The role of Islam in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a contentious subject with two main schools of thought. One, broadly sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view, treats the conflict in geopolitical and social, rather than ideological or religious, terms. The other, emanating mostly (although not exclusively) from pro-Israeli sources, maintains that the Palestinian cause—even when wrapped in secularist discourse—remains inseparable from the Muslim mind-set and Islamic political tradition.
The first view concedes that some Palestinians have embraced Islamic extremism but maintains that the underlying causes motivating them are to be found in their nationalist and social grievances that are understandable and more or less legitimate. If those grievances were to be addressed and rectified, the theory goes, the jihadist zeal in the West Bank and Gaza would also abate. The proponents of this view additionally warn that Israel—having presented herself during the Cold War as a bulwark against the spread of communism through the Middle East—is now projecting herself as the West’s first line of defense against militant Islam, while facilitating its spread by her intransigent policies in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The second view warns that, even if an evenhanded and generous agreement were to be offered to the Arabs, it would prove to be unworkable in the long term because the notion of Israel’s legitimacy is simply unacceptable to traditional Islam. This view holds that nominally secular Arab leaders, such as the late Yasser Arafat, look upon agreements with the Israelis and other non-Muslims in a manner identical to the way their Islamist compatriots view such agreements: as a ruse known under its Arab name of Hudaybiyya. It was developed by Muhammad as a temporary ploy to deceive the infidel until the Muslim side is strong enough to destroy him. In this view, a permanent settlement is impossible because over 95 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are Muslim and therefore subscribe to the view that any compromise legitimizing Israel is not only treasonous but sacrilegious.
Both views are correct, although neither is wholly right. In a place called the “Holy Land,” religion has never been a wholly private affair, separable from political, cultural, and ethnic motives and sensibilities. This is more apparent today than it was a generation ago. A conflict that may have been amenable, a few decades ago, to conventional conflict resolution has morphed into a civilizational and religious dispute beyond politics.
In classical Islam, separation between religion and politics does not exist. Even the term “political Islam” is oxymoronic, because Islam is not a “mere” religion; it is a self-contained worldview and a way of life that claims the primary allegiance of all those who call themselves Muslim. To whatever political entity a Muslim believer may belong, he belongs morally, spiritually, intellectually—in principle, totally—to the World of Belief of which Muhammad is the prophet and Mecca is the capital. This is not, of course, true for every Muslim, but it is true of every true Muslim.
The basis of the social and legal order and obligation in Islam is the Koran, the final revelation of Allah’s will, which is to be obeyed by all creation. His divine sovereignty is irreconcilable with popular sovereignty, the keystone of democracy. Islamic law, sharia, is not an addition to the secular legal code with which it coexists; it is the only true code, the only basis of obligation. To be legitimate, all political power therefore must rest exclusively with those who enjoy Allah’s authority on the basis of his revealed will. Politics is not “part of Islam,” as this would imply that, in origin, it is a distinctly separate sphere of existence that is then eventually amalgamated with Islam.
The Muslim world functioned on that basis for over a millennium. Then came the decline of Islam’s political and economic power vis-à-vis the West. Culminating with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, it prompted the emerging elites in the Arab-speaking world to define the quest for national and cultural identity and political power in terms of nationalism with distinctly secular, Western-inspired overtones. Arabism rather than Islam became the dominant discourse, displacing the traditional vocabulary of political affiliation and action.
After World War II, and especially with the establishment of the state of Israel, pan-Arabism went beyond promoting a sense of shared history, culture, and language and called for the creation of a single Arab state. The conservative, religious masses could also identify with pan-Arab nationalism, however, because it retained much of the Islamic semantic legacy. The term umma, denoting the universal community of the faithful, was modified to refer to the Arab nation (al-umma al-’arabiyya). Before 1967, Arab nationalism had tended to be secular, socialist, and anti-Western. In that spirit, it was anti-Israeli: Israel was seen as a Western colony settled by Europeans and Americans in an Arab land, created both as a strategic outpost of the West and as a means of disposing of the Jews.
Until roughly 1990, those broader Arab trends also applied to the Palestinian political and intellectual mainstream. The opposition to Israel depended for support on pan-Arab sentiment abroad and the promotion of a nondenominational “Palestinian” identity at home. That identity was rooted in the myth of an idealized pre-1947 polity, and it amounted to a belated attempt to build a nation without a state and without much of the claimed land. The Fatah, the PLO, and its more radical rivals, led by such people as Abu Nidal (Black September) and Ahmed Jabril (PFLP-General Command), were invariably secularist and imbued with various shades of Marxism.
For over two decades following Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, violence in the occupied territories was largely devoid of a religious component. The state of Israel appeared, at times, to rely on conservative imams and the traditionalist-minded majority of observant Muslims to keep the common nationalist-secularist foe (Nasserism, Baathism) at bay. Until roughly 1990, both Israel and the United States saw Islamism as a counterweight to the Arab nationalism-cum-socialism supported by Eastern European communism.
