Peace with Realism

Home   Contents Site Map Links Search

The Influence of Religion on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

by Carlos

July 24, 2007 - "Jihad in the way of Allah, for the cause of Allah, can be pursued either with your financial resources or your bodily strength when you go to fight the enemy in the battlefield. So jihad, the highest form, is fighting in the cause of Allah."

These words did not emanate from a Middle Eastern mosque. They aired on a "multi-faith" Canadian TV channel last week. The speaker was Israr Ahmad, who operates a bookstore and religious seminary in Lahore, Pakistan. Ahmad is also the leader of Tanzeem-e Islami, a group that wants to transform Pakistan into a fundamentalist Islamic state and to make it a base for Islam's eventual global domination.

After a listener complained about the broadcast, reporting that it stated Muslims have the obligation to wage jihad until Islam dominates the world, station head Mark Prasuhn offered this lame defense: "Definitely, the viewer is correct. [Mr. Ahmad] does make the point about, you either contribute financially or through your body, and he uses the word fight. But none of this, as far as I could see, is in any way correlated or referenced to the present day. It is strictly a historical context and reading of the Koran by a Koranic scholar."

Prasuhn's defense of his station's broadcast is wrong for two reasons.

First, it is the disingenuous defense that Muslim apologists often level against critics of Islam: that they take things out of context, while Islam's pronouncements about Jews, Christians, and jihad are tied to specific historical situations. The problem with this defense is that even today, in the world's most prominent and respected mosques, these same teachings are wrenched from their context and applied to the present. Today's Jews are called "apes and pigs," today's Christians are "idol worshippers," and today is the day of jihad. This is only natural, since Islam considers the Qur'an God's eternal word not limited by time or place.

Second, a familiarity with Mr. Ahmad's own writings makes his intentions clear. He predicts the "global domination of Islam," calls Jews "parasites," claims the Holocaust is their "divine punishment," and looks toward the "total extermination" of the Jewish people. He writes in his book Lessons from History that Pakistan will spearhead Islam's revival because only Pakistan "has the potential for standing up against the nefarious designs of the global power-brokers and to resist the rising tides of the Jewish/Zionist hegemony." He predicts that Islamic rule will emerge in four stages: the Ultimate World War in the Middle East, the appearance of the Anti-Christ, the extermination of the Jews, and the "domination of Islam over the entire globe."

So it is safe to conclude that in his broadcast Ahmad was not referring to ancient history.

Such expressions of religious hatred are becoming increasingly common, even in the West. Those who preach it do not predict the domination of "Islamism," an unfortunate euphemism whose purpose is to deny an ugly truth. They are speaking of Islam. We may call it radical Islam, in the hope that other forms of Islam exist and will begin to assert more influence. But there can be no doubt that it is Islam.

My preferred term for "Islamism" is "radical Islam." My preferred term for "Islamist" is "Islamic extremist." These terms respect the Muslim authorities who so interpret their religion. They, not non-Muslims, have the right to tell us what Islam is. As Melanie Phillips stated,

Islamic terrorism... is known as such because it is carried out in the name of Islam, in accordance with a now dominant interpretation of the religion which is endorsed by the principal Islamic religious authorities, and with the express purpose of destroying western civilisation and replacing it by an Islamic empire.

When this type of religion is promoted and exported by Saudi Arabia, the center of Sunni Islam, and by Iran, the center of Shiite Islam, and has thousands if not millions of adherents who call themselves Muslims, we are fooling ourselves if we deny that it is Islam. At the same time, we must allow for the possibility that even if radical Islam is increasing its reach, it is not Islam's only voice. Thus the modifier is important. Islamic extremists are hoping for a global war between infidels and the Muslim world. No one should want this. The enemy is not the Muslim world but rather an ideology of hate that has grown up within Islam and that only Islam can extinguish. We need to face the truth about radical Islam, but at the same time recognize and encourage other Muslim voices to speak.

Christians Are Victims Too

One month after the 9/11 attacks, Andrew Sullivan wrote an article for the New York Times entitled "This Is a Religious War." If anything, the evidence that we are indeed involved in a religious war is far more compelling now than it was then. Still there seems a widespread wish to deny it.

