts since 2000.
Israeli experts refused to comment on the matter, saying it was too touchy.    
Ali, of Haifa University, said he was not concerned about the trend, saying Israeli Arabs were not becoming radicalized so much as politicized.
"They have internalized free speech as part of the Israeli political game," Ali told The Media Line. "The national and communal identity of Arabs here is Palestinian, while their civil identity is Israeli."
He noted that opinion polls consistently show that 80% of Israeli Arabs wish to stay part of Israel even of a Palestinian state is established.  According to the Herzliya Patriotism Survey carried out in 2006, 56% of Israeli Arabs are not proud of their Israeli citizenship; however 82% said they would rather be citizens of Israel than of any other country in the world.    
"The phenomenon of radicalization is global, and Israel is part of the world," Kedar told The Media Line. "It began with the Islamic revolution in Iran and continues today with Al-Qaeda."
Arab Israelis were frustrated by the fact that while radical Muslim clerics were arrested for their opinions, leading rabbis who incited against Arabs were not even questioned by police, Ali said.
"This makes people feel that the Israeli democracy applies only to some of the citizens, and not others" he said.  
Arik Roditzky, a program manager for Jewish-Arab cooperation in Tel Aviv's Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, said Israel could no longer indoctrinate its Arab citizens through government-controlled media as it did in the 1950s and 1960s.
"Israel should focus on positive projects rather than attempting to shape people's consciousness," he told The Media Line.
Rodnitzky pointed to a new five-year government-led project to invest NIS 800 million ($222 million) in 12 Arab towns in Israel. The project, initiated by Minister Braverman, is intended to reduce alienation amongst Arab Israelis by investing in jobs, infrastructure, transportation and land development.
Braverman has also said he would like to bring back many of the 9,000 Israeli Arabs studying in the Middle East outside of Israel, where he fears they are encountering radicals, and have them attend Israeli universities.
Kedar of BESA said that government policy towards radicalization should carry both a carrot and a stick.
"The Shin Bet should closely monitor radicals and not let the matter get out of hand," he said, "but we must also enter into quiet dialogue with religious figures in the Arab community. I myself am involved in this."