Of God and Country

April 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Kassem Zaid has had a connection to the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair movement for decades, but has meanwhile become a devout Muslim. How does he reconcile such contrasting elements in his personality?

By Alit Karp, Ha’aretz

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Zaid: ‘There is no room for extremism.’

Photo by: Yaron Kaminsky

We met 35 years ago. At the time Kassem Zaid was a correspondent for Al Hamishmar, the newspaper affiliated with the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. He was also teaching Arabic at educational institutions affiliated with the movement on its kibbutzim (I attended one such school ) and he had close ties with Israeli leftist circles. He wore jeans and checkered shirts and spoke a poetic Hebrew. A short while before Al Hamishmar closed its doors permanently, in early 1995, Zaid lost his job. Subsequently he made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and became a devout Muslim.

Before we met about a month ago, I was expecting to see my 74-year-old former teacher bearded and dressed in a galabiya. But he arrived for the interview dressed in a suit and tie, and was clean-shaven. “Islam is a moderate, forgiving religion and it has no ritual clothing,” he explained in Hebrew.

Umm al-Fahm, the city of some 45,000, one of the country’s largest Arab towns, southeast of Haifa, has no sidewalks. Pedestrians, most of whom are youngsters (who wear Western attire, although girls do cover their hair ), walk down the city’s alleys where dumpsters overflow with refuse. Here and there one can see a stream of sewage. Any efforts at gardening are the result of private initiatives by local residents, and can only be seen tucked away in people’s yards.

“Relatively speaking, our situation is not bad,” my host, Zaid, told me, “because [municipal] taxes are collected here. The situation in other communities is much more difficult.” He pointed out that there are many fine Arab physicians and talented high-tech personnel in Israel. “Actually, the lack of equality,” he said, “forces us to excel, but that is a real shame. Discrimination is bad for the country; the human landscape here will never be complete without the Arabs.”

Aren’t some Israeli Jews afraid the Arabs will outnumber them and will drive them out by democratic means?

Zaid: “The Jews have a lot of unjustified fears. As someone who believes in coexistence, I cannot understand this fear. For 63 years, and in five wars, Israeli Arabs displayed loyalty at the highest level. I would like to allay the Jews’ fears: The birth rate among the Arabs has plummeted and there is no apparent danger that the Jews will be outnumbered. That fear would be justified only if the Jews do not return the territories. Then there would be a binational state here and Kassem Zaid would be prime minister.”

What is worrisome is the possibility that Muslim fundamentalists, like Islamic Movement leader Sheikh Ra’ad Salah, will come to power.

“That will never happen. Even in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has declared that it will not field any candidate for the premiership or presidency. They are not interested in ruling the country. There is not the slightest chance that an Arab, whether he is Sheikh Ra’ad Salah or Kassem Zaid, will ever be prime minister. That is not at the top of the list of our priorities.”

So what is at the top of the list?

“We want equality. We want the Jews to look us straight in the eye, not look down on us. What is happening here now never happened even in South Africa. [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman has pushed for a ‘citizenship loyalty’ law, but how can any of us know what another person is thinking or feeling? Even before Lieberman, we were unhappy. We were accused of being responsible for all the ills of Israeli society. There are even some expressions, like ‘Arab work,’ that articulate this feeling of contempt.

“I want Israel to be a ‘state of all its citizens,’” declares Zaid. “Although I also do not like to open up old wounds, I will state here that my family’s lands are located in the place where Moshav Hayogev was established [northeast of Umm al-Fahm]. I am not arguing that the kibbutzim and moshavim founded on those lands should be torn down, but nonetheless, we should receive compensation.”
Don’t you feel you belong in the State of Israel? In the kibbutz dining hall years ago, you looked as if you did.

“I still belong, but the country does not give me that feeling. I belong, despite all those who want to deny me the right to have that feeling. My sense of belonging is a result of my ability to cope with our situation.”

On the night of May 14, 1948, when Israeli independence was declared, you were 11 years old. What do you remember from that period?

“Nothing much happened that night because Israel received the ‘Triangle’ area of Arab villages after the country’s establishment, in accordance with the Rhodes Agreement. Before that agreement, we were Jordanian subjects. The agreement led us to feel that King Abdullah [I of Jordan] had betrayed us. After we came under Israeli administration, the Jews announced, using loudspeakers, that all those who had weapons in their possession must hand them over to the mukhtar [village headman]; the Jews also asked us to ensure that law and order be maintained in our communities.

