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Thursday, September 24, 2020

The U.S. Shepherds Israel, UAE and Bahrain to Peace: A Muslim’s Prayer for Selichot

On erev Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish people are commanded to prepare for atonement, a sacred and private countenance each believer makes to our Maker. As my friends on both U.S. coasts and in Israel prepare to greet the High Holy Days, I am struck by their willingness to broach their own atonements that demand honesty and courage; what it must be to render an accounting with one’s Maker in the here and now.

As a Muslim observing Islam, I have been privileged to join beloved Jewish friends here in New York and in Ra’anana, Israel, as we have worshiped on erev Rosh Hashanah, prayed on Yom Kippur and broken fasts after sundown. But the one Jewish observation that has stayed with me through these decades is the service specifically dedicated to selichot — forgiveness.

The world will bear witness to the embodiment of selichot as Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Bahrain lay to permanent rest the calcified era of an unrelenting Arab boycott of the Jewish state, ushering in an unprecedented era of hope and new beginnings.

The achievement of the Abraham Accord is momentous. A mere two weeks after the pact was announced, Bahrain announced its own declaration of peace with Israel. The scaffolding of the fossilized, archaic cage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been decimated.

The outcome is not the betrayal of the Palestinians, but the creation of new possibilities; possibilities realized only when the Palestinians finally observe selichot, compassion and understanding of their own plight and that of sovereign Israel’s. Their fellow Arab Muslims, the Gulf Arabs, are showing them the way.

The scaffolding of the fossilized, archaic cage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been decimated.

Those seeking to diminish the achievements of President Donald Trump’s administration allege the previous president laid the foundation — disregarding the eight-year rebuke President Barack Obama delivered to the Sunni Muslim world, including the Gulf Arabs, when empowering the Islamist Iran; legitimizing the profoundly anti-Semitic Shiite Islamist theocratic Iranian regime embracing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; and shunning the traditional patriarchs of Islam led by Saudi Arabia.

Cynics might say the UAE and Bahrain merely are solidifying their national interests as the mounting risks of a belligerent, increasingly bellicose, marginalized and sanctioned Iran rapidly come into focus. Certainly, there is no question Bahrain is a critical hot spot in the Saudi-Iranian cold war, which no longer is quite so cold.

Others might dismiss the Arab Gulf States as merely formalizing what already are deeply engaged security, technology, military and counterterrorism interests with Israel as they, too, grapple with the threat of a reconfiguring ISIS; the increasingly vulnerable maritime pressures on the Strait of Hormuz; the constant threat of an Arab Spring 2.0; and a clear post-petrochemical future. For these pragmatists, peace is merely transactional. (A de facto peace already existed among the countries.)

To think this is to grossly underestimate the vision King Hamad bin Isa-Al  Khalifa, sovereign ruler of Bahrain, and Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE, hold for their nations.

The Al Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since 1782. For centuries, they have understood commercialism, trading and pearl fishing, realizing their modern nation as a maritime, agricultural and now critical and deeply trusted naval host nation for the world’s leading naval power: the United States.

It is Muslim Arab states themselves that are leading the region and the world into a new understanding, a new era and a firm embrace with our Jewish brethren as children of Abraham.

Similarly, the UAE was created from the small Trucial States and had been subject to attempts of Iranian subjugation for centuries; the nascent UAE has outlasted three eras of Persian civilization, and several of the UAE’s islands have been claimed and counter-claimed, reflecting rising tensions with Iran. Few nation states are better acquainted with the Iranian threat as it is today and as it has been historically.

Bahrain and the UAE, much like Israel, understand what it means to be a villa in a jungle, a geographically small but mighty nation state, punching well above one’s weight, and taking on oversized geopolitical threats in a notoriously hostile region.

Although the religious epicenters of Judaism and Islam are some distance from these Gulf States, they are all-too-well acquainted with the diametric battle for owning Islam’s narrative today — the struggle between Islam and Islamism.

In Bahrain, that takes on a distinctly sectarian flavor as the Sunni ruling family governs the Gulf Arab’s largest indigenous Shiite population, one that lives cheek by jowl with many other minorities, including a small but important Bahraini Jewish community. Bahrain’s religious community is as fragmented and diverse as its many islets. The monarch, King Hamad, a Sunni Muslim, is committed to religious tolerance. He personally has engaged with eminent Jewish leaders publicly, and encouraged his citizens to travel anywhere, including to Israel, years before the formal declaration of peace. Bahrain is home to a Hindu temple consecrated more than 200 years ago, Christian churches and a Jewish synagogue founded in the 1930s. From among the kingdom’s 36 Jews, Bahrain appointed  Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo the first Jewish ambassador to any Muslim Middle East nation and the first female Bahraini ambassador to the United States. Many interfaith centers have been launched in the region. But for Bahrain, religious tolerance has been integral to its identity for centuries.

In the UAE, the tension within Islam posed by Islamism is experienced as external and a mounting threat to the UAE from Islamists of all stripes: the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra Front and many others, all of whom the UAE has blacklisted and actively prosecutes. While rapprochement with Israel is an embodiment of selichot (not of Israel, but of our own decadeslong conventionally nursed hatreds) for Muslims, including Gulf Arab nation-states, 20 years after the global war on terror launched, when it comes to Islamism, there can be and will be no forgiveness.

Therefore, it is apt that the announcement of Bahrain joining the UAE in full diplomatic relations, normalization and recognition of the Jewish state came on Sept. 11, 19 years to the day since the world was riven in two by violent Islamists killing Americans on U.S. soil.

For all the world and for most Muslims, this bloody and heinous act was our brutal introduction to radical Islam, an awful glimpse into the mirror of the radical elements reared among us.

In making rapprochement with the Jewish state so vilified, so denied and so severely boycotted for almost Israel’s entire existence by Muslim Arab states, it is Muslim Arab states themselves that are leading the region and the world into a new understanding, a new era and a firm embrace with our Jewish brethren as children of Abraham.

This peacemaking is the ultimate rebuke to the Islamists who sought to divide and destroy humanity, the ultimate crime against God, as Islam sees terrorism. In setting aside any pride, any hurt, any anger or any rebuke, and by the humility of two enormously wealthy, world-wise and God-fearing Arab Gulf States, Muslims are enjoined to stand with Jews in the true spirit of selichot.

My prayer for myself and for my fellow Muslims on Yom Kippur is this: Forgive us, oh Lord, our follies of the past, our harsh words, our painful acts, our transgressions against the Jews, the legitimate People of the Book, as we go forward, and in harmony and in accord, in the way you, and our shared Prophet Abraham always intended. Amein. Amen. Ameen.


Qanta Ahmed, author of “In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom,” is a 2014 Ford Foundation public voices fellow with the OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @MissDiagnosis. 

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