The great realignment came with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the absence of the failed secular god, young Arabs turned to Allah in droves. The fall of the Berlin Wall was soon followed by the defeat of militant Islamists in Algeria and Egypt, forcing them to shift their focus from the internal to the external front. Until that time, they regarded the secular regimes, such as that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, as far more pernicious than the external enemy, Israel and the United States included. The dominant line at that time was that Islamic unity must come first, after which the liberation of Palestine would be easy to achieve. Their defeats in the 1990’s led the Islamists to reverse the equation. The shift of their enmity from domestic Arab regimes to the United States and to Israel was a shrewd move necessitated by political reality.
Its early manifestation was the first major confrontation between Jews and Arabs in modern times that was explicitly religious. It took place on October 8, 1990, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. A riot broke out on the Temple Mount as Palestinians rained stones down upon Jews at the Western Wall, claiming that a Jewish extremist group was attempting to lay the cornerstone for the Third Temple at the Al Aqsa mosque (the Dome of the Rock). Israeli police killed 21 Palestinians and wounded a hundred. Riots spread throughout the occupied territories, which was nothing new; the rioters were heard shouting Allahu akbar, which was a novelty.
Within a few years, Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah would become household names. They reversed the old formula of “Islamic unity first, Palestine next” and adopted the view that, far from the unity of the umma being a precondition for the liberation of Palestine, its liberation by the Islamic movement was the key to the unification of all Muslims. Hamas, in particular, has developed a substantial power base and an infrastructure that covers religious, charitable, political, and terrorist activities. To the youth, its activists offer divinely condoned martyrdom. To their parents, they offer some relief from grinding poverty. To all, they provide a stark contrast to the corrupt Palestinian Authority. Leftist secularist groups still enjoy some support among the educated over-40’s, but their influence is diminishing. Their support among the young—half of the population—is negligible.
The founder and leader of Hamas, the late Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, blended the nationalist slogans of the secularists’ pre-1990’s struggle against Israel with principles derived from the doctrines and values of Islam. In line with Islamic teaching, when the infidels usurp a Muslim land, jihad becomes compulsory for a Muslim. According to the Hamas Charter, the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day: “It, or any part of it, should not be squandered; it, or any part of it, should not be given up. There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.”
From the orthodox Muslim point of view, there is nothing remarkable about this position. It is derived from the Koran, from the political tradition and social outlook of 13 centuries harking back to Muhammad. Relinquishing any part of Palestine at the negotiating table is a disobedient act of blasphemy against Allah, and the alternative is the only right way (al-hal-wahid). As a modern Muslim commentator points out, “Such an outlook renders struggle a religious duty, not a nationalist or patriotic one.” The struggle against Israel is more than a “war of national liberation”: It is an act of worship for which God rewards a struggler in the form of victory in this life and eternity in the hereafter. Hamas and other Islamic groups have brought a qualitative change to the Middle Eastern discourse: From their point of view, no permanent peace is possible because it would be against Allah’s will to grant any piece of land once controlled by the faithful to non-Muslims.
A mirror image of this view is the claim—embraced by many American evangelicals, as my colleague Aaron Wolf explains—that the modern state of Israel is the embodiment of a biblical covenant: in other words, a Waqf under another name. Secular Israelis, including the country’s founders, have utilized such claims when they have suited their purposes.
The effect of the alliance of religion and nationalism on the Arab-Israeli dispute is detrimental to the quest for lasting solutions. On the Palestinian side, it creates an unstable duality of approach, with compromise allowed as a short-term expedient but total victory seen as the only divinely ordained and, therefore, legitimate long-term outcome. Politicians may talk of diplomacy, but the society is deeply influenced by those who invoke Islam to deny the possibility of peace.
The conflict in the Middle East is neither incomprehensible outside its own terms of reference nor unique, but it appears so because religiously informed “narratives” are invoked to support the parties’ claims more strongly and more explicitly than anywhere else in the world. The Arab-Israeli conflict disproves the Western elite class’s dictum that religion is a declining influence in human affairs and a distraction from the business of politics.
U.S. foreign policy has neglected the impact of religion on the policies and behavior of both parties to the Arab-Israeli dispute. It should treat metaphysical rationalizations of territorial or political claims by all parties with polite respect, but American policymakers must not co-opt or internalize any of those claims as a relevant factor in America’s own security calculation. In particular, Washington must not treat such claims as acceptable alibis for nonnegotiable positions.
We need to be aware of the historical record of political Islam and to harbor no illusions about its ultimate ambitions today. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was on to something real when he declared, in December 1992, that his country’s “struggle against murderous Islamic terror is also meant to awaken the world, which is lying in slumber.” We should be no less aware that, in Israel’s case, a common problem of global jihad is used as a cover for policies that facilitate its growth.
The American interest demands the destruction of global jihad in all its forms and the continued existence of the state of Israel, but both of these are based on geopolitical rather than emotional, moral, or scriptural grounds. Among reasonable people of good will, the concept of “land for peace” is still fundamentally valid. It needs to be rethought in Washington more fairly and evenhandedly than before.