“People were afraid of change. Obviously, I would have preferred seeing a Palestinian state established; however, people made peace with the new situation and, besides, there are a lot of advantages to living in Israel. On the personal level, Arab individuals can lead their lives in dignity, there is a senior citizens allowance, there is a guaranteed income allowance and no one suffers from abject hunger. My personal dignity is not trampled upon. But man does not live by bread alone. I am concerned about the relationship between Jews and Arabs in this country. Prior to the 1990s, that relationship was better than it is today. It is steadily deteriorating now.”

Who is responsible for this?

“In this struggle, the Jews fired both the first shot and the last one. Although there are some Arabs who undermine Arab-Jewish coexistence in this country, the Jews are the majority and they are the ones who run the government.”

To what extent will recent events in the Middle East have an influence on Israeli Arabs?

“They will have no influence whatsoever. I want to state here categorically that these events will not produce extremism among Israeli Arabs. All of you can relax: These events stem not from pan-Arabism or Islamization, but rather from the fact that the public in those states is fed up with their leaders’ corruption. Muslim circles in the Middle East have no ambitions with regard to seizing control. They want to field candidates in general elections [for parliament], but not for positions of leadership. Even if they had such ambitions, it should be recalled here that those who generated the revolution in Egypt are secular Muslims who use Facebook and Google. They will not allow any party with a religious character to take control of the country in which they live. It is important that leaders in the Middle East remember that people are interested first of all in having their dignity respected and that only afterward are they interested in bread.”

For years, you embraced the State of Israel and maintained close ties with Hashomer Hatzair’s kibbutzim. You were a communist and now you have become someone else, someone who prays five times a day. What happened?

“I was not a communist. I did not turn into someone else and I am still close to Hashomer Hatzair’s kibbutzim.”

The alarm clock rang, reminding Zaid that it was time for prayer, but he rejected our suggestion that we join him in the mosque. “Previously, I observed three of Islam’s commandments,” he explains, referring to accepting the faith of Islam, fasting during Ramadan and giving alms to the needy. “Then I added the commandments of prayer and the hajj.”

How do you resolve the paradox between religion and the aspiration for national equality?

“Islam is a religion that preaches equality between men and women, and God sent the Prophet Muhammad (s) to all humanity. If there is a reason why Islam sees itself as a religion that is preferable to other faiths, it is because Muhammad (s) was the last of the prophets. God sent him in order to complete what is missing in the other religions, not to invalidate them.”

And what about jihad?

“Jihad is not one of Islam’s basic principles. Jihad is the struggle that each person wages against himself or herself, in the metaphoric sense; it is not necessarily an actual war against some external enemy. The great jihad that Muhammad (s) refers to is an ongoing, daily war, not a war against infidels per se. However, even if we agree that jihad is holy war, all the peace agreements that Arab states have signed with Israel are being honored, and if the Palestinians receive their rights, there will no war in this land. The future depends on the intellectuals, not the religious leaders.”

There was a case here of an intellectual who headed an Israeli political party and who, when accused of collaboration with Hezbollah, fled the country in order not to stand trial.

“Azmi Bishara [of the Balad, or National Democratic Alliance, party] is a very intelligent person, but I do not agree with him and his approach. There is no room for extremism and if he did help Hezbollah, I reject him totally. I also call upon [Hezbollah chief] Hassan Nasrallah, who is trying to recruit collaborators among Israeli Arabs, to leave us alone. We have more important tasks to pursue, concerning our citizenship in the State of Israel. Despite the discrimination, I am against the idea of anyone committing treason against this country. We feel that this is a state of all its citizens and that we are among those citizens.”

The term “a state of all its citizens” arouses considerable anxiety in the hearts of many Israeli Jews.

“I am not saying this to irritate the Jews, but this is a fact: Two nations live in this land and I want to be a citizen here with equal rights.”

Did this feeling lead you to seek refuge in Islam?

“I do not consider Islam a refuge. After all, I am a member of one of the oldest Muslim families in the world. My family belongs to the Prophet Muhammad (s)’s dynasty.”

But what happened when you suddenly became a devout Muslim?

“There is no such thing as an atheist Muslim. Anyone who refuses to recognize the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad (s) is simply not a Muslim, but a person who does not observe one of Islam’s commandments is not necessarily severing ties with Islam.”

When did you start praying daily?

“It did not happen on any specific date. I had planned this for a long time. Perhaps I did not have the time to do it, or perhaps I was just lazy, but 20 years ago, I began to pray five times a day. If I have the time, I go to a mosque; if I do not, I pray at home. The prayer lasts less than five minutes and a Muslim can pray anywhere.”

In 2004, Zaid performed the Muslim commandment of the hajj, along with his wife Salwa. As he circled the Kaaba – the most sacred site in Islam, in Mecca – he was deeply moved.
“When I saw millions of people all wearing the same attire, beggars alongside princes and tycoons, all wearing the same robe and praying to the same God, I had a feeling that was simply indescribable. There, and only there,” he said, “I felt that everyone was truly equal.”

Born again

Sociologist Prof. Aziz Haidar is a senior researcher at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, says Kassem Zaid is not a unique case, in terms of his acquired religious identity.

“The phenomenon of the newly observant in the Israeli Arab community is a trend that began back in the 1970s, in the wake of the [Arab] defeat in the 1967 war, and due to disillusionment with pan-Arabism. The trend became more prominent in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the factors that contributed to it was the possibility that was provided in the early 1980s for making the hajj to Mecca. Two other factors were the collapse of communism and disenchantment with the Palestinian national movement.

“A prominent aspect of the phenomenon in the ’90s,” Haidar continues, “was the fact that it was not connected to religious extremism. Quite the contrary. And the vast majority of newly observant Muslims today are people with moderate views. In the ’70s, on the other hand, the first wave of newly observant Muslims was characterized by such extremism. Today these pious Muslims accept the ‘other’ and do not necessarily use external symbols such as attire in order to draw attention to their religiosity. It is hard to pick them out in a crowd − and I am referring here to those who have performed the commandment of making the pilgrimage to Mecca: They enjoy the good life, take vacations and engage in sports.

“Most young Muslim women who cover their heads dress like their secular counterparts and sometimes even provocatively. Even women who dress according to the Muslim religious code generally choose colorful attire, rather than the drab shades that one sees in other countries. Some of these young women do not even cover their heads. A relatively new trend is the phenomenon of women praying in the mosques. Prior to the ’90s, Muslim women in Israel did not pray in mosques, but today they do so during the month of Ramadan and on Fridays. There are even those who pray daily. This is modern, or postmodern, Islam, which is quite unlike what was observed in the past.

“One of the results of the national and democratic awakening in Arab states today may be the weakening of the Islamic movements, and even perhaps … newly observant Muslims…   Ha`aretz

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Hojjaj Party at Bloomfield Muslim Unity Center (BMUC)

January 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Adil James, MMNS

P1108645 Bloomfield–January 10–Many Muslims made the hajj pilgrimage this year from the Southeast Michigan region, and so the Bloomfield Muslim Unity Center had a party this past Sunday night to celebrate their noble accomplishment.

About 150 people were present at the function which was in mood more spiritual than most of the other functions at the center.  The marks of hajj were in fact visible on some of the attendees, many of whom had shaved their heads at the end of the hajj and were still growing back their hair.

Imam Musa explained to TMO that “This year there were less people because of swine flu.”

BMUC presented small token gifts to about 10 people who recently came back from hajj, and a slide show played through the event, showing familiar faces and familiar places that one might not have seen together before, like Imam Musa on Arafat for example.

The Hojjaj party gave a chance for each of the hojjaj to present a few brief words either of advice, of admiration for having made hajj, or of lessons learned from making the hajj.

P1108646 One piece of advice was to make the hajj while one is still young because in fact it is a demanding exercise.

Many of the returning hojjaj remarked that they didn’t feel the exhaustion from the trip until after their return to home, because of having been so overwhelmed with fascination during their trip.

“Don’t stay away too long from this place,” advised one returnee.  “Come back in a year or two.”

One man said, “It is very hard to explain the feeling of seeing the Kaaba for the first time–it is something that comes from the heart.”

One returnee was moved to tears, and said “I was amazed what Prophet (s) did for all of us.”

The Unity Center will have an umra trip early this April.

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Journey of a Lifetime

November 25, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

2009-11-24T065219Z_497529973_GM1E5BO15BZ01_RTRMADP_3_HAJJ The journey to attend the Hajj pilgrimage is an essential pillar of Islam that all Muslims of means must perform at least once in a lifetime. Pilgrims from all over the world began to pour into the holy city of Makkah weeks ago with an estimated 2.5 million Muslims expected to perform the Hajj rituals this year.

