Presentation at Pepperdine University – Malibu on Jan 19, 2011
Topic – Role of Religion (or lack there of) in Palestine/Israel Conflict – A Muslim perspective by Shakeel Syed
I begin in the name of God (the Creator of all of us), All praise be to God, the Most Compassionate & the Most Merciful, Lord of the Worlds.
Muslims are commanded to recognize the Jews and the Christians as, “People of the Book” a special status granted by Islam to the fraternity of monotheists – (2:62).
Moses and Jesus are my brothers, said Muhammad. (peace & blessings be upon all of them).
Makkah, Madinah and Jerusalem are cities of great reverence in Quran. Jerusalem has multiple distinctions: it was the first and the original Qibla (direction of prayer), Muslims prayed towards and the miraculous journey of Prophet Muhammad from Makkah to the Al-Aqsa Mosque before ascending to the heavens.
The chapter 17 of Quran (al-Isra), refers as follows: “Glory be to God who did take his servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque (in Makkah) to Al-Aqsa Mosque (in Jerusalem) whose precincts We did bless - in order that We might show him some of Our signs.”
It is these aspects – Al-Quds being the first Qibla -- the travel of Prophet Muhammad to the heavens thru al-Aqsa -- the birthplace & the ascension of Prophet Jesus to the heavens and the resting place of Prophet Abraham in Hebron – which connects all Muslims to the land that is holy to all of us. And perhaps this is the only extent to which religion plays a role in the place and not necessarily a role in the conflict.
Karen Armstrong in her book Jerusalem: One City Three Faiths, writes that Umar Ibn al Khattab, the Islamic leader (Caliph) at the time, “expressed the monotheistic ideal of compassion more than any previous conqueror of Jerusalem, with the possible exception of King David. He presided over the most peaceful and bloodless conquest that the city had seen in its long and often tragic history. Once the Christians had surrendered, there was no killing, no destruction of property, no burning of rival religious symbols, no expulsions or expropriations, and no attempt to force the inhabitants to embrace Islam. If a respect for the previous occupants of the city is the sign of the integrity of a monotheistic power, Islam began its long tenure in Jerusalem very well indeed.”
The Islamic rule was interrupted by the brutal conquest of Crusades who persecuted and banished not only Muslims, but also Jews and Orthodox Christians from Jerusalem. It was not until Islamic forces, under the leadership of Salah-ed-Din (Saladin), invited all to return as he held this city sacred. (I urge you to relive these times in Ridley Scott’s – Kingdom of Heaven). For the most part, the indigenous Jews, Christians, and Muslims continued to live in harmony even during the Ottomans Empire.
But today, after several decades, this sacred city is full of bad faith: bad faith engendered by the seizing of land, expulsion of the indigenous population, denial of re-entry, and colonizing the rest of the land.
As a person born in India to parents who lived under the Victorian Majesty, I understand a thing or two about colonization. Let me share some examples from the discriminatory policies of Israel.
The Israeli Law of Return, I argue, is inherently racist because it provides automatic Israeli citizenship to any Jew born anywhere in the world. My good friend Rabbi Mark Diamond can, if he so wishes, become an Israeli citizen with all its privileges under this Law of Return, just as the current Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, did. Mr. Oren’s is a rather exclusive case. He did his Aliyah and then chose to renounce his American citizenship in order to become the Israeli Ambassador to the United States.
Juxtapose the distinct privilege of being Jewish against a Christian or Muslim Palestinian who may have been born and raised in--and later displaced from--what is now Israel and that person is denied the right to return home.
Similarly we know of the Absentee Law that is the basis for justifying government land acquisition and transfer of the same from native Palestinians to Jewish settlers. The Absentee Law had a sweeping effect on the Palestinian Arab population and created a basic premise for future land confiscation and treating these forced absentees as “internal refugees,” now accounting for about 25% of all Palestinian citizens in Israel.
The Planning & Construction Law has an impact on hundreds of Palestinian Arab communities in Israel as “unrecognized villages” as they were not incorporated into the planning schemes and instead classified as agricultural. Consequently, the indigenous Palestinians in these unrecognized villages are near completely deprived of paved roads, sanitation, water, electricity, schools and medical services. Interestingly, surrounding these unrecognized villages are exclusively Jewish settlements with all amenities.
This brings us to the “Jewish only settlements” in the occupied Palestinian territory in West Bank inhabited by more than 400,000 settlers and growing, all of whom enjoy full citizenship rights of Israel, yet they do not live in Israel proper.
With the Jewish only settlements comes The Wall, 600+ checkpoints, hundreds of militia outposts, roadblocks, exclusive Jewish-only roads, separate schools, public facilities…And then there are the home demolitions, confiscation of the land of indigenous Palestinians who are forcibly evicted in middle of the night at gunpoint. This is especially evident in East Jerusalem where evicted Palestinian families are living in tents on the pavement across from the very homes in which they used to live and which now are occupied by Jewish families under police protection.
Discussing peace from our position of comfort is definitely a “good idea”, just as Gandhi replied when asked what he thought of democracy.
But to a mother in occupied Palestine who watches each day the Jewish-only settlements with swimming pools, paved roads, parks, and libraries, peace may seem rather distant, just as the idea of democracy was to Gandhi under British colonization.
This Palestinian mother and millions like her do not look at this conflict as a matter of religion but rather a matter of gross political and racial injustice.
In whose name and what faith can we justify this prolonged occupation, subjugation and humiliation of a people left with nothing but crumbs, cowering behind the walls and the barbed wires for decades?
The occupied always resist and eventually prevail … The French ousted the Germans; the Algerians kicked out the French; the Black South Africans threw out the White apartheid regime; the Irish sent the British home; the Afghans ousted the Soviets (and are now resisting the American occupation); and Kashmiris continue to resist the Indian occupation. And the Palestinians continue to heroically resist the Israeli occupation and its total monopoly over power, resources and their movement.
A prominent South African, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, reminds us with these profound words … "My heart aches. I say why are our memories so short. Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden?"
My friends, I believe that Palestine is already at its knees militarily, but I also believe that the Palestinians are standing tall on their feet and when a population rises up as we are seeing in Tunisia no military power could ever make them sit down, forever.
The Holy Quran calls Jews and Christians “The People of the Book” and Abraham our common father.
“Moses and Jesus are my brothers,” said Muhammad (peace & blessings be upon them). And that makes you - Christians and Jews - my cousins.
So I call upon all of us tonight – the extended family of Abraham - to recognize that our Abrahamic religions invite us to “be-come” better people and I pray that none of our religions mistakenly believe that we already are a better people!
May peace be with you.