Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ramadan realities

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, ends next Monday at sunset with the festival of Id al-Fitr. Muslims worldwide have been marking the “handing down” of the Koran through obligatory daytime fasting.

These last days of the month are filled with heightened religious significance making it – for Islamists – a fine time for “martyring.”

Last Friday, as Jews were preparing to usher in Shmini Atzeret, some 200,000 Muslim worshippers were attending prayers in the Aksa Mosque compound – which just happens to also be the Temple Mount. Roughly half of the worshippers were West Bank Palestinians – women and men older than 45. Age limits are imposed because of security concerns.

Thousands of other West Bank Arabs were prevented from reaching Jerusalem because the authorities feared they would use the opportunity to do more than pray.

Sure enough, clashes were reported between security forces and stone-throwing Palestinians demanding entrance to Jerusalem, at the Kalandiya checkpoint north of the city, and near Bethlehem in the south. Some Palestinians even tried to scale the security barrier now protecting part of the capital’s perimeter.


MUSLIM RELIGIOUS ardor has gradually supplanted both Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism as the mobilizing force in Palestinian society. This makes any hope of an Arab-Israeli modus vivendi ever more remote.

The Palestinian cause is a central pillar of the Muslim complaint against the West. Why? The Islamist war against Western civilization is a war against modernity – representative government, pluralism, tolerance, gender equality, sexual liberation and rationalism. And for Islamists, Israel – stuck in their midst – is modernity incarnate.

More than anything else, the return of the Jewish people to this land and the establishment of our nation-state in 1948 galvanized Arab intellectuals in their battle with the West, already in progress.

This season’s must-read book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright, includes the reaction of Sayyid Qutb, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a guiding spirit of today’s Islamists, to president Harry S Truman’s support for bringing Holocaust refugees to Palestine: “I hate those Westerners [for wanting to bring European Jews to the Arab Middle East] and despise them! All of them, without any exception: the English, the French, the Dutch and finally the Americans, who have been trusted by many.”

SO WHAT do we do in the face of such relentless religious hatred, which has not abated?
What I like to call the irrational Right would have Israel take an adversarial position: Don’t “appease.” Confront.

That’s the idea encapsulated in National Union-National Religious Party MK Uri Ariel’s call for building a synagogue on the Temple Mount.

A new group with the apparent backing of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz claims to have reestablished the Sanhedrin, originally an august assembly of venerable, God-inspired sages. Their seeming mission is to hasten the rebuilding of the Third Temple.

Call me chicken, but I don’t think six million Jews should go out of their way to further antagonize 300 million Arabs – not to mention the one billion Muslims who stand behind them in order to hasten the rebuilding of the Temple. I’d like to leave that job to God.

THE IRRATIONAL Left is equally misguided in advocating a return – “with adjustments” – to the 1949 armistice lines (which they like to call “the 1967 borders”). They’d rely on Arab and international goodwill to favorably interpret the picayune matter of the “right of return,” which, they say, we should accept “in principle.”

So if, in the face of resurgent Islam and an intransigent Palestinian Arab foe, we ought neither to rebuild the Temple nor withdraw to borders that are less than 15 km. wide in some places – what should we do?

I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s lament about coming to a crossroads where “one path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

We’ve tried negotiating with Mahmoud Abbas when he was in power – to no avail.

We’ve tried unilateralism and disengagement and that seems to have backfired.

We’ve tried improving the economic situation of the Palestinian Arabs on the theory that people with a stake in their future tend not to blow themselves up. Or send others to do it.

But the problem is that Palestinian leaders do not really want their people to stop suffering. The last thing they want is to turn Gaza into Hong Kong or the West Bank into Singapore. And anyway, for the Ismail Haniyehs of Palestine, deprivation isn’t the crux of the problem – it’s a symptom that will go away when modernity is vanquished.

Sayyid Qutb, mentioned earlier – an educator who traveled widely across the United States in the 1950s when few Egyptians had the opportunity to leave their home villages – rejected modernity and all its trappings (well, OK, he held on to his classical music record collection).

Al-Qaida mastermind Ayman Zawahiri grew up in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood and went on to become a physician, continuing a family tradition.

Palestinian firebrand Edward Said attended an exclusive boys’ prep school in Cairo. Gaza-based Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was also a physician.


BOTTOM LINE? About the best we can do is not make things worse via reckless security concessions or needlessly exacerbating our already-fraught relations with the Arabs through acts of hubris.

One thing we can do is bolster that rare commodity, the Arab moderate. It’s in that context that I support Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to allow King Abdullah II of Jordan the privilege of constructing a fifth minaret on the Temple Mount.

And we can hope – and, for those inclined, pray – that the international community will at long last come to the realization that the Palestinian polity is not yet ready for statehood. That what’s needed is a concerted Western effort to politically socialize the next generation in Gaza and the West Bank to the mores and responsibilities that are a prerequisite to statehood. If this sounds condescending, then maybe you don’t appreciate the reality of Palestinian society.

And we can pray – for that far-off day when Islam taps into its rich civilizational traditions in order to move from today’s drift toward the fanatical Salafist stream toward a reformation that would allow it to thrive in a religiously and politically heterogenous world.

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