While Jews have become a central target of this religious war, it is not simply a war against the Jews. The Islamic revival has brought with it a sharp rise in anti-Christian sentiment.

Rayid Albert uttered what he thought would be his final prayer to Jesus as masked Sunni gunmen lined him and eight co-workers up against a wall in Baghdad. Shot seven times, he alone survived. But recently he found a note at his front door warning: "You have three choices: change your religion, leave, or pay the jizya (the tax on nonbelievers prescribed by the Qur'an)." He chose to leave.

The World Council of Churches has reported a decrease in the region's Christian population over the past decade, from 12 million down to 2 million.

A majority of Iraq's Christians have fled since the fighting began. Father Raymond Moussalli, a Chaldean vicar who now lives in Jordan, says: "The [secular] government of Saddam used to protect us. Mr. Bush doesn't protect us. The Shia don't protect us. No Christian was persecuted under Saddam for being Christian."

An Islamic Issue

Hassan Butt, a former terrorist recruiter who reformed after the horror of the London bombings, recognizes very well the role that religion plays in terrorism, as well as this religious vision's global scope. He writes:

When I was still a member of what is probably best termed the British Jihadi Network, a series of semi-autonomous British Muslim terrorist groups linked by a single ideology, I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy.

By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology. (Emphasis added.)

According to Hassan Butt, the real motivation for terrorism is a utopian religious vision:

What drove me and many of my peers to plot acts of extreme terror within Britain, our own homeland and abroad, was a sense that we were fighting for the creation of a revolutionary state that would eventually bring Islamic justice to the world.

He goes on: Islamic theology does not recognize any separation between religious and political authority. It also extends this principle to the entire world. Radical Islam applies this principle in an extreme and uncompromising way:

Since Islam must declare war on unbelief, they [Islamic extremists] have declared war upon the whole world. Many of my former peers, myself included, were taught by Pakistani and British radical preachers that this reclassification of the globe as a Land of War (Dar ul-Harb) allows any Muslim to destroy the sanctity of the five rights that every human is granted under Islam: life, wealth, land, mind and belief. In Dar ul-Harb, anything goes, including the treachery and cowardice of attacking civilians.

And now to the key point: It is precisely because of the wish to deny the theological underpinnings of terrorism that terrorist preaching has met with so little opposition:

The main reason why radicals have managed to increase their following is because most Islamic institutions in Britain just don't want to talk about theology. They refuse to broach the difficult and often complex topic of violence within Islam and instead repeat the mantra that Islam is peace, focus on Islam as personal, and hope that all of this debate will go away. (Emphasis added.)

We cannot avoid the religious aspect of the terrorism that we face today. We try to avoid it because of political correctness, or the wish to believe that all religions are really the same, or fear of offending huge numbers of people and making the situation even worse. But what makes the situation worse is denying the problem's true nature. It means we are escaping a debate that we badly need to have, both outside and inside Islam. Hassan Butt talks about radicals and extremists within Islam. He does not talk about "Islamism," as though real Islam had nothing to do with it, as if we were merely dealing with some aberrant political ideology or "hijacked" form of Islam. The truth is we are talking about real Islam in its most radical form. According to Hassan Butt, the views of radical scholars "have validity within the broad canon of Islam."

Therefore it is time to meet the theological challenge:

It isn't enough for Muslims to say that because they feel at home in Britain they can simply ignore those passages of the Koran which instruct on killing unbelievers. By refusing to challenge centuries-old theological arguments, the tensions between Islamic theology and the modern world grow larger every day....

I believe that the issue of terrorism can be easily demystified if Muslims and non-Muslims start openly to discuss the ideas that fuel terrorism. The Muslim community in Britain must slap itself awake from this state of denial and realise there is no shame in admitting the extremism within our families, communities, and worldwide co-religionists.

By recognizing that the problem is within Islam, and not between Islam and some alien ideology, a dialogue becomes possible, in which the non-radical voices of Islam can and must assert themselves.

