A version of this article was originally published here and has been republished with the author’s permission.
Language is molded by perception and ideas, forming our worldview. It is not only how we communicate with others, but also how we construct our beliefs (something the media and the movie industry know all too well.) We have seen its importance reflected throughout history, for example, in the incident of Firaun (Pharoah) who used language to distort the idea of truth and falsehood. When the Prophet Musa, peace be upon him, came to him with clear guidance and revelation, knowing he could not refute it, Firaun accused him of being a magician or a sorcerer. Not only that, he went further to charge him with spreading disorder and oppression in the land. In this way, he mobilized his plan against Musa and the Israelites by first creating falsehood and spreading lies about him.
And Pharaoh said: “Leave it to me to slay Moses — and let him invoke his [alleged] sustainer! Behold, I fear lest he cause you to change your religion, or lest he causes corruption to prevail in the land!”(Quran, 40:26)
Firaun knew that in winning public opinion, his oppression of Prophet Musa and the Israelites would be overlooked. In other words, he knew, well before modern media and its various forms, that winning the propaganda war was a condition for winning the war on the ground. We are witness to this, as we know all too well how the blatant lie of “weapons of mass destruction” led to the death of millions of innocent civilians in Iraq.
Not much has changed since then. We continue to see similar tactics being employed with the narrative surrounding the conflict in Palestine that easily changes depending on how it is described. The language used throughout the conflict, even before 1948, led to the image that it is a struggle between indigenous people, the Palestinians, and the occupying force, the Zionists. Masjid Al-Aqsa is often overlooked, even though it plays a significant role in the hearts and souls of Muslims. Instead, the overwhelming messaging reduces the conflict in Palestine to an indigenous people’s plight for a homeland. While this is undoubtedly an aspect, it bears no resemblance to any of the previous settler-colonial struggles, such as the one in apartheid South Africa or North America. The conflict in Palestine is far greater than a struggle between the indigenous people of the land and the settler-colonial Zionist state. It is and should be unequivocally understood as a religious conflict.
The war between Islam and the Zionists was initiated by Zionists when they declared the right for the Jewish people to return to their promised homeland. From the very beginning, the Zionist claim was premised upon religious scripture, paving the way for the state to establish itself in Palestine. Although the founders of the modern Zionist movement, such as Theodor Herzl, declared themselves “secular” Jews, they still had a firm belief in the promises of the Torah to the Israelites. In his book “The Jewish State,” Herzl considers which land the Jews should use to establish a state. At first, he questions if it should be Argentina or Palestine, listing some advantages of each. But, when considering Palestine, he remarks, “Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency.” Moreover, the Torah includes many passages that clearly state God’s promise to the Israelites of the “Holy Land.” For example, as written in the Book of Genesis, God promised Abraham the land to his progeny forever:
I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding, and I will be their God.1
It became clear that establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was integral to the Jewish faith and creed, and it is essential that their state be established in the Levant region, with Jerusalem as its capital. The Torah also references the borders of the Jewish state, from the Nile to the Euphrates River, as stated in Genesis 15:18:
“ On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants, I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates.”
These Biblical promises indicate that establishing a state in Palestine is not just a “settler-colonial” idea but one rooted in faith. Even during major Jewish holidays, such as Passover, the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” is often chanted at the end of the Seder, the ritual feast that takes place at the beginning of the holiday, conveying the Jewish longing to return to Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
Meanwhile, in the past few decades, the aggression and mass murder of Palestinians has escalated at a savage pace, partly due to the belief in the Zionist circles that the whole of what is called “Palestine” is theirs by God-given decree. They have also annexed the Golan Heights, which was recently recognized by the United States as part of the State of Israel. The maps from 1948 until show that the expansion and the building of settlements have only increased astronomically — with no sight of stopping. These are indications that the Zionist expansionary ambitions in the regions remain unknown and are certainly more nefarious than is often perceived. There is no clear document, speech, or outline of future ambitions regarding what should be included in what is known as Israel. Unless proven otherwise, we assume that the ambition of the Zionist state is to establish the Biblical promise of the land between the Nile and the Euphrates.
In an article titled “Israel’s Decisive Plan” by Bezalel Smotrich, the current finance minister of Israel, he argues that the only way to resolve the conflict is to annex the whole area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, essentially wiping out any ambitions for a Palestinian state:
The territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan is a single geographical and topographical unit, and cannot be divided in a manner that will provide political and national stability. If the territory is divided in any way, with the Arabs receiving their part to realize national ambitions, this will only constitute the first step in their program to destroy the State of Israel — only they will be able to strive toward this ultimate goal from a more convenient position. Therefore, any solution must be based on cutting off the ambition to realize the Arab national hope between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.
Smotrich suggests that the Arabs should instead be absorbed into the Jewish state and live as second-class citizens where they have limited rights. They can vote in their municipality to elect people who govern their day-to-day activities. However, there will be no political representation whatsoever for the Arabs. This, he says “will preserve the Jewish majority in decision-making in the State of Israel.” Although the remainder of the article serves as a political manifesto on how to deal with the ongoing conflict in Palestine, in the beginning, Smotrich clearly states his religious inclinations and his ambitions to establish the State of Israel as a manifestation of the Biblical promise:
I am a believer. I believe in the Holy One, Blessed Be He; in His love for the Jewish People, and His Providence over them. I believe in the Torah which foretold the exile and promised redemption. I believe in the words of the prophets who witnessed the destruction, and no less in the renewed building that has taken shape before our eyes. I believe that the State of Israel is the beginning of our unfolding redemption, the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Torah, and the visions of the Prophets. I believe in the living connection between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel; in the destiny and mission of the Jewish People for the whole world, and in the vitality of the Land of Israel for ensuring the realization of this cause. I believe that it is no accident that the Land of Israel is flourishing and flowering in the wake of the Jewish return — after so many generations of utter neglect. I believe that the yearning of generations for this land, and the confidence in our ultimate return thereto, are the most profound driving forces of the progression of the Return to Zion which led to the establishment of the State of Israel.
Noting this rhetoric, it is important for us Muslims to realize that unless the prevailing notion surrounding the conflict takes on a different direction and tone, it will not be resolved. The language describing the conflict began as Arab-Israeli, then it became Palestine-Israel, after a few years, the narrative changed to a Palestinian-Israel conflict, and now it is the Hamas-Israel conflict. All throughout, the media has constantly and intentionally tightened the circle on the Palestinian side. Notice as well that the narrative has changed from Palestine to Palestinians. This is also intentional, undertaken to erase the idea of a Palestinian state and to reduce it to an group of indigenous people resisting an entire existing state of Israel.
The truth of the matter, however, is that it should have never been an “Arab-Israeli” conflict. How is it that the Israelis center their narrative around faith to justify their strong belief that they are the owners of the land, while the narrative on the other side is that it is simply Arab land? From the perspective of secular nationalistic ideologies, this situation is, to no surprise, reduced to a mere conflict between two people: the Arabs (which fit the secular narrative of “race”) and Jews (which are also viewed by the secular West as a “race” and not just a religion). In reality, the basis of the struggle is between two conflicting ideologies, Islam and Zionism. I say Zionism because, as I will explain later on, Islam allowed for Jewish presence within Palestine.
It is challenging, and perhaps impossible, to truly disentangle the religious aspect from this conflict. Both Muslims and Jews believe that Al-Aqsa and the area surrounding it is a holy site and that visiting the place and praying in it is religiously sanctioned and encouraged. However, media, public opinion and other actors insist that it is an Arab conflict, attempting to downplay the reality of its significance to Muslims. This fact should not be lost on us — it is done deliberately so as not to spark the emotions of over a billion Muslims and curtail the feelings of a collective Ummah, seeking to limit it to the Arab sphere or even reduce it to a Palestinian matter.
If Arabs genuinely want to liberate Al-Aqsa from the oppression and injustice it has been enduring since its occupation, they must backtrack and reframe the conflict in its true light. Arab nationalism is the reason that Muslims suffered a humiliating defeat in the previous wars, and they will continue to do so unless Islam re-assumes its rightful place center stage. Why are we reluctant to adopt our Islamic cause when Israel has unabashedly framed its claim to the land as part of its creed and belief?
Muslims fully accept the holiness of Jerusalem to both Judaism and Christianity and firmly believe that all faiths should have access to the Holy Land to practice their faith in a free and secure manner. When Umar ibn al-Khattab, Allah be pleased with him, arrived in Jerusalem, he signed a treaty with the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius. The treaty begins with the following:
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is the security which ‘Umar, the servant of God, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Aelia. He grants to all, whether sick or sound, security for their lives, their possessions, their churches, and their crosses, and for all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall not be changed into dwelling places, nor destroyed, neither shall they nor their appurtenances be in any way diminished, nor the crosses of the inhabitants nor aught of their possessions, nor shall any constraint be put upon them in the matter of their faith, nor shall any one of them be harmed.2
In fact, when Jerusalem came under the rule of Muslims during the time of Caliph Umar, Jews were finally allowed into the city after being prohibited from entering it during the time of the Romans. Salmon ben Yeruhim, one of the Jewish scholars residing in Jerusalem at the time, remarked:
As we know, the temple remained in the hands of the Romans for more than 500 years and they did not succeed in entering Jerusalem; and anyone who did and was recognized [as a Jew] was put to death. But when the Romans left it, by the mercy of the God of Israel, and the kingdom of Ishmael was victorious. Israel was permitted to come and to live…3
The dismantling of the Zionist project will not succeed under the auspices of Arab nationalism, which if taken at its core, is akin to Zionism in its racial inclinations. Both ideologies are racist, their foundations are premised upon a specific race. Zionism believes Palestine is solely for the Jews, and others can only live there as second-class citizens. Similarly, Arab nationalism prioritizes the plight of Arabs in their ancestorial homeland, preferring Arabs to non-Arabs. On the other hand, Islam favors justice, preserving the dignity of all people regardless of their religion, race, or ethnicity. As Muslims, we must understand that the only solution is to wholeheartedly embody our religious teachings and move past race or nation-states, framing the conflict in its true light: an Islamic cause.
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.Endnotes
- Genesis 17:7-8
- The Preaching of Islam, p.56
- Gil, M. 2010, A History of Palestine, 634–1099 p.70