The Hajj season has, for years, presented a host of difficulties for Muslims performing the sacred journey, which reveals the fleeting nature of the material world we live in. However, this year has revealed even more trials that pilgrims will have to cope with. The primary concern is, of course, the H1N1 virus. Before the pilgrimage has even commenced, 20 pilgrims have been diagnosed with the H1N1 virus while 4 people had died. Many of the pilgrims have been inoculated against the deadly H1N1 virus, however many have not. And recent scenes coming out of Makkah via satellite television show that only a handful of the masses are donning the infamous white surgical masks as a means of prevention. More than 20,000 medical personnel have been dispatched throughout the city and in the city of Medina to cope with H1N1 virus as well as other maladies that pilgrims may become afflicted with. Pilgrims arriving at the airport are being screened for H1N1 symptoms before they enter the Kingdom and the government has ordered a veritable army of doctors to be on duty around the clock.

This Hajj season also sees renewed tensions erupting between the Saudi Arabian government and the Iranian government over the way the latter perceives its pilgrims have been discriminated against during past pilgrimages. The war of words between both governments exploded recently when Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei said, “Such acts are against the unity of Muslims and contribute to the goals and wishes of the US and foreign intelligence services. The Saudi government should fulfill its duty in confronting these acts.” To which the Saudi Arabian government retorted, “The kingdom does not permit any party to disrupt the security of the pilgrims or to attempt to divide the ranks of Muslims.” It is a very really concern this hajj season that sectarian violence could break out during Islam’s most holy occasion. More than 100,000 security personnel have been dispatched to maintain order and keep the pilgrims safe.

The current hajj season also marks the unveiling of a newly built bridge that will help diversify the traffic at one of the most important areas of the Hajj – the Jamarat or ritual ‘Stoning of the Devil’. This area is the most highly congested and where stampedes have occurred in the past killing pilgrims. The most horrific stampede occurred in 2006 when 364 pilgrims were crushed to death and scores more were maimed or injured. The 5-storey walkway is over 3,000 feet long and over 260 feet wide. It was built at a cost of over $1 billion and the Saudi government hopes that it will facilitate pilgrims as a safe passageway while simultaneously assisting them in fulfilling a Hajj rite.

And as if the dark cloud looming over this year’s hajj could not get any bigger, this year also marks the 30th anniversary of a coup by extremists who seized the Grand Mosque in a stunning act of aggression that sent shockwaves reverberating around the world. Saudi Arabian and French security personnel eventually stormed the mosque in a bloody battle that cost hundreds of lives.

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Saudi Arabia Improves Hajj Security, Bans Protests

November 25, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Louisville Democrat Examiner, Timothy Morgan

2009-11-21T171100Z_1597266078_GM1E5BM032701_RTRMADP_3_FLU-SAUDI-PILGRIMS

A security official wearing a protective mask keeps an eye on cars at a checkpoint between Jeddah and Mecca before the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage November 21, 2009.  Saudi Arabia said on Saturday four pilgrims had died of the new H1N1 flu virus three days before the massive Muslim haj is due to begin, al-Hayat newspaper said.

REUTERS/Caren Firouz

On November 25-29, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca of the Hajj begins in the Islamic world.  The Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam and a moral obligation under the religion for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey must do so at least once in their lifetime.

The Hajj is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, with 2.5 million Muslims expected to make the trip this year.

With such a large movement of people, the Saudi government has issued warnings that all protesting during the Hajj is banned.  The government has also stepped-up security, with more than 100,000 Saudi military deployed during the pilgrimage.

While the Saudi Arabian security forces assert that they do not expect any troubles, the interior ministry official in charge of security, Gen Mansour al-Turki, said that “We will not allow any actions that might disturb any other pilgrims, or affect their safety.”

In 1987, 402 people were killed when troops broke up a protest by Shia pilgrims.  This year is also the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca, home of the Kaaba and Islam’s holiest site, by Sunni extremists.

The Kaaba is a cuboidal building in the center of the Great Mosque in Mecca that pre-dates Islam and is the holiest site in all of Islam.  Muslim beliefs say that the original building on the site was built by Abraham.  Thus, a mosque was built around the site and all Muslims, regardless of their location, must face the Kaaba during daily prayers, as well as take part in the Hajj if able.

Last month Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warned that it would take “appropriate measures” if its citizens faced restrictions.  Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader, called for the Shia to show that they were dealing with challenges to their unity.

Thus, the Saudi government has responded by both warning Iran not to abuse the Hajj for political purposes, and by the ban on protests.

Authorities are also hoping to prevent a repeat of the deadly stampedes, such as in 2006 when 364 people were killed, that have afflicted the Hajj.  In response, the Saudi Government has recently finished the rebuilding of the Jamarat Bridge at Mina, the 950m (3,135ft) long, 80m (260ft) wide five-story pedestrian walkway, which cost $1.2bn, and that authorities hope will prevent overcrowding.

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