Bernard Lewis and the non-existent clash of civilisations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bernard Lewis was the orientalist scholar of choice for American neo-conservatives. His dangerous ‘clash of civilisations’ theory was not only wrong but caused enormous damage in the Middle East.

Tuesday 29 May 2018

Bernard Lewis, the British-American historian and probably the most influential orientalist thinker of his generation, was born as the Ottoman empire was tottering on its last legs. He died, just shy of his 102nd birthday, as the post-Ottoman Middle Eastern order is nearing complete collapse.

Although some of Lewis’s early academic work was groundbreaking, such as his research into medieval Islamic guilds and the insights he gleaned from the Ottoman archives, his work rapidly descended into politicised polemics, which proved extremely destructive to the Middle East.

“For the past several years Lewis has been engaged in preaching scholarship and practising politics,” Edward Said, the author of the groundbreaking study Orientalism, wrote in one of his regular heated exchanges with Lewis, back in 1982. “It is of course quite natural for scholars to have political views and even to impart those views to their students and colleagues in an honest manner. Lewis is guilty of no such balance or discipline.”

Lewis was the orientalist of choice for America’s neo-conservative establishment and “his wisdom is sought daily by policymakers, diplomats, fellow academics, and the news media,” in the words of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, and Lewis is credited, in parallel with Samuel Huntington, with providing the intellectual framework for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One of Lewis’s most damaging theories was that of the “clash of civilisations”. Although the term is most commonly associated with Huntington, Bernard Lewis used it earlier, and somewhat differently. While Huntington focused on perceived conflicts along the fault lines between half a dozen or so civilisations, Bernard Lewis’s theory focused on the alleged centuries-old clash between Islam and the West (formerly known as Christendom).

“It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them,” Lewis wrote in 1990, in what has proved to be one of the most influential essays of recent decades. “This is no less than a clash of civilisations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Considering that two influential public intellectuals alleged that we are in the throes of a clash of civilisations, is there any evidence to back up their theory?

Yes, there is… but only if you are ideologically inclined – like neo-cons, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, and modern-day jihadis – to believe in such a clash, and pick and choose the evidence to support your thesis, while ignoring inconvenient facts and realities.

In fact and in reality, though the term is relatively new, the notion that Christendom and Islam are age-old and irreconcilable foes has an ancient pedigree. Examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of ‘civilisation versus barbarism’ espoused by dominant powers and influential voices on both sides throughout the centuries.

But as I examine in a chapter dedicated to this crucial question in my new bookIslam for the Politically Incorrect, this clash exists mainly in the fevered imagination of the fanatic or the skilled political leader, but does not stand up to sustained political or historical scrutiny.

At this point, I should point out that conflicts are extremely complex issues, which are usually poorly understood even by those involved in them, that cannot be reduced to any single root cause. That said, religious identity and culture, in my analysis, have played a remarkably minor role in the interactions between Islam (the Middle East) and Christendom (the West), both today and historically.

This is underlined, in my view, by what I call the clash within civilisations (not to mention the clashes within individual societies), the conflicts which have plagued both sides and often posed a greater existential threat than the external enemy. This is exemplified by the two world wars and the current wildfire tearing through the Middle East.

It is also exemplified by the oft surreal cross-civilisational alliances that emerge. If civilisations truly clash over values, then the largely decades-old cosy relationship between the regressive Gulf monarchies and Britain then the United States should not exist, yet what I call the oiligarchy shows no sign of losing its potency, even under the stewardship of the Islamophobic Donald Trump.

And these alliances are scarcely new. Protestant England had a long-lasting alliance with the Ottomans against Catholic Spain. Caliph Harun al-Rashid and the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne were involved in a robust, multi-generational coalition against their mutual foes, the Byzantines and Umayyads. Going even further back, the conquest of Iberia by Muslim forces would not have occurred without the encouragement and aid of the very Christian Julian of Septem (Ceuta).

Over and beyond all this, there is what I call the mash of civilisations, through which Islam and Christendom have so influenced one another, and been influenced by the same precursors, including ancient Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian influences, that it is impossible to separate them into two distinct civilisations.

