Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Arab/Israeli Conflict

This a piece I wrote about a visit to Jerusalem in February 2007, it was published by the Shalom Hartman Institutes Newsletter.

'No Matter How Much The Three Faiths Try God Cannot Be Quartered'

As the plane touched down at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport the feeling of nervousness and panic was difficult to evade. The first time I arrived here I was questioned for six hours at the airports immigration department. As I walked through the impressive airport halls I rummaged through my bag to find my passport. ‘Her Brittanic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance.’ I wandered if the airport officials would grant this request from Her Majesty. I walked up to the immigration counter to the smile of the official who asked me a few questions relating to the purpose of my visit. I was there for the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Annual Theology Conference at which Muslims, Christians and Jews come together to read each others religious scriptures, especially the problematic passages for religious pluralism to be promoted in Israel and around the world. I handed her my letter of invitation. She asked me to follow her for further questioning. I let out a slight sigh as this was becoming all too familiar. I was asked to sit and wait in an enclosed area for further questioning. There was one other man there, “always questions, questions, questions”, he retorted unannounced. Afraid to pursue the conversation I attempted to bury my head into my bag as if to look for an answer to his questions.

It was now 2 am and I was getting tired. In a space of three hours I was interviewed by three different officers. Eventually an officer came out and handed me my passport and said, “Have a pleasant time in Israel”. I walked towards the exit only to be stopped yet again. This time they wanted to check my luggage which they did pretty swiftly through the scanners. I was once again told to enjoy my stay in Israel.

I exchanged some pounds for Israeli Shekels and headed towards the shared taxi stand. I was stopped midway by an elderly man who shouted, ‘Yurshulaym?’, I followed him to the mini bus and handed him the address of where I was going. The shared taxi idea was a great one and at around six pounds it was great value for money. I sat next to an orthodox Jew who was wearing the traditional attire, probably making his way to the Holy City in time for Shabbat.

The next day I visited the Old City of Jerusalem. I walked in through the Jaffa Gate and headed towards the Armenian quarter where I entered Saint James’ Cathedral. It was apparent that I had walked into an Armenian service. The echo of the priest’s voice was enchanting. I sat in a deep trance. The Cathedral was darkened and the atmosphere was calming. I then moved to the Jewish quarter where I saw a vast number of orthodox Jews scurrying along the narrow streets. Sunset was nearing the start of Shabbat. I walked on to the Muslim quarter and headed towards the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Muslim quarter is the largest quarter in the Old City but also densely over populated. I heard someone say that there was a problem of Jerusalem identity cards for those who moved away from the Old City so most people made do with whatever they had. I saw many Arab kids running around the streets, laughing and joking trying to find something to amuse themselves with. As I made my way to the al-Aqsa Mosque I was stopped by Israeli security forces who told me that no tourists could visit. I told them that I was Muslim at which they asked me to recite the Qur’an. I recited the opening chapter to him at which he smiled and said “you have said it all wrong!”. I knew that he was joking and without knowing why it made me feel more comfortable with the Israeli security forces. Their main role is to make sure that no non-Muslim enters the Mosque compound as there is a fear that extremists might try and destroy the Mosque in order for the Temple to be restored. Contrary to the scare mongering that goes on around Muslim communities that ‘the Jews want to destroy the Mosque’ this evidence to categorically thwart this accusation. The next stop was to the Waqf Muslim guards who asked me where I had come from and if I was a Muslim. After a few more questions they let me through the gate to the al-Aqsa Mosque.

As I walked through the gates, the golden dome of the rock struck me like a bolt of lightening. Glaring at me in its pristine condition was surely the jewel of Jerusalem. I looked around to see only a few people scattered here and there. There had been significant restrictions on people entering the Mosque after the Israeli authorities announced renovations to the Maghrebi ramp. The area is so contentious that whenever anything is done at the site it hits headline news. I also find the rallying of Muslim masses an indication of the impotent religious leaders and political leaders who find such matters the only means to gain support.

