Why Muslims Should Rethink Palestine

Thousands of faithful assiduously listened as I outlined the challenges facing Palestine and its people. Cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’ – God is Great – occasionally resounded from a corner of the giant South African mosque. Many whimpered as I described the tragedy that had befallen Gaza as a result of the Israeli siege. They cheered, smiled and nodded as I emphasized how the will of the Palestinian people would not be defeated. A few older people at the front simply wept throughout my talk, which preceded a Friday sermon in Durban a few months ago.

If passion and kindness were powerful in and of themselves, then the compassion that poured from those Muslim faithful could surely better the world in a myriad ways. The sheer love and concern displayed by men and women of different races, age groups, class affiliation and languages was most uplifting and validating.

As a collective, Palestine and its struggle for freedom and justice is closer to the hearts and minds of Muslims all over the world than any other group I have reached out to. To garner support among Muslims, one is never obligated to make a case, to justify, or to respond to accusations heralded from left and right. Needless to say, Muslim affinity to Palestine is historic, based on Islamic principles articulated in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah (the legacy of Prophet Mohammed).

But over time, something went astray. While the sentiment remained strong, there was little unity in the way in which the energy was harnessed, or the consensus galvanized. In their attempts to reach out to Muslims, many manipulated the genuine feelings of ordinary Muslims for personal, political, ideological and even financial reasons. Various Muslim leaders, organizations, and individuals presented a limited understanding of the situation in Palestine, and offered an exclusivist roadmap as to how the agonizing conflict could be resolved.

The result was most disappointing. There was no clear strategy, no attempt at relevance, and no tangible difference to be yielded from the support of hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide.

In a way, such failure is symptomatic of a much greater ailment that has long befallen Muslims. After the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the concept of Muslim Ummah (nation) – demarcated by real spatial and political lines – was replaced by references to a nation that existed within indefinable intellectual boundaries. This concept was shrewdly patronized by various Arab and Muslim leaders throughout history, who insisted that they – and they alone – represented the political centrality of that impalpable Muslim body. Therefore, owing to the centrality of the Palestinian cause to Islam, these leaders also adopted the Palestinian cause as there own, even if that relationship remained confined to fiery speeches and heart-rendering Friday sermons.

In other words, Palestine, for many Muslims existed as part of a collective imagination, solidified with unifying symbols such as al-Aqsa Mosque, and references to specific verses in the Holy Quran. Such tactics worked wonders, as helpless but fervent Muslims donated generously, or chanted the name of whomever posed as the savior of the ‘Islamic land of Palestine’ and its holy mosque.

Ultimately that rapport yielded three distinct groups. The first group is largely content with the mere designation of Palestine as a ‘Muslim cause’, which they can serve through the occasional donation and regular supplication for Muslim victory in Palestine. Another group comprises those who have grown cynical of the mainstream Muslim interpretation of Palestine, and who have become increasingly radicalized and isolated. The third group is completely disenchanted, and thus removed.

Predictably, none of these groups was affectively involved in contributing to a long-term strategy of bringing the Israeli occupation to an end, or to empowering the Palestinian people in their resistant to achieve such an outcome.

Meanwhile, the Second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) of 2000 defined and successfully galvanized a growing international movement around Palestine. In this movement, Muslims, as a group, were no longer a primary contributor. There were a few resulting gains, such as depriving Israel and its allies from reducing the conflict to that of religious war, with Israel naturally serving the role of the bulwark of Judeo-Christian values. But there was also much to lose, as millions of ardently passionate supporters of the Palestinian cause reverted to their role of mass protest, flag-burning and angry chanting. That image too, was cleverly manipulated, especially after September 11, to link Palestine to Muslim extremism. Many were driven to believe that every bearded Muslim was somehow linked to al-Qaeda.

The rise of Hamas as a political power in the Palestinian elections of 2006 once again reaffirmed the Muslim relevance to Palestine. Hamas’ attempt at exploring its ‘strategic depth’ by reaching out to Muslim countries did not translate into the desired political gains, but it did enliven the more or less dormant Muslim link to Palestine and to the conflict as a whole. More, thanks to Hamas’ ability to impress itself as a long-term actor in the conflict, some Muslims outside Palestine began exchanging sentimentalities with real political language. Meanwhile, many Muslim communities tried to find practical platforms to express their solidarity and to aid the Palestinian people, with Gaza representing the primary rally cry.

Unfortunately, some resorted to the same exclusivist language of the past, itself rich in religious positivism. This may not always be intentional, but it is likely to weaken international solidarity, or, at best, relegate Muslim relevance to a group of people whose link to Palestine is merely religious.

At this advanced stage of the solidarity, which shows Palestine once again at the top of international agenda – including in civil societies around the world – Muslims must redefine their link to Palestine, based on the values and principles reflected in Islam. But they must also present it in universally shared ideal, speaking a unified and unifying language. While they must proudly embrace their symbols, they should also understand that the fight is one for freedoms and rights, and not specific corporeal locations.

Muslims must stand, hand in hand, with people from all different backgrounds, not as exclusive owners of the Palestinian struggle, but as proud contributors to a global movement that wishes to ensure that justice is served, rights are attained and peace for all is realized.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons (Clarity Press). Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs, Istanbul Zaim University (IZU). Read other articles by Ramzy, or visit Ramzy's website.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rehmat said on July 31st, 2010 at 8:43am #

    YES – the struggle to reclaim the Palestine is very close to the heart of Muslims around the world, but unfortunately not the majority of the Arab world. The Arab elites are still living in the ‘glory of Western colonization’. They’re very much allergic to the idea of Palestine being the home to the third most sacred Islamic event – the journey of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – from Earth to Heaven (The Mir’aj).

    Palestine was never liberated by the Arab armies, but the Muslim armies (in 638 and 1186) – and hopefully the Islamic Republic, Turkey, Hizbullah and Hamas together will be able to cure the Zionist cancer in the Middle East.

    Time is working against the State of Israel

  2. yoni said on July 31st, 2010 at 11:08am #

    “Muslims must stand, hand in hand, with people from all different backgrounds, not as exclusive owners of the Palestinian struggle, but as proud contributors to a global movement that wishes to ensure that justice is served, rights are attained and peace for all is realized”

    A very good suggestion – why shouldn’t Muslims stand hand in hand with the Jewish people who after 2000 years in exile and persecutions finally managed to achieve independence in a tiny country? The Israeli people are longing for a Muslim leader to reach out for them. All they see so far from the Muslim and Arab leaders is hate, incitement, terrorism and antisemitism. Isn’t it time to change the record and show some sympathy and understanding? I can assure you that 99% of Israelis would agree to completely evacuate the West Bank, even their most important holy places in Jerusalem, if they know that the conflict will end then. Because so far, Israelis don’t have even the slightest reason to think that giving their enemies land is not just another step toward their well-declared extermination.

  3. yoni said on July 31st, 2010 at 11:11am #

    Though I still don’t really understand – is this really a leftist-pro-social-justice place like the title says, or another radical-Islamist website using the discourses of justice and human rights to bash Israel and an imagined evil entity called “the Zionists”? Or maybe a mixture of both, hypocrisy always goes well together…

  4. Rehmat said on July 31st, 2010 at 3:22pm #

    When they were expelled from every European country in the past – Jews never lived in exile in Palestine. They always chose green pastures like Muslim Spain, Muslim Sicily, Baghdad, Muslim Greece and the Ottoman Empire in the Eastern Europe.

    Muslim stood with the Jews for over 12 centuries when they were treated like dogs in the Christian Europe. If they wanted compensation for their 2000 years of pesecution at the hands of Christians and fellow Jews – should not the European Jews be demanding a “tiny homeland” in Europe?

    India’s representative at United Nations, Krishna Menon, gave the same message to the members of the UNSC in 1948: “Since the holocaust happened in Europe and was carried out by the German Nazi – should not the Jews be compensated by awarding them the most fertile state of Gemany (Bavaria) as a Jewish homeland? Why should the Palestinians are made to pay for the crimes of the others?”

  5. yoni said on July 31st, 2010 at 7:32pm #

    @Rehmat – I know it will surprise you, but the Jews are people with the same national rights as any other people, and if you think that they were going to exist under the mercy of other nations after everything they’ve been through, you’re terribly mistaken.
    The holocaust was the reason for the support of most of the world for a Jewish homeland in Israel/Palestine, but it was not the reason for the Jewish national movement – the nationhood is not granted to Jews by other nations, the Jews fought for their rights by themselves.

    The Indian representative surely didn’t say such thing – back then, the only ones who were called “Palestinians” were the Jewish immigrants to the British mandate of Palestine – that’s how they called themselves.

  6. Aaron Aarons said on August 1st, 2010 at 7:19am #

    @yoni [or is it really lingam?]: “the Jews are people with the same national rights as any other people”

    Do Zoroastrians have “national rights”? How about Mennonites? Roma? Seventh Day Adventists? Holy Rollers? Jehovah’s Witnesses?

    If any group had “national rights” in Palestine, it was those who lived there and whose ancestors had lived there. Many of those people were, in fact, descendants of the ancient Hebrews or Judeans, although most of their ancestors had converted to heretical variants of the old Hebrew monotheistic cult – variants called “Christianity” and “Islam”. Did those conversions cause them to lose the “national rights” you refer to in the land variously known, inter alia, as Canaan, Judea-Samaria-Israel, Southern Syria or Palestine?

    But why, in any case, do alleged national rights of some group or other give them the right to deprive people of the far more basic human right to live on and cultivate the land they and their ancestors had been living on and cultivating for centuries or millennia?

  7. yoni said on August 1st, 2010 at 8:08am #

    @Aaron Aarons – It is not my position to decide which nation with a clear inherent national identity deserves to realize its nationhood. It depends on many factors.
    In the current reality in Israel/Palestine, the Palestinian people (clearly a nation today, but was not a nation 60 years ago, and I’m using only self-declared criteria) definitely deserves to achieve their national rights in an independent state. In the reality 62-100 years ago, the Jewish people were the most needed group for an independent state, and the world (at least that world who cared about human rights) was understanding enough (and full with blame and guilt) to agree not to prevent it from them.
    Let me remind that Zionism was never about Jewish exclusiveness, and that not only Jews are citizens of Israel but also 1.7 million Arabs/Palestinians (unlike the Arab world, including the West Bank and Gaza, which were all completely purified from Jews during and after the 1948 war). The fact that many Palestinians did become refugees after the war is related to a complex reality during and after the war, which was basically, and that is undeniable, a war of extermination on holocaust survivors.
    Not many know, but in the years after the 1948 war and until today, Israel got back more than 200,000 of those who left/were deported during the war. In the first years, Israel also offered to let them all in, in return for recognition. Of course no recognition was given, not until this very day.

    The Palestinian suffering today (due to checkpoints, military actions, restriction on movement and so forth), which is real, has nothing to do with the holocaust or with the events that let to the creation of Israel. It has more to do with the obligation of an army to defend its citizens, which I believe that any country (let alone any country in the Middle East) would do even worse. Still I hope that this situation is changed, but it’s not gonna change the way anti-Zionists dream. That’s not going to happen.

  8. Maien said on August 1st, 2010 at 8:13am #

    Yoni says, “Israelis don’t have even the slightest reason to think that giving their enemies land is not just another step toward their well-declared extermination. ”

    Yoni, I remind you that Zionists murdered, lied and have stolen Palestinian land. Humans who originated from the middle east are varying shades of brown. None of them were european/white. Guess who doesn’t belong??

    Richie, rather than define those of us, ‘here’…. as garden variety anti-semites, your time would be better spent in defining yourself. Please check your comments against actual facts, reality and truth. Perhaps this is why you are not appreciated.

    I read this site on a regular basis. the only individuals who are not liked here, are individuals who have a habit of spouting only a portion of the truth. It is interesting to note that the majority of that population appear to be members of the ‘hasbara’. This is not anti-semitism. This is anti- bullshit.

    thanks to Aaron Aarons for his intelligent comment.

  9. yoni said on August 1st, 2010 at 9:51am #

    @Maien – I’m not so much into racial discussions about colors and origins of people, not only because it’s soooo Europe in the 1930s, but also because it has no whatsoever political relevance to the topics that are supposed to be under discussion here.
    But let’s do something short and smart enough to make my 4th grade teacher who taught me (and other Israelis in my class) to never judge a book by its cover, that blacks and whites are equal and so forth. Here’s a video of Israel’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest of 2009 (“Why does Israel take part in a European contest??? are they in Europe???” yes I know, let’s leave it here for our purposes…):

    We see there two singers – one Israeli and one Palestinian (a great song with a good message btw, but you have to strip yourself out of anti-Jewish nonsense to understand, unfortunately…). I did this experiment once with some international friends, if they can tell me who’s the Jewish and who’s the Palestinian, most of them failed. That’s right, the white girl there is the Palestinians, and Noa, god blessed her to be a beautiful dark-skinned Yemeni- Jewish woman with a beautiful voice!

  10. yoni said on August 1st, 2010 at 10:50am #

    Richie – from what I understand here and generally from the schizophrenic type of anti-Zionism common in the world today, Zionism or “the Zionists” is a post-moder term to represent “Jewish conspiracy”. This is an all-encompassing concept to denote basically the factor/entity that is responsible for everything one may object to or see as unjust.
    Of course, it has nothing to do with the concept of Zionism known to you and me. If I may define that concept as accurate as possible, for the sake of those here who are still not contaminated: Zionism is the right of the Jewish people for a collective decision on their future.

  11. Aaron Aarons said on August 2nd, 2010 at 2:36am #

    yoni claims: ‘Zionism is the right of the Jewish people for a collective decision on their future.

    Afrikaner nationalism is the right of the Afrikaner people for a collective decision on their future.
    Ulster Nationalism is the right of the Protestant people for a collective decision on their future.
    National Socialism is the right of the German people for a collective decision on their future.

  12. Aaron Aarons said on August 2nd, 2010 at 3:04am #

    By the way, Yoni:
    When the most important Zionist gathering during the Nazi extermination campaign, the Biltmore Conference in New York in 1942, issued a declaration that treated the saving of European Jews as not even secondary to their main goal, the establishment of a “Jewish Commonwealth” in Palestine, were they implementing ‘the right of the Jewish people for a collective decision on their future’? Do you think they even considered the desires of the mostly anti-Zionist Jews in the ghettoes and concentration camps of Europe in formulating their policy.

  13. yoni said on August 2nd, 2010 at 6:09am #

    @Aaron Aarons

    “National Socialism is the right of the German people for a collective decision on their future”

    I know you like those ridiculous comparisons, but why won’t you try something more genuine, like:
    Palestinian nationalism is the right of the Palestinian people for a collective decision on their future.
    There you go.

  14. yoni said on August 2nd, 2010 at 6:17am #

    @Aaron Aarons – the issue with “the Zionists” seeing their political goals more important than saving life reminds me yet again of the Palestinian national movement – Arafat always said, “to Jerusalem we march, millions of Shahids” – meaning – we would have millions dead to achieve our political goals (which weren’t so much about Jerusalem more than exterminating the Jews, but never mind, no need to go there…).

    The Jewish community of the British mandate of Palestine and their supporters around the world did more than anyone else to save European Jews during the holocaust. Those who did the least were the British, who didn’t even let those who managed to escape (my father’s mother among them) to enter the only place that was willing to accept them – mainly because the Arab community (later called the Palestinian people) didn’t want Jews near them.

    Normally I would also add some words about Haj Amin (the father of Palestine) and his direct and passionate involvement in the Holocaust), and also with the fact that the Arabs preferred to launch another genocidal war against those who managed to survive the holocaust, but ok, it’s not new to any of you, you just choose to ignore it or support it.

  15. JoeJ said on August 2nd, 2010 at 10:35pm #

    “Muslims must stand, hand in hand, with people from all different backgrounds, not as exclusive owners of the Palestinian struggle, but as proud contributors to a global movement that wishes to ensure that justice is served, rights are attained and peace for all is realized.”

    Hear Hear!

  16. Aaron Aarons said on August 4th, 2010 at 6:54am #

    @yoni: “Those who did the least [to save European Jews] were the British, who didn’t even let those who managed to escape …to enter the only place that was willing to accept them – mainly because the Arab community (later called the Palestinian people) didn’t want Jews near them.

    So in “the only place that was willing to accept [Jewish refugees]”, the indigenous population of Palestine, still the overwhelming majority at the time, allegedly “didn’t want Jews near them.” It’s certainly true that the indigenous population didn’t want overwhelming numbers of Jews coming in to take over their land, although they had not, previous to Zionist colonization, shown any hostility to Jews living among them. But, in any case, how was a place where the great majority of the population opposed more Jews coming in also “the only place that was willing to accept them”?

    And why condemn the British imperialists for not imposing overwhelming numbers of Jews on the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine, while you don’t condemn the Brits or any of the other powers for not allowing more than token numbers of Jews into their own countries? More importantly, why did the Zionist movement at the time take the same Euro-chauvinist position you are defending now? Why did they not fight for the admission of proportionally small numbers of Jews into each country? Was it too much to demand that the United States, for example, allow 100,000 Jews in while it wasn’t too much to demand that a larger number of Jews be let into a country with way less than 1% of the population, land and resources of the U.S.?

    @yoni: “the Arabs preferred to launch another genocidal war against those who managed to survive the holocaust”

    By the time, in May of 1948, that some relatively small and ill-prepared Arab armies entered Palestine, the Jewish settlers were well advanced in their ethnic cleansing of the parts of Palestine they controlled. It was only popular pressure that forced some Arab governments to send mostly token troops to aid the Palestinian Arab people against the Jewish terrorists. The one strong Arab army, Jordan’s Arab legion, didn’t fight much against the Jews, except somewhat over Jerusalem, but had an informal understanding with the Zionist leadership to divide the area that was “generously” left by the imperialist UN for the Palestinian people between them.