An Intractable Vision

Recognizing Islam's influence is key to understanding the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Recently Dennis Ross pointed out that President Bush and others are not framing this issue correctly. The real issue is not extremist vs. moderate, but radical Islam vs. secularism. Fatah is a secular organization. Its opponent, Hamas, believes in a universal Islamic empire, which does not negotiate with other sovereignties. There is no room for compromise or a settlement of differences. The religious vision is absolute.

Many have a strong wish to deny this, and to believe that Hamas will moderate itself. They think that Hamas's arranging the release of a captive British journalist who is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause is proof that Hamas can be reasonable. Hamas had nothing to gain from that journalist's remaining a hostage - it resulted in the Palestinians losing a friendly voice in the media and attracting international criticism. There was no point in letting that continue. So it was in the interests of Hamas to force his release, to score propaganda points and show that it is in charge. Hamas only does what it believes will further its religious mission. Its beliefs are sacred and not subject to change.

Elsewhere Ross states:

The key question now is whether the Palestinians will have a secular future or an Islamist future. Our stake in a national, secular future for the Palestinians is very clear. Without that, there will be no prospect of peace, and Islamists will control the most evocative issue in the region. We should quietly be making that point with the Saudis. Pushing now for a national unity government will only strengthen Hamas, and Hamas's long-term success will mean that Iran will be able to use the Palestinian grievance and ongoing conflict as an instrument to keep the Saudis and others on the defensive.

There cannot be peace as long as the religious vision of radical Islam remains dominant. The situation will not only worsen, it will approach a cataclysm.

You've Got to Be Taught

The influence of this religious vision is growing, and the indoctrination of Palestinian children is increasing. Endearing television characters like Farfur Mouse and Nahoul Bee teach children the importance of becoming holy warriors. The most recent report on Palestinian schoolbooks reveals an alarming trend. The hatred those schoolbooks teach has not diminished; if anything, it is worse. But most disturbing is the increased use of religion to justify it. A predominantly nationalistic movement has, more and more, assumed the character of a violent struggle for the sake of God and faith.

A 12th-grade textbook on religious instruction calls the fight against Israel "ribat for Allah." The word ribat comes from a verb meaning "to stand firm" and originally meant "fortress," then more specifically a place where jihad warriors converge to repel the enemy. The word found its way into Spanish as rebato, "surprise attack." In the present context, it means fighting jihad with faith and perseverance. According to this textbook,

Ribat for Allah is one of the actions related to Jihad for Allah, and it means: Being found in areas where there is a struggle between Muslims and their enemies... His staying on this land strengthens the Muslims facing their enemies… The reward of the Murabit [people in Ribat] is ongoing, as Allah, praise him, increases the [reward] for his action until the Resurrection Day.

This textbook also mentions a hadith implying that the war against Israel is part of a global jihad:

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: It will turn out that you will be recruited into fighting units: one in Al-Sham [today Israel-Syria] one in Yemen and one in Iraq. I said: Which is best for me, Messenger of Allah? He replied: Go to Al-Sham, for it is Allah's chosen land.(From Abu Dawud, Book of Jihad...)

This is the tone of the entire book. It even respects the "rights" of women and people with disabilities in the sense that both are permitted to participate in jihad!

The promotion of war as a sacred duty is not confined to the books on Islamic instruction. Indoctrination in jihad may be found anywhere in the curriculum, even in grammar exercises, such as the following from a text on Arabic grammar:

"Believers who sit at home, other than those who are disabled, are not equal with those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives." (Qur'an 4:95)

[Muhammad] God bless him and grant him salvation, said: "First and foremost, Islam [lit. resignation to the will of Allah] its pillar, prayer and its peak is Jihad."

As to geography, of all the maps of the Middle East in all of the textbooks, not one of them has a place for Israel. It is all Palestine.

