The Jerusalem embassy syndrome

 
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By Khaled Diab

The problem is not the new US embassy in Jerusalem. The problem is the reality which surrounds and underpins it.

All Donald Trump had to do was install a new plaque reading “embassy” at the US consulate in Jerusalem, get his daughter, Ivanka, to unveil it and, hey presto, “history”.
Image source: US embassy in Jerusalem’s Facebook page

Friday 18 May 2018

Remember this moment, this is history,” Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged the high-flying audience at the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem, while less than 100 km away Israeli snipers were killing dozens of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza and maiming hundreds more. “President Trump, by recognising history, you have made history.”

Netanyahu has set the bar for making history incredibly low. All Donald Trump had to do was install a new plaque reading “embassy” at the US consulate in Arnona, West Jerusalem, get his daughter, Ivanka, to unveil it and, hey presto, “history”.

This is not unlike how Trump operated as an entrepreneur: plonk a sign bearing his name on a skyscraper or casino and, like a conjurer, give the illusion of change without actually changing anything of substance. With Trump, politics and business are all about branding.

The illusion that Trump has made history is aided not just by his cheerleaders but also by his opponents. This is partly because ‘The Donald’ is a dangerously foolish and foolishly dangerous man, but also because he presents a unique opportunity for his predecessors to cover up their own failings by blaming everything on him.

But Trump was not the one who stood idly by and watched as Israel annexed historical Jerusalem and large swathes of the surrounding West Bank and made it their capital. Settlement building in East Jerusalem did not start on Trump’s watch nor did the construction of the wall splitting East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, neither did the demolition of Palestinian homes and the eviction of their tenants. Moreover, the US has officially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for nearly a quarter of a century, since the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, so Trump recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is hardly news or new.

This partly explains why the inauguration of the US embassy met with a rather muted response from Palestinian Jerusalemites, not because they are indifferent to their plight but because this minor symbol does not change their situation beyond the symbolic, as a Palestinian colleague from Jerusalem explained. After all, the reality the inauguration represents is one they have been living since 1967 and in accelerated form since the Oslo process began in the 1990s.

Even what has been dubbed as the Great Return March in Gaza to mark seven decades of dispossession, though it was refocused on Jerusalem this week, is only ostensibly and symbolically about the holy city. The demonstrations on Monday, during which Israeli snipers killed at least 58 unarmed Palestinians and wounded hundreds more, were far more about the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the destitution and despair it has created. And it is this massacre of protesters and the incarceration of an entire population which should be the main focus of our outrage.

The mounting death toll in Gaza is causing indignation and anger among Jerusalem’s Palestinians. “It takes unbelievable evilness and a wilful blindness to Palestinian humanity and rights to celebrate the opening of the US embassy in occupied Jerusalem while Israeli troops gun down unarmed people in Gaza,” reflects the prominent Italian-Palestinian journalist and author Rula Jebreal. “East Jerusalem mourns, Palestinian Muslims and Christians mourn their subjugation.”

While the rehousing of the embassy changes nothing of substance, Donald Trump’s presence in the White House and his ending of any pretence that America is a broker, let alone an honest broker, has galvanised Israel’s extremist government and Israeli extremists, who felt somewhat constrained under his predecessor, Barack Obama, despite his lopsided and ineffectual efforts to broker a deal and his staunch support, in words and deeds, for Israel.

Nevertheless, even during these dark and embattled hours, many Palestinian Jerusalemites clasp on to a sense of hope beyond the current despair. “I crave a peace plan where all communities live side by side as equals,” Rula Jebreal dreams.

Such a utopian future of equality is unlikely to come from the leadership, at least none that is currently on the horizon. “Have hope, and faith, not in governments, but in people,” Mahmoud Muna of East Jerusalem’s well-known Educational Bookshop wrote in a public post on Facebook. “Our freedom is not awaiting permission from no one, it is coming and without a knock on the door, it will just come.”

For many years, I have been advocating for a people’s peace achieved through a civil rights struggle for equality because the two-state solution is dead and because America will not bring peace, the Israeli government will not bring peace, and neither Fatah nor Hamas will bring peace. What will bring peace are the peace-lovers in Israel and Palestine joining forces. Only then will peace stand a chance.

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An Italian version of this article first appeared in Corriere della Sera on 16 May 2018.

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Western Muslims: The neglected link

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite their under-utilisation and the suspicion they elicit, European and American Muslims can help bridge the chasm between “West” and “East”.

Tuesday 5 January 2016

As Marine campaigns to prove that Le Pen is mightier than the sword of Islam and Donald plays his Islamophobic Trump card, a sense of gloom has descended upon European and American Muslims and their sympathisers.

The latest poll by Brookings reflects the depth of mainstream hate and distrust in America: over three-fifths of those polled have unfavourable views of Islam, with this rising to a whopping 73% amongst Republican voters.

However, there is a sliver of a silver lining. Despite years of neo-con scaremongering, the vast majority of Americans do not subscribe to the “clash of civilisations” theory, with fewer than two-fifths believing that the values of Islamic and Western societies are incompatible.

As a longstanding critic of Samuel P Huntington’s simplistic theory, I am pleased with this finding. Interests clash, civilisation do not tend to. In fact, as I’ve argued numerous times before, the clash within civilisations is far greater than the conflicts between them.

