Sunday, December 13, 2009

Politics of the ummah

My friend got a free copy of the Qur’an the other day.

He lives in Minneapolis and attends the University of Minnesota. He went to the campus bookstore, and met two bearded students sitting behind a table stacked with books. One of the students asked him, “Have you heard about the Qur’an?” My friend replied, “Kind of, my friend [meaning me] went to the Middle East and bought a copy there.”

One of the students replied, “It is also known as Palestine, well formerly known as Palestine.”

“Would you like a copy of the Qur’an?” the other asked. Yes, my friend said, he would.

Here are my observations about that exchange. Please feel free to correct me on any count:

1) The Middle East is a pretty big region. There’s no official definition of “Middle East,” but I would probably define it as the area in between Morocco in the west, Iran in the east, Turkey in the north, and Yemen in the south. In other words, all of North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, Persia and Anatolia. Yet when my friend told a Muslim in Minneapolis that I had gone to the “Middle East,” the Muslim man automatically assumed he meant Israel/Palestine. I’m guessing this means that Americans use the “Middle East” as shorthand for Israel/Palestine way too often (e.g., “The Middle East conflict”). This is probably because, depending on where you stand on the issue, you think that the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is a) all Israel b) all occupied Palestine, c) Israel and the occupied “Palestinian territories,” d) Israel and the disputed Palestinian territories, or any other number of ridiculous formulations. So “Middle East” is just simpler to say.

2) Because every description of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is inherently political, this Muslim man was not simply correcting my friend’s geography. He was trying to educate my friend on a political perspective: “It’s also called Palestine.” And if “the Middle East” is “Palestine,” then the existence of the State of Israel there is illegitimate.

3) While in the act of evangelizing for his faith, this Muslim man quickly and effortlessly made the jump to evangelizing for a political cause – the Palestinian cause.

At first I was tempted to say that there’s no analogy to that in Christianity – but of course there is. In the minds of many American evangelical Christians, there is little to no distinction between spreading the gospel and advocating for political causes, like restrictions on abortion and gay marriage, or even America’s continued status as a “Christian nation.” And of course, in American Judaism, sympathy for the state of Israel often comes as a natural part of religion. On my one and only visit to an American synagogue, the message was delivered by a representative of Israel’s natural resources ministry. She gave me a green button that read, “Naturally for Israel.” (Get it?)

So I guess what stands out for me is the identification of Islam with Palestinian nationalism that my friend experienced. In Judaism, where ethnic heritage and religion are so closely related, Israeli nationalism makes a certain kind of sense. But Islam is a religion for all people. So why is it that the vast majority of Muslims around the world seem to uniformly come down on the side of the Palestinian cause? I have a few guesses, but as a supporter of Israel who wants to see a better relationship between my country and the Islamic ummah (worldwide community), none of them make me feel better about it.

If you’re wondering if there’s an exception to the standard Islamic line on Palestine, the answer is – yes. I give you Stephen Schwartz, an American Sufi Muslim and leading neoconservative. “Israel, to me, is the historic, sacred land of the Jews,” he writes. “Neither more nor less. It was given to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by the Almighty as their eternal home.” He even backs it up with verses from the Qur’an.

And here’s an endlessly fascinating (to me) video of Jews and Muslims clashing over the subject of Israel at an interfaith dialogue:

(If the dialogue in that video seems harsh, remember – at least they’re talking to each other.)

As soon as you’re done chewing on that one, I have another question: In the past six years, around 300,000 Muslim civilians have been murdered and 2.7 million displaced in the Darfur region of Sudan. Since the early 90s, over 50,000 Muslim civilians have been killed in Chechnya by the Russian army, 25,000 since 1999.

In all the wars fought between Israel and its neighbors in the last 61 years, around 150,000 people – Israeli civilians, Israeli soldiers, Arab civilians and Arab soldiers – have been killed. Since 2000, Israel has killed around 7,000 Palestinians and Lebanese – civilians and terrorists – in its various wars.

The rage directed at Israel by the Muslim world, compared to the rage it directs at the governments of Sudan or Russia, seems a little disproportionate, no?

فلسطين حرة

Free Palestine.

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