The conflicts we are witnessing today are not so much a clash between civilisations, as a crash of civilisation. By this, I do not mean the collapse of civilisation and the end of technologically advanced human society, but rather the more mundane and periodic crumbling of the dominant political, economic and social orders, as they become unsustainable, imploding and exploding under the weight of their contradictions.

It is far easier to blame monolithic metaphysical forces for our problems than to examine the actual socio-economic and geopolitical faultlines at play, because that would require changes few are willing or courageous enough to make. But continuing to ignore the painful realities in favour of comforting illusions and delusions will lead to serious misdiagnosis of the situation, and the prescribed medication, rather than offering a cure will threaten the very survival of the patient.

This article first appeared in the New Arab on 23 May 2018. 

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Al-Aqsa: Spiritual battleground

 
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By Khaled Diab

For Muslims and Jews to share peacefully and justly the Holy Sanctuary/Temple Mount requires the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 25 September 2015

The growing familiarity of clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters inside the al-Aqsa Mosque has not weakened their impact on my Palestinian neighbours and friends in Jerusalem.

The picturesque, stone-lined alleyways of an already tense Old City are seething with anger and frustration, punctuated by Israeli surveillance helicopters that hang in the air. Even unreligious Palestinians who have never set foot inside churches or mosques are furious. They partly envisage their wider demise encapsulated by the struggle over the Noble Sanctuary, as they call it, or the Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews.

“We call on the international community, including Arab countries and Muslim states, to intervene immediately before Israel succeeds in launching a global holy war,” urged Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran Palestinian politician, activist and academic.

Though this largely secular conflict is far from being a “holy war”, as I have argued before, if Israel continues down its unilateral path on this issue, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The religious symbolism of the tensions around the holy site have sent tremors and shockwaves across the region and internationally. The clashes in the Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to Muslims, and the Temple Mount, as Jews refer to it, provoked a stern warning from neighbouring Jordan, with which Israel has a peace accord. “Anymore provocations in Jerusalem will affect the relationship between Jordan and Israel,” warned King Abdullah. “Jordan will have no choice but to take action, unfortunately.”

The European Union and the United States also expressed their concerns about the escalating situation. “It is crucial that all parties demonstrate calm and restraint and full respect for the status quo of the holy sites,” European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters.

The “status quo” in question is one that has governed the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount since Israel conquered Jerusalem in 1967, whereby the Islamic Waqf and Jordan manage the site and control access to it, with limited non-Muslim visits permitted but worship banned.

But it is apprehension that the Israeli right intends to tear up this status quo that has fuelled the latest clashes – just as they did last year. Back then, Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel and threatened to review its peace treaty with Israel following a Knesset debate, sponsored by the far-right parliamentarian Moshe Feiglin, on whether or not Israel should seize sovereignty of the holy site and allow Jewish worship there.

“Israelis are trying to establish a precedent by dividing [the Holy Sanctuary] into sections and time segments, so they can give Israeli settlers access to our mosque,” said Abdel-Aziz Abasi, who is a member of Mourabitoun, a group of Palestinian activists, which Israel recently banned, who see their role as guarding the compound against Jewish encroachment. “We will never agree to such a plan.”

Although relatively few Israelis actually visit the Temple Mount and have traditionally been content with the status quo, Religious Zionists and Jewish extremists have managed to make headway in recent years by framing the issue as one of religious freedom at Judaism’s holiest site.

Even the lunatic fringe, such as Yehuda Glick, who fantasises about constructing the Third Temple, is pursuing the civil liberties path. Appropriating language from the South African civil rights movement, Glick said at a demonstration during Ramadan: “We’re here to protest against the apartheid on the Temple Mount.”

But what the religious freedom argument airbrushes out is that this issue is about far more than the right to worship, especially in a situation where Israel regularly restricts Palestinian entry to al-Aqsa.

You could also say that the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount is simply a spiritual microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at large.

This jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s old city, with its gold-plated Dome of the Rock dominating the skyline, contains many of the elements perpetuating the conflict, writ spiritual: control of and sovereignty over the land, asymmetric power, national identity, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, movement restrictions, draconian laws, not to mention the status of Jerusalem.

