Israel has yet again declared its ultimate goal to annihilate Hamas for the last time. This is the sixth time that Israel has declared the same objective during the last decade and a half and every time it killed Gazans indiscriminately. In 2006, Israel had declared the same objective about annihilating Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yet many ‘experts’ are concerned about Hezbollah joining Hamas in Gaza crisis and Israel has ganged-up almost all western leaders while Muslim leaders crying foul about it. Why? Let us examine this question from the perspective of civilizational transformation.
Muslim Attachment to Palestine
The Islamic sacred text the Qur’an (17:1-7) not only mentions the Prophet’s journey to located in Jerusalem, it also highlights Jesus and a number of Judaic prophets including Moses, David, Solomon and their connection to Palestine with respect and admiration. Historically Muslims have respected the Jewish desire to live in or visit Jerusalem. In contrast, the Christian Roman Empire after Constantine continued to forbid Jews from living in Jerusalem, and the later Crusaders massacred Jews and Muslims when they took Jerusalem in 1099. That’s why when the second caliph ‘Umar liberated Jerusalem and the adjacent areas from the Romans in 638 CE and Salah Din liberated the area from the Crusaders in 1187 CE, they invited Jews back to Jerusalem and historical Palestine.
Muslim attitudes changed significantly centuries later, during World War I, when Britain occupied Palestine from the Ottomans. During this period, Muslim countries were gradually accepting the idea of nationalism, while Europe had already divided itself along ethnic, linguistic and national lines. Although most Muslim countries were adapting nationalism for their liberation from European colonizers, many Muslim elites were also internalizing a European worldview during this period – a worldview that European colonizers had introduced through their educational curriculum.
The formulator of the Indian colonial education policy, TB Macaulay, defined the objective of the policy: “Education should create a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” In other words, colonialists wanted to create a class of elites whose mindset would be like theirs but would become the flagbearer of their ideology that Kipling later described as “the white man’s burden.” Both ideas, nationalism and the white man’s burden, are important for an understanding of what is happening in Gaza today.
Palestine and the Emergence of Nation-states Following WW II
Like Muslims around the world, the indigenous Palestinians tried to establish their nation-state under the British Mandate of Palestine, as the Syrians did in the French Mandate of Syria and the Iraqis did in the British mandate of Iraq. Despite the 1939 British White Paper that promised a Palestinian state within 10 years, the Palestinians were thwarted by the Zionist community that had been brought into the Mandate by the British authorities. Instead, Israel was established in their homeland with the active support of powerful western nations. The newly established Arab League attempted to form an all-inclusive Palestinian government in 1947, but Jordan sabotaged the effort. Israel began ethnic cleansing in the territory – an act that Palestinians now call Nakba or catastrophe, which resulted in the displacement of over half the 1.3 million Palestinians from their homes in what became Israel. Some 70 percent of the families now in Gaza were expelled by Zionist militias from their homes in what became Israel, which were then usurped by Jewish refugees from Europe.
How did Muslims around the world respond to this challenge to Palestinians and to their third holiest shrine, Al-Aqsa? Muslim leaders seemed to commit themselves to securing their ‘national interests’ in the newly established world of nations. In response to Israel’s continued attack on local Palestinians, Egyptian and Jordanian troops intervened. The war ended in 1949 with Egypt occupying Gaza and Jordan occupying parts of Palestine proper, now known as the West Bank, leaving the bulk of Palestine in Israeli hands. Jerusalem became a divided city between Israel and Jordan.
Since Israel’s emergence as an independent nation in the area, Muslim leaders have demonstrated varied attitudes toward Palestine. In order to understand this diverse approach, one should keep in mind the two characteristics that we have mentioned earlier; namely Macaulay’s education policy and emergence of nation-state system in the Muslim world. Almost all Muslim leaders since then have tried to address the Palestinian issue only after securing their national interests. Although most leaders in the post-colonial Muslim world were also a kind of brown sahibs, there were a few exceptions. In the light of the two above criteria, we can analyze the history of Palestine ever since the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) came into existence in 1969, and we must conclude that the Muslim world had little success regarding the Palestine issue.
Arab and Muslim countries secured the UN General Assembly declaration equating Zionism with racism, and boycott Israel at many levels. However, beginning late 1970s, Israel with the support of the United States, succeeded in ecountering those measures and gradually isolating the Palestinians in international forums. Pro-Israeli Western countries slowly began to install loyal politicians in power in Muslim countries. Interestingly even as Western politicians such as President Carter came out very strongly in exposing Israel’s apartheid practices, Muslim countries increasingly aligned with Israel. Independent minded Muslim leaders such as Pakistan’s Imran Khan became the latest victim of this process. Israel now had the audacity to advocate openly for greater Israel, jettisoning permanently the Palestinian desire for statehood, even while feckless Western politicians kept paying lip service to a long dead two-state solution.
October 7 Shock
Although analysts in the mainstream Western media described the October 7 Hamas assault as an absolute shock, seasoned analysts had warned for some time that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians was not sustainable. Palestinian groups such as Hamas, the PLO, and Islamic Jihad have been warning about the unbearable condition of Palestinians all over occupied territories. Israel’s violent raid on worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, on one of the most sacred nights during the holy month of Ramadan in April early this year was just one of those events.
In response to October 7, President Macron of France has called for an international coalition to fight against Hamas; other Western governments are still refusing to call for a ceasefire even after one month. Response from Muslim governments is more pathetic. Meanwhile thousands, mostly children, in Gaza are dying every minute. Volunteers are not even able to rescue wounded victims from rubblesbecause Israel’s continuous bombardments.
The Palestinian-born Khatib (preacher) of the mosque where I usually pray Friday prayers (Jum’a) in his sermon last Friday identified three Muslim countries – Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan – the three countries he thought could make a difference if they had wanted. Some neighboring Muslim countries are reported to have been assisting the American troops in the region to support Israel. Some leaders are exploiting with their rhetoric common people’s emotional attachment to Al-Aqsa to gain popularity. Some Muslim leaders are also traveling to where some Hamas leaders had travelled earlier, to demonstrate their support for Hamas.
Where will this bankruptcy of leadership lead us? Are we really going to witness civilizational collapse? The resilience of the Palestinians does not support such pessimism. Their resilience has motivated millions around the world to come to streets demanding immediate ceasefire and extend humanitarian assistance to victims. These protests are more vibrant in Western capitals where many non-Muslims have come out in support of ceasefire. However, the Israeli prime minister has hinted at a desire, by citing “Amalek” from 1 Samuel 15 to annihilate all people and animals in Gaza irrespective of their age, gender and occupation. Is he trying to depict the Gaza crisis a religious one? This leads me to seek lessons from history.
Lessons from History
Although historians have sometimes blamed religions for causing wars resulting in civilizational collapse, my humble understanding is that most civilizations have perished in history mainly due to moral decay, political corruption and social fragmentation. Yes, political corruption most of the time involved religious scholars because most early civilizations derived their guidance for life from religious sources. However, as Arnold Toynbee has highlighted, civilizational transformation occurs through a process of challenge and response. When a society encounters challenges successfully, it not only survives, it makes progress. Will the Palestinians survive the Israeli onslaught? After all, like Netanyahu, Hamas and Hezbollah also use religion to support their claim. So, is this a religious war? How can one kill innocent civilians, babies in the name of religion? We have witnessed increased militancy among the Palestinians in the shape of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in response to Israel’s continuous violation of their human dignity and refusal to follow international in its treatment of this occupied people. There is no excuse for Hamas’s horrific attack on civilians. It would be foolish, however, to suggest that Israel’s brutal occupation policies toward the Palestinians play no part in fomenting violence.
Many Muslims seem to look for a miracle – the kind of divine intervention that saved the Ka’ba from the invading army of elephants, overlooking the fact that there was no believer to defend the sacred house at the time. Again, in my humble view, with the presence of two billion Muslims around the world such miracles are not going to happen. How do they overcome the impending challenge then? Many Muslims and non-Muslim observers have come forward to express their unequivocal sympathy for the people of Gaza; they have gathered hundreds and thousands of truckloads of relief goods around the borders of Gaza. Millions are demonstrating in cities around the world, yet there is no cessation of bombing in Gaza.
Israel is denying the Palestinians of Gaza potable water, electricity and food shipments, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. That it continues to commit these war crimes simply means that the response is not adequate to meet the challenge. Muslim elites seem to be worried about the economic and military power of Israel and its allies. Yet if we consider ancient Egyptian history and Biblical history we will see that Pharaonic Egypt was very powerful as opposed to Moses. Today the pyramids and sphinx stand only as symbols of a vanished power. Muslims must look at Moses as their model, not Haman (Pharaoh’s military power). People around the world, particularly in neighboring countries, Turkey and Pakistan must do more to save the Palestinians of Gaza from the Israeli onslaught. Of course, this is a difficult job, but one must remember the Qur’anic verse “Surely with hardship comes ease (94:5).” This verse serves as source of hope. The faster the rest of the world wakes up to care for the oppressed, the earlier an ease will come.