Terra Incognita: The re-Islamification of Beersheba

The manufactured controversy over a wine festival is part of increasingly chauvinistic power politics sweeping the Negev’s Beduin community.

A Beduin man rides a horse in al-Arakib 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
A Beduin man rides a horse in al-Arakib 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Aweek ago it was reported that political leaders among the Israeli-Arab and Beduin community were gearing up to protest a wine festival in Beersheba.
Both Adalah, a legal aid center for Arabs, and the southern branch of the Islamic Movement petitioned courts to intervene to stop the festival. In the end the municipality caved and moved the festival slightly to accommodate the protesters.
Ostensibly the dispute was about the location of the event: In proximity to an old Ottoman-era Mosque. But throughout the discussion about the event there was always a hidden current of a larger struggle. According to reports, Adalah claimed that not only the wine festival was a problem but other events at the site, which is a museum, “constitute a continuous offense to local Muslim residents, Beduin in particular.”
Background to the current issue is a court ruling from 2011 that declared that the mosque could not be used by Muslims for prayers but should be a museum related to the Islamic culture of the Negev.
The battle has to be understood as a struggle to re-Islamify unused sites in Israel.This is actually part of a global struggle by Muslims to re-assert their claims to former places of worship that were once in the Dar al-Islam, or the “domain of Islam.” Bernard Lewis in his most recent book, Notes on a Century, recalls visiting Spain with Turkish Muslims for a conference in the 1970s. After going to see the Cathedral of Cordoba, which had once been a mosque in the 13th century, a colleague confided to him “when I come into this ancient shrine I feel that I should recite the afternoon prayer.”
But one of the other Turkish scholars cautioned the man, reminding him how it would hurt Turkish sensibilities if a Greek Christian came into Hagia Sophia, a former church that became a mosque, and wanted to pray. The Turk gave up.
However in April of 2010 things turned violent when Muslim tourists entered the church and began to pray.
Guards were called by the Catholic priests and the Muslim worshipers attacked the guards, two of whom suffered serious injury. The status quo has been maintained at Cordoba’s cathedral, but at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul a different sort of story has played itself out.
The secularist Turkish government turned the giant mosque into a museum in 1934. As Turkey has become more religious, numerous radical groups have held group prayers outside the museum, demanding that it be used as a mosque.
In Israel the campaign to ignite a religious struggle has included attempts to Islamicize other sites. There have been claims and petitions against Tel Aviv University for supposedly building dorms atop a Muslim cemetery that once belonged to the Arab village of Sheikh Muannis.
In Jerusalem protests and petitions have been signed against the Museum of Tolerance, which was likewise accused of unearthing Muslim graves. In Nazareth Muslims miraculously discovered the holy grave of Shihab A-Din, a nephew of Saladin, in the 1990s and demanded the right to build a giant mosque next to the Church of the Annunciation. The tensions resulted in anti-Christian riots in 1999 until an Israeli court ruled that the illegally constructed mosque be torn down.
THE SUDDEN interest in the Beersheba mosque is similar to these other battles. Does it reflect a true feeling that the mosque is being threatened with desecration and that it is a site that is deeply connected to the Beduin population, or is the mosque simply an issue that politicians know they can get people to rally around to whip up sentiment and world opinion in order to expand their power base and test the commitment of the state to maintaining a free and secular environment in the public space? Let’s examine some of the particulars of this case to weigh the claims.
Yediot Aharonot reported on Tuesday that, “the reason for the unprecedented protest is majorly mostly attributed to the site of the wine festival – the courtyard of Beersheba’s largest and oldest mosque.”
First, the site of the festival is actually a public park, part of historic Ottoman Beersheba – where the event has been held for the past six years. As the Beersheba Municipality noted, “all these years the event passed with exemplary quiet.” Thus the site was not offensive in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 – it only suddenly became offensive this year.
Second, there is the bit about Beersheba’s “oldest and largest” mosque. This issomewhat disingenuous, since in fact it is Beersheba’s only mosque, and not particularly old.
Beersheba is an ancient city that dates back thousands of years, but it was abandoned for much of the Ottoman period until 1900 when the Ottoman Sultan ordered an administrative center reconstructed there in order to pacify the Negev Beduin.
The mosque, which was built in 1907, was not for Beduin worshipers, but a symbol of Ottoman power, and was used by local residents of the town. When the town was conquered in 1948 by Jewish forces the mosque was left standing, as were many holy structures conquered in that year.
In order to stir up public opinion many politicians, such as MK Taleb a-Sanaa of United Arab List-Ta’al and Jamal Zahalka of Balad and the Islamic Movement, have piggybacked on the issue. On Sunday they erected a “protest tent” to be manned 24 hours a day next to the old mosque.
Sanaa told Jack Khoury of Haaretz that hosting the festival could “ignite the Negev.” This is a thinly veiled threat. It is a threat that is made more genuine by the way the festival is now being portrayed to the Muslim world.
Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bekir Bozdag, has condemned the event, claiming it means “Israel does not respect the religion of Islam.”
The Arab League and Organization of Islamic Cooperation have said it is designed to “wipe out the Palestinian identity” of the country. Pro-Palestinian writer Ben White subtitled his story on the subject at Al Jazeera, “a wine and beer festival to be held in a former great mosque is an exemplar of Israeli history.”
Note that the festival is now said be taking place “in” the mosque.
The creation of a permanent protest encampment, the enlisting of the worldwide Islamic community, and threats that the Negev might “ignite” are all part of a muscular chauvinist campaign waged ostensibly on behalf of the Beduin against state institutions and public events in the Negev region.
There has been no outcry by the secular community to defend the festival. Had the protesters been haredi Jews claiming that the festival was taking place on old Jewish graves, there would now be a huge fight to support it. But because the banner is Islam there is a fear that it might “ignite” the people.
Of course this aggressive campaign has many sides to it.
I reported on a presentation at a conference at Ben-Gurion University in which a Beduin academic accused me of being a “collaborator” with the state. This type of character assassination and these aggressive protests are part of a growing attempt to uproot Israeli control of the Negev and impose a regime of religious and cultural intolerance, all under the claim that Islamic religious institutions are being defiled and the Palestinian population “wiped out.”
The opposite is apparently true: the mosque has been ordered by the High Court to become an Islamic museum, and the Beduin community, which didn’t worship in the mosque before 1948, is being drawn into a battle through claims that their religion is being trampled.
The campaign of incitement, in which politicians claim the event might spark problems, and then go to the community and to the Islamic world and encourage exaggerations about the event, is a power play to gain votes, political favors and to show off the strength of the Arab- Islamic community.