Personally, I’m in favour of Jews, one day, worshipping on their religion’s most sacred, hallowed ground. And my view, though controversial today, is not unprecedented in the history of Islam. Following the surrender of Jerusalem to the Arab armies, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, allowed Jews, who had been expelled by the Byzantines, back into Jerusalem.

Omar ordered the cleaning of the Temple Mount, which had been used as a rubbish tip by the Byzantines, and, some historians posit, permitted Jews to worship there, a practice which continued for a century, into the Umayyad era.

One Jewish convert to Islam, Rabbi Kaab al-Ahbar, even located the foundation stone for the Muslim conquerors. It is even possible that Omar allowed the Jews to construct a synagogue on the mount and appointed a Jew as the first governor of Jerusalem, according to the 7th century Armenian historian Sebeos.

In the presumably enlightened 21st century, it should be possible for Muslims and Jews to share this holy site, which has no shortage of space, and rediscover the many long centuries of relatively peaceful coexistence they enjoyed. Perhaps, one day, in a possible future, Jews and Muslims will be able to share the Noble Sanctuary’s tranquil and soothing esplanade, which takes up about a sixth of the old city’s surface area, and where families picnic and children play football.

However, for that to happen requires the resolution of the underlying conflict. Without peace, it is impossible to think that Palestinians and Israelis will find the necessary good will and trust to compromise over this holiest of locations.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 September 2015.

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Hagia Sophia: A symbolic bridge or wedge?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Hagia Sophia must not become a mosque. If its status must change, it should become a space of tolerance, where both Christian and Muslim worship.

The Hagia Sophia when it was a mosque.

The Hagia Sophia when it was a mosque.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

In breath-taking Istanbul, it is perhaps one of the most stunning spots of all: standing sandwiched between the sublime Hagia Sophia and the magnificent Sultanahmet (Blue) mosque which face each other like the intimidatingly gorgeous finalists at a beauty pageant.

Reputed to have been built by Sultan Ahmet I in part to show that the Ottomans could match, and even surpass, the grandeur of the Byzantine splendour of Hagia Sophia, the two majestic edifices show how these two closely related rival religions can sometimes push each other to loftier levels of excellence.

But this rivalry can also plunge to levels of supreme pettiness. Take the hundreds of protesters who recently took part in a rally to demand that the Hagia Sophia museum be converted into a mosque – the latest step in a sustained campaign which has pitted Turkey’s Islamists against its secularists.

The Mufti of Ankara, Mefail Hızlı, believes that Pope Francis’s decision to recognise the mass killing of Armenians during World War I as “the first genocide of the 20th century” would “accelerate the process for Hagia Sophia to be re-opened for [Muslim] worship”.

Though the Pope’s statement reflects the general consensus of non-Turkish historians, the Mufti’s remarks betray a profound confusion about Christian history and ideology, such as the famous East-West schism. After all, Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is the pope of the Catholic church, while the Hagia Sophia served for nearly a millennium as the spiritual heart of Greek Orthodoxy.

This is yet another telling example of how Eastern Christians have been caught uncomfortably in the middle of the centuries-old rivalry between Western Christianity and Islam. This was most spectacularly illustrated when the Fourth Crusade rampaged through Constantinople (now Istanbul), in what has been described as “one of the most profitable and disgraceful sacks of a city in history”.

And the confusion does not stop with Christianity. Those calling for the one-time Orthodox basilica to be re-converted into a mosque seem to misunderstand Islamic theology too. The Quran clearly demands the protection of churches, synagogues and other places of monotheistic worship.

In a similar spirit, the prophet Muhammad sealed numerous covenants with Christian and Jewish communities, including the monks of Mount Sinai, which protected their freedoms and their holy places.

This concept was eloquently expressed at another magnificent church in another sacred city. The second caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, showed considerable foresight when accepting the surrender of Jerusalem after a bloodless siege. When invited by Patriarch Sophronius to pray with him in the Holy Sepulchre, Umar reportedly refused out of fear that “Muslims of a future age would have infringed the treaty under colour of imitating my example.”

