Since the more recent third Palestinian uprising started in early October, there has been a rush by different Arab countries and intellectuals to legitimize their good relations with, and their love for, Israel.
With the Palestinian uprising refusing to abate in November, panic set in among the Arab anti-Palestinian camp, which has gained considerable ground across the Arab world since the 1978 Egypt-Israel Camp David accords, precipitating a rush by Arab governments and their pundits to delink Arabs and Muslims from the Palestinians.
On 1 November, the Egyptian government, in addition to being one of the two jailers of 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza, voted openly and for the first time ever in favor of Israel at the United Nations when it supported the latter’s bid for membership of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
A few weeks later, on 24 November, the Kuwaiti pundit Saleh al-Shayeji published an op-ed declaring that Israel is not “our enemy.”
On 27 November, the United Arab Emirates government approved the opening of an Israeli diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi.
Meanwhile, Saudi officials manifested their love for Israel by continuing their open and secret meetings with its officials, who reciprocated with public declarations about Israel’s warm relations with its “Sunni Arab allies.”
Whereas the Palestinian national struggle against the Jewish settler-colony has been thoroughly delegitimized in the eyes of many Arabs by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s surrender of the rights of the Palestinian people when it signed the 1993 Oslo accords, the question of Jerusalem has remained a sticking point for Arab countries seeking to normalize with Israel.
While delinking the Palestinians from the interests of the Arab world and the Arab peoples has proceeded steadily since the 1970s for Arab governments and elites alike (including campaigns like “Jordan First,” “Lebanon First” and “Egypt First”), the Islamist countercurrent that emerged at the same time has undercut this effort considerably by insisting that Palestine remains a Muslim, if no longer, an Arab cause.
Here Jerusalem is not seen as a large Palestinian city whose lands and holy places are being confiscated day by day for exclusive Jewish colonial use, and whose Palestinian population – Muslims and Christians alike – is expelled, besieged, humiliated and denationalized. Rather, Jerusalem is depicted as merely a religious symbol for Christians and Muslims whose sanctuaries have fallen under the rule of Israel and Jewish colonial settlers.
Jewish settler-colonialism in this Palestinian city has not abated since the 1880s with the expulsion and ethnic cleansing of the first wave of Jerusalemites and the occupation and ethnic cleansing of the western parts of their city concluded in 1948.
The remaining and oldest parts of Jerusalem, where its holy places are located, would not become subject to Jewish colonial supremacy until after Israel occupied them in 1967.
The Hashemites of Jordan appointed themselves the “custodians” of the Muslim holy places of Jerusalem as part of their peace treaty normalizing relations with Israel in 1994. Their mission has been less than successful in the last two decades.
Indeed, it has not stopped the encroachment of Israeli-government backed groups intent on destroying the al-Aqsa mosque and replacing it with a Jewish temple.
Jordan did, however, recently agree with Israel to the installation of cameras inside the holy places (but not outside where Israeli troops often shoot and kill Palestinians), which Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will undoubtedly use to monitor and arrest Palestinians as part of the Israeli effort to suppress the ongoing uprising.
But while the Hashemites would never compromise on the sanctity of Jerusalem, the Jordanian government successfully lobbied the Vatican beginning in the late 1990s to change the designation of the site of the baptism of Jesus from the west bank of the River Jordan, on the Palestinian side, where it had been traditionally, to the east bank of the river on the Jordanian side.
The Vatican would add its stamp of approval during the 2009 visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the country. It has since become an attraction for European and American Christian tourists to the glee of Jordanian officials.
More recently, the Jordanians successfully lobbied the UN cultural body UNESCO to support their contested claims. While the Jordanian project may be informed by plans to promote tourism and compete with Palestine as the “the birthplace of Christianity,” their actions intentionally or unintentionally serve the very same overall strategy of desanctifying Palestine’s holy places.
But if the site of Christ’s baptism can be changed so easily, why not change the very character of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem as well?
To this latter task, the half-British Iraqi Orientalist Kanan Makiya, who lobbied the US government to invade and bomb Iraq in 1990–1991 and again in 2003 and predicted that Iraqis would welcome their American invaders with sweets and flowers, would step up to make the case.
Makiya, who has received honorary doctorates from Israeli universities (to cover up the fact that he never earned a real doctorate from anywhere else), published a book in 2002 that was stillborn despite attempts to market it by some in the Western press, including the anti-Palestinian American left Zionist magazine The Nation, in which I published a response at the time.
The book, titled The Rock, argued that the Dome of the Rock was in fact not a monument conceived and built by Arab Muslims but rather by a Jewish convert to Islam, Kaab al-Ahbar, who conceived it and pressed for its construction.
The not-so-subtle objective of the anti-Palestinian Makiya was to rob Palestinians and Muslims of their patrimony over the Muslim religious sites of Jerusalem and strengthen Zionist colonial claims to the land and holy places of the Palestinians. His charlatanism would remain a relatively lonely effort among Arab intellectuals until recently.
It would be a third-rate Egyptian novelist and chauvinist, one Youssef Ziedan, who would provide the new arguments. The pro-Mubarak Ziedan, who in November 2009 joined the campaign launched by the sons of Hosni Mubarak against Algeria when its national football team beat Egypt at a World Cup qualifying playoff match in Sudan, assailed the Algerians as living in a country that is “a desert that extends everywhere, including to the souls of its people.”
He added that all the Algerian students he knew in graduate school were “exemplary in their stupidity, internal violence, and absolute fanaticism,” indeed that they exhibited the kind of cowardice “characteristic of desert dwellers,” and “whose country has never experienced the breeze of civilization.” Algerians, he added, were a bunch of criminals, “desert Bedouins who acquired a country and began to think of themselves as equal to Egyptians.”
In his defense of Mubarak’s plan to bequeath his rule to his son Gamal, Ziedan chastised the Algerian government for criticizing Mubarak, insisting that “Egyptians know what is best for them,” and admonished Algeria for imposing taxes on the businesses of Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawires. Ziedan’s Nazi-like diatribe against the Algerians was part of a campaign joined by a large segment of Egyptian intellectuals and media at the time. He ended his screed by calling on the Mubarak regime to cut off relations with the Algerians.
As the Palestinians were delinked from Egyptian concerns through a renewed campaign of hate that the pro-Mubarak and pro-Sisi Egyptian media have not stopped spreading in the last four years, Ziedan was recently resurrected by the Sisi media to join the campaign against the Palestinian people by helping to delink Muslims in general, and not only Egyptian Muslims, from Jerusalem. Ziedan alleged, in a recent discussion with journalists, with the flimsy evidence of a propaganda upstart, that the place to which the Prophet Muhammad ascended as per the Quranic story was not Jerusalem, but, contrary to the beliefs of Muslims in the last 14 centuries, was in the Arabian Peninsula, near Taif in the Hijaz.
In the tradition of Zionist propagandists who insist that since the Quran does not mention Jerusalem by name, the city is not holy to Muslims or to Islam, Ziedan hoped to de-sanctify the city in line with the ongoing anti-Palestinian policies of the regime and media of Egyptian ruler Abdelfattah al-Sisi.
Israeli propagandists are often reminded that Mecca was mentioned but once in the Quran. Should Mecca too be considered unimportant for Muslims?
Endangering Egypt’s Christians
The attempts to desanctify Jerusalem for Muslims, however, have been supplemented by rehabilitating the city for Egyptian Christians. As Israel has continued to murder Palestinian men, women and children with increased intensity since the start of October, the new Egyptian Pope Tawadros II, who came of age during the Sadat era, embarked on a trip to Jerusalem contravening the Coptic Church’s standing policy banning under penalty of ex-communication any Egyptian Christian from visiting the occupied city until its liberation from Israeli settler-colonialism.
Whereas Arab Christians who went on pilgrimage to the city stopped being able to do so after its fall to Israeli settler-colonialism, Egyptian Christians could in principle have resumed their pilgrimages after the Camp David accords, were it not for Coptic Pope Cyril VI who issued the decree banning Christian pilgrimage to the city following its fall in 1967.
Pope Shenouda, who assumed the papacy in 1971, had the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the See of St. Mark reiterate the decree in 1980.
Pope Shenouda famously declared: “from the Arab national perspective, we should not abandon our Palestinian brothers and our Arab brothers by normalizing our relations with the Jews … From the church’s perspective, Copts who go to Jerusalem betray their church in the case of al-Sultan monastery that Israel refuses to return to the Copts.”
Pope Shenouda’s defiance of the deal at Camp David and his refusal to accompany Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on his 1977 visit to occupied Jerusalem, not to mention his protests against the sectarian current that grew in the shadow of Sadat’s rule and which led to massacres of Egyptian Christians, would lead Sadat to exile him to a desert monastery in Wadi al-Natrun.
Shenouda’s Sadatist and Sisi-esque successor Tawadros II, by contrast, understood the benefits he could obtain by undoing the defiance and cooperating with Sadat’s and Mubarak’s heir on the Egyptian throne.
In doing so, Tawadros II seems oblivious to the dangers he has brought to the entire Egyptian Christian community, which is being tarred by Salafist and non-Salafist Muslim sectarian chauvinists as a sellout community to Israel on account of the pope’s actions.
Like most Egyptian Muslims, most Egyptian Christians are poor and rural and have no stakes in this game, which is spearheaded by the Christian business class and the Coptic pope, yet they will be the ones to fall victim to sectarian violence as a result.
In this context, contrast the silence of Tawadros on Palestinian suffering with Shenouda’s declaration in 2001 that he would not visit Jerusalem “except with a Palestinian visa” and accompanied by the head of al-Azhar, the renowned 1000-year-old center of Islamic learning in Cairo, and “my Arab brethren, which would only take place after the end of the occupation of Jerusalem.”
It is curious that as of April 2014, Tawadros upheld Shenouda’s ban on pilgrimage to Jerusalem but saw fit to visit the city during the ongoing Israeli carnage of the Palestinians.
It is worth recalling here that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and his former prime minister Salam Fayyad have in recent years encouraged Arab Muslims and Christians, especially leaders of Muslim-majority countries, to visit Jerusalem, as part of the PA’s ongoing collaboration with Israeli strategy.
Indeed, despite the refusal of most Muslims and their leaderships to heed the PA call, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa took the PA up on its invitation and visited the al-Aqsa mosque in 2012.
To further the delinking between Palestinians and Muslims, Israeli military contractors and American Islamophobes have been aggressively organizing and funding junkets to occupied Jerusalem for American Muslim “leaders.”
There seem to be several complementary strategies aiming to remove the last obstacle standing in the way of normalizing with Israel, including removing the taboo for Muslims and Christians to visit Jerusalem while under occupation, or in case this strategy fails (and its failure has indeed become a fact), to remove the sanctity of Jerusalem and that of the other holy places in Palestine altogether, transferring what can be transferred of them to neighboring countries.
The fear harbored by anti-Palestinian Arabs that a third Palestinian uprising could renew the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle and in the process inspire those in the Arab world whose uprisings were suppressed by Saudi-sponsored counter-revolutions to rise up again, is the motivation behind the rush to normalize with Israel and do away with the question of the Jewish colonization of Jerusalem as a matter that should be of concern for Muslims and Christians in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Since Saudi Arabia has declared Iran and Shiites as the main enemy of all Sunni Muslims, any reminder that Israel has always been their enemy is unwelcome to the Saudi authorities and their Arab, and especially Egyptian, allies.
In a post-coup Egypt drowning in a sea of nationalist chauvinism against all its neighbors – Sudan, Palestinians in Gaza (let alone the rest of the Palestinians), Syria, Ethiopia and Libya – except for Israel, the anti-Palestinian campaign is strongest. But it is also being echoed across Gulf countries whose insistence that Iran and not Israel is the enemy of the oil sheikhdoms would get a further push if the question of Palestine were dissolved once and for all.
Joseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. He is the author most recently of Islam in Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
- Al-Aqsa Mosque
- Abdulfattah al-Sisi
- Saleh al-Shayeji
- United Arab Emirates
- Saudi Arabia
- Yasser Arafat
- Anwar Sadat
- Kanan Makiya
- Youssef Ziedan
- Hosni Mubarak
- Naguib Sawires
- Tawadros II
- Coptic Church
- Cyril VI
- Palestinian Authority
- Mahmoud Abbas
- Salam Fayyad
- Muslim Leadership Initiative