Mideast Clash Not About Religion

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Muslim issue. It is a dispute over land, it is about an occupation that must end and it is about a people who deserve a state. But it is not a religious dispute.

For too long, the assumption that this is a religious conflict has gone unquestioned, with dangerous consequences. A friend of two British men of Pakistani descent, who set off explosives in London on July 7 that killed themselves, along with more than 50 others, told the Washington Post recently he had seen the bombers watching a DVD that purported to show an Israeli soldier killing a Palestinian girl.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of the most jumped-upon bandwagons in both the Arab and the Muslim world, but framing it in religious terms serves no one’s interest, least of all the Palestinians.

The humiliation of the 1967 defeat, or the Naksa, not only dealt a deadly blow to pan-Arabism, which up till then had been the patron father of the Palestinian cause, but it also opened the door for Islamists to claim the Israeli-Palestinian issue as their own. And ever since, they have steadily shaped it to their liking.

The Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist groups in the Arab world used the 1967 defeat to remind the region’s mostly secular leaders that their defeat was because of those leaders’ godlessness. And ever since, the more Islamic you could make Palestine, the more legitimate you became.

So it is no wonder that Hamas has moved to the forefront of Palestinian politics, along with an Islamist ideology that bans cultural festivals and which it uses to act like the moral police of the Palestinians.

Encouraged to flourish by Israel in the 1980s as a counterweight to the secular Fatah — in the same way that the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood in a bid to keep in check Nasserites and leftists — Hamas was all too happy to frame the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in religious terms that pitted Muslims against Jews.

The less democratic and more corrupt Palestinian politics became under Yasser Arafat, the more the Islamist way of doing things moved center stage. And so, suicide bombings, which had long been the bloody signature of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were adopted by Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Muftis and clerics in the Arab world gave their blessings to suicide bombings, laying another layer of religiosity atop the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These same muftis and clerics today are trying to persuade us that violence in the name of religion is wrong but it is too late — their damage will take years to undo.

Suicide bombings do not come with an off button, and once they were made legitimate against Israelis, what was to stop them from being used against others? Suicide bombings are the Muslim weapon of choice not only in London and Israel but in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They are killing Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and yet our imams and scholars cannot condemn them.

For too long, the easiest Friday sermon to give began and ended by cursing the “Zionists,” often interchanging Zionist with Jew, stopping along the way to inflame the worshippers with news of the latest humiliations or atrocities committed against the Palestinians.

So nobody should have been surprised that after years of not uttering a word about Palestine nor about the struggle of its people to be free of occupation and to have a state of their own, Osama bin Laden suddenly discovered the goldmine that lay beneath the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Was anyone paying attention when two young British men of Pakistani descent went to Israel to carry out a suicide attack on a Tel Aviv nightclub on April 30, 2003? Assif Muhammad Hanif, blew himself up at Mike’s Place, a Tel Aviv nightspot, killing three other people. Two weeks later, the body of another British citizen, Omar Khan Sharif, who Israeli investigators say fled the bar after a bomb he was carrying failed to detonate, was found in the sea off Tel Aviv.

Who persuaded these young men to leave Britain and go to Israel to die for Palestine?

Cynical terrorist masterminds who are all too willing to send young Muslim men to their deaths have long exploited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to their own ends. And irresponsible clerics and religious leaders, radical or otherwise, use the conflict to flesh out the victimized-Muslim scenario.

If only they would deliver equally impassioned sermons encouraging our young people in the West to become more active members of their communities and to not live caught between two worlds: a Muslim one at home and in the mosque; an “infidel” one outside.

Furthermore, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Muslim issue for the simple reason that it concerns Christians, too. Jerusalem is holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians. Muslims do not own the conflict.

Jerusalem is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; Bethlehem is home to the Church of the Nativity. There are plenty of Palestinian Christians also living under occupation, and their plight is not made any easier because they are Christian. Israeli soldiers and Israeli tanks do not distinguish between Muslim and Palestinian Christians.

By allowing Islamists to co-opt the conflict, by allowing it to become an issue that is supposed to inflame Muslim anger around the world, the Palestinian cause loses the sympathy of many people who might otherwise lend support, but feel alienated by the increasingly Muslim terms within which the conflict is expressed.

It is long past time to wrestle back Palestine from the grasp of Islamists who have been all too eager to fly its flag for their own political ends. It is imperative to condemn suicide attacks everywhere — they are wrong when they are carried out in Israel, and they are wrong when they are carried out in Baghdad, London or Sharm el-Sheikh.

And it is about time we said loud and clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Muslim issue. It is a human issue.

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based commentator. A different version of this opinion piece appeared in the newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based pan-Arab publication for which she writes a weekly column. Her Web site is