Marcus and Crook, the authors of the report, conclude:

Instead of seizing the opportunity to educate future generations to live with Israel in peace, the PA schoolbooks glorify terror and teach their children to hate Israel, vilify Israel's existence and define the battle with Israel as an uncompromising religious war. Instead of working to minimize the current hate, the new PA curriculum is ingraining it into the next generation’s consciousness, and packaging the war against Israel as existential, mandatory and religious. The new PA schoolbooks are guaranteeing that the next generation will grow up seeing Israel as an illegitimate enemy to be hated, fought, and destroyed, rather than as a neighbor to negotiate with and to ultimately live beside in peace.

Finally, this story has an ironic twist. Israel's Education Ministry approved a textbook for use in Arab schools inside Israel that calls Israel's founding a naqba or "catastrophe" for the Palestinians. The third-grade text on homeland, society, and citizenship states that "some of the Palestinians fled and some were expelled following the War of Independence" and that "many Arab-owned lands were confiscated." Yuli Tamir, the Minister of Education and member of the Labor Party, defended the book, saying that "the Arab public deserves to be allowed to express its feelings."

Some have questioned the wisdom of teaching Israeli Arab children that Israel is a catastrophe. But the difference in approach between the two societies could hardly be clearer. Dalia Fenig, an Education Ministry official, explained: "Pedagogically, it is not right to hide facts and ignore Arab sensitivities if we want to live together and build something in common." Misguided or not, the Israeli Education Ministry is trying to prepare society's future leaders to live together. The Palestinian system, on the other hand, is preparing its children for holy war.

Other Religious Influences

Radical Islam is not the only religious influence affecting the region. Much has been made of Bush's Christian faith and its possible effect on his policies. But the religion Bush may actually be trying to spread is democracy. David Brooks speaks of this in a recent column:

His [Bush's] self-confidence survives because it flows from two sources. The first is his unconquerable faith in the rightness of his Big Idea. Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: ''It's more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn't exist.''

Bush now justifies the war in Iraq by saying its intent was to bring democracy to the Iraqi people. This is wrong. It is no more acceptable for us to impose our way of life on the Muslim world than for them to impose theirs on us. If this was indeed Bush's purpose, his own brand of faith has brought us to one of this country's greatest catastrophes. Iraq has shown, as has Palestinian society, that democracy is not always an unmitigated blessing. The war in Iraq has brought suffering to the Iraqi people, strengthened al-Qaeda, and empowered Iran. And it has increased the vulnerability of the United States.

One cannot leave this discussion without mentioning the religious visions that motivate many Jews, specifically the dream of reestablishing Israel's biblical borders. This idea had its most destructive effect during the administrations of Israeli Prime Ministers Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, when just possibly opportunities existed for a transfer of Gaza back to Egypt and the West Bank back to Jordan under conditions far less dangerous than they are today. Things have changed in Israel since then. Most Israelis now realize how unrealistic the biblically inspired vision was, and would gladly trade land for peace if only they could be assured of peace. Israel has already taken some painful steps in that direction. Whether or not one believes that Israel deserves credit for withdrawing from Gaza, the fact remains that it was a soul-wrenching experience for the entire country.

The above notwithstanding, by far the most powerful and deadly religious influence in the region today is radical Islam. While the biblical Jewish vision has receded, radical Islam continues to gather strength and increase its reach. Through radical Islam Palestinians have become tied to a larger movement, global in scope, that opposes not only Israel but Western civilization. One 12th-grade Palestinian textbook describes the relationship between the Muslim world and the West as a "Clash of Civilizations." Palestinian children are being taught that the sacred struggle is not with Israel only, but with the world of the nonbeliever.

Finally: Why Talk About Religion?

Including the religious variable in the political equation is crucial, because without it one cannot really understand what is going on. Fruitless boycotts against Israel do nothing to increase chances for peace. They only push Israel closer against a wall that will not budge. Hamas cannot negotiate. Its mission is sacred. To make any concessions at all to Israel - even recognizing Israel's right to exist - is a betrayal of that mission and an offense against God. Whatever Hamas may say to people in English, this is the core of its soul, and it cannot yield. We cannot force this type of religious conviction to yield. We can, however, throw light on it. Darkness does not yield easily to force, but it cannot stand the light.

