An oft-repeated sentiment currently doing the rounds in discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is that it is imperative that the conflict not become a “religious” one. This sentiment, guaranteed to set heads nodding in polite, liberal company, stands out even within the very crowded and competitive field of ridiculous expressions of historical ignorance found in discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
This sentiment is connected to the recent wave of terror attacks in Jerusalem, which are the result of Palestinian claims that Israel is seeking to alter the “status quo” at the Temple Mount. As this theory goes, up until now this conflict had mainly been about competing claims of land ownership and sovereignty, but it is now in danger of becoming about “religion,” and hence turning even more intractable. So this must be prevented.
In objective reality, the conflict between Jews and Arab Muslims over the land area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has been, from its very outset, inseparable from “religion.”
On the Arab/Palestinian/Muslim side, recent events in the Levant (specifically in Syria and Iraq) ought to have taught us just how very flimsy and contingent the supposed “secular, national” identities of the local populations are. Both these identities have now largely been eclipsed, replaced by sectarian, ethnic, and religious markers of loyalty. As Professor Mordechai Kedar pointed out in a recent article, there is no reason to think that a “Palestinian” national identity is any stronger or more durable than either of these neighboring constructs.
This does not mean, of course, that the Arabic-speaking population of the area is not mobilized for struggle. The events of recent days suggest a murderous commitment to the fight. The engine for this commitment, however, is a religious one.
The engine is the determination to prevent the Jews from in any way, be it ever so minor, infringing on the situation of de facto Arab Muslim domination of the Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif area. This commitment is not a new development; it has in fact been the driving force of the conflict throughout.
The very first major instances of Arab Muslim violence against Jews in the 20th century were related to this self-same area. In 1929, it was precisely an attempt by Jews to assert Jewish prayer rights at the Western Wall that led to a furious Arab and Muslim counter-reaction. This reaction led to the slaughter of over one hundred Jews and the destruction of an ancient Jewish community (in Hebron).
The supposed threat to the mosques at the Haram al-Sharif and the alleged desire of the Jews to build the Third Temple continued to form a staple in Arab propaganda against the Zionists in the 1930s and 1940s. This was a time when the nascent Palestinian “national” movement was led by a man holding a position of religious authority: Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini.
This centrality of religion continued to fire the various movements fighting Israel. The very name “Fatah,” for example, which is often – absurdly — described as a “secular” movement, is a religious term. “Fatah” is in Arabic a term literally meaning to “open,” but is used in context to mean “to conquer a land for Islam.”
The central role of religion in this conflict has served to prevent the eventual resignation to and compromise with Israel’s presence, which many early Zionist leaders predicted. This prediction was based on similar national conflicts elsewhere, where after a period of struggle the two sides grow tired and settled their difference, cutting a deal.
But religious sentiments have a way of not growing tired.
And in the case of Israel and its Arab Muslim enemies, the core energy on the Arab side is one of religious rage — a feeling that the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in parts of the land formerly ruled by Muslims constitutes a crime against god. Such a crime cannot be forgiven or compromised with.
In a recent article on the Hamas website expressing support for the recent terror attacks, Palestinian columnist Dr. Issam Shawer summed up the issue in an admirably succinct way:
We maintain, and believe, that our battle against the occupier is fundamentally religious, not geographic, historic, or economic.
Allah the Exalted mentioned [in the Koran] our [current] conflict with the occupier, when he told His servants that they would enter Al-Aqsa Mosque as they had entered it the first time, and told us [also] that everything that “Israel” had built in order to establish its fragile entity would be destroyed. … Therefore, we must stop arguing that our battle against the enemy is political, waged in the arena of the UN, the Security Council, or negotiations. All this nonsense contradicts the Koran and the Hadith. (Translation by MEMRI).
Shawer grasps the dynamics of the conflict far better than most Western observers.
On the other side, the Jewish idea of the “Return to Zion,” the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and the renewing of the days of old are deeply embedded in Jewish religious tradition and inseparable from them.
Modern Zionism may have been secular in nature, but it drew from these wellsprings in Jewish self-perception.
The difference throughout has been that the Jews have, since the onset of the modern struggle, demonstrated a willingness to accept political plans proposing a sharing of the land under discussion: in 1937, 1947, 2000, and 2008. The Arab Muslim side has demonstrated no similar capacity.
The Jewish self-perception is that of a small nation, cautious, uncertain, defensive.
Arab Sunni Muslim identity, by contrast, is one predicated on triumph and conquest as the natural state of affairs, now accompanied by the humiliating, bewildering current state of failure and subjection. Hence the enormous, murderous rage at the present state of defeat to a people seen as naturally subordinate: the Jews. Hence the absolute refusal to accept history’s apparent verdict, and the latest furious attempt to dislodge the enemy.
Religion, specifically Sunni political Islam, is driving it, as it has driven all previous attempts. It shows no sign of running out of energy, despite the meager results so far. A deep sense of its own superiority and the inevitability of its eventual victory informs its adherents. It is past time that the many obsessive Western observers of this conflict grasp the essential, religious driving force. Political religion, specifically Sunni political Islam, lies at its heart. It has always been there.