Transcending False Perceptions: The Desirability Of Coexistence Between Muslims And Jews

12 April 2012

By Alon Ben-Meir

In a recent article, I argued that Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt should accept the fact that they exist and will continue to exist in the same neighborhood indefinitely, both as an acknowledgement of their mutual realities and as a way to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and improve Israeli-Egyptian relations. Nonetheless, deeper than an acceptance of reality and beyond the MB is the need for a rapprochement between Israel and the Islamic Arab world, which must be based not on necessity but on the desirability of coexistence between Muslims and Jews.

The Quran provides the very source that Islamist extremists draw deliberate textual misinterpretations from to justify the notion of an eternal and inevitable struggle between Muslims and Jews. That said, religious reconciliation between the two sides cannot occur unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is settled on the basis of a two-state solution—a solution which necessarily requires the cessation of the occupation, which has provided the rationale and justification for Jihad against Israel.

Israel and the Islamic Arab world must coexist, as coexistence simply is not optional and the alternative will only prolong the strife and bloodshed between the two sides. A telling example is the situation in Jerusalem and Hebron, where Muslims and Jews are religiously stuck in the same place, live side by side, and cannot entertain the idea of excluding the other or harming each other's holy shrines without incurring unacceptable consequences. Some Muslims argue that such coexistence is derived by necessity and not by choice. But note that an important feature of al-Isra wa al-Miraj – that is Prophet Mohamed's prayer with all previous prophets, including Abraham and Moses, at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem – implies the inclusive nature of the divine message.

If hardcore Islamists and extreme, right-wing Israeli activists maintain that Islam orthodoxy is inherently anti-Jewish and need further convincing that this is not the case, they must transcend their false perceptions and look deeper into the Quran to find that coexistence between Jews and Muslims is natural to the teachings of Islam. There are Quranic texts in favor of coexistence; literal interpretations taken out of their specific contexts however, can undermine relations, as they have in the past, between Muslims and Jews. Importantly, the broader picture that the Quran provides explicitly recognizes the Jews as a nation worthy of respect.

For Muslims, the message of the Prophet Muhammad is an extension and continuation of the message brought from God by Moses and other Biblical prophets (Quran 2:285), the belief in whom is an article of faith (Quran 2:136). Not only Jews but Christians as well are referred to repeatedly as People of the Book, and the Quran constantly reminds Muslims that "among" the People of the Book are those who believe and do righteous deeds (Quran 3:113–115). The word "among" is an important modifier which is conveniently overlooked by many readers of the Quran today. The Sunna – the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, together with the Quran's two primary sources of Islamic Shari'a – even declares that Muslims and Jews form one Umma (nation) in the 622 Charter of Medina between the Muslims and the residents of Medina.

The Quran, however, is not a list from which to pick-and-choose. Rather, it presents a coherent teaching that preaches peace as much as it calls upon its adherents to resist all forms of injustice, including the use of force if deemed necessary – much like the Old and New Testaments. Despite the Quranic permission for Muslims to fight in self-defense, Muslims were warned not to go beyond defending themselves to the extent of transgression. The following Quranic verse permits Muslims to defend against those who attack them: "If then anyone transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress likewise against him." (Quran 2: 194). For this reason, under Islamic teachings the Palestinians and other Muslims can justify their violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Hence from this perspective, only an end to the Israeli occupation will make peace both possible and desirable. According to Islamic teachings, if the Muslims learn that their enemy desires peace and is willing to cease all forms of aggression, Islam commands the Muslims to agree to their enemy's request: "But if they [the enemies] incline towards peace, you (also) incline towards peace and trust in God." (Quran 8: 61).

Islamist extremists might find it comforting to invoke Quranic verses to justify acts of terrorism against the Jews. But committing acts of terrorism in the name of Islam – most recently the random killing in France of two Jewish boys, their father and another Jewish child – is actually an insult to Islamic teachings, which consider all life forms as sacred and condemn terrorizing and killing innocent people, even in times of war. Nor for that matter, do the continued Israeli occupation and the subjugation of the Palestinians to daily indignities enhance the image of Jewish teachings. Religious belief, be it Jewish, Christian or Muslim was not meant to provide a cover for any injustices. On the contrary, the three monolithic religions strongly advocate brotherhood, justice and peace.

There are many skeptical Israelis who understandably do not believe that an Islamic world which cannot live in peace within itself (noting the perpetual conflict between Sunnis and Shiites) will accept Israel as a Jewish state. They point out the butchering of Muslims by Muslims in the Sudan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria which strongly suggests, from their perspective, that violence is inherent to Islamic religion and culture. I do not subscribe to this proposition for four reasons: a) the Quran's teachings consistently point to the contrary; b) neither violence nor extremism is exclusively Muslim (note European history from the time of the Inquisition to date); c) time and circumstances have changed as the Arab youth have now been awakened while focusing on their plight under despotic regimes, and no longer buy into the argument that Israel is the culprit behind their socio-economic and political plight; and d) the Muslim world has come to terms with the unequivocal reality of Israel, with the exception of a tiny fraction of Islamist militants opposing Israel compared to the Muslim world's population of 1.4 billion.

Conversely, for Israel to peacefully exist in the midst of the Arab world it too must come to terms with the changing political wind and the Palestinian reality by removing the stigma of occupation. Israel is powerful enough to take the calculated risk of putting to the test the Arab states' protestation that they will seek peace if only a mutually acceptable and just solution is found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, to suggest that the relationship between Islamic-leaning Arab states and Israel is irreconcilable flies in the face of reality. Israel should remember that it was Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative amongst the Islamic countries, that advanced the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 and it is Israel that still, a decade later, refuses to embrace it.

Finally, there are two unmitigated facts, the realization of which, in my view, is inevitable. The first is that the rise of Islamic forces in the Arab states has already taken place in Tunisia and Egypt, will most likely come to Libya and Syria, and will assuredly further expand to other Arab states. The second fact is that Israel will maintain its ability to defend itself and would unleash any weapons at its disposal against those who pose an existential threat to its existence, such as Iran and militant Islamist organizations (who would do so at their own peril).

To disabuse both the Jewish and Arab/Muslim publics of their false perception about each other, Jewish and Muslim religious scholars should engage in an open dialogue. They can now use modern communication tools for all to see and hear how and why the two sides must accept the inevitable and reconcile their differences, including the future of Jerusalem, while using religious teachings to make their case.

Indeed, what is needed here is a change in the public narrative before we can change public perceptions of each other. This will, over time, provide policy makers, be they religious or secular, the political cover they need to pursue reconciliation. The question now is how much more anguish and uncertainty must Israel and the Islamic Arab world further endure to accept this inevitability?


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