I remembered the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad in which he said that the first place of worship to be established on earth was at Mecca and the second was in Jerusalem. It dawned on me that it wasn’t the golden dome or the beautiful pillars which made this place holy but it was the location. The land was established as a place of prayer and remembrance to God and the rest were human additions. It then makes sense for a Mosque, a Temple or even a Church to be on an area clearly distinguished by God for his glory. Fortunately, God does not work in the same way the Old City has been structured; no matter how much the three faiths try God cannot be ‘quartered’.

Walking past the water fountains and the lush green trees I couldn’t help but think about the way in which politics had altered the face of the Holy Land. It is indeed politics that has created very clear and distinct religious boxes, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Countries are boxed into different categories; liberal, democratic, Asian, American but why are human beings adamant on boxing the three faiths distinctly from one another? I am not saying that all three religions should merge into one but in the current state of the three faiths their connections are lost. Due to the ill-informed agenda of some we hear of the Judeo-Christian traditions but miss out Islamic in this equation of three for they are all part of a wider picture. Surely they are deeply intertwined through their roots and it is only when these roots are explored is the true meaning and message of monotheism experienced.

The conference did not start for another two days so I decided to visit Masada. The route there was scenic by the Dead Sea. The distinct smell of the Dead Sea was hard to evade from my window. Masada holds a special place in my books. My first observed teaching lesson whilst on teacher training for religious education at Stirling University was on the persecution of the Jews at Masada. I was greatly moved by the events at Masada and had made great effort in bringing the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Romans to life for my students by showing them images I had gotten from the Classics Department. The chair lift took me to the mountain top where I saw first hand the way in which a whole society was set up high above the ground. How must the Jews have felt when death or persecution at the hands of the Romans was at their doorstep? In total despair their only escape was to take their own lives. What were their final thoughts? What does this tell us about belief? There were too many questions that came to mind. There was no escaping the fact that the Holy Land brought with it many trials and tribulations for the believers.

The conference opened with a welcome speech by the man behind the vision for religious pluralism in Israel, Professor/Rabbi David Hartman. Hartman made some extremely bold and frank statements. Hartman’s heartfelt plea was for Jews, Christians and Muslims to explore their own moral sensibilities and bring to God ones own understanding. This was a speech seeking self empowerment as opposed to following the established hierarchy which, at times, could conflict with modern standards of progressive thought. In Judaism that would be the Rabbinate and ‘Halakha’ – Jewish Law, in Christianity the teachings of ‘the Church’ and although Muslims would desist from saying there was a hierarchy within its religious tradition, historical Islamic Law could be one such structure that limits the extent to which contemporary Muslims can be progressive. Hartman stated that ‘Halakha’ became a substitute for God which led to the strangulation in understanding God. I could not help agreeing with him from a Muslim perspective as it seems that Islamic Law and medieval traditions seem to create obstacles for contemporary Muslims to seek God and God’s beauty.

I had been asked to present a public paper on ‘The Fundamentalist Impulse and its Religious Correctives’. My co-panellists were a Jewish Scholar, Professor David Novak, and a Christian Scholar, Professor David Burrell. I outlined my thoughts on what instigated the rise in fundamentalist impulses within the Muslim communities by exploring Muslims’ relationship with the Qur’an and the traditions associated with the Prophet Muhammad. I also highlighted that a series of crisis (such as colonialism) had given rise to reactionary Muslims who sought solace in conservative, literal Islamic understandings. In my view it’s easier to be a fundamentalist conservative as it requires little thought on evaluating the situation in the context of our world today. I then developed this thought by exploring some country examples which have seen a rise (and fall) in fundamentalism. I stated that the Qur’an was like any other text and within it one could quite easily find something positive and something negative. It is dependant on the orientation of the reader and what they wish to take from it. It then becomes great ammunition for terror organisations to promote killing and bloodshed or it can help peace activists to promote peace. I also called for people to move out of their comfort zones and learn from ‘the other’. The lack of understanding simple Islamic tenets was a shocking reality which the media is partly to blame for as it churns out everything negative relating to Islam which cuts off the lifeline for anyone to seek the positive. This learning can only take place when an identity feels strong enough to take these bold steps. This is a tall order in the current state of paranoia and scaremongering that goes on in most religious communities.

