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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Jihad Jane is Media Catnip

March 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Dan Gardner, CanWest News Services

The name Colleen LaRose may not be world famous but the pseudonym LaRose allegedly used in an Internet-based terrorist plot certainly is. A Google search of Jihad Jane delivers 1,760,000 hits.

What makes that number especially impressive is that it was only last week that American prosecutors announced LaRose invariably described as a green-eyed blonde had been charged with conspiring to kill a Swedish cartoonist. To go from the obscurity to worldwide notoriety is no small feat. And Jihad Jane did it without actually committing a major act of terrorism. Or a minor act of terrorism. She did it, allegedly, by discussing a single murder.

Now contrast that with Andrew Joseph Stack. If you follow the news closely, the name probably rings a bell. He is the Texas man who became so enraged with the IRS and the American government that he climbed into the cockpit of his plane, flew to the IRS building in Austin, and nosedived. The building was mauled but, miraculously, only one person died along with Stack.

That was on Feb. 18. A Google search of Stacks name almost a month later came up with around 430,000 hits.

One person crashes a plane into a building in an attempt to commit mass slaughter and his crime gets some modest attention. Another expresses an intention to kill someone, is arrested, and gets vastly more reporting and discussion. That’s quite a discrepancy.

Is it because LaRose’s case is so much more important? Prosecutors suggested so. The arrest underscores the evolving nature of the threat we face, a U.S. Justice department official said. It shatters any lingering thought that we can spot a terrorist based on appearance, the chief prosecutor added.

But is that remotely true? Richard Reid, the bumbling shoe bomber, is half English and half Jamaican. John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, is a Caucasian Californian. So is Adam Gadahn, a longtime al-Qaeda spokesman who changed his name from Adam Pearlman.

So what exactly is new about Jihad Jane? That she’s a woman prepared to murder in the name of Islam? There are plenty of those, unfortunately. Thats shes blonde? Well, yes. That’s different. But somehow I don’t think her arrest means terrorists of the future will look like Jan Brady.

So if its not the intrinsic importance of the case that explains why Jihad Jane is walloping Joseph Stack on Google, what does? One might think its the fact that LaRoses views are shared by many others and so she represents something bigger than the crime she is alleged to have committed. Andrew Joseph Stack was just some nut with a grudge and a plane.

But that doesn’t work either. Stack left a suicide note which was essentially a long anti-government tirade that bore a striking similarity to warnings in a Department of Homeland Security report issued in 2009. Domestic anti-government extremism was on the rise, the report noted, and there were growing suggestions it could turn violent. The situation was similar to that of the early 1990s, the report concluded, when right-wing extremism culminated in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more.

In the months and years after the Oklahoma City bombing, an immense amount of attention was paid to anti-government militias and other extremists. The Sept. 11 attacks erased that threat and replaced it with that of Islamist terrorism, but the reality on the ground didn’t change a great deal. It just wasn’t talked about. It still isn’t.

And that, I think, is what explains why Jihad Jane is winning the battle of Google.

The human brain is compulsive about making sense of things. It orders, categorizes, and systematizes. And once it thinks it decides something is settled, it works hard to keep it settled: It eagerly grabs onto anything that supports the existing understanding while avoiding, or waving off, anything that contradicts that understanding. Psychologists call this confirmation bias.

Now, what is terrorism? Mention that word and certain images come to mind, certain ideas and beliefs. That is the settled understanding of what terrorism is and who terrorists are.

In 1995, the horror in Oklahoma City shattered that understanding and created something new. After Oklahoma City, terrorism was about right-wing crazies. And in the years that followed, media reporting bolstered that understanding by seeking any tidbit of information, no matter how small, that supported it.

But then came Sept. 11, 2001, and the frame changed again. Terrorism was about Islamic religious fanatics.

If Joseph Stack had done exactly what he did for the same reason in 1996, the news coverage would have been massive and everyone in the world would know his name. But he did it in 2010, when he and his motives didn’t fit the popular narrative of what terrorism is.

But Jihad Jane fit the frame. Better still, she was superficially different. Thus, her story confirmed our fundamental beliefs about what terrorism is while it simultaneously delivered a delightful sprinkle of novelty catnip for the media. And that combination just happens to be a perfect formula for grabbing popular attention.

This is of more than theoretical interest, of course. Media coverage, and popular attention, is constantly distorted by the interaction of underlying assumptions and psychology. What we hear, read, and talk about is not a complete and objective reflection of reality.

Put it like that and anyone would say, well, no kidding. But ask people why they believe something to be true and, often as not, youll hear something like, its happening all the time. Just look at the news. See the problem?

As always, a little more skepticism is in order.

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Book Review

December 31, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Ayesha Jalal,Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.), $29.95.

By Geoffrey Cook, MMNS

Madison (Wisc.)–With many contemporary books, I find myself merely skimming over the text.  (I think this comes from reading information over the computer.)  This book by Professor Jalal is too absorbing to do that, though. 

I was commissioned to do a scholarly a chapter on Jihadi websites here and in an abridged form in Orlando during early April.  I was encouraged to read Ayesha Jalal because it is the latest and most authoritative statement on Indian Jihadism.

Jalal goes into the fascinating South Asian history and theology of Jihad.  This is a challenging book to comprehend, but it is well worth it.

To a sincere traditional Jihadist, Shari a does not prohibit nationalist wars.  Therefore, a Jihad is not always a “physical” struggle for God (Allah [SWT]).  Still, some temporal rulers employ the concept against the “infidel” (both those who practice different forms of Islam and the non-Muslim), and, thus, in essence these rulers along with their militaristic entourages are imperialistic.  Still, there are those who believe that there is an intrinsic relationship between outward physical Jihad and violent resistance and faith in their concepts of religious concepts of personal and collective identity.

Nonetheless, Jihad has high ideals, but the tragic end to so many Jihadi fighters has led to a eulogistic and nostalgic fog concerning their actions.

Even such outstanding thinkers such as Muhammad Iqbal theorized on Jihad, but he saw Jihad in the original Arabic sense which denoted “a struggle within, or as he states in a poem:

“Jihad with death does not befit a warrior

One [who] has faith [is] alive and war[s] with himself.”

Iqbal’s originality gives elucidation to the love of God (i.e. Allah [SWT]).  Further, Muhammad Iqbal saw his poetry as an explication upon the Koran; consequently, therefore, he wrote upon his vision of inward Jihad “In…the ‘sword’ of men” which found expressed in his life, throughout.

Finally, in her study, Jalal brings Jihad into the contemporary period, and the perversion of the concept of Jihad amongst a minority of Muslims who have reinterpreted it as a violent struggle: “Equating Jihad with violence and terror makes a sheer tragedy of a concept… [that]… remains [at] the core of Islamic ethics.”

Dr. Jalal points to the lack of understanding by the counter-insurgent:  While The American-led [War on Terror until recently promoted] a military dictator in Pakistan [Musharraf] while seeking, at the same time, to spread democracy in the Middle East…”

Your critic considers Ayesha Jalal’s study to be an essential one on the subject.  It is important reading for all Muslims – especially here in the West – where one hears so much erroneous claims and counter-claims on Jihadism.  

Parisians of Allah is not only a book for education for Muslims, but the information presented can here help to explain the true nature of Islam to those outside the faith and to clarify the misrepresentation on many subjects to the non-Islamic world.

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Qaradawi Fiqh on Jihad

August 13, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

qaradawi Yusuf al-Qaradawi, probably the single most influential living Sunni Islamist figure, has just written a major book entitled Fiqh al-Jihad (The Jurisprudence of Jihad) which decisively repudiates al Qaeda’s conception of jihad as a “mad declaration of war upon the world.” At the same time, he strongly rejects what he calls efforts to remove jihad completely from Islam, and strongly reaffirms the duty of jihad in resisting the occupation of Muslim lands, specifically mentioning Israel as the arena of legitimate resistance.  Qaradawi’s intervention has thus far received no attention at all in the English-language media. It should, because of his vast influence and his long track record as an accurate barometer of mainstream Arab views.

His book, described by the Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm last week in a seven part series, is far more important than the much-discussed “recantations” and “revisions” of former jihadist intellectuals such as Dr. Fadl (Sayid Imam) and the leaders of the Gama’a Islamiya. The internal revisions by ex-jihadists (which Qaradawi praises) may influence that tiny group of extremists, and demonstrate  cracks in their intellectual foundations. But for the most part, the mass Arab public has never heard of and doesn’t care about them. And unlike the Gamaa leaders or Dr. Fadl, Qaradawi did not produce his revisions from an Egyptian prison cell (hence Ayman Zawahiri’s cutting rejoinder to Dr. Fadl, that Egyptian prisons hadn’t had fax machines back in his day). Qaradawi is different. Qaradawi, an intensely controversial figure in the West, appears on a weekly al-Jazeera program and is probably the single most influential Sunni Islamist figure in the Arab world. The Egyptian-born Qaradawi is closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (he reportedly turned down an invitation to become its Supreme Guide because he felt he had more influence from his base in Doha). He is a populist whose views generally reflect widespread attitudes in the region — he strongly endorses democracy, for instance, while also supporting Hamas attacks against Israelis. Whether he leads or follows popular opinion is a difficult and fascinating question — but either way, he is quite a useful barometer.

His criticism of al Qaeda is not new — he condemned 9/11 and has engaged in a number of public polemics with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and with the leaders of al Qaeda. But the timing of this book merits attention.   His views generally closely mirror trends within wider mass public opinion will reach a far wider swathe of the Arab mainstream and will likely have far greater impact than did the internal revisions which received such attention in the West. His intervention strengthens the impression that al Qaeda’s extreme form of salafi-jihadism is on the wane in the Arab world, but political Islam and the spirit of muqawama (resistance) remains strong.

Qaradawi’s text deserves lengthy discussion, but a brief summary here will have to suffice. Fiqh al-Jihad stakes out the centrist (wasatiyya) ground where Qaradawi has always comfortably resided (he has authored dozens of books about wasatiyya concept). He rejects two trends: those who seek to eliminate jihad completely from the Muslim world, stripping it of its power and its ability to resist (which is how he sees the project of much of so-called moderate Islam or secularists); and those who apply it indiscriminately in a mad campaign of killing of all with whom they disagree (like al-Qaeda). Straw men, yes. But very effectively allowing Qaradawi to distinguish between al Qaeda’s excesses and the legitimacy of resistance to occupation and to Israel.

Qaradawi also offers an intriguing broadening of the concept of jihad, away from violence to the realm of ideas, media, and communication — which he calls the “jihad of the age.” The weapons of this jihad should be TV, the internet, email and the like rather than guns. Persuading Muslims of the message of Islam and the importance of this jihad in the path of God should be the first priority, he argues: “the jihad of the age, a great jihad, and a long jihad.”  He also goes into great detail about the different forms of jihad, the need for pragmatism, and the diverse nature of possible relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.

There is much more to Qaradawi’s text worth discussing, including his views on international law (he deploys Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib to depressing effect), his form of argumentation, his categories of jihad, his conceptions of Muslim relations with non-Muslims, and much more.  Parts of it are deeply problematic, others are surprisingly forthcoming. But for now, I mainly want to signal the appearance of this important text, which deserves close attention from all those interested in such matters.

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