Umar’s attempt to avoid this outcome by praying in an open space nearby did not completely avoid this fate. And true to his expectation, a few centuries later, the Ayyubids built a mosque where Umar had prayed, a short distance away from Christianity’s holiest church.

Despite these clear injunctions and precedents, there is, unfortunately, a long history of important churches being converted into mosques. These include the Umayyad mosque in Damascus – which had previously served as an Aramaean and Roman temple, before it became a Christian cathedral – and the Hagia Sophia itself, which Sultan Mehmet II insisted should become a mosque upon his bloody conquest of Constantinople.

And it is to the five centuries during which the Ayasofya served as a mosque until Ataturk converted it into a museum that Islamist nostalgists wish to return . But in addition to conflicting with the spirit of the faith they claim to follow, this has dangerous symbolic consequences for the future.

If modern Turkey which has a reputation for secular tolerance and a tradition of moderate Islam converts this enormously significant monument into a mosque, what signal is this sending out to jihadists and other radicals?

At a time when Christians in the Middle East need the support and solidarity of their mainstream Muslim compatriots, this would constitute a slap in the face and may further embattle their increasingly precarious and vulnerable position.

At a time when Islamophobia is on the rise in Europe, a highly symbolic move like this can be exploited by anti-Muslims to further stigmatise and marginalise European Muslims, including three million people of Turkish origin in Germany alone.

In these troubled times, it would be best for Turkey to take a leaf out of the annals of Islamic tolerance rather than its chapters of intolerance, and fulfil its longstanding potential as a bridge between “East” and “West”, between “Islam” and “Christendom”.

Personally, I prefer the idea that the Hagia Sophia should remain in its current form, a museum where all of humanity – be they people of faith or not – can come together and admire the beauty of human creativity and dedication.

However, if it must again become a place of worship, then this magnificent space should reflect its long history as both a church and a mosque. If Muslims and Christians both worship in this single space, it would send out a powerful message of coexistence at a time when the forces of intolerance are mounting a major assault on our common humanity.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 7 June 2015.

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A successful caliphate in six simple steps

 
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By Khaled Diab

ISIS really doesn’t get what restoring the caliphate means. Here’s how in six simple steps, from Caliphornian wine to cultural melting pots.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

Tuesday 17 June 2014

To the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS),

I understand you wish to restore the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But are you sure this is really what you want? As a secular, liberal Arab living in the 21st century, I’m not keen on turning back the clock in this way, but I think I’m better prepared for it than you.

Judging by your brutal and bloodthirsty behaviour and the twisted rulebook you’ve released, I have this sneaking suspicion that you have no idea what bringing back the caliphate actually means or involves. Let me give you a clue, it would entail thriving in diversity, penning odes to wine, investing in science, patronizing the arts… not to mention appointing a gay court poet.

For your benefit and other jihadist novices, here is my guide to how to build a successful caliphate – or “bring back glory of the Islamic Caliphate”, to quote you – in half a dozen simple steps:

  1. Caliphornian wine and Caliphornication

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart

Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,

Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,

If I mentioned any other Paradise, I’d be worse than a dog.

Omar al-Khayyam (translated by Karim Emami)

ISIS has banned alcohol, as well as drugs and cigarettes, in the domain under its control. But what these fanatics seem to misunderstand is that alcohol may be prohibited religiously (haram) in Islam, but there was plenty of full-bodied Caliphornian wine around,  as the above verse by Omar al-Khayyam illustrates, which follows in the tradition of khamariyat, or wine poetry.

“Commanders of the faithful” they may have been but Caliphs were known to indulge in the unholy grape. These included the Umayyads and the Abbasids. Even Harun al-Rashid, who is regarded as the most “rightly guided” of the later caliphs, is reputed to have drunk. And even if al-Rashid himself did not partake, his court did, as mythologised in many stories of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, especially his gay court poet Abu Nuwas, who definitely preferred wine to girls.

Don’t cry for Leila and don’t rejoice over Hind

Instead drink to the rose from a rosy red wine.

A glass which, when tipped down the drinker’s throat,

Leaves its redness in both the eye and the cheek.

