Not Islamophobia but rather a successful Islamist fear campaign

14 October, 2010 at 21:43 | Posted in Inter-faith relations, Politics | Leave a comment
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Şehitlik Mosque in Berlin. Germans turn a cold shoulder to Islam. (By cosmonautirussi via Flickr)

Şehitlik Mosque in Berlin. Germans turn a cold shoulder to Islam. (By cosmonautirussi via Flickr)


The Israeli Channel Ten, in its fascinating daily news magazine London&Kirshenbaum, talked about another increase in Islamophobic sentiments in Germany, according to a recent survey. They said the situation in Germany was relatively good, compared with other Western European countries.  The Turkish daily Hüriyet offers a detailed report (in English) about the survey. Hüriyet quotes Bekir Alboğa from the Turkish Islamic Union of Germany saying, “Anti-Semitism is being replaced by Islamophobia”. I am not sure this is the case. Germany’s history has had a moderating effect in the past 60 years or so. Germany experienced less xenophobia and nationalism than other European nations because the country’s recent history has been standing as a huge warning sign that no German could ignore. Furthermore, Germany was closely monitored by other nations for a long period of time due to its past. Actually, the high demands from Germany, either by its own citizens or by foreigners, with regard to human rights and tolerance, are probably the reason why so many Muslims and other people found refuge and welfare in the Federal Republic of Germany. France and the United Kingdom had obligations toward the people of their former colonies. Most of the immigrants to these countries are citizens of countries and territories that used to be under French or British control. However, Germany did not have such obligations, and its readiness to absorb so many immigrants was partly due the Germans’ wish to reverse the horrific policy of the past, and partly due to economic considerations.

I believe that the recent increase in anti-Muslim feelings in Germany, and in Europe as a whole, is the result of a successful fear campaign that has been conducted by Muslim extremists.  I think the starting point of this campaign was the fatwa issued by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie in February 1989. At least in my memory, this event is remembered as the time when it was brought to my knowledge that if a Muslim leader says a person should die, he cannot feel safe anywhere in the world anymore. Since then, death threats have been directed to quite a few people who allegedly offended Muslim feelings. In some cases the threats were realized. Offending Jews, for example, whether deliberately or unaware, may result in worldwide condemnation in the worst case scenario. The “victim” may feel uncomfortable, but he can feel safe walking in the street. Offending the Chinese government may result in a ban from visiting the People’s Republic. It would be a pity to miss the view from the Great Wall, but it is something everyone can live with. This is not the case when someone decide to criticize Islamic norms or practices, or even if a person does something that might be perceived as an offense to Islam.

This state-of-affairs is not due to special tendency to violence among Muslims. Not at all. I am even quite certain that most Muslims in Europe and elsewhere resent this situation and would like to repudiate these threats and violent acts. And yet, the group of extreme Muslims that initiated this fear campaign has been strong and efficient enough to make it successful. The price of this success is paid by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Unfortunately, I don’t see the end of this campaign. Quite the contrary, the radical elements in Israel are getting stronger.

The American-Jewish scholar, Prof. Noam Chomsky, is visiting Turkey to attend an international convention about Freedom of Speech. Turkey is a country that still restricts the use of the Kurdish language, the mother tongue of at least 15% of its population. It also prevent its Armenian citizens from talking about the tragedy which the Ottoman Empire inflicted on their people during World War I. Turkey therefore seems quite a peculiar place for holding a convention about Freedom of Speech, and yet I give this convention the credit that it is an attempt to bring the cure to an unhealthy government. Chomsky gave an interview to the Turkish Zaman newspaper. He claims that the main reason for the European reluctance to include Turkey within the European Union was racism rather than concern over the problem of human rights in Turkey and other similar issues. Chomsky used to be a genius who made invaluable contributions to Linguistics, Psychology, Computer Science and Philosophy. He was also one of the brightest most eloquent critics of Western politics and culture. These days are over. Chomsky fell in love with criticism to the extent that makes his recent utterances false or meaningless.

According to Zaman, Chomsky cited Angela Merkel as saying that “Germany’s culture was based on Christian and Jewish values and that Muslims in the country should accept this”. Zaman summarizes Chomsky’s reaction to these words as “apart from the fact Merkel mentioned Jewish values because of the Holocaust and not because Jewish values really shaped German culture, it was ‘a pretty extreme and racist statement from a major political figure in Europe'”. It is quite amazing that Chomsky forgot about the huge role of Jews and Judaism in German culture before World War II. Moses (Moshe) Mendelssohn (1729-1786) is considered the first, or one of the first, Jewish scholars in Modern times to integrate the culture of the German Jews into the general German culture. His work affected the entire German culture, not only the Jewish German one. Heinrich Heine was Jewish, Albert Einstein was Jewish. One hundred thousand Jews served in the German army during World War I, 12 thousand of them were killed as German soldiers. It all ended abruptly and horrifically in the mid-1930s, but Angela Merkel rightfully honored the place of Judaism in German culture. The question of whether recent Muslim immigrants should assimilate into German culture or preserve their Muslim culture and bring it to the German People as a new component into their tradition is a matter of debate, but raising the question is hardly racism. I suppose Chomsky would respect a Turkish statement that Turky is a Muslim country and non-Muslims should respect this fact.

Chomsky also told Zaman that there are signs of “slow improvement” in the Turkish treatment of its Kurdish minority. He sums up this alleged development as “not enough, but it’s something”. I have never heard Chomsky talks so gently about the situation in other countries. Istanbul is a charming place indeed, but I wouldn’t have thought he would fall for it so easily…


Hanan Ashrawi – from pragmatism to extremism?

27 September, 2010 at 06:50 | Posted in Inter-faith relations, Israeli journalism, Israeli-Arab conflict, Politics | Leave a comment
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Dr. Hanan Ashrawi - leaving the pragmatic approach in favor of the extremists? (Image via Wikipedia)

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi - leaving the pragmatic approach in favor of the extremists? (Image via Wikipedia)


A friend of mine recommended I read a recent interview with the senior Palestinian activist, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi. Dr. Ashrawi gave this interview to the Israeli Maariv-affiliated local newspaper “Zman Yerushalayim”, issued in Jerusalem in Hebrew. Commenting in English on an interview published in Hebrew might seem a bit unfair, and yet Ashrawi’s statements have been heard in various languages from many Palestinian mouthpieces, and it is important to reveal the acute problems embedded in them.

Dr. Ashrawi is considered one of the most intelligent, eloquent and pragmatic among Palestinian activists. She seems like the ideal person with whom to reach a peaceful settlement and end years of misery. And yet, in this interview, and despite the resumption of direct peace negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian governments, Dr. Ashrawi joins the extremists among Palestinian Arabs. Her eloquent diplomatic language might fool certain people, but for the common Israeli, her words are frustrating and echoes some of the harsh statements of the 1964 Palestinian National Convenant.

“Everything can be worked out”

The interview starts from its end, the interviewer Eli Oshrov says he told Dr. Ashrawi at the end of the interview that the provisions she stipulated throughout the interview would be unacceptable to most Israelis. “Everything can be worked out”, she replies, but to be honest, I don’t see how, unless she was trying to present high Palestinian demands as a kind of tactic. If it is indeed a tactic, it is a dangerous one, and Ashrawi should do without it.

UN GA resolution 194

Dr. Ashrawi starts with the Palestinian demand to let the Palestinian refugees resettle in the Israeli territory, and cites the UN General Assembly resolution 194 from December 1948. Dr. Ashrawi reiterates an old Palestinian claim as if there were an international resolution ordering Israel to accept “the right of return” of Palestinian refugees. There is little truth in this claim. First of all, the resolution is merely a recommendation, not a compelling decision. The resolution does not talk about “right” of return, but merely calls for the repatriation of refugees who wish to live in peace with their neighbors. Needless to say, the Palestinian leadership did not accept the latter condition at the time, and the Jordanian Government ignored many other paragraphs in the resolution, like the call to allow free access to Jerusalem and Bethlehem and make them cities under international rule.  Furthermore, in December 1948, the State of Israel was about seven months old. The UN did not recognize it yet, and the resolution still uses the old British Mandate terminology. In 1949 the UN recognized Israel as a sovereign state and UN member, a recognition that makes GA resolution 194 obsolete, at least within the “Green Line” boundaries.