In the question answer session I was asked by Professor/Rabbi David Hartman if a believer believes that they hold the ‘perfect truth’ must they feel obligated to show or coerce others from their imperfect life? My answer to this question was that if we accept that Jews, Christians and Muslims are rooted together then we must also accept that they all have some truth within them. I feel perfectly comfortable within my Islamic traditions and feel that when one converts to another faith they are not just converting to a faith but are also converting to a different culture. Religion does not function in a vacuum; it requires human beings to give it life. The three faiths are united through their belief in God and that peace, love and justice must be established on this earth. I would feel more comfortable in converting others to promoting and upholding peace and good morals and ethics in society.

The next day we were taken on a tour of ‘divided Jerusalem’. Our guide, Daniel Zeidman, offered some interesting insights into the problems that emerge when trying to find a solution to Jerusalem. I was most disheartened to see the wall dividing Jerusalem and Bethleham – two holy cities divided by a wall. Whether or not it deters terror from either side it still divides two holy cities. In the same day we met with Michael Melchior who is a Member of the Knesset and a Rabbi. He offered us his solution to the Jerusalem issue by stating that Jerusalem has to have its universal presence and appeal otherwise it will not be Jerusalem. Melchior offered his understanding of Psalm 122 which talks about Jerusalem and the way in which it connects diverse people in peace and security. This message was echoed by Samaan al-Khoury who is a Palestinian Christian who worked with the Palestinian Authority on the Geneva Accords. Al-Khoury stated his vision of a united Jerusalem which would see the three faiths live in peace and harmony. I come to the conclusion that there are politicians on both sides who understand Jerusalem’s significance to all three faiths but these voices are muffled out when mixed into the lethal concoction of party politics.

Every time I visit Israel it breaks down a stereotype or prejudice that I had within me. It was rather surprising when a conference attendant stated in the plenary session of the final day’s proceedings that he ‘feared Muslims’. I was unsure how I should react was this to be understood academically or personally? In actual fact this saddened me that Muslims were being lumped together as a monolith without any regard to the fact that Muslims are as diverse as any other religious community. There are fanatics in every religion but it seemed that the fanatics of Islam had hijacked my religion to the extent that any beauty within Islam was difficult to explore let alone accept. The deep mistrust on all sides is indicative within this academic’s statement. For me, as a Scottish Muslim, it made the whole conflict difficult to understand. I had always wanted the Middle East conflict to be simple with a good side and a bad side which finally sees the good emerge as victors. There are many books and arguments that are either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel but who is bridging this gap in order to highlight our shared values as human beings? This is one place where there are not goodies or baddies, everyone is suffering. As a human being I cannot side with anyone on the basis of religious affiliation. For me it is a matter of justice and equality, if I were to base my judgement and support on religious affiliation then I am making a mockery of the human intellect that God has bestowed upon me to uphold peace and justice in the world. Being far from the region gives me that space to deal with the issues even handedly so when I heard a Jewish academic say that Lebanon and Iran should be bombed with nuclear weapons in order to protect Israelis I needed to sit back and think of the effect that daily bloodshed has had on the psyche of the Israelis to call for such desperate measures.

As I sat in the shared taxi on the way back to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport I looked at the streets of Jerusalem thinking about its future. I was listening to the Glaswegian singer Paolo Nutini’s song which reads “these streets have too many names for me, I’m used to Glenfield Road and spending my time in Arkie, I’ll get used to this eventually, I know I know.” We all have to walk the path of unknown streets for a better future. At the airport they asked me a series of question about my stay in Israel. The officers were pleasant and they proceeded to check all my belongings. After the baggage check they checked my shoes and personal belongings for any sign of ammunition. I was then taken by a security official straight through to the departure area. I bought some distinctly Christian and Jewish souvenirs, crosses and menorahs, for my friends in Glasgow but failed to find anything Muslim in the duty free shops, chocolates would have to do, we can all do with some sweetness from the Holy Land. As I walked towards the gate I noticed a familiar face. It was the same smiling immigration official who I had met on my arrival. She looked towards with the same warm smile and said “Hope you had a good time in Israel”, I looked back at her and said “I had a wonderful time, thank you”.

Amanullah De Sondy
Research Fellow
School of Divinity
University of Glasgow

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