Camp, outrageous, irreverent and witty, Abu Nuwas was considered the greatest poet of his time and is still up there among the greats, despite the more puritanical age we live in, where his odes to male love would make a modern Muslim blush.

Come right in, boys. I’m

a mine of luxury – dig me.

Well-aged brilliant wines made by

monks in a monastery! shish-kebabs!

Roast chickens! Eat! Drink! Get happy!

and afterwards you can take turns

shampooing my tool.

During to the apparent jealousy of his mentor in Harun al-Rashid’s court, Ziryab, the Sultan of Style, fled to the rival Umayyad court in Cordoba, where, among other things, he taught Europeans how to become fashion slaves.

  1. Strength in diversity

Diversity and multiculturalism were the hallmark of Islam’s most successful caliphates and caliphs. In fact, the lightning speed with which the Arabs were able to conquer a vast empire was partly faciliated by the greater freedom and lower taxes they offered local populations compared to the bickering former imperial masters. This was coupled with an early form of welfare state established by the second caliph, the austere Umar Ibn al-Khattab who lived in a simple mud hut to be close to the poor and believed in social and economic equality.

Under the Umayyads, whether centred in Damascus or Cordoba, and the early Abbasids, Islam’s “golden age” was characterised, rather like today’s America, by a complex synthesis and symbiosis between the cultures which fell under Islamic control as well as neighbouring civilisations. It incorporated Christian, Jewish, ancient Greek, Byzantine, Persian and even Chinese ideas and added to them to create a new, dynamic whole. The Ottomans were also at their most successful when they tolerated and promoted diversity.

This is a far cry from the uniform puritanism ISIS seeks to impose on its self-described caliphate.

  1. Tolerance is a duty

The ISIS advance has resulted in the mass flight of Christians from northern Iraq. And the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul fears they will never return, while the ancient Assyrian community of Bartella wait in terror.

This fear is hardly surprising given the treatment ISIS has meted out on fellow Muslims, such as the mass executions of Shi’a soldiers, not to mention the oppressive rules ISIS has outlined for Muslims in its conquered territory.

This is very different from the ideals of religious tolerance which Islam’s various caliphates often aspired to, with probably the Umayyads and Ottomans in their heydays winning top prize in this category, and qualifying as the most enlightened of their age.

Even the traditional notion that non-Muslims are dhimmis (protected minorities) who are free to practise their faith but are inferior to Muslims contradicts the principles of equality embedded in Islam. This is amply illustrated in the Constitution of Medina drafted by Muhammad himself which stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans all have the same political and cultural rights. So it would seem that Islam, as practised by its prophet, gave Muslims an advantage in the hereafter, not the here and now.

Moreover, the Quranic injunction on “no compulsion in religion” also means that ISIS has no right to force Muslims to pray, whether in the mosque or otherwise.

  1. Ijtihad and the greater jihad

ISIS and other violent jihadists not only conduct “holy war” incorrectly, inhumanely and for the wrong reasons, they also ignore the “greater jihad”, the struggle to build a better self and society.

In addition, their fixation on implementing “sharia” is baffling. This is partly because their interpretation of it is at odds with traditional scholarship. Moreover, sharia has differed significantly over time and place.

More fundamentally, the bulk of what is regarded as Islamic law today was reached through the reasoning of early Islamic scholars. Since we live in radically different times, it is high time to reopen the gates of ijtihad – which were sealed by the Abbasids in a bid to cement their authority – and to rethink and reinvent the Islamic legal system.

In its heyday, the Abbasid Caliphate’s capital Baghdad – which ISIS are perilously close to conquering – was a centre of science, culture, philosophy and invention. This was epitomised by the Bayt al-Hekma, which was a world-leading institute of learning until the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, devastating Abbasid society to a similar degree as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  1. A woman’s place is in… public

ISIS has informed women that their place is in the home and that outdoors they must wear “full, wide Islamic dress”.

Well, they should start with themselves and wear the hijab too, since, if it is an obligation at all, it is one that applies to men too.

Although Islam is a typical patriarchal society, women’s place has never been solely in the home, except in a minority of cultures. It might shock ISIS to learn that the idea of cloistering women out of the public eye may not have been an Islamic idea at all but one borrowed from the Byzantines.

Women played a key role in the spread of Islam by the word, such as Khadija and Aisha, and by the sword, such as Hind bint Utbah and Asma’a bint Abi Bakr – sort of Kill Bill characters of the medieval world – who were instrumental in the defeat of the Byzantine forces in one of the most decisive battles in history.

In addition, women made important contributions to science, philosophy and society throughout Islamic history – a role that has been under-researched but is eliciting more interest today. They even ran empires, albeit discretely.

Most importantly, Islam’s attitudes to women have varied according to local culture. Iraqi and especially Syrian women have been on a long road towards emancipation, and even the faithful among them see no contradiction between their religion and gender equality.

  1. Secularism is the solution

Muhammad never nominated a successor (caliph) nor spelt out a method for identifying one, hence Islam does not prescribe, nor does it need a caliphate. In addition, the caliphate often led to instability due to the absence of clear rules for the transfer of power, and contributed to the absolutists attitudes the region’s leaders traditionally have to power.

In addition, the prophet never established an “Islamic state”. In fact, his rule of Medina was incredibly secular. Moreover, Islam’s greatest successes were achieved by rulers who were largely secular, especially when compared to their times.

In fact, it could be argued that the only truly Islamic state, is a spiritual state, a state of mind.

Contrary to what Islamists tell us, secularism is the solution – but I don’t mind if you call it a “caliphate”.

In fact, if you build a caliphate like this, I can guarantee you, judging by the interest on Twitter, that you’ll be drawing immigrants from all over the Muslim world.

____

This piece was republished on BuzzFeed on 20 June 2014.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount: Ground zero or common ground?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Jerusalem’s holiest site is again provoking tension and controversy. But could it also bridge the chasm between Israelis and Palestinians?

Worshippers during Ramadan congregate by the exquisite beauty of the golden Dome of the Rock. ©Khaled Diab

Worshippers during Ramadan congregate by the exquisite beauty of the golden Dome of the Rock. ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 12 March 2014

The Dome of the Rock dominates the Jerusalem skyline with majestic splendour. To the untrained eye, this architectural gem, which floats resplendently above the old city’s cacophony, seems like a sanctuary of peace and tranquillity, a retreat for meditation and introspection.

But this Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to Muslims, or Temple Mount, as Jews refer to it, has been anything but peaceful and has been the symbolic heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict’s religious fault line for much of the past century.

Even today it remains a major flash point. In fact, the 21st century got off to an inauspicious and bloody start when a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to the site caused simmering tensions to overflow into the costly second intifada.

And these tensions show no sign of abating. Last week, a group of Jewish extremists – led by the messianic rabbi, Yehuda Glick, who is part of the tiny fringe movement which fantasises about building the Third Templestormed the complex.

More troubling than the lunatic fringe is the Knesset debate on Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, sponsored by the far-right parliamentarian Moshe Feiglin.

This has not only led to clashes in the Noble Sanctuary, but has also prompted the Jordanian parliament to vote to expel the Israeli ambassador and recall its own if the Knesset takes further action.

It could also jeopardise Israeli-Jordanian ties. “If Israel wants to violate the peace treaty in this issue, the entire treaty, its articles, details and wording will be put on the table,” Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur cautioned. For his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected the notion of shared sovereignty as part of any eventual peace deal.

Nevertheless, it would do us well to recall that, for all Israel’s many failings, it is possibly, at least for now, the only conqueror of Jerusalem that has not converted the religious identity of the site, despite the best efforts of extremists.

Many in Israel, the Arab world and internationally fear the consequences of this “powder keg”. “Using religion as a pretext to impose sovereignty on historical places of worship threatens to plunge the entire region into great conflict and instability,” Hanan Ashrawi, the PLO’s spokeswoman, warned.

Given this widespread apprehension that this seismic shift in the Noble Sanctuary’s status could become the ground zero, or epicentre, of a region-wide conflict, many today will find it hard to conceive, or even believe, that there is historic evidence to suggest that Muslims and Jews once prayed together on the Temple Mount.

Following the surrender of Jerusalem to the Arab armies, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, Muhammad’s second successor, or caliph, allowed Jews, who had been expelled by the Byzantines, back into Jerusalem.

“There is strong evidence to suggest that the Jews were not only permitted to return to Jerusalem, but that the Muslims allowed them to worship at their side on the Temple Mount,” wrote Francis E Peters, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.

Some other historians agree. “We know that Omar welcomed the Jews back in Jerusalem, that he and the early caliphs allowed Jewish worship on the Temple Mount and that the Jews did not leave again as long as Islam held sway,” Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote in his comprehensive biography of Jerusalem.

Omar ordered the cleaning of the Temple Mount, which had been used as a rubbish tip by the Byzantines, and permitted Jews to worship there. One convert, Rabbi Kaab al-Ahbar, even located the foundation stone for the Muslim conquerors.

It is even possible that the caliph allowed the Jews to construct a synagogue on the mount and appointed a Jew as the first governor of Jerusalem, according to the 7th century Armenian historian Sebeos.

This permissiveness and interfaith interaction was in keeping with Omar’s attitude – as well as Muhammad’s – towards religion for the People of the Book. This was illustrated by the story of his refusal to pray in the Holy Sepulchre so that future Muslims would not use it as an excuse to convert it into a mosque – which they did on the actual spot where he prayed nearby, and in numerous other instances over the centuries.

This tradition of tolerance was continued by the Umayyads, who, despite having introduced the concept of royalty into hitherto egalitarian Islam, were arguably among the most pluralistic Muslim dynasties wherever they set up shop, including in Andalusia.

Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the founder of the dynasty and a born mover and shaker, was revered by local Jews. Despite his relentless expansionism, Muawiya was also famed for his belief in dialogue and compromise. “Even if but one hair is binding me to my fellow man, I don’t let it break,” he asserted.

When the Umayyad Caliph Abdel-Malik ibn Marwan built the Dome of the Rock, Jews were filled with elation. Some even believed that this Islamic shrine was the third temple. For a century, Jews had full access to this holiest of sites, until the reign of another Umar, the dogmatic Umar Ibn Abdel-Aziz.

Is it possible today, in the supposedly more enlightened 21st century, for the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount to become a common ground, rather than a battleground, for Muslims and Jews?

Some religious Jews think so. “Religion is like nuclear energy: you can use it to destroy or to kill. You can also use it for peaceful purposes,” the late Rabbi Froman  told me. “The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount can be a reason to quarrel or a reason to make peace.”

Personally, I am sceptical that this religious edifice can work in isolation as a bridge to peace. This feeds into the illusion, or misconception, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a religious one. While religious extremists do often exercise what I call the “God veto”, for both sides, excluding the fanatical fringes, the conflict is about worldly affairs.

It is in this frame that we must view the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount. It is the entire conflict writ spiritual. This prime piece of sacred real estate contains many of the elements bedevilling the entire quest for a peaceful resolution: control of and sovereignty over the land, national identity, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention the status of Jerusalem.

Until these issues are resolved, it is highly unlikely that Muslims and Jews will find the necessary will to compromise to hammer out a formula for sharing this holiest of locations. Furthermore, it would be a grave, reckless and dangerous error for Israel to think it can unilaterally take action.

But what history can teach us, and what is often overlooked in the heat of conflict, is that Jews and Muslims were, for  many centuries, friends and allies and that they once stood side by side as brothers in faith on Jerusalem’s most hallowed ground.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 March 2014.

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Islamism is the illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islamism is not the solution but is built on an illusion. Islam’s past strength was actually a secular one based on free thought.

Saturday 17 August 2013

SONY DSC“The people want to apply God’s law,” one group of male protesters chanted.

“Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party.

As if that wasn’t enough, all over the Raba’a al-Adawiya encampment, what seems to be a current hit on the Islamist charts was urging everyone within earshot of a loudspeaker to “Tell the world that Egypt is Islamic.”

But that is not exactly the message that has been reaching the international community from the pro-Morsi camp. Although only a single letter separates the two in Arabic, there is a world of difference between the democratic legitimacy (Shari’ya) the Muslim Brotherhood asks of the world and the Shari’a protesters were loudly demanding.

“I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari’a. And what about democracy, I wondered? “If we apply Shari’a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.

I doubt many non-Islamists when they think of Morsi’s “democratic legitimacy” would ever associate that with implementing Shari’a, as countries which have done so sit near the bottom of the league in terms of freedoms and rights.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As I stood there in Raba’a, a scarce secular soul, I pondered a question I have asked myself repeatedly: what exactly is the point of the Islamist project in a Muslim society?

After all, Egypt already implements Shari’a in its personal and family law, with all the gender and other inequalities that involves. In addition, there is absolutely nothing to stop a devout Muslim from practising every facet of his or her faith.

In contrast, Egypt has no civilian family courts for those who wish to run their personal affairs according to modern, secular standards. Moreover, though freedom of expression is a constitutional right, this freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years by the obscure, vague and innovative legal concept of “insulting religion”.

But does centuries-old Islam, the world’s second largest religion, really need self-appointed defenders to shield it from “insult”, when the Qur’an itself welcomes doubt, questioning and even ridicule?

And why do these self-appointed defenders of the faith contradict the example of the prophet they claim to emulate? For instance, Muhammad pardoned one of his scribes, Abdullah Ibn Saad, even after he claimed that the Qur’an was invented and Muhammad was a false prophet.

These examples highlight how Islamism, rather than providing the solution, as it claims, is actually built on an illusion.

Islamist discourse, on the whole, holds that the reason for the Muslim world’s decline is its deviation from Islamic law and values. That explains why Hassan al-Banna, despite his attempts to inject some elements of modernity into traditional Islamic thought, fixated on questions of morality and Shari’a. One of his ideological descendants, Sayyid Qutb, went so far as to invent the dangerous idea that Muslims were living a period of modern “Jahiliyyah” (pre-Islamic ignorance).

But by misdiagnosing the malaise afflicting society, Islamists have prescribed totally the wrong medicine, with severe and debilitating side effects.

Any objective, dispassionate reading of Islamic history reveals that Islam’s former glory was actually built on a largely secular foundation. In addition, the start of its decline coincided with the victory of rigid dogma and orthodoxy – represented by the likes of the “father of Salafism” Ibn Taymiyyah in the 14th century – over reason and intellect.

Muhammad himself never established anything resembling what we would call an “Islamic state” today. His secular-sounding Constitution of Medina actually defines Jews, Christians and pagans – i.e. every member of Medina’s society – as being full and equal members of the Ummah.

During what is widely regarded as Islam’s “golden age”, the political and social mechanisms governing the lives of Muslims were generally secular. Though the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs derived their claim to legitimacy from Islam, they were essentially secular rulers, presiding over secular governments. They were autocratic, not theocratic.

In fact, their honorific title “commanders of the faithful”suggests that caliphs derived their authority from their Muslim (and other) subjects and not from Islam itself. Moreover, most enlightened caliphs were derided by conservatives and traditionalists as immoral and decadent.

Take Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph and stuff of legends. Under his rule, the sciences, culture and the arts flourished, despite clergy’s disapproval of the company he and his libertine son, al-Amin kept, including the outrageous and camp court poet, Abu Nuwas, considered the greatest poet of his time.

Freethinking philosophy also flourished during this era, both under the Abbasids and the Umayyads. The Muʿtazilah, for example, held that rationality, expressed through reasoned debate known as “kalam”, are the “final arbiter” that trumps “sacred precedent”.

In such a climate, it is unsurprising that non-belief was accepted and atheistic scholars, such as Ibn al-Rawandi were published, only to have their works destroyed by later, less tolerant generations.

The reasons for Islam’s subsequent relative decline are manifold: the loss of dominance over global trade, the Mongol invasions, intellectual stagnation, infighting and factionalism, colonialism, and more.

However, deviation from some imagined “pure” moral state is not one of the factors, and belief in this illusory mirage will delay effective reform. In the 21st century, the best system that encompasses the spirit of past Muslim success is enlightened secularism. That might explain why the renowned 19th-century reformer Muhammad Abduh once said that in France he saw “Islam without Muslims”.

 

Note: This article was written before the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi encampments occurred.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 15 August 2013.

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