The war between Israel and its neighboring countries was still ongoing in December 1948 (even though it reached its last stages). It seems quite reasonable to call for the repatriation of refugees when a war is still ongoing or has just reached its end. It seems totally unreasonable to do so more than 60 years later, during 40 of which the Palestinian party called for “armed struggle” for the “liberation of Palestine”, contrary to the stipulations of GA resolution 194 that calls for restoring peace and establishing reconciliatory committee.

Ashrawi: Jewish state means racist state

When asked about the demand that the Palestinian leadership recognize the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, Hanan Ashrawi tells the Israelis, “if you insist on being racist and discriminatory, good for you”. She says she struggles for a secular Palestinian state, so she cannot accept a Jewish state. There are two problems here. First of all, Israel is a Jewish secular state. “Jewish” is a polysemy which refers to a nation, an ethnic group and a religion. The name “Israel” was chosen for the Jewish state in order to avoid confusion between the national and religious senses of the term “Jewish” (there were other reason for this choice too). Israel is defined in its basic laws as a Jewish and democratic state, which is exactly the formula which Ashrawi wishes to adopt for the future Palestinian state, while replacing “Jewish” with “Palestinian”. And there is another problem – in the basic laws of the Palestinian National Authority, Palestine is defined as Arab and Muslim. The Palestinian law, according to this document, is inspired by the shari’a, namely the Islamic religious law. So, like it or not, the Palestinian National Authority, of which Dr. Ashrawi is part, is not secular nor egalitarian with regard to Palestinian Christians. The Israeli law, by the way, is based upon secular doctrines, except for matrimonial law, in which religious law applies, but all religions have equal status for this matter.

“Sovereignty is not based upon religion”

When it comes to the issue of Jerusalem, Dr. Ashrawi says “sovereignty is not based upon religion” but rather it is a political issue. Very well, but who says Palestinians have precedence over Israelis when it comes to sovereignty on Jerusalem? Dr. Ashrawi says the Western Wall (a.k.a. Wailing Wall) should be under Palestinian sovereignty. Why not Israeli? Dr. Ashrawi does not explain. She accuses Israel of behaving like an “occupying force” in Jerusalem, while ignoring the fact that all Palestinian Jerusalemites received permanent resident status in Israel, which means they are entitled to more-or-less the same rights as Israeli citizens (almost all of them refused accepting full citizenship and preferred to keep their Jordanian passports, until Jordan stripped them of their citizenship leaving them stateless). She says “why do you need a guard” at the entrance to the Western Wall site, ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of attacks on civilians, particularly suicide bombing, were carried out by Palestinians, even in holy sites and during holidays. She also ignores the fact that Israel respect the status of the Palestinian Muslim Waqf on the Temple Mount, allowing it to administer the place independently. The Israeli police is stationed outside the religious complex and confiscate prayer books from Jews who wish to visit the place. Jewish prayers are considered to be dangerous provocation, hence are strictly forbidden on the Temple Mount by the Israeli authorities. I wonder if the Palestinians showed similar respect to other religious and national groups should they gain control over Jerusalem.

So, Dr. Ashrawi, can we really work things out? Or perhaps someone on the Palestinian side should come up with more reasonable line of thought before making demands from the Israeli side?

Needed urgently – Islamic minority culture

16 September, 2010 at 16:14 | Posted in Inter-faith relations, Israeli-Arab conflict | Leave a comment

London Central Mosque

London Central Mosque (by Tawil via Flickr)

The major problem of Muslims today, especially Sunni Muslims, is lack of minority culture. Minority culture is a set of rules, norms, workarounds and sometimes even philosophies, that enable a relatively small community to live in harmony, or at least in reasonable coexistence, with a surrounding larger community that holds different values and norms. Sunni Islam did not have the opportunity to develop a minority culture because Sunni Muslims became majority within a short period of time from the emergence of Islam. Even in the early days of the Arab Muslim caliphate, when Sunni Muslims did not constitute a statistical majority, they still held the Muslim empire’s governmental posts and populated its political and religious elites. Later on, as the empire’s non-Muslim inhabitants wished to become part of these elites, there were waves of conversion to Islam (and often also adoption of Arab culture), which made the Sunni Muslims a majority also in the numerical sense of the word.

The Shia and the faiths that split from it, like the Druze or Alawite communities, do have minority culture, as they found themselves somewhat isolated within the much larger Sunni community. A famous expression of this minority culture is the principle of taqiya, namely the right, maybe even obligation, of the believer to hide her/his religious affiliation and suspend religious practices in case of tension with the dominant or ruling community. The taqia principle evolved from a mean of survival to a whole philosophy and an essential part of the Shiite, Druze and Alawite faiths.

As for Jews, they have been living in minority communities for centuries until the establishment of the State of Israel. In fact, the emergence of the State poses difficult challenges to the Jewish religious community of Israel. Jews accustomed themselves to life as minority to a degree that they lack cultural tools to handle religious, ethical and practical issues when they form the majority. Prof. Yeshayahu Leibovitz addressed many issues of this kind in his book “Judaism, Jewish People and the State of Israel” (1975). He harshly criticized religious Jews who treat secular Jews in Israel as “gentiles”. He said, for example, that a religious policeman cannot switch shifts with a secular colleague in order to avoid working on Sabbath, because from the religious point of view, all Jews must observe the Sabbath on Saturday, while non-Jews, and only non-Jews, may chose to follow other customs. In practice, however, religious Jews in Israel do treat secular Jews in the same manner Jews in Europe or America treat the non-Jews, because the Jewish law is simply not built to cope with Jews being a  majority.

Christians live in various environments. The Eastern churches have rich minority culture, because they were indeed minority for many centuries, and some of them still are. But Christians as a whole, even in Western Europe were they have been a majority for a long time, have minority culture that dates back to the early days of Christianity. Furthermore, in modern times, religious Christian communities had to deal with European secularism that has made religious communities a minority within larger secular communities. In places where Christians turned from majority to minority, either due to vast secularism or due to demographic changes, they could borrow elements of minority culture from their ancient history or from Eastern Christian communities (despite the controversy over dogmas).

Sunni Muslims are the mirror image of the Jews. They are very comfortable in the majority position, and feel like a fish out of water when they are minority. After all, they held this position of majority throughout the history of Islam until recently. The phenomenon of Sunni Muslim minorities in Western Europe and the Americas has become widespread during the 1900s, giving rise to an urgent need of Muslim minority culture. This is a challenge not properly addressed by Muslim leaders, in my opinion, and this is a major reason for ongoing violent conflicts between Muslims and their surrounding communities in places like France, Germany, Great Britain and Scandinavia, not to mention Israel. In Israel, the situation is especially delicate because Muslims see it as part of the “Islamic land”, even though Jews and Western peoples have equally important attachment to this territory.

Sunni Islam is currently in a position every faith would deem a success. It has hundreds of millions of believers, it control its holy places, including Jerusalem, where the Palestinian Muslim waqf de facto controls Al-Haram A-Sharif (The Temple Mount), despite the designation of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state of Israel. Muslims cannot expect being the dominant faith and culture everywhere. In fact, a good Sunni Muslim should say, “We, believers, have done everything we can according to our faith. The rest is for God to take care of”. Then again, such a statement can come only from the mouth of a believer that learned to act as part of a minority.

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