Without a recognition of the role religion plays in the conflict, we will also misunderstand terrorism, especially suicide bombing. Suicide bombing baffles us. We try to use modern Western values to understand it, and reach the erroneous conclusion that a suicide bomber must be poor and desperate. The 9/11 attackers were not poor and desperate, nor were many other perpetrators of terrorist acts around the world. To understand suicide bombing we must turn not to sociology but to religion.

The secularized West tends to underestimate the power religion has to make one's own death meaningful, and therefore acceptable and in some cases even desirable. Seen in the light of religion, the glorification of martyrdom is neither new nor remarkable. Christian tradition also prized martyrdom. The early Christian martyrs aspired to die a death like Jesus. The Crusaders coveted death on the battlefield and believed that dying for their faith would send them straight to heaven. We've even seen suicide bombing before, in the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of the last world war. The word kamikaze means "divine wind." A Kamikaze mission would typically begin with a religious ceremony rooted in the Shinto religion. Of course not all Kamikaze pilots were religious zealots. Some probably were coerced, or influenced by peer pressure - much as Palestinian suicide terrorists are today.

Finally, we need to respect the role of religion in this conflict in order to transcend the limits of destructive religion. We need to make sure our own house is clean before we point fingers at others. If our own religion teaches intolerance, we must root it out. And there has been much intolerance in Western religion. Every Christian church that teaches that only Christians are saved undermines this country's strength to fight religious intolerance, and should see its mirror image in the radical Islam that condemns non-Muslims to hell. The forces that divide people cannot be healed if we ourselves contribute to those forces. True universalist religion has never been more needed than it is today. Otherwise we will fight the next world war under three banners, a God for Jews, a God for Christians, and a God for Muslims all clashing with each other. The spiritual challenge to embrace and promote tolerance faces every religion today, and every religion has an obligation to meet it - because if we don't, the consequences are unthinkable.

Religion, which has caused so much strife, must become a path to its healing. Genuine religion, religion at its best, creates unity, not division. That is the test of true religion. At its best, Judaism teaches hospitality and love of the stranger. At its best, Christianity teaches universal love with no distinctions of culture or class. Islam too will have to find its best expressions, and those will have to prevail, or not only the Middle East but the whole civilized world will be left in a state of danger.


1. Bell, Stewart. "VisionTV Defends Airing 'Jihad' Lecture: Muslims Urged to Take Up Fight Against 'the Enemy'." National Post, July 20, 2007.

2. Bell, Stewart. "VisionTV to Strike Standards Task Force." National Post, July 24, 2007.

3. Brooks, David. "Heroes and History." New York Times, July 17, 2007.

4. Butt, Hassan. "My Plea to Fellow Muslims: You Must Renounce Terror.", July 1, 2007.

5. Kershner, Isabel. "Fatah Militants Lay Down Arms to Bolster Abbas." New York Times, July 22, 2007.

6. Kershner, Isabel. "Israeli Text for Arabs Refers to 1948 'Catastrophe'." New York Times, July 22, 2007.

7. Marcus, Itamar and Barbara Crook. "From Nationalist Battle to Religious Conflict: New 12th Grade Palestinian Schoolbooks Present a World Without Israel." Palestinian Media Watch, February 2007.

8. Nordland, Rod. "Last Rites in the Holy Land? The World's Most Ancient Christian Communities Are Fleeing Their Birthplace." Newsweek, July 3, 2007.

9. Phillips, Melanie. "The War Against the West.", February 3, 2007.

10. Ross, Dennis. "Can Fatah Compete with Hamas?." New Republic Online, July 16, 2007.

11. Ross, Dennis. Interview. Charlie Rose Television Program, July 16, 2007.

External Zionism Links

ZioNation: Progressive Zionism & Israel
Israel News
MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log
IMO Blog - Israel & Midden-Oosten (NL)
Israel Like this, as if
Brave Zionism
Middle East Analysis
Israel Palestijnen Nieuwsblog
Zionism-Israel Info Center
Zionism-Israel Pages
MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log
MidEastWeb Middle East News and Views
PeaceWatch Middle East Commentary

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism