The deep reason Muslim world hates Zionism
Op-ed: Understanding the theological implications of Zionism for Islam is crucial to realizing why peace eludes Israel. Without these implications, Israel would've probably been tolerated as a minor nuisance. Due to these implications, though, the Muslim world tends to attribute demonic ambitions to Zionism.
Cultural and political demands advanced by Berbers, Kurds and Chechens have been frustrated. Muslim claims over Mindanao and Southern Thailand have been crushed. Yet Islamic solidarity and support for the Palestinian cause dwarfs the solidarity and support provided to urgent Muslim causes elsewhere.
During the 20th century, millions of Muslims were murdered and exiled from the Balkans, the Caucasus and India. More recently, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been persecuted and exiled from Myanmar. Muslim hatred of the nations behind these atrocities is regional. The odium stirred by smaller Zionist abuses is pan-Islamic.
Many Islamic scholars regard non-Muslim control of Muslim lands to be unjust and offensive. Yet religious sensitivity to occupation is selective: Chinese subjugation of Muslim Xinjiang, the Indian takeover of Kashmir and Russian dominance in the Caucasus are largely ignored. Jewish control of Palestine fuels religious fundamentalism and terrorism throughout the world. The claim that Jewish control over Jerusalem—the third holiest city of Islam—lies at the origin of these emotions is incorrect: Zionism was vilified long before Israel controlled any Muslim holy sites in Palestine.
Some analysts claim that aversion to Zionism reflects the strength of Islamic anti-Semitism. This theory is weak. It does not explain how Jews lived in relative peace and prosperity in Muslim lands for many centuries. If Muslims had hated Jews throughout history, it would be hard to fathom why Jews in India, for instance, built their synagogues in the heart of Muslim neighborhoods and why most Spanish Jews sought refuge in Muslim lands after 1492.
Contemporary anti-Zionism in the Muslim world reflects fears that recognition of Zionism discredits Islam. Zionism cites memories of exile to claim Jewish rights to self-determination in the Land of Israel. Jewish descent from the exiled Israelites and continuity between Israelite and Jewish religious traditions undergird this narrative.
According to Islamic tradition, the biblical Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon were Muslim prophets. The Israelites were also originally Muslim. The corollary is Islamic supersession, namely the belief that Muslims—and not Jews—are the legitimate heirs to the Israelite faith and homeland. Muslim denial that a Jewish temple existed in Jerusalem reflects Islamic beliefs that the Muslim king and prophet Suleyman built a mosque on the Temple Mount. Islamic supersession is based on the Islamic doctrine of tahrif, which teaches that Jewish and Christian scriptures distort the Islamic message delivered by the prophets of antiquity.
As fanciful as tahrif and Islamic supersession may appear to non-Muslims, these teachings are fundamental in justifying the doctrinal superiority of Islam. These teachings also shed light on the fundamental reason most Muslim states refuse to recognize Jewish ties to Jerusalem and to accept Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
Recognizing Israel as the Jewish homeland involves accepting the Zionist narrative. For Muslims, this means engaging with Jewish history and Jewish scriptures on historical terms—not Islamic terms. Doing so leads to recognition that Judaism predates Islam and that Islam appropriated prophetic traditions from Judaism.
For Israel, making peace with Muslim nations is a diplomatic achievement. For Muslim nations, accepting Zionism concedes the precedence of Judaism over Islam. Understanding the theological implications of Zionism for Islam is crucial to realizing why peace eludes Israel. Without these theological implications, Israel would probably be tolerated as a minor nuisance. Due to these theological implications, the Muslim world tends to attribute demonic ambitions to Zionism.
The psychological impact of Zionism is hard to overestimate. Throughout Islamic history, the fact that Jews were docile dhimmis subject to Muslim rule demonstrated the truth of supersession. Zionism subverted traditional religious hierarchies in the Middle East. By doing so, it also subverted the credibility of Islamic superiority over Judaism. The insecurity and anxiety created by this situation hardens political postures.
Despite the advantages of a peace agreement with Israel and the heavy costs of continued conflict, a survey conducted by Bernard Sabella of Bethlehem University during the Oslo peace process revealed 81 percent of Muslim Palestinians wanted Palestinian control over all of Jerusalem, including its Jewish neighborhoods. Only 33 percent of Christian Palestinians endorsed this view. These figures—even though they are not recent—suggest that Palestinian intransigence in the conflict is not motivated by a collective historical trauma or by nationalism.
Were the demands of Palestinian negotiators driven by national pride and memories of the tragic Nakba, Christian Palestinians who are proudly patriotic and who also experienced the Nakba would be as intransigent as their Muslim neighbors. These survey results suggest that the refusal of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland mirrors the religious anti-Zionism of a predominantly Muslim population.
It is true that Egypt and Jordan, which are predominantly Muslim countries, have signed peace agreements with Israel. Neither Egypt nor Jordan, however, ever agreed to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland. It is probable that had Israel demanded this recognition, both Egypt and Jordan would have refused to sign peace agreements with Israel. And despite these peace agreements, both Egypt and Jordan continue to boycott Israel and imbue schoolchildren with hostility towards Israel.
Ending the Israeli-Arab conflict requires Islamic recognition of the historical and spiritual significance of Israel for the Jewish people. This recognition will only be forthcoming when Muslim public opinion is exposed to pre-Islamic history, archaeology and scriptures. Islamic engagement with Jewish religious texts is fundamental for Jewish human rights to be respected in the Middle East. As long as the religious legitimacy of Judaism is denied, the vast majority of Muslims will reject genuine peace and reconciliation with Israel.
Rafael Castro (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is an independent political analyst based in Berlin.
The author would like to thank Fred Maroun for his valuable contribution to this piece.