Though Americans dislike Islam, over half of them expressed favourable views of Muslims, rising to two-thirds among Democrats. Those who knew a Muslim tended to be even better predisposed. For example, while only 22% of Republican voters who knew no Muslims viewed them favourably, this shot up to 59% for Republicans who were well-acquainted with some Muslims.

My own personal experiences back this up, especially in Europe. Europeans I know who live near Muslims or have actually visited a Muslim-majority country generally have a more positive view of Muslims than those who live in white suburbia.

Rula Jebreal.

Rula Jebreal.

“The presence of millions of Muslims living, working, voting in Europe and North America is a constant reminder that there is no clash between Islam and the West because Islam is part of the West,” contends New York-based Rula Jebreal, the prominent Palestinian-Italian journalist and novelist, who is the author of the compelling fictionalised autobiography Miral.

Although many on both sides of the divide see Islam and the West (Christendom) as being two discrete entities, I regard them as a single “mash of civilisations”. Islam is hardwired into Western civilisation through its philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine and more.

Even culturally, the West wouldn’t be the same without Islamic culture. Take just one man, the legendary though largely forgotten Ziryab, who single-handedly revolutionised European fashion, cuisine and music.

The same goes the other way around. Islam’s very roots were profoundly influenced by Christianity and Greco-Roman civilisation and philosophy. In modern times, the process of modernisation has largely been synonymous with Westernisation, first brought home in the minds of 19th-century Egyptians who moved to study and work in France. Even more recently, the Arab Spring drew large numbers of Western Arabs and Muslims back to their ancestral lands, especially Tunisia and Egypt.

Despite periodic animosity, this ancient link between Europe and the Middle East means that Europeans generally understand and sympathise with Muslims more, with Islamophobia largely the preserve of the far right – for now. “Here in America, however, Islamophobia has been mainstreamed,” notes Jebreal.

Throughout my long years as a journalist, I have drawn on my dual Arab and European heritage to highlight the nuances, ambiguities, diversities and subtleties of history, politics, culture and beliefs. This is out of a conviction that the devil, and demonisation, lie in sweeping generalisations, while the human and humanising reside in the detail. Simplistic narratives and solutions are appealing. However, in a complex world, reductionism lead to misdiagnosis and complications, fuelling ever greater mayhem and hatred.

Wajahat Ali

Wajahat Ali

And the growing prominence of Western Arabs and Muslims is helping in this humanising mission. “We see more people of colour and Muslims succeeding as journalists, story tellers, entrepreneurs, community activists,” explains Pakistani-American Wajahat Ali, a journalist and host with Al Jazeera America. “Tragedy and pain also compel urgency and inspire work. Post 9-11, you see a more proactive, progressive, engaged Muslim-American and Arab-American communities.”

Humour, from satire to parody, is a powerful tool in this effort, as it deploys laughter as a devastating weapon against bigotry. In my own writing, I have used satire to mock everything from far-right conspiracy theories about the Islamisation of the West to ISIS’s a-historical caliphate, which, unlike its predecessors does not tolerate science, literature, gay poetry or odes to wine.

Similarly, other Muslims, from stand-up comics to writers, have been employing gallows humour to draw attention to the plight of their community. For instance, when Donald Trump suggested that Muslims should carry special identification, Wajahat Ali quickly obliged and created his own Muslim ID card. In it, he described his ethnicity as “Bollywood” and his religion as “Sunny-side Sunni”.

Regardless of whether you employ reason or humour, it often feels futile, especially when hate seems to be gaining the upper hand. It seems to me that it is far easier to burn bridges, and scorch the surrounding earth, than it is to build them and plant the seeds of understanding and compassion.

Ayman Mohyeldin

Ayman Mohyeldin

This is a frustration shared by others. “The biggest challenge is overcoming the sheer scale of unawareness and miseducation  people in the US suffer from,” laments Ayman Mohyeldin, one of the few Arab-American journalists working in a high-profile position for a major US news network, NBC. “That can only be achieved through grassroots awareness and macro level visibility in the public sphere.”

“I don’t know if I made a difference,” admits Wajahat Ali. “I’ve been at this for 12 years and the level of anti-Muslim hysteria and bigotry is higher now than it was in 9-11.”

But this must not dissuade us from trying to reach out, even if the chasm is widening. “With every individual trying to blow up the bridge both from within and outside, there are 10 willing to build,” points out Ali.

“I am not willing to cede the ground to extremists on both sides ­– the jihadists and the Islamophobes,” insists a determined Rula Jebreal. “But in an age of 24/7 cable news and social media on phones, we don’t have much time on our side.”

And with fires blazing in the Middle East and the larva bubbling under the surface in Europe and America, I share this sense of urgency. “[We] need a multicultural coalition of the willing – a global justice league – to come together to bridge the divides,” proposed Wajahat Ali.

In my view, despite their under-utilisation and the suspicion they elicit on both sides of the growing divide, European and American Muslims are the best-positioned to play this role. They can help explain the so-called West to the so-called East and vice-versa, dispel the myth that some sort of “jihad” or “crusade” is in motion, and help replace animosity with co